Celebrating the record label execs who lifted others up


Illustration: Najeebah Al-Ghadban

In the face of disrespect, inequality, and a lack of recognition, women have played a strong role in the music industry since the late 1940s.

They’ve pushed the industry forward while championing and supporting other members of marginalized groups.

Below, we celebrate some of the leaders (on record) who’ve demonstrated that women belong at the head of the table. The unequal representation seen across the industry throughout the decades is staggering. The more women, non-binary people, and people of color hired to leadership roles today and tomorrow, the more we’ll hear conversations and see actions of equality take place up, down, and across the music supply chain.

1947: Miriam Bienstock got Atlantic Records off the ground

Miriam Abramson was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1923 to Russian-Jewish immigrants. She studied piano and had an interest in jazz music. In 1945, she married record producer Herb Abramson. In 1947, Herb formed Atlantic Records with Ahmet Ertegun. Miriam took charge of the fledgling company’s finances and production, handling payments to musicians and negotiating distribution deals. She also acted as Ruth Brown’s manager for a while, who bolstered the label’s early success, prompting the moniker “The House that Ruth Built,” according to Billboard.

As the company flourished with such artists as Ray Charles, The Coasters, and The Drifters, Mariam’s role expanded to business manager, in which she negotiated a distribution deal with London’s Decca Records in 1955. After a divorce from Herb Abramson, she married music publisher Freddy Bienstock in 1957.

In 1958, she was named the VP of Atlantic, in charge of publishing. Billboard Magazine published an article that same year titled, “Atlantic’s ‘Money Man’ is a Woman,” highlighting her success in increasing the label’s production and revenue, as well as her penchant for transparency in the company and overall business acumen.

The article written by June Bundy Csida concludes with, “Today, she is known as one of the few women executives in the record industry, a business heretofore noted for its lack of fem talent in top-flight posts. In addition to Mariam Bienstock, the ranks of key women execs with record companies are virtually limited to Mercury Records’ classical chief Wilma Cozart, Liberty’s sales head Bobbie Dieterle, Apollo’s veteran manager Bess Berman, and Christine Hamilton, VP and sales manager of Dot Records.”

Marium Bienstock died in 2015 at the age of 92, leaving a legacy of unparalleled innovative thinking, top-tier fiscal management, some of the label’s biggest artists, and a maintained discipline at Atlantic. She even exposed Ertegun to the early recordings of Ray Charles.

1953: Vivian Carter Bracken grew Vee-Jay Records into one of the most successful indie labels of the era

In 1948, Vivian Carter (later Vivian Carter Bracken) won a contest that launched her career as a radio emcee. In 1953, she and her husband, James, borrowed $500 from a pawnbroker to record a local group called The Spaniels in the record shop they owned in Gary, Indiana.

They combined their initials, V and J, to form Vee-Jay Records and released The Spaniels’ first album, Baby, It’s You. It was a top-10 hit and so successful that they had to lease it to Chance Records for distribution. With a more solid foundation, they released the group’s second album a year later and had a crossover hit. After being turned down by competitor Chess Records, Jimmy Reed, a Chicago slaughterhouse worker at the time, approached them. Though his first album fell flat, the second was a massive top-10 R&B hit.

Vee-Jay Records eventually moved their operations to Chicago and went on to release music by The El Dorados, John Lee Hooker, The Dells, Dee Clark, and The Four Seasons, among others. They secured the American distribution rights to The Beatles in 1963, but contract loopholes and lawsuits caused the company to lose them to Capitol Records. Meanwhile, Carter continued to work as a radio DJ, a key factor in attracting musical talent to the label.

Although Vee-Jay was one of the most successful independent labels of its era and saw great success, financial hardship hit the label in the 1960s due to debt and overspending. In 2008, Shout! Factory Records released a reissue project called Vee-Jay: The Definitive Collection, a four-disc set celebrating the label’s soul, R&B, doo-wop, gospel, and pop artists. Vivian Carter Bracken died in 1989 at the age of 68.

1970: Barbara Dane helped lead a revolution with Paredon Records

Barbara Dane got her start in music in the late 1950s as a blues musician. She was the first white person profiled in Ebony magazine—and not just any feature, but a seven-page spread. She toured with Muddy Waters, Mama Yancey, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and was booked to tour with Louis Armstrong. However, when white promoters and hotel workers were hostile towards her Black band members, she wouldn’t stand for their racism. They stopped booking her, ending her blues career.

