WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: A CONVERSATION WITH THE RIAA’S MICHELE BALLANTYNE


We asked RIAA COO Michele Ballantyne a few annoying questions about the organization, efforts to advance equality and her own story. Much to our surprise, she decided to answer them.

What has the RIAA done to achieve gender parity at the organization?

When [RIAA Chairman/CEO] Mitch [Glazier] and I took the helm, we looked at our board of directors to see how we could make it more diverse, not just along gender lines, but racial lines, geographically and in terms of the genres people work in. I'm happy to say that we now have 12 women on the board, including me. The board has 26 members. We have a couple of open seats we'll be looking to fill with women as well. As far as our executive leadership team, we have three women and four men.

It's so important to have different voices―you can't just have the same people with the same experience talking to you about how things should be done. Our board members represent a lot of different experiences, and we bring all of that into the mix to help us with our decision-making. And it helps us with our advocacy.

RIAA is an advocacy organization. Educating people about what we do is really important. One of the things Morna Willens, our chief policy officer, and I have done is bring women who work in the industry―from studio engineers to general counsels, a whole swath of folks―to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers, particularly women lawmakers. Ongoing dialogue is critical. [Epic Records EVP, Head of Business and Legal Affairs] Stephanie Yu is one of the people who came to D.C. to lobby and she still talks about it.

Tell me something about the work you’re doing to support women producers and engineers.

There’s a dearth of female producers and engineers, and we want to see what we can do to make a difference there. On International Women’s Day we held a great event with Caitlyn Smith (who produced her most recent album) and her all female team – including her engineer Gena Johnson. A great way to spotlight progress where it has been made.

One of the great things about our new space is that we have a fully equipped recording studio. In January we started a conversation with Howard University about setting something up so students in its audio-engineering program could use our studio and professors could use it to teach. This would provide the kind of experience students need to grow into producing and engineering positions. Because a big part of all of this is the pipeline. We're still defining the initiative, but the professor is a woman, and we're going to make sure there are equal opportunities there for everyone.

What do you hear from your peers in the industry about the obstacles they encounter as women?

Everyone wants a seat at the table, but it's not always that easy to get into the room. So I work hard to make sure there are women in the room, at the table. I push them behind the scenes. And I’m supported in that. Recently, a meeting was being set up and I said to Mitch, “Look at this list of people.” And he said, “Oh my God, you need to be in this meeting.” I'm not shy about speaking up. That’s my nature. And I’m lucky that people here have always been receptive to that.

But I assume that hasn’t been the case everywhere you’ve worked.

I’ve been lucky in that my colleagues and bosses in the music industry never once implied I couldn't do something because I was a woman, which has been something many women have experienced.

Though I can't say my whole career path has been smooth sailing. Needless to say, politics has its own version of what women in the music industry face. When I worked in politics, there were times when men said inappropriate things to me; some of the older politicians, particularly, would give you this “run along, little lady” attitude. Now it's harder to say those things. And when I started in the Senate, you had to walk really far to get to a women's bathroom. Because they initially didn't have any women, they didn't have any women's bathrooms. Now they do. You just have to keep on pushing.

I’m also fortunate to have had role models who inspired me to be assertive, starting with my own family. My mom went off to nursing school at 18. When my parents got divorced, she raised me, and she sent me to an all-girl school. Her example and that school environment gave me a powerful foundation. I’m inspired by my sisters, too. The youngest is 22. It’s been amazing to see how strong and powerful she is. I wish I’d been that way when I was younger, but it's great now to be able to help her achieve her career goals. It’s the same with the young women I mentor.

Tell me more about your upbringing. Where are you from? How did you become interested in music?

I was born on a tiny Caribbean Island called St. Vincent and the Grenadines. That’s where my dad is from. In the Caribbean, music is always playing. In St. Vincent, even though you hear mostly soca and reggae and dancehall, there’s also a country station. Country music is actually similar to reggae in its emphasis on storytelling., and that’s maybe why I love it so much.

My mom is from Montreal and I mostly grew up there. I went to college in Canada. I’ve always been interested in music, so my mom took me to a lot of concerts when I was young. My first concert was Neil Diamond. We saw Rod Stewart…and The Commodores. Obviously, the music of Bob Marley was always around. I grew up in the Carole King/classic rock era. I’ve always been on this journey of discovering music―but from a nerdy perspective; if I heard something and thought, “Oh, this Elvis person seems interesting,” I’d go buy a bunch of his records and listen to all the music and read about him and be, like, “I’m all about Elvis.”

When did you come to the U.S.?

