Right place, right time. That’s how Grace James explains her start in the music industry. She randomly caught a music business panel at NYU, “got up the nerve” to “ask for an internship,” stayed up all night putting together a resume for J Records, and “that’s really, really where it started.”
James, now vice president of marketing for Atlantic Records, walks listeners through this journey, including how she balances selling both a product and someone’s “craft”; how she handles the complex timelines, calendars and schedules of multiple projects; and how she also became a fitness blogger.
This is the story of Grace James.
Grace James: What I actually learned was in that position, I was able to work for myself, I’m able to work for myself and actually was really good at it. We’re not selling soap. I don’t sell soap, this is not a product, these are actual people.
Intro: Hello and welcome to Landed, the story of the music business told by the people behind the scenes. On each episode, we’ll welcome in someone from the music industry discovering how they started out, how they got the skills to work with the biggest artists in the world and what advice they have for up and comers. Each conversation will show how they’re navigating the ever evolving landscape of music today. On this episode, music producer and author Jesse Cannon, will be speaking with Grace James, the vice president of marketing at Atlantic Records.
Grace James: My name is Grace James, and I am the VP of marketing at Atlantic Records. I look after and oversee marketing and product management for projects on the urban and pop side.
Jesse Cannon: So, tell me a little bit more about what that means, you actually do.
Grace James: Goodness gracious. What do I do? Marketing encompasses a lot of things, and I think product management in general, you are really the quarterback for the project. So, if you really think about what a quarterback actually does, by the way, I am not a football analyst, specialist or anything like that, but from what I can see as a layman, you really drive the strategy and the vision for the project. Everything is coordinated through you and that’s one of the things that really drew me to this job and this career in this line of work from the very beginning is I love that I didn’t have to pick one thing. I love that I could work with video, and publicity, and digital, and creative, and all those different folks and have a hand in it from start to finish.
Jesse Cannon: Tell me, what made you want to get into the music business?
Grace James: I wanted to be a singer when I was little. I loved music. I love to sing. I grew up in a very musical household in the sense of like, my mom put me in piano lessons really early. I sang, all of my extracurricular activities growing up were musically involved. So naturally I wanted to do music, but at a very young age I realized one, I didn’t have a shot at being an R&B singer. And then two, I realized, “Hey, this is a very difficult line of business to get into financially and it’s not really guaranteed,” so let me look into the business side of things.
And so what’s respectable in a very Asian household is to be a doctor or a lawyer, right? So I was like, Oh, going to entertainment law, not knowing what it was. So, I loved growing up watching MTV music videos when they actually played music videos, and I looked at that and said, I want to do that. Like how do you do that and get behind that?
My ambition was really more to move to New York and figure it out. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to get to New York City and school is what brought me here. I went to NYU.
Jesse Cannon: Where were you before New York city?
Grace James: I grew up in suburban Northern Virginia, right outside of D.C. Again, not very much a music business town. I think there’s more of a scene now right outside of D.C. Or in D.C. and even in Richmond, but I knew I had to get to New York City, the media capital of the world and where all the record labels were at the time, and it was reading billboard even as a fan and was following charts and everything.
Again, didn’t know about the business, but I wanted to learn as much as possible. But I got to New York, I was in the right place at the right time. I think my sophomore year I was in my dining hall just having my dinner, reading the school newspaper and there was a panel, “Everything That You Want to Know About the Music Business” hosted by NYU.
It was at that time, that evening, that exact hour, and I legit picked up my dinner tray, threw it in the trash and ran to the Student Center, to this panel. And there were different folks from a couple of labels, you know, songwriters, et cetera, and was very, very shy, but got up the nerve to go up to someone and ask for an internship. And that’s really where it started.
I didn’t have a resume, I didn’t know anything about the music business, but I met someone at the time named Russ Jones, who is at this newly established label by Clive Davis called Jay Records. Sent him my resume at 3:00 AM I stayed up all night working on my resume and sent it at 3:00 AM, I was called in for an interview, and that’s really, really where it started.