In the early 1960s, the 35-year-old began blending her singing and politics. She became a star on the folk and protest song circuit, playing alongside big names like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. By 1964, she was working as a Freedom Singer in Mississippi.

According to an episode of Smithsonian Magazine’s Sidedoor podcast, “[Fidel] Castro wanted to host an American singer on a goodwill tour, to show that his revolution—as well as the Cuban people—had no hard feelings toward individual Americans.” Dane became that musician involved with the moment. This grew into an annual event called the “Encuentro Internacional de la Canción Protesta,” which featured musicians from around the world.

Inspired by her revolutionary community, Dane started a record label to publish their music their way and to contribute to the movement in a bigger way. The label was called Paredon Records. The first record—Cancion Protesta: Protest Song of Latin America—was published in 1970, featuring songs recorded during the Encuentro in 1967. The opening track featured Fidel Castro talking about the power of art in winning people over to your cause. The liner notes were more of a booklet and included the label’s origin story.

The label published three more records in its first year—one about Angola’s war of independence from Portugal, a collection of speeches from Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton, and one called FTA! Songs of the GI Resistance. Dane produced 45 albums, including three of her own, over a 12-year period. The label’s catalog was incorporated into and is available on Smithsonian-Folkways. At 93 years old, Barabara Dane is living in Detroit, Michigan.

1973: The founders of Olivia Records provided a safe platform for lesbian artists

Named after the heroine (and title) of a Dorothy Bussy novel, Olivia Records was founded by several women including Ginny Berson, Meg Christian, Judy Dlugacz, Kate Winter, and Jennifer Woodul. According to a New York Times article, the founders “wanted to give [lesbians of the 1970s] a voice and put their experiences center stage. They had economic goals, too, aiming to keep profits in the pockets of lesbian artists and sound technicians, and power in the hands of female label heads who would create alternative channels for production and distribution in an industry controlled by men.”

In 1973, with $4,000, they released their first mail-order single along with a letter requesting donations, which brought them $12,000. They used that money to produce “I Know You Know” by Meg Christian. That was the first of the label’s 60+ single and LP releases over the next 20 years, which collectively sold over one million copies.

As reported in the aforementioned article, in the ‘70s, “Lesbians put themselves at risk of losing their jobs, families, and sometimes their lives by coming out of the closet, and they didn’t see themselves, or their stories, reflected in pop culture.” Although the fight for equality continues 50 years later, organizations like Olivia Records created safe spaces in the form of women-only shows and festivals in rural towns in America.

In 1974, under the leadership of Judy Dlugacz, Olivia Records moved from Washington D.C. to California. Although it claimed to benefit all women, the business was primarily led by and promoted the interests of white, middle-class American lesbians at the time. In the late 1970s, Olivia expanded its inclusivity by promoting the music of African American artists including Linda Tillery, Mary Watkins, and Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Due to its business philosophy and conflicts among staff and artists, Olivia saw its demise as a record label in the late 1980s and pivoted into travel. That was after selling out two 15th anniversary concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1988, reported as the largest grossing concerts of the venue’s history at the time. Olivia (the travel company) remains in operation as the only company offering cruises catering to lesbians.

1979: ‘The Mother of Hip Hop,’ Sylvia Robinson, paved the way for the genre with Sugar Hill Records

Husband and wife Joe and Sylvia Robinson (maiden name, Vanderpool) founded Sugar Hill Records in 1979 with Milton Malden. They received funding from Tony Riviera and Morris Levy, the owners of Roulette Records. In addition to being a record label executive, Sylvia Robinson was a singer and record producer. She had two R&B chart-toppers—one as half of Mickey & Sylvia with Love Is Strange in 1957, and her solo record Pillow Talk in 1973.

Dubbed ‘The Mother of Hip Hop,’ Robinson is credited as the producer and driving force behind two of the genre’s landmark singles, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang and “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five.

Robinson’s first record label endeavor, in partnership with Mickey Baker, was Willow Records in 1961, distributed by King Records of Cincinnati. That year, Baker provided vocals and Robinson played guitar on Ike & Tina Turner’s hit, GRAMMY-nominated single, “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine.” “I paid for the session, taught Tina the song; that’s me playing guitar,” Robinson said in a 1981 interview with Black Radio Exclusive.

In 1960, Robinson produced Joe Jones’s single, “You Talk Too Much” but did not receive credit. If she had, she might have been the first-ever Black and female independent record producer to have a top-10 pop hit, according to Billboard.

