Analysis

Amber Grimes and Nicole Wyskoarko talk leadership, support and diversity


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Nicole Wyskoarko is EVP of urban operations at Interscope Records, and Amber Grimes is SVP of global creative at Capitol Music Group. Their joint keynote for the Midem conference, a video interview conducted by Billboard’s Gail Mitchell, was published this morning.

It addresses topics including the current Black Lives Matters protests following the killing of George Floyd; the music industry’s response and its need for more diversity; their views on mentoring; and advice for young people looking to break into the industry.

Filmed this week, the interview began with both executives offering their thoughts on the current situation.

“It’s been hard, y’know. It’s been incredibly emotional,” said Wyskoarko. “Just balancing the emotion with just doing your job, and existing, dealing with the ramifications of Covid right now, and having this just heavy heart with what’s going on in society.”

“Being up and in and out of tears, you start working and then you look up at the news or you just flash back to some of the images we’ve seen and you can’t help but be overcome with extreme emotion,” she added.

“It’s a real challenge, and it’s draining in a sense to balance all of that. It’s horrific what’s going on in this country right now. It’s horrifying. So it’s just a lot to balance and process, and I think a lot of us are feeling that right now.”

Grimes agreed. “I feel drained. I see co-workers and other people in this strange time – I can actually get to see everybody’s face all at one time on a camera – and I notice a different energy about many of my Black co-workers, and people that i’ve spoken to,” she said.

“On a positive note… I do feel like there is more acknowledgement of this issue than there has been in the past from a lot of non-Black people in our industry and in the world. It’s been nice to see many people step up and speak out, but it’s still not enough people.”

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Grimes also described the pressure of being a prominent music industry executive, with a job still to do, and expectations of speaking out.

“You don’t want to post on social media because you go ‘What will that help?’ But then you can’t be silent because they go ‘If you’re silent you’re complicit’. And you don’t know what to tell people to do. You’re telling them to care but you don’t have any action items for them. It’s just a very confusing time to have to get a record out at 9pm on Thursday,” said Grimes.

She returned to the positive aspects of the protests, and the discussions they are sparking.

“People are being more understanding of the Black experience and having a better window into the Black experience cos they’re seeing things that they didn’t normally see, that they read in a book or they think we’re over-exaggerating about,” said Grimes.

“A lot of people are getting a better idea of how it feels, because being Black has always felt like Covid-19. It has not really ever been safe for Black people to be outside… I hope that people can understand as much as possible. I don’t think that anyone will ever understand what it’s like to be Black in America unless they are, but I appreciate everyone who’s taking the time to understand, or who doesn’t have a choice but to understand now.”

Wyskoarko also said that it has been positive to see more people speaking out, whether in the music industry or outside it.

“It’s more comforting to know that there’s finally an acknowledgement, but it shouldn’t have to come to this for there to be an acknowledgement either. It is confusing, overall, to process everything, but it’s nice to see more people speaking up,” she said.

“It’s not easy: sometimes you don’t know what you can say, especially when you feel like you are outside of the experience. We do thank you for speaking out and having that courage to speak.”

The conversation moved on to the music industry itself, and the ongoing work to make inclusion and diversity second nature from entry-level jobs to executive boards and senior management.
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“Why is it important? I think what’s going on right now is a reflection of why it’s important, so that there’s understanding of everyone’s collective experience, and there isn’t such a feeling of difference,” said Wyskoarko.

“You have situations where you need to have the perspective of a woman, you need to have the perspective of someone of colour, to speak to the direction you wanna take. and that’s incredibly important in the music industry.”

“Whether it’s on a small scale or a large scale, understanding that experience, if you haven’t lived it – as much as you might want to be sympathetic – you still don’t really know first hand. You haven’t experienced all of it, so there’s going to be some things that you might unintentionally miss as far as addressing what our needs are as executives, employees or artists.”