And I know that’s kind of a boring story, but it was for me a moment of like, hey, I’m really chasing this. I don’t know how to do it, but I’m going to figure it out. And I think he really appreciated that, that I took the initiative to do it that night. And I think that’s a lesson that’s carried with me through my entire career of like do it now.
Jesse Cannon: You get to Jay Records and then where do you start there?
Grace James: I was an urban promo intern, which I was like, “I don’t know what urban promo is, but I’m going to do it.” They put me in urban problem because I was listening to R&B and hip hop. I spent a lot of time in the urban promo closet organizing CDs and tapes and vinyl and mailing vinyl to DJs and boxes of CDs to different DJs and that’s what they had me do for an entire semester.
And I think I just worked hard and they saw that, I worked very hard at putting vinyl in envelopes and jiffies and addressing them and the fact that I was there with a smile on my face mailing these jiffies every day I think really caught people’s attention even though it wasn’t really that special. But I was happy to be there just doing that.
And so probably my last week or so, that’s when I was invited to join a meeting. I was invited to tag along to events towards the end, and from there, I just wanted to just stick around. I wasn’t sure what that meant. An internship led to a temp position which led to an assistant position and that’s really where it all started.
And by the way, I had multiple internships. I stayed there as long as possible and from urban promo to A&R and then I ended up in marketing and that’s when I realized I want to do this. So, where do you go from there to get to here?
From there, I went to a very small label called Verve. I took that as an opportunity. Verve is historically a jazz label under the Universal Music Group umbrella and they were at the time revamping their entire label group to be more contemporary, pop, pop-rock and even some urban stuff actually, but it wasn’t a jazz label anymore so they were looking for just fresh talent and I was the assistant to the general manager.
I took it as a new just learning opportunity. It wasn’t my area of interest, I was leaving at that time, like a pop and urban label, a major label to go somewhere where I thought I could learn and I did and I spent almost 10 years there growing from an assistant to a director position where I became a product manager, and I had great mentors who taught me a lot about marketing, who you know really entrusted me with responsibilities because it was a smaller company.
I am grateful for that foundation that I was given working at a smaller label and with a smaller team and I got to do a lot more.
Jesse Cannon: And then how do you get here?
Grace James: From Verve, I got let go. The label at that time moved to the West Coast, and I did not move and it was time and I think there’s nothing wrong and there’s nothing to be embarrassed about saying that you got let go or laid off and you know they moved literally like 90% of operations to the West Coast. I was thrown into the fire of figuring out next steps and working for myself and I actually would strongly recommend everyone do that for a little bit if they have the chance to, because I never thought I could work for myself.
What I actually learned was in that position, I was able to work for myself, I’m able to work for myself and actually was really good at it and quite enjoyed it and also was making more money by the way, and was really enjoying consulting and working with different management companies and artists doing marketing and digital marketing also for myself and for these artists independently.
And then I got a call out of the blue about a job at Roc Nation, and someone had recommended me and they thought I’d be perfect for it and I really wasn’t that interested at all. But I took the meeting because you always take the meeting, because let’s be honest, Hov is calling. Not him per se.
And had the meeting on a Monday. It was probably the coldest day of that year, that winter, and went in for a meeting and it was so that the trains were shut down. I was late. It was one of those terrible stories where like, man, maybe this isn’t meant to be. I was 30 minutes late. Even though it was cold, I was sweating because I was running. The trains weren’t even running on the same track, took the interview, somehow they still met with me even though I was late. They were very understanding and was offered the job that Friday and that was probably the quickest offer that came in.
Yeah, I was met with a very difficult decision of like, do I continue to work for myself? And you know, there’s independence. You get to manage your own time. No one’s really yelling at you to do X, Y, and Z. The autonomy was really, really great. But I was presented an opportunity to work at Roc Nation with some of the biggest artists of our time and so I couldn’t say no, and so I went back into the workplace and that time they were actually acquiring Tidal, Got to work on that a lot, so there was a very intensive time of learning the streaming side in a growing business, acquiring a business and learning something that is completely different than the label side of things.
