Q’s With Culture Collective Founder Jonathan Azu On Launching Diversity In Music Directory, Working For Red Light & Superfly And The Mothership Connection

 Jonathan Azu
– Jonathan Azu

Jonathan Azu is an industry vet who’s worked with some of the biggest companies in the live industry, including Red Light Management, Superfly and CBS Radio. Two years ago, well aware of the acute lack of diversity in the industry, he decided to hang out his own shingle for his own venture, Culture Collective, a multi-pronged independent management and label whose acts include the Grammy nominated Luke James and Cory Henry among others. Then, 2020 happened, and his resolve to do more to diversify the industry led him to this year launch a new database resