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RAINMAKERS:
ETHIOPIA HABTEMARIAM

With Atlanta talent running the charts, racking up astronomical streams and otherwise ruling the current music landscape, it’s only fitting that the leader of the storied Motown label is an ATL native. Ethiopia Habtemariam brings the authenticity and flavor of her hometown to the role, tempered by a global, future-forward outlook.

With an impressive resume of creative signings on both the label and publishing sides—and an abiding commitment to inclusion, equality and mentoring—she has emerged as one of the most impressive execs of her generation.

Following a massive reorganization of UMG by Chairman Lucian Grainge in 2014, Motown was re-established as a standalone label and moved from IDJ to Steve Barnett’s Capitol Music Group. With Motown ensconced in its new West Coast home in the Capitol Tower, Ethiopia was named the historic label’s President.

“I was having a tough time at first,” Habtemariam told Music Business Worldwide. “Clarence Avant, who I’ve been blessed to know, [has] been like a second father to me. He took me to lunch and said, ‘A legacy like Motown will always be tough. Don’t compare yourself to the past. They tell you about all the great shit, but they don’t tell you about the records that weren’t hits.’”

“Things really changed for the better when we relaunched Motown as a flagship label [at CMG],” she added. “I can’t say enough about Steve’s support and commitment to Motown as a thriving and important frontline label. It’s made such a difference, not only to Motown, but to CMG’s overall commitment to Black music, which hasn’t existed at this level for decades.”

That commitment to Black music, along with the boom of the streaming era, played right into Barnett and Habtemariam’s shared vision for the rebirth of Motown.

As Spotify grew and streaming took hold, Ethiopia moved shrewdly to invest in hip-hop. In 2015, amid talks with Atlanta’s Quality Control about a possible pub deal, Habtemariam gave label heads Coach K and P the full-court press on a joint venture.

“At the time, she was doing publishing, and she called about the publishing side of our business,” Coach K recalled to HITS. “Then she’s like, ‘Yo, I got this idea. I want to bring you in to meet with our Chairman.’ So me and P flew out to L.A. and went to Steve Barnett’s house. One conversation, and we shook on the deal. We haven’t looked back since then.”

Added P, “I wanna give Ethiopia a lot of praise for reaching out, because we didn’t come to her; she came to us. She believed in it and connected us with Steve.”

Ethiopia explained the landscape of rap culture with streaming at the time of the QC-Motown deal to HITS: “We developed a partnership with Quality Control in 2015, when streaming hadn’t really kicked in. I saw that Black music was prominent in the mixtape circuit, and knew our music was big around the world but was not monetized properly. Streaming really came and changed the game. When QC discovered Lil Yachty, who was birthed out of SoundCloud, it became our mission to deliver his music to the world and take it to another level—and that’s what we did. The success of my relationship with Coach K and P helped foster growth and innovation for the Motown brand.”

The partnership would prove essential to Motown’s renaissance. The iconic label was once again tied to a city at the heart of Black music: Atlanta. QC would eventually bring its superstar rap group Migos to Motown while developing young acts Lil Yachty, City Girls and a new star, Lil Baby, who released what became 2020’s biggest album, My Turn, along with one of the most important songs of the year, the protest anthem “The Bigger Picture.”

“There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the past when it comes to knowing what can be achieved,” the current Motown President told MBW. “Look at how these young Black artists from Detroit created music that transcended so many barriers—racial, social, economic—and united people around the world while becoming superstars in the process.”

Read the entire profile here.

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