So, I got to work on that and then how I got to Atlantic was after that I was making a list for myself of like where do I want to go next? What do I want to do next? Atlantic was at the top of my list. Julie of course, is an executive that I followed for a while and her trajectory, and I love that she is a woman at the top, and so I reached out and that’s how I got here. There are many stories in between of course, but that’s the condensed version.
Jesse Cannon: Nice. How about, you know that meme, it’s like what my family thinks I do, what my partner thinks I do, what my friends think I do, what I actually do. Could you tell me a little about what the people on the outside think you do versus what do you do on the side?
Grace James: I think my parents think I actually sit in a studio and play the piano for people or like go to concert halls and like listen to music. I think my friends think I’m on the set of music videos/the hangover plus, throwing dollar bills at people. I think that’s what they have in their heads and what I actually do is like everybody else, I get up, have a desk job that I go to, but also have the night part.
Sometimes they overlap, sometimes it’s in the weekends and so there’s like the dust job part of, hey I got to show up, I got to take calls. I have meetings, I have reports to do and marketing plans to do and then there’s also the, hey, there’s a listening event at the studio. I got to go meet this artist. We got to get in to spend some time together. We got to go scout locations for events. We have to do music video shoots, we got to do photo shoots and that goes into the day night weekend. It is a very 24/7 job.
I love that this business is a mixture of the corporate world, but also the creative side of things and of course everyone loves the creative side of things, but it is a business. It is a job like every other job you have a boss and you have numbers to hit and you have actual deliverables you have to deliver.
Jesse Cannon: Nice. How about what do people really not understand about this job?
Grace James: I think what people really don’t understand is that it’s not a party lifestyle, although there are elements of that. And I think there are also different sides of the music business. My side of the music business is very different from other people in production or video or A&R and digital like we all play very necessary roles but also very different roles, and I think especially marketing on this side the people think it’s like hanging out with the artists and being friends with the artists and there is an element of that, because you have to have that kind of relationship. But no, it is work. Like I have timelines and calendars and schedules and again plans.
They really, really don’t get that there’s a strategy and a business to it, but then also at the same time, sometimes we just don’t know and you got to figure it out as you go and it’s a fly by the seat of your pants with strategy, like we’re probably a walking contradiction of like, do you have strategy or not? Do you have a plan? Yes, but then no, you have to adjust and things change all the time. And I think this is a very hard business and hard position and line of work if you don’t know how to adjust.
Jesse Cannon: I like that. So how about how does this actually make a difference in an artist’s career? Like when you do a good job versus if like something falls through the cracks, what’s the consequences versus what’s the really good outcome when you’re killing it?
Grace James: I think we’d like to say that we all in this business do the best job possible. One of the things that we should address here is that we’re not selling soap. I don’t sell soap. This is not a product. These are actual people, I we have a product in the sense of music, but this is someone’s craft and this is their art and this is their baby. This is something that they’ve given birth to in the studio and there’s a livelihood behind what we sell. And I don’t think necessarily we sell music, I think we also sell the entire package of the artists and we want people to connect with their favorite artists. So, we’re selling and we’re buying into these people and who they are.
Artists as people, right? And part of that I think is the role that we play in that is so macro and micro. Do we get to be a part of it from the beginning in these developing artists stories where we see how they go from this undiscovered random girl from the outside of Boston, let’s say, and they become and develop into these artists.
So, I think we help them discover that hidden talent that they didn’t know that they had or that hidden gem, helping bring that out in photo shoots, right? Of like, “Hey, we really love the freckles on your face, let’s accentuate that,” or like, “Your thing is your voice, like let’s accentuate that.” Like, “You don’t have to dance, don’t do that, but you’re really, really great at this.” And I think we help mold the things that we think that other people will love.
