Christopher D. Cathcart
My Ode to the Music Business - In Honor of Black Music Month
Updated: Jun 7, 2022
Loved working with Boyz II Men, circa early '90's
My professional journey began not long after I graduated from Howard University with a public relations degree. It was 1986 and I was armed with a ton of ambition and very little of anything else. After a few fits and starts, I was fortunate to land my first real PR job at CNN/Turner Broadcasting System in New York City. My hat will forever be off to my friend and still mentor PR maven Terrie Williams, who, as then head of communications at Essence magazine, took me under her wing and introduced me to the contact at CNN that eventually brought me on as a young public relations coordinator
This was a great gig for a young man just getting his career going. Living in Brooklyn (when Brooklyn was the Black Mecca of America) and working smack-dab in mid-town Manhattan, I felt I had it all. And the job was great. Being able to work on breaking news coverage, sports programming, corporate media relations, and even the launch of the network TNT, among many other amazing goings-on, was exciting.
But, as cool as working at CNN was, I still kept a keen eye on New York’s music scene. I knew about all the album release parties, listening sessions, artists' meet and greets and everything else Black-music related, and I used my CNN credentials to weasel my way into all I could.
I read Billboard cover to cover and paid as much attention to the music biz sections of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter as I did their TV/cable news items, if not more. I made a point to learn the names of all the key players in the Black music world, as well as the bylines of all the industry writers. Anyone who remembers New York City in the late ’80s, and early ’90s knows spots like The Cellar, Sweetwaters, The Shark Bar, Two Steps Down and a ton I’ve forgotten were not only cool restaurants and watering holes, but they were also where the city’s Black music scene played out in real-time, with artists and music biz-types posting up on a regular. I kept my face in those places.
I even quietly interviewed for a few publicity gigs at some leading labels, but other than seeing fabulous offices with walls lined with gold and platinum albums, I mostly came away with a polite no and a great, albeit disappointing experience.
Again, enter Terrie Williams. After nearly three years at CNN, Terrie offered me a job at her still-new business – The Terrie Williams Agency, renowned for representing such luminaries as Miles Davis and Eddie Murphy. I jumped and she put me in charge of most of the agency’s music acts, including the legendary a cappella group Take 6. Working with these talented singers, their wonderful management team, and industry-leading label, Warner. Bros. Records, was a revelation that impacts my life to this day.
In light of time, I’ll warp speed this: After close to a year, CNN gave me an offer to return, one I could not pass up — double the salary and promotion to manager. That lasted another two years, followed by a brief stint with Warner Bros. Television (in Los Angeles), and then some independent communications/publicity work.
Around early 1992, Michael Mitchell, head of publicity at Motown Records, offered me another stellar job, and my chance to get back into the “biz.” I joined the historic label as national director of publicity, based in NYC. With the legendary Jheryl Busby at the helm and the iconic Clarence Avant as chairman, I knew I was in the big leagues. Hell, Jack The Rapper was my first music industry conference (google if you don't know), but not the last. And working with such acts as Boyz II Men, Stevie Wonder, Queen Latifah, Johnny Gill, Zhane, The Temptations, and many more made this a dream gig, and one a long time coming. But, as anyone knows who has worked in the music biz, no matter how cool the job, it ain’t gonna last forever. In 1995, I was laid off with little warning, though it was not a surprise. I was in the early part of a total company shake-up that would eventually toss out damn near everyone I worked with.
It was at this point I began to realize being loyal to a specific industry, any industry, may not be the best route, at least not for me. I began doing my own media consulting under my company, OneDiaspora Group. Here, I did continue to work with some labels, but also expanded my PR work into other areas, including advertising, non-profits, government entities, and publishing.
I also turned my attention to areas I was interested in and, more importantly, passionate about, such as public speaking, writing, and teaching at the college level. It was a slow, steady shift, but one I had to make. I had to take control of my “brand” and define and establish it based on the things that inspired me, as opposed to an industry.
Truth be told, one of my main and longest-lasting clients was Hidden Beach Recordings (HBR), the breakthrough indie label founded by music vet (and still a great friend) Steve McKeever and home at that time to such acts as Jill Scott, Brenda Russell, Kindred the Family Soul and sax-man Mike Phillips, among others. I headed up all communications for the label for nearly 10 years, with a few breaks here and there, and had a great time. But I never let my ever-evolving idea of personal brand, purpose, and direction take a back seat.
Indeed, while consulting with HBR, I began actively acting on my brand by teaching PR and marketing at a film and TV college in the LA area; writing my first book, The Lost Art of Giving Back, a guide on volunteerism; and starting work on my second, an anthology of essays by grads of historically Black colleges. I also ramped up the public speaking piece, when I could ( and can) get the work.
The transition from music biz to the “after-life” was a process, not an event. Now, I’m an adjunct professor at both California State University, Northridge, and Syracuse University, and I’m working on the second volume of HBCU Experience – The Book, my collection of stories by HBCU alumni. The grind continues; the hustle never stops. But now my commitment and self-definition are tied to my passions and interests and not to an ever-altering business landscape that changes without my input or permission.
And sometimes you just grow apart. The music biz I remember and love is kinda like today’s Brooklyn and Washington, DC. Are they still there physically? Of course. Are they the same? Not at all.
I still dabble via media training up-and-coming artists when I can, and I’m always open to consulting with any business, music or otherwise, that needs sound communications advice. But the music biz and I have come to an adult understanding--one that’s good for us both. We love what we had but we know it can never be the same, and we wish each other well.
As for you, my fellow former music industry peeps, remember the time you served, the careers you helped make, and the fun you had still resonates and always will. Your impact is part of the annals of Black music history, and no one can take that away. If you are still successfully on the “industry” grind, my hat’s off; you are a rare breed. Power to you.
Just remember the music business’ sole loyalty is to itself first, last, and always.
That lesson is as important to know as it is often painful to learn.