In 1966, she and Joe moved to New Jersey and started the soul music label, All Platinum Records. They saw success with Lezli Valentine’s “I Won’t Do Anything,” three singles from The Moments, and Shirley & Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame,” among others. In the 1970s, the couple started Sugar Hill Records, named after the culturally rich Sugar Hill area of Harlem—a hub for artists and performers in the early and mid-1900s. Sylvia Robinson was also born in Harlem in 1935.

The label folded in 1985, due to changes in the music industry, the competition of other hip hop labels such as Profile and Def Jam, and financial pressures. After a divorce from Joe, Robinson formed Bon Ami Records in 1987, which was noted for signing the act The New Style, who later left and found success as Naughty by Nature.

Sylvia Robinson died in 2011 at the age of 76 as a celebrated producer and business owner who had much of her work concealed. A Billboard article stated, “Her business opened the doors for all the independents that followed from Def Jam to Top Dawg, and her music pioneered distinct concepts that set the template for hip hop’s entire creative arc. From party rocking, to the DJ as a musician, to social consciousness, Sugar Hill made everything possible for today’s hip hop stars.”

1986: Frances Preston defended artists’ rights and payments at BMI

This one isn’t a record label, but Frances Preston was so influential in the record industry that we couldn’t skip her. Born in Nashville in 1928, Frances Williams began her career as a receptionist at Nashville’s iconic radio station, WSM, where she quickly rose through the ranks, eventually hosting her own fashion TV show on WSM-TV.

According to BMI, Preston was hired by BMI in 1958 to open a Southern regional office in Nashville. She was appointed VP in 1964—reportedly the first woman corporate executive in Tennessee, and the first full-time performing rights organization representative in the South. She elevated the region’s abundant creative culture and helped build an economic infrastructure to support and connect art with industry. In 1985, she rose to Senior VP, Performing Rights, and was named President and CEO the following year.

With Preston at the helm, BMI increased payments to writer and publisher members, with revenues tripling under her leadership. She was recognized around the world as a vigilant defender of the rights of music creators. She became a powerful force in Washington, D.C., where she testified on the behalf of songwriters and played an instrumental role in several key initiatives, including the Copyright Amendments Act of 1992, which extended copyright protection to older compositions. She was also a leading supporter of the decision to extend the copyright term to the life of the composer plus 70 years.

Preston oversaw the development and launch of BMI.com in 1994—one of the music industry’s first websites—and led BMI into a new era. For three years after retiring, she consulted BMI on the company’s international relationships and its public policy agenda.

She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992, and later became a member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame and the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame. In 1998, she received a National Trustees Award from the Recording Academy (the highest GRAMMY prize for a non-performer), among many other prestigious awards throughout her career. She died in 2012 at the age of 84.

1989: Laura Ballance fostered lasting careers for indie artists with Merge Records

Laura Jane Ballance was born in 1968 and was mostly raised in Atlanta, Georgia and Goldsboro, North Carolina. An introvert, she first started her lifelong identification with punk rock as a pre-teen in Atlanta. After moving to Chapel Hill in 1986, she became the bassist in the rock band Superchunk and the co-founder of Merge Records along with Mac McCaughan.

The two started Merge in 1989 to support local acts who would otherwise play the DIY circuit until they inevitably fizzled. 31 years later, that project is now an indie powerhouse with releases from artists such as Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, Spoon, Torres, The Clean, Caribou, The Mountain Goats, and Fruit Bats, among many others.

According to an interview on Billboard, Ballance and McCaughan met at a Durham pizza shop where they both worked in college. Later on, Ballance ran Merge out of her bedroom while McCaughan was at Columbia University. Their roles at the label have remained almost the same since its early days, which suits Ballance, 51, who stopped touring with Superchunk in 2013 due to a hearing condition. “I’m a nuts-and-bolts person, and he’s an ideas person,” she says. “I’m taking care of the details, and he’s throwing out more stuff for everyone to get done.”

Though no longer touring with Superchunk, Ballance lives in Durham, North Carolina with her husband and daughter and continues to co-lead Merge.

1992: Bettina Richards offered indie musicians generous deals with Thrill Jockey Records

Bettina Richards left a cushy job as a talent scout at a major label to start Thrill Jockey in 1992. She launched it from her Manhattan apartment with $35,000 of family and personal capital while working at a record store in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1995, she moved the label to Chicago, where she could do more with the cheaper rent and taxes. There, she found a community of musicians who were more interested in the craft of music than the spotlight.