We’re essentially storytellers and we’re essentially marketing is storytelling. Really driving home the story of like, this is why you should love this person and we love different people for different reasons. Maybe you’re a terrific dancer, maybe you’re a terrific rapper, maybe you put on a great live show. Maybe you’re a great recording artist.
Jesse Cannon: So, somebody who’s listening to this podcast and are going, “I want to be like her. I want to be like her.” What do you tell them to focus on?
Grace James: Well, don’t be like me. Be yourself.
Jesse Cannon: OK, that’s good.
Grace James: First of all, be yourself and your trajectory and your path to your career is going to be very different than what I did. But I will say even though everyone’s career paths are very different, the one thing that I will say is an underlying theme in everybody that I’ve seen in a senior position, not only at this company but everywhere else is that they’ve put in the time and the work. Everyone has some sort of story of like, “Oh, I was working at an internship or I was doing this for free, or I just showed up and I was there. I was there all the time. Then the opportunity presented itself.”
These things don’t happen overnight. Not only my career, but the careers of the artists that we work with. They don’t happen overnight. There’s a lot of groundwork that you have to do and a lot of sweat equity that you have to put in and that means staying late. That means volunteering for things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with your major or your career or your job. It’s actually putting in the work and being visible and making sure people know that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. I think that’s a necessary trait in this business.
But other than that, how else you can get to this position, I would say internships are a great way to start, but let’s say you have already graduated and you can’t get an internship, there are so many other elements of the music business that you can get into, whether it’s maybe it’s that’s your local radio station, maybe a job at an agency, but also get plugged into different entertainment networking outlets. Maybe you want to go into publishing and you actually work for a music publication.
There are so many other ways that you can learn marketing and there are marketing jobs at all those different types of music companies. But then also after that, network network network. It’s all about meeting people, making connections, building a Rolodex.
I can’t necessarily tell you that I’ve gotten a job from somewhere because I applied online, and I know a lot of people get jobs from their online searches and that’s so wonderful that we have those resources. But I also would say that there’s nothing more powerful than someone’s word of mouth of, “Hey, this person’s really great and he or she may not have X, Y and Z experience for like a label per se, but they’re really great. Marketing executives or marketing folks, they have creative ideas. That word of mouth and that co-sign from someone is so powerful.
Jesse Cannon: That’s awesome. So how about… or is there something you’re really glad you did before you got here that has really, really helped you in your present position?
Grace James: I think two things. I think before you take any job, you should take some time off. Whether that’s a day, a week, a month, or several months. If you are financially able to do that, I think everyone should take some time off between school and a job if you can between jobs, whatever that amount of time is, find what’s right for you so you can just enjoy yourself.
Be a whole human being, go to the beach, read whatever you enjoy doing. You should actually take the time to do so that you are fulfilled personally because if you’re fulfilled personally, it makes you a better employee, it makes you a better creative and makes you just better in all areas of your life. And I think that’s something that you should absolutely do when you do have a job, is find other things that bring you joy so that you have that balance.
The second thing I would say is at my time at Universal, when I felt like my career was not growing as fast or I felt like I was just kind of stuck and let’s be real, everyone feels stuck at some point in their lives and in their careers. I was very much like, maybe I don’t want to do this marketing thing. Maybe I don’t want to work in music, and that’s totally okay.
Jesse Cannon: 100%.
Grace James: And so I started blogging, and I didn’t know what blogging was. I thought it was just journaling online. This was way before influencers and all that. I started blogging and discovered this whole different community and I learned some new skills. I learned how to edit photos, I learned Photoshop, I learned how to host my own WordPress site. Having interests outside of the building actually made me a better marketer.
I would say that for everybody, I would strongly encourage you guys to go find something, go find a passion outside of your work. Even if you are passionate about your work, because that is what’s going to push you and that’s going to expand your skillset. Go take a seminar, go take a class, go learn a new skill and go find something that really energizes you because that is what’s going to constantly just challenge you to look at things differently.
