A Hip-Hop Professional Offers Advice To Women And Rappers : The Record Shanti Das has worked in the rap business for 20 years, and now she's written a book of advice.
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A Hip-Hop Professional Offers Advice To Women And Rappers

Shanti Das on the cover of her book, The Hip-Hop Professional. hide caption

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Shanti Das worked on the marketing side of major label hip-hop for 20 years. She started working her way into the business while still in high school, and was rewarded with the National Director of Promotions job at LaFace straight out of college. Das has just written a book about her career, called The Hip-Hop Professional: A Woman's Guide to Climbing the Ladder of Success in the Entertainment Business.

I spoke with Das earlier this week as part of our Hey Ladies project on women in music. She doled out concrete advice for rappers looking for major label deals and women looking to break into the business side of music. She was also honest about her reasons for leaving the corner office and big paycheck she work so hard to get. Das' last position was Executive Vice President of Urban Marketing and Artist Development at Universal Motown Records. She recently left to start her own consulting business and slow her life down.

You say you've written your book to help women getting into the industry. Why do you think it's important to do that?

I wrote the book because I have worked in entertainment for almost 20 years, and there are a lot of challenges being a woman and working in a male-dominated industry. I had so many male mentors along the way — which is great, and I'm very grateful and thankful to anyone who helped me along the way — but I was a little discouraged by not having as many female mentors that worked in the business. And I thought, "Let me get out here and ... try to help some of the women that are coming up underneath me ... And kind of give them some best practices — you know, how to maneuver through the business."

Why are women better able to mentor other women?

I don't know that it's better that other women mentor you — because I think definitely it's helpful to have male mentors on your side — but I think women, obviously, sometimes can understand each other better. And we know some of the same problems that we're experiencing as a woman. Having a few good female mentors on your side I think can help you through some of the challenging experiences we face as women — because we can relate to one another.

What was a typical day at LaFace in the mid-'90s for you?

I would be in the office most of the day, putting together marketing plans or promotional tours. Senior staff meetings, where LA Reid [co-founder of LaFace Records] would actually run the meeting. We would talk about various projects. Then the evening could be a showcase for one of our artists. Then headed to the studio after that to actually spend some time to get to know the artist a little bit better and develop a strategy to market and promote the album. Then after that I would hit the clubs, because I was doing promotions back in the mid-'90s and I had to actually distribute a lot of the music to the DJs and leave promotional copies at the clubs and so forth. And after that I would head home about 2:30 in the morning.

What about when you were an executive at Motown?

Things were a little bit different. I oversaw a department with four product managers, so I was involved in more senior staff meetings — budget meetings, creative meetings. I actually sat next to the office of the president [Sylvia Rhone], so I would spend time in the president's office actually strategizing and coming up with different campaigns for the product. So it was definitely more of a corporate environment as I climbed the ladder.

As a woman, being in those corporate meetings it was important for me to go in with my game face on. I talk about having that poker face in my book. It's important as a woman to not act off your emotions — to know the facts and go into the meetings prepared. So there was definitely a strategy to it and I had to make sure I always had my A-game in those meetings.

Was there as much after-hours work as you ascended the ladder?

Yeah, because the one thing about the music industry is, even as you climb the corporate ladder, you still have to know what's going on. You have to be in the mix because you have to know what your competition is doing. Sylvia, my boss, is constantly going — after she left the office — seeing a showcase of a new talent we wanted to sign, or going to a competing artist's event, just to kind of see what was going on in the marketplace, or having dinner with someone from BET or the NBA trying to come up with other strategies to market the project from a lifestyle perspective. It really never stopped. Never, ever stopped.

So why did you leave Motown?

It was definitely a lifestyle change . . . My mother had been sick, and she and my brother and my sister lived down south. I did want to consider having a family and kids one day — that's not to say you can't do it while working in the business ... And I thought, if I was to make this life change, with all the knowledge that I had gained, . . . and the wonderful contact base and rolodex that I have, I could start my own consulting [business] and still be able to focus on a lot of the things that were important to me from a personal perspective.

And so I pressed my own reset button and decided to start pressreset.me consulting. I still market independent as well as established artists on the urban and pop side, in hip-hop. Now I'm actually able to spend time with my mom, go see her in Charlotte more, spend time with my nieces and nephews, go to church — just do a lot of things that are very important to me but that I had kind of put aside while I focused on my career that last 20 years.

How have you seen the industry change from when you started to now?

The business model has changed a lot. When I first started, that was when the getting was good. You could come out and debut on a Tuesday and sell 2 or 3 million records — if you were a big enough pop star. But now you can have a number 1 record on the Billboard 200 and only sell 90,000 records in a given week. I say all that to say labels don't have the same amount of money to spend in terms of marketing new artists. Say for instance, if an artist like Eminem came out and sold a couple million. That gave the label that he was on the ability to actually invest in some of the other talent that was there. Because Eminem was kind of making their year, if you look at it in terms of their fiscal year and the projections, well, they had already pretty much made their year off of his little piece, so let us now take a little chunk of these profits and actually dump it back into a new artist's career. You don't really have that anymore.