According to a Chicago Tribune article, she initially worked odd jobs and lost $4,000 in two years. In 1998, a New York Times article highlighted the label’s fair artists deals—“Thrill Jockey makes unusually generous deals with musicians. Once an album breaks even, the label and the musicians each get 50 percent of the gross receipts. ‘When the net comes down, they actually get more than me,’ Ms. Richards said.”

Almost 30 years later, Thrill Jockey—named after a gang of delinquents in a B movie—has minted its position as an indie powerhouse across several genres and styles, with releases from artists like Tortoise, Oval, The Sea and Cake, All Natural, Gaunt, Dustin Wong, and Fred Anderson, among many others.

1994: Sylvia Rhone made history when named CEO and Chair of Elektra Entertainment Group

One of the most influential people in the history of the music industry, Sylvia Rhone is the Chair and CEO of Sony subsidiary, Epic Records, home to Travis Scott, Fiona Apple, DJ Khaled, Megan Trainor, and so many other award-winning, chart-topping artists.

In 1994, she was named the CEO and Chair of Elektra Entertainment Group, becoming the only African American and the first woman to hold that title at a major record label owned by a Fortune 500 company. There, Rhone was directly involved in the launch and guidance of multiple best-selling artists including Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes, Tracy Chapman, Metallica, and Natalie Merchant, among others.

Rhone put much focus on evolving Elektra’s culture and building a team that reflected the diversity of their roster. She also held senior positions at Vested In Culture, Universal Motown, and Atlantic Records. In 1998, Fortune magazine included her on their inaugural list of the 50 Most Powerful Women. In 2001, Ebony magazine recognized her as one of the 10 Most Powerful Black Women In America alongside Oprah Winfrey and Condoleezza Rice.

Born in Harlem, NY, Rhone was a Wharton School graduate and in an international management program at Bankers Trust. When they told her to go home and change into a skirt one day, she never returned. When family friend, Suzanne de Passe took her backstage to see Jackson 5, Rhone knew she wanted to work in music (de Passe was developing the group’s wardrobe at the time).

According to Billboard, in 1974, she took a salary cut to become the secretary for Alan Lott, VP of the Black music division at Buddah Records. After posts at ABC Records and Ariola Records, she joined Atlantic, quickly rising in the ranks and eventually becoming the senior VP of the Black music division in 1988. She led Atlantic in becoming the first major label to invest in hip hop.

At Epic, Rhone is quite bullish and optimistic about the technological advances in the industry and what today’s platforms have to offer artists. She is quoted in Variety stating, “For a label, it’s about supporting the artist’s vision and allowing them to create, arming them with the insights and resources to expand their visions and grow their audience. There are so many new platforms emerging and data sets being generated; it’s our job to filter the noise and help them prioritize, and then execute so they can fulfill their dreams. We see this with Camila embracing her Cuban roots, or Travis creating a fascinating interior world of his own or DJ Khaled representing his unique persona. Every artist has an individual strength, a special superpower, and it’s our job to amplify that vision.”

2000: Sara Padgett Heathcott fostered a safe and international community with Hometapes

Sara Padgett Heathcott and her partner Adam Heathcott started Hometapes in 2000. Over the course of 19 years, their ethos centered around fostering a safe and empathetic ecosystem for independent artists. Over two decades, they released records from Landlady, Bear In Heaven, Ian Chang, Megafaun, and many more. Hailing from Little Rock, Arizona, they’ve also lived and operated from Miami, Boulder, Portland, and Durham. They currently reside in South Texas.

Alyssa DeHayes, the founder of Athens, Georgia-based Arrowhawk Records, shared, “Sara Padgett Heathcott of Hometapes made a huge impact on me early in my career. Hometapes built a beautiful and unique ecosystem of artists. I felt so fortunate to work with many of them on the PR side, and it felt like such a caring, open, and empathetic community. Their “Friend Island” events at festivals were such a welcome oasis from the schmoozy factor of many showcases. Sara approached things with such creativity, detail, and a sense of identity. One of the best feelings for me is when Arrowhawk artists spread out around the country become friends with each other, and Hometapes informed that.”

The spirit of Hometapes lives on through the Heathcotts’ multi-media creative services company, Endless Endless, which offers music video production, photography, creative direction, and design services.