So, whether you acquire a new skill, whether it forces you to train your brain differently, whether you are just more energized because you’re taking spin class and you have more energy during the day, I think you have to find something else.
So, I would say like for me, that blogging thing is what helped me just again, be more creative in the sense of like learning Photoshop, learning to write and learning to make pitches right, because those skills then translated at the office, that is also what helped me get those other opportunities. It’s because of that.
Jesse Cannon: That’s amazing. So that kind of draws into another question I had for you, I was curious if there’s something else you had to speak about or if that was really it, is like is there anything that you’re really interested outside of music that’s really helped you in your world in music?
Grace James: Yes, so I was very unhealthy and not athletic growing up, and I discovered running at my time at Universal. Running sucks by the way, it’s terrible. And that’s a whole other podcast, but I did start to run, that also ties in with the blogging and what I did for myself of like running and becoming this like fitness blogger and influencer, I guess if you want to call it that.
Running taught me discipline. Running taught me to push through their pain and really breathe through some difficult times, because not everything is peachy at work.
Sometimes we go through periods where just work is crazy meetings or overlapping, you got 10 different projects you’re juggling. Running is what taught me to prioritize things. Running is also what taught me to look after my personal health, but also others. Running while it’s an individual sport, can also be a team sport when you’re running with other people and you have to wait for somebody and you have to encourage them when you’re running up a hill.
And I think those sorts of skills translate here. I have to be a teammate. I can’t do this by myself. I get to work with some really amazing people at this company and sometimes that means like, hey, we may disagree on something, but I’m going to trust you to take the lead on this and we’re going to collaborate and exchange ideas and we’re going to talk about it, and we figure it out as a team. I would absolutely say that running’s helped me that way.
Jesse Cannon: That’s a great answer. The music business has changed so much, and it’s changing so much all the time. What’s a newer thing that you’re seeing is really making a difference in artists’ careers in like really making a difference in their growth with fans?
Grace James: There’s so many things to that. Clearly social media, I feel like that’s an old answer, but I think if social media is wonderful because artists don’t have to rely on a third party to get their music heard, to promote things I think artists underestimate sometimes the value and the reach of their social media.
Those are people who have elected and chosen and opted in to hear from you and they want to hear from you more than one time a day. Remember when you signed up for an email blast, you didn’t want an email blast every day. You didn’t even want it once a week. But with social media, they want to hear from you every hour, whether it’s stories or a tweet or IG Live, or whatever that is. They want to hear from you constantly. So, I think that’s something that really helps them.
Grace James: I love vertical videos. I just love that you don’t have to watch things horizontally. You can do it vertically. Podcasts have an extremely wide reach and I think that’s different because it’s a different form of recorded audio. And you don’t have to see the artist. It’s their voice and it’s soothing. Or not soothing, what else? There’s so many different ways.
Like in the old days we used to only rely on traditional media of TV and print and digital. I wouldn’t even say digital editorials, traditional media and old school media, but now there are so many other ways to be heard and that’s what I love about again, podcast or even GIPHYs like let’s talk about GIPHYs.
Jesse Cannon: I literally was just talking about this this morning. Why is that not more of a thing?
Grace James: GIPHYs, I have a new artist who was being discovered by GIPHYs and the amazing movements she did. Like there are so many other creative expressions. Animojis, like Bitmojis, Bitcoin, Snapchat, video, like everything. There’s so many different things and I think all of that counts. You may not see the impact from it immediately or directly, but all of that together builds a story and that’s marketing.
Jesse Cannon: That’s rad. What do you say to artists who are listening to this and going, “I want to be on Atlantic. I want to be on Atlantic.” What’s your advice to them?
Grace James: Well, Atlantic’s amazing. So, you should sign with Atlantic if you are considering that, but you’d also don’t have to be on a major. And I might get fired for saying that. No, you don’t have to wait for a major label to come knocking to get your music out there. Whether it’s with Atlantic or in partnership with Atlantic or even another major label.