My mom always follows her own path– she is bold and always on to something new. She and my stepdad moved to L.A. because, like all Canadians, they hate being cold. I decided to move to D.C. to follow a boyfriend. We broke up even before I moved, but I loved D.C. It’s interesting―there are people from all over the world. It’s a city of manageable scale. And it’s diverse; there’s a black professional class. I’ve always been fascinated by how things work, and this is a place where you can really delve into how things go behind the scenes.

Had you planned to work in government?

I was thinking I’d move back to St. Vincent and go into tourism. So I went to George Washington to get a master’s degree. It’s in Education and Human Development, which is where GW had its Tourism Administration program. I completed the program, but I didn’t actually go into tourism. A woman I knew from St. Vincent who worked in education and philanthropy helped me get a job with a political consulting and public affairs firm. That’s when I became exposed to policy and how things work. My boss, John Podesta, went on to work in the first Clinton administration. I worked during the day and went to law school at night. It was hard.

Where did you go to law school?

Georgetown. It was class every night Monday through Friday for the first two years and working during the day.


And your “day job” must have been pretty demanding.

It was, but you don’t think about it. When you’re in your twenties, you have more energy, and I was, like, “I’m just going to do this.” After a year and a half, though, I thought, “Shit, I’m not going to have the stamina,” so I decided to go through summer school so I could finish early. Because I felt “I have to plow through right now.” And I did.

Then, I was lucky enough that Podesta Associates was interested in helping me find other opportunities. I spent a summer on the Hill working for [U.S. Senator] Barbara Boxer. I spent one summer at a law firm, where, after law school, I worked for a couple of years. I thought I would hate it, but I liked it. I was in the intellectual property group. We didn’t do much copyright; it was more trade secrets, a little bit of trademark, a little bit of contract work and licensing kind of stuff.

So that prefigured your work at the RIAA.

It did, but one day John Podesta called and said, “I think you should come work here,” and my secretary was, like, “Why is the White House Chief of Staff calling you?” I said, “I know him.” She said, “You know him?” I was, like, “yeah.” So I went to the White House to work for him after he became Chief of Staff, his last two years with the Clinton administration, and it was a wild and crazy ride because it was so busy―back then you had a flip phone and a pager. A lot of it was making sure the work Clinton was doing was appropriately recognized in spite of other things. That was an amazing experience. There’s no better place to see how things work in government than the White House Chief of Staff’s office.

And there were lots of music things. There were concerts at the White House and at the 2000 convention. Artists were around all the time, Sheryl CrowGloria EstefanStevie Wonder… I was, like, “How is this my life?”

That does sound pretty glamorous. But you didn’t immediately segue into music, right?

No. After that job ended, I went to work for U.S. Senator Tom Daschle. The pace there isn’t as crazy as at the White House, but you’re still in the center of things, which was awesome and a great learning experience. Tom was a calm and cool presence. I enjoyed working for him. The people he had on his team are some of my best friends today. But then we had 9/11 and Anthrax. We had a 50/50 Senate. It was nuts.

But I still thought I was going to work in the Senate for another 10 years; I thought I was a lifer in politics, which I still love. I like the part where you feel like you’re making a difference―whether you are or not is arguable. But I did love that public service aspect of it.


Which you’ve obviously continued in your current work on behalf of the industry. How did you ultimately make your way to the RIAA?

One of my best friends from the White House, her brother worked at RIAA, and he was moving on to another job. He suggested they talk to me. I knew that downtown jobs in music and entertainment, these interesting and fun sectors, didn’t come up that often. On the one hand, people think it’s sexy working in music, but it’s not always; there’s a lot of nerdy copyright law going on, which is fine because I’m a nerd and because it’s important.

They interviewed me and I got the job―and Daschle lost his reelection. So that ended up working out. That was in 2004 and I’ve been here ever since. When I say, “I’ve been there since 2004,” people are, like, “Wow, that’s a long time.” It’s long, but it’s not, because everything is different from when I started.

I started out as the head of federal policy, then I was head of public policy and industry relations and now I’m the COO. The issues change all the time.

I can only imagine some of the changes you’ve seen during your nearly 20 years with the organization.

Well, going back to what we were talking about earlier, when I started at RIAA, the leadership was all men. The thing I’ve really seen change is that before, there was talk around gender equality, but now there seems to be action, forward motion, and I don’t think that’s going to stop.


Photos (from top): Ballantyne, Glazier and Capitol CEO Michelle Jubelirer bestow a diamond award on Halsey; Ballantyne endures a photo op with HITS pest Simon Glickman; certifying Nelly with the RIAA's then-CEO Cary Sherman and SVP Artist & Industry Relations Joel Flatow; with Epic boss Sylvia Rhone, Future and the label's Zeke Lewis and Rick Sackheim; presenting a "pioneer of hip-hop" award to Democratic congressional leader Hakeem Jeffries with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, Glazier and RIAA Chief Policy Officer Morna Willens; with hip-hop great MC Lyte

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