2002: Julie Greenwald became one of the first women named President of a label at Island Records

Today, Julie Greenwald is the Chairwoman and COO of Atlantic Records, where she has launched the careers of mega artists like Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, and Cardi B. She was named Billboard’s #1 Woman in Music in 2019 and has appeared on several Billboard Executives of the Year lists.

A New York native, Greenwald got her start as an assistant in 1992 and worked her way up to help build Def Jam Records. In 1998, when Island Records and Def Jam merged, Greenwald was charged with overseeing the entire combined marketing department, spanning genres from hip hop to rock. In 2002, she was named President of Island Records / EVP of the Island Def Jam Music Group, and became one of the first women to hold that title at a record label. In 2004, she was named President of Atlantic Records, and in 2006, was promoted to Chairman and COO of Atlantic Records.

Greenwald has been quoted several times in reference to how she got to where she is. “You’re going to have to make serious choices if you want a career path like mine,” she says. “It’s not about just being smart and resourceful. You have to be smart, resourceful, and out-hustle everyone. As you get older in life as a woman, and you want to have the family conversation, that’s where you come to a real challenge; oh shit, how do I balance it all? Then, you wake up one day and realize—there’s no such thing as balancing it all. You just do the best job you can.”

2006: Portia Sabin led Kill Rock Stars in its expansion into comedy records and more

Dr. Portia Sabin is currently the President of the Music Business Association. She was the host of a radio show and podcast about the music business called The Future of What and a former board member of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of The Recording Academy, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM).

While working on her Ph.D. in Anthropology and Education at Columbia University, she played drums, recorded, and toured with NYC band The Hissyfits, among several others. After moving to Olympia, Washington to conduct research for her dissertation, she began working at the legendary independent label, Kill Rock Stars (Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith) in 2000 and founded Shotclock Management in 2004.

In 2006, Sabin left her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington to run Kill Rock Stars. She’s credited with integrating the artists from sister experimental label 5 Rue Christine into their roster and focusing more on artist development. In 2011, she relocated the label to Portland, Oregon. Under her direction, the label began releasing albums from prominent stand-up comedians alongside its musical releases in 2012. Sabin has stated, “I really feel like comedy is the new punk rock.”

When Sabin took her post as the President of the Music Business Association in 2019, her husband Slim Moon (who originally founded KRS) took over management once again.

2013: Michelle Jubelirer turned Capitol Music Group around

Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, Michelle Jubelirer is now the COO of Capitol Music Group, where she’s responsible for overseeing record labels within CMG including Astralwerks, Blue Note Records, and Harvest Records. She also leads A&R for Capitol, Virgin, Priority, Electromagnetic Recordings (T Bone Burnett), and independent distribution company, Caroline. Jubelirer also manages CMG’s business and legal affairs departments.

She was named one of the 50 Most Powerful Executives In The Industry by Billboard in 2014. Also in 2014, Variety commended her for her role in the resurgence of the Capitol Music Group in its Women’s Impact Report.

Jubelirer began her professional career in 1999 as a mergers and acquisitions attorney at an NYC law firm, representing clients such as Pharrell Williams, Frank Ocean, M.I.A., and Ke$ha. She joined Sony Music as an in-house attorney in 2003, before relocating to Los Angeles to join another entertainment law firm where she worked for nine years.

In 2013, she was hired to help set the creative direction of the new Capitol Music Group and to lead the label in becoming more artist-friendly. In 2014, the company ranked #2 in industry market share as tracked by Nielsen SoundScan, representing a growth in market share of 20%. She was promoted to COO in 2015.

2020s: Elevating women and non-binary leaders in music

Journalist, musician, and occasional Splice blog contributor René Kladzyk created a grassroots database of music industry organizations with women and non-binary people at the helm. The database covers not only record labels, but also PR and booking agencies, managers, collectives, music supervisors, and more.

There are over 125 record labels listed on that living and growing list, which is a delight to see and hopefully an indicator that the record industry has become more fair toward women. However, as with many aspects of the industry today, many of those leaders are balancing their labels with other sources of income to sustain and support their artists.

It’s more important than ever for members of the music ecosystem—from the indies to the majors—to support one another as they continue to create change in the industry.

Who’d we miss? If you are or know of a woman or non-binary person in a leadership role at a record label—big or small—drop their name or even their story in the comments below.

March 25, 2021

Shannon Byrne Shannon Lee Byrne is a freelance writer focused on the music industry, creativity, entrepreneurship, culture, and mental health. She's also a copywriter, marketing strategist, and podcaster.