There’s so many resources out there to get your music heard and at the end of the day, don’t you want your music heard? So, whether it’s YouTube or whether it’s again through Instagram, because I love Instagram. Or whether it’s uploading your cover on Facebook, like there are so many ways to build an audience, build an audience for yourself. That’s probably the message. Whether your audience is 100 people or 100 million people, the reality is you have to build an audience for yourself and feed that audience. Feed your core with content, with yourself, your personality, talking to them. And that’s when labels I think take notice.
Because now we want artists who understand like who their audience is, do they have an audience? Like that’s what it is. It’s about the audience. So feed your audience and then don’t be afraid to start small. You got to start somewhere and then build on that each and every time, whether it’s your live show or the amount of streams for each song or the amount of views. You got to start somewhere and build. It’s a grind but stick with it and they’ll come.
Jesse Cannon: Well done. Okay, let’s talk a little bit about your actual music taste. What’s, an artist or musical genre you wish would come back into fashion?
Grace James: I actually am a huge R&B fan. I don’t think that necessarily we have to wait for it. I think it’s here, and in all fairness, I don’t think R&B went away, I just think that it wasn’t the trend. But I do think it’s back in a big way. And I think Atlantic also, we have, not I think, I know for sure we have it. A lot of amazing R&B acts coming out. So, you should definitely follow the Atlantic socials and just keep in touch with us and stay connected, because we have a lot of wonderful, wonderful talent coming out in the R&B lane.
So, I love Ella Mae, I love Tank because I work with Tank, but I’m being biased there. And then we have a lot of developing artists that I’m really excited about. Bri Steves who is a rapper and singer. So, if you don’t know who she is, you should check her out and gosh, what other genre of music? I feel like classical should come back because I used to play the violin. I think it’s very underrated and you can make it very cool.
Jesse Cannon: Nice. How about, is there any artists you’ve not worked with that you’re like I wish, I wish, I wish I could work with them?
Grace James: You know, I’m going to tell you a story.
Jesse Cannon: That’s what I want to hear.
Grace James: Let’s start with the story. So, my senior year of high school, my AP Spanish teacher had me write a letter to myself at 17. So, it was like future Grace writing 17-year-old Grace in Spanish, what my life was like at that time. A few years ago, my Spanish teacher found me on Facebook and mailed us all these like time capsules. And this letter said, Hey Grace, again, all in Spanish, you’re living in New York, you’ve graduated from NYU, you’re engaged or married, have a dog, all that stuff, which is all true by the way. Said I worked in the music business. The one thing that was incorrect was that I was an entertainment attorney and that didn’t work out. But it did say that I was in the entertainment business and that I had or was working with Beyonce, Shakira, just a list of artists at that time, and they were all like growing in their careers at that time.
And that entire list I’ve gotten to work on except Justin Timberlake. So Justin Timberlake, I don’t know how this is going to happen, but we need to work together. Even though you’re not signed to Atlantic, let’s figure this out. No, but in all seriousness, that letter came at a time when I needed it and it was so amazing and empowering to read that.
I had written this years and years ago, when by the way, when Beyonce wasn’t that big at that time, Shakira wasn’t that big at the time. I think Usher was big at that time, but I wanted to work with Usher. It was so emotional, encouraging, inspiring to see that something that I inspired for or inspired to happened.
I say that to say, I’ve gotten to work with some amazing artists. I need to work with Justin Timberlake. But in closing, I would also like to encourage all of you out there to write down your goals and write down what you want to see for yourself in your life. Whether it’s in a journal, whether it’s on a Post-it, or napkin. Writing it down actually materializes it and it actualizes it.
Like you put it out into the universe. Whether you’re a person of faith or not, putting it out there actually means something. And maybe you hide it, maybe you don’t, whether or not, but you actually do remember that moment. Again, write it in your phone somewhere. Write it down.
Outro: Thank you for listening to Landed. Subscribe to this show for free at your preferred podcast service.
Today’s music as courtesy of Tank.