Life is about decisions. Some make you. Others break you. Ask Karen Marie Mason. One of the most influential people in urban music, Mason's career has taken her from the executive offices of Elektra and Epic to her living room where, at the peak of her career, she decided that being a mother trumped the glitz and glam of the industry and stayed home with her daughter. Since rearranging her career to achieve balance, Mason has continued to leave her imprint on such major acts as Mary J. Blige, T.I. and Lil Wayne. But her focus has been on crafting the careers of uber-talented independent Atlanta artists, including Kelly Love Jones, the DollDaze and Queen Sheeba through her newly found imprint, Red Clay Music Group. Ready to share her insight with aspiring talent, her free Red Clay Music Conference — which takes place Sat., June 4 — will be more than another flashy snoozefest, but a real learning tool for artists attempting to take their career and craft to the next level. Mason shares her insights on managing an independent career, breaking out of the corporate box and taking your music beyond your basement.
Red Clay Music Conference: Making the Music Business Make Dollars and Sense. Featured panelists and industry vets include Dee Dee Murray (NARAS), Shanti Das (former marketing exec. with LaFace, Arista, Sony, Universal Motown; founder of ATL Live in the Park), Ian Burke (former A&R at Elektra; president of Launch Pad Records), Kendall Minter (veteran entertainment attorney), Rico Wade (Organized Noize), DJ Toomp (producer for T.I., Young Jeezy, Kanye West), keynote speaker Daddy O (formerly of Stetsasonic; social media strategist) and more. Free. 1 p.m.-7 p.m. Sat., June 4. Auburn Avenue Research Library, 101 Auburn Ave. 404-910-3542. See PDF of Saturday's full schedule.
You worked for major labels for years, but now focus your energy primarily on talented independent acts. Why?
Karen Marie Mason: I have seen and been part of the process where you can take an artist that is virtually unknown, and through a very well-designed campaign and a good team you will see that artist become very successful. So I figured if I could do that for major labels, I could do that for myself and take that same attitude, idea and process and adapt it to independents. And that's where my focus is now.
You've been in the business for 20 years — with all the changes that have taken place, what would you say has been the biggest constant?
I think one of the biggest constants — and artist forget this in this digital fast-paced age — is you have to know and study and rehearse your craft and you have to be willing to share your craft with anyone who will listen. It's one thing to put your music on iTunes, but then no one in your neighborhood even knows you exist. So we have to come out of the shadows and diligently create a market for our craft. Working with the Fugees and Cypress Hill, there was no place that these artists would not play. The Fugees would play at an envelope opening. They were hungry. We put Cypress Hill in a 12-passenger van and sent them to every nook and cranny in different cities and let them play for weeks. You have to roll up your sleeves and get dirty if you want a fan base. I didn't work with Alicia [Keys], but Alicia would play anywhere. We look at where they are now, but nobody remembers what they did to get there, when they played for one or two people. So one of the constants is to know and study your craft and realize that the people that are successful today came from some humble and hardworking beginnings.
There's nothing easy out here. Get out here and work. The Fugees were happy to be on stage, they were just happy, like, 'Hey a microphone!' We've lost some of that. We're at the mic in our basement at the computer. Like, come on, son. Get out here. We act like we get insulted if we're performing for two people. No, you get out there. People have to be able to see you, feel you and touch you — and feel like you're giving them your all.
Atlanta is an interesting mixture of independents, major artists and in-between artists. What's your take on the music and art scene here?
I do think that Atlanta provides tremendous opportunities for artists in all genres from R&B to alternative, but I also feel that what Atlanta may be lacking is managers, producers and executives that can really fill in those gaps. There's no reason why many more artists shouldn't be breaking out of Atlanta, not only from the hip-hop scene, but from the alternative scene or acoustic soul. A lot more talent could be breaking out of the Atlanta scene and we want to be able to talk about that and see how we can make that happen.
How do you envision the Red Clay Music Conference being different from others that come through Atlanta?
I'm not worried about it being vastly different, I just want to put forth a more personalized presentation so that people can really grasp the information that is being shared. We're not flossing here, we're really just getting down to the very essence of answering the question: How you do become successful in this business? I think on a basic level, I want to have some case studies. I want to explore an artist like Kyshona Armstrong from Athens, who was able to quit her job and live off of her craft. So I want to put forth practical information on how to get from point A to B. There are a number of different perspectives of success. For one person, it may be making a million dollars, for another it may be being able to quit their job and pursue their craft. Everyone is not able to make their craft make money and that's the point I want to get to. The stories and information that will be shared at the conference cover the full gamut. Even if you're making money, there's an international market we want to discuss, and things like music licensing.
You took some time off to enjoy and embark on motherhood. How long were you away, and was it difficult to transition back into the business on a more full time basis?
I never really fully left. I just left working for a corporation. But after I left Elektra, Mary J. Blige became a client for years, so I really easily transitioned back into music marketing and promotions. Plus, I just announced the creation of my Red Clay Music label. It was just a matter of prioritizing. At Elektra I felt like they were going to lose or motherhood would lose. And I decided that it wasn't going to be motherhood, so I just created a new scenario where I could still be active in the industry and not compromise with my daughter in any way.
As a woman in what is still a male-dominated industry, what lessons have you learned about being successful?
It really hasn't been an obstacle. Every woman's story is a little different. My first job was at Epic and working the Sade album in a promo department that was all men, who some may have characterized as difficult to work with. But I had the time of my life! I was confident and eager to learn. When you're clear on who you are and what you want and where you're going, it's difficult for you to look at obstacles. If any thing, they're just challenges that you need to figure out. Even now as a location scout with Tyler Perry, I realize that the reason we learn to problem solve to get better at what we do is because there are problems. If nothing ever goes wrong, how do you ever learn to make it right? How do you learn unless something doesn't work for you or falls apart? You have to go to wrong to go to right. I'm looking forward to Shanti Das to see what she has to say. She has her own testimony and we need to learn from these different testimonies because all of our journeys won't be the same but we can learn from each other.
Was there ever a time when you became burnt-out with the industry? If so, how did you re-energize yourself?
No, I would say there were just a number of occasions where I had to make choices. Like I said, it came to a point where I had to ask myself, 'Do I want to run around to award shows or do I want to sit at home and be a mother to my child?' It's just a matter of choices. But I never felt burnt-out. Being in this hustle and bustle industry we have to balance ourselves. For me it was motherhood that gave me balance and gave me the vision I have now for where I want to go with this thing.
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