Grimes agreed. “I think that it’s still an issue because there are so many very many people in the industry that have the authority over who’s being hired, that don’t value our perspective, or doesn’t see our perspective as an asset yet,” she said.

“I think that many people don’t yet understand that our perspective is not something you can learn. it’s very innate in us, the things that we know quickly.”

“Even if you are not a person of colour but you’re a fan of hip-hop music, that doesn’t mean that you are hip-hop! and it doesn’t mean that you understand Black people because you love Kendrick Lamar! It’s not the same thing.”

Both Grimes and Wyskoarko said that their paths through the industry to their current roles have by necessity not been straight and smooth, with obstacles, mistakes and unexpected changes in direction as opportunities arose. Both also offered their views on how to further diversity within the music industry.

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“It’s a combination of the internal and the external: getting us in those positions to hire, and to actually push for the people that we know are going to be the best and bring a diverse perspective to the job. We have to push for that when we have those opportunities,” said Wyskoarko.

“You avoid the nepotism by expanding our power to put people in positions that are not just inheriting it without the right skillset. That’s really important at all levels, but we also have to be at the highest levels, to make sure that it’s an initiative, and that no one is tolerating nepotism.”

Grimes expanded on that. “I tell every single person who I’ve ever put in position, who I love dearly, the first thing I say to all of them and the last thing I say is ‘Do not embarrass me… and do not embarrass us!'” she said.

“Because when you get in there, that’s the only way they’re gonna say ‘Hey, I really like that guy or girl, I’m okay with taking a risk on more of those people and that person’. So we have to do right when we get inside a building in order to end that nepotism and to build that trust with people who don’t always trust us: to keep that cycle going.”

Mitchell asked about the importance of mentorship, and both Wyskoarko and Grimes stressed that for them, it has been less a case of having one single mentor through a formal arrangement, and more about drawing on the experience of a range of people with information and guidance to share.

“I’ve always been jealous of some people that are like ‘Ah yeah, that’s my mentor! I go have coffee with them every Saturday!’ I have not had a person like that throughout my career… I don’t have the privilege to tell someone I’m confused or don’t know what I’m doing, because it may be used against me in the same instance. I have oftentimes had to keep my feelings or my need to guidance to myself and just figure it out,” said Grimes.

“I think everyone can be a mentor, they don’t have to be a person that you [formally] get coffee with. There have just been some people that have com in and our of my life that have given me life-changing information: information that I will never forget.”

As an example, she cited Regina Davenport, who when Grimes started work at Def Jam asked to see her bank account, and then set her up to automatically transfer $50 of her salary every month into a savings account.

“It’s still the same! I have a whole other checking account, but on that checking account where she did that for me, it is still the same. And she’s given me lots of gerat advice over the time of my life,” said Grimes.

“What she did and the value she taught me – of saving and for not being embarrassed for asking people for help about money or stocks or how much they get paid or how much I should be getting paid – came from her moving that fifty dollars for me, and for not judging me for not knowing about money.”

Both Wyskoarko and Grimes advised young people in the industry to cast their net wide for advice and support.

“I’ve had mentors that looked like me [but also] really important mentors that didn’t look like me, because they had access to information that I did not have,” said Grimes.

“A lot of the time when people look for mentors they want another strong Black woman. And I’m like: ‘I don’t know everything! Sometimes we have the same amount of information, girl!'”

“And I have learned so much from my white counterparts, from my Jewish friends, from my lawyer friends, from a bunch of people that I’ve been open and honest with, and that were willing to share with me. So I think you should cast a wide net when you’re looking for mentors, and just look for information. Information is what’s helping.”

Wyskoarko agreed, citing the time when a group of men that she worked with told her that she was underpaid, and offered her advice on how to ask for a raise.

“That was eye-opening, and it was eye-opening that that piece of information came from someone who didn’t look like me, but they had access to that information and a comfort level with having those conversations,” she said.