That's why I think labels are signing what they call 360 degree deals — where they get a little piece of everything in addition to the royalties that they get from the sales of the CDs. They get a little bit of your touring, they get a little bit of you merchandise, so they actually trying to build the artist as a brand and not just a music star. Because they know that they need other revenue streams to make sure that the company is still profitable.

So as a marketer working inside a label, it's a bit more challenging now. You don't have the same resources. You have to get creative and figure out ways that you can really utilize the internet. Even back in the day we used to make promo items and distribute cassettes and mixtapes and plaster posterboards all over the place. Most companies don't even have the money to make those kinds of materials anymore. All the marketing is done online now, essentially because that's where the younger generation lives. It's just a different day and age. We're just being more strategic now in terms of how we actually develop a brand and get the artist visible from a social networking perspective.

I think touring still does well for most artists. That's the one thing I try to teach artists now. You don't want to just be like a one hit wonder who's in the studio and makes this great record but you don't really have the talent to go out and perform and actually do a show. Artists nowadays, if you want to have longevity, you have to be able to tour. Because that's how you can still make money for yourself, as well as it being lucrative for the label that wants to sign you.

Are labels reinvesting the money they get from 360 deals in new artists or is that over?

No, I don't think it's over. I talked to some of my buddies that still work at labels, and they're still signing talent. But now labels want to make sure that the artists already have a buzz. Back in the day you could have an artist who sent in their demo tape, and if the label liked what they heard they might fly you up, and consider signing you or doing a showcase. Nowadays labels don't want to spend that money, because, again, they don't have as much to spend. So if they're gonna invest in you they want to know that you're already out performing in the marketplace, establishing a base for yourself. And if you're a rapper, that you already have love from your hometown, that local DJs are supporting you. You gotta create your own buzz and really have that base going for you — particularly in your hometown — before anybody's willing to take a shot on you. So I think there are fewer slots for newer artists at the labels, but the ones that they do sign they want to know that you've already created some sort of demand for yourself — either in your hometown or local markets, or that there is a strong fanbase already online, like with a YouTube following, or the number of friends you have on Facebook. Cuz you don't need a label for that anymore.

Look at what Justin Bieber was able to in terms of all his YouTube clips and how Souljah Boy put himself out there online. Drake was so hot because he was on all these mixes and songs virally that he had a number 1 record before he was signed to a major label. These artists have so much more opportunity to go out there and really make the most of getting signed. There's no excuse for you to sit back and wait for somebody to want to find you. You can go out there and make it happen for yourself.

Sign up and start Tweeting! Don't just tweet about irrelevant stuff, tweet about things that your fans will like: what you're rehearsing, how you feel when you're writing this song. You can really draw in fans by giving them that type of information — taping your rehearsals when you're in there sweating and making it happen, learning your choreography. Those are the types of things that fans want to see. It's important to be strategic in terms of the types of tweets and messages that you're sending out.

What's your advice for a woman starting out on the business side?

Get out and network. Attend as many events in your local area [as you can]. There are a lot of organizations and blogs that have events locally. I actually sit on the board of an organization called WEEN (Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network). They do a lot of events in cities across the country. You gotta go out and start networking and meet other like-minded women.

But most importantly, just respect yourself. You're in a male-dominated industry and you don't want to be seen as somebody that's trying to come in and have a good time and meet a lot of the artists. You want people to know that the integrity is there, that you respect yourself and you're about your business.

Why is it important to encourage women to be involved in hip-hop in particular?

One because it's still a very male-dominated business. But I've seen a lot of women be successful in the genre. Look at Queen Latifah, look at MC Lyte, look at Mona Scott, who managed Missy Elliot. There are so many women on a professional level, as well as those that were able to break through on the creative side. We're out there, we're making strides and it's important for us to know that we can as women succeed in hip-hop.

There are so many women ... that are in various positions out there other than being in the video or is a singer or rapper. Aspiring girls can look these women up. We have everything at our fingertips now. All you gotta do is Google somebody and you can get some good information and kind of follow their career. I think it's important for me to keep pushing women forward in this particular genre and entertainment overall.

You say in your book, "It's difficult as a woman working in a business that sometimes degrades other women." I assume you're talking about videos, lyrics . . .

Yeah, but that doesn't mean I don't want to work in the industry overall. We're faced with those types of things in society in general. I think it's important as a woman working in this particular business to pay it forward. That's why I speak on a lot of panels, that's why I go out and talk to these students and show that there is a balance in this genre. Everything isn't they way you see it on television.

Have you noticed a difference in younger women working in the industry now and older women who've been working in it for a while?

Women that want to work in the business now — some of them, not all of them — want it and want it really quickly. I caution them from wanting everything so fast. There's something to say for putting in a lot of time and energy and really understanding the business before you get into it.

I think it's an issue with society overall. There's definitely a generational gap where there's a sense of entitlement. I try to encourage some of the younger generation to really take it slow, to read as much as they can, to know that it's a business first and foremost, and treat it as such. A lot of people look at the music business and they just see the glitz and the glamour. They think it's one big party. But, no, it is a business. Because we don't have as many resources and the funding that we used to, to work it, you really have to understand it and know what you're getting into. You have to be more business savvy.