“I took that, and that was something I passed down to people I could share information and guidance with… It’s important not to feel tied to this one individual that you think is going to give you all the answers, because no one person has all the answers anyways.”

Mitchell asked how the pair feel about the challenges when other women within the music industry haven’t been as supportive as they were hoping, and their advice for younger women who experience that reaction from their seniors.

“It’s true. I’ve experienced it. I’m experiencing it. I’ve had people ask me for advice on it. I don’t always have the answer because as I said, I’m experiencing it,” said Grimes.

“In any situation I try to have as much understanding for the other person and not think they are being malicious towards me, but [that] there is some reason that is nothing to do with me that would make you wanna tear down another woman or not support another woman.”

“In that I have found peace with the fact that nobody has to support me just because we’re the same sex, and no one has to support me just because we’re the same gender, and I move on, and I find people who do.”

However, she had some additional words for the women at senior levels of the industry that don’t.

“My only issue with it is that people stop lying! I don’t know, Gail, how many women’s empowerment events you’ve probably hosted, that you’ve moderated, that I’ve been to, that I’ve sat in, seen a lot of the same women who I know don’t support other women, praising and cheerleading for women’s empowerment,” said Grimes.

“I need them to stop showing up for the protest if they don’t believe in the cause! and the people that do, we have to step up.”

She made it clear that Wyskoarko has been one of those people extending a hand from the ladder and allowing her to share her concerns and questions without fear of those being used to kick her off the rungs.

“I’m happy if there’s only one person that I can talk to and be vulnerable with, but I wish so much that there were more,” she said.

“The understanding that I’ve had from many people is that there are women in the industry that had to really really fight for their position. And to think that some little girl is about to come in and knock you off your pedestal? I understand that.”

“There are 21 year olds behind me that are creepin’ up! I’m like ‘Oh, here she comes!’ but I do not feel that fear that anybody can knock me off of any pedestal or out of any position. Only that this girl, if she’s as smart as she says she is, if she’s smarter than me, I need her. I need her with me, I need her next to me, because it will make me better, and my name will not be forgotten when I do leave whatever position I’m in, because she’ll be in it, and she’ll be able to say ‘I’m in it because of her’.”

Wyskoarko agreed. “I think that there’s a falsehood that it’s all a ‘kumbaya’ moment with women right now,” she said, noting that when she started in the industry, there were “even fewer openings, positions, and there were fewer of us, and even more of a feeling of ‘I must hold on to this and if you get anywhere close I’m gonna lose this, and it’s never gonna happen again and there’s no other position like this for me’,” she said.

“I think it’s really important to be supportive personally, but I’ve accepted that everyone can’t, are not capable of feeling that way, so there are gonna be women out there that aren’t on that page.”

“I think it’s unfortunate that there are women that aren’t on that page that are pretending to be on that page, but it all comes down to being secure that we can all succeed simultaneously and we’re not taking away from one another.”

The session concluded with both Wyskoarko and Grimes advising young people in the industry to walk their own paths, rather than just try to follow in any individual executive’s footsteps.

“Heed our advice but walk your own walk, talk your own talk, go on your own journey. None of us are the same, and a lot of people that come after us will have it easier and you shouldn’t feel ashamed of that,” said Grimes.

“You should take it, you should run with it, and you should go do amazing things for the culture ,and for your people, and for everybody, and there should be no guilt in us having made it easier, because I hope that we do.”

“If the next generation after me don’t feel like the door is open for them, then I feel like we didn’t do our jobs. So I don’t want you to follow in my footsteps, I want you to blaze your own trail.”

Wyskoarko continued that thread. “There’s no one path. I think that’s the beautiful thing about this industry, it’s constantly evolving and changing, and if you’re innovative and creative you will flourish. Combine that with the work ethic and nothing should be able to stop you,” she said.

“You cannot look to what anyone else did and follow it as an exact guide. You take lessons from their experience, you pull out the values and the overall themes there, but your journey is going to be your journey.”

Stuart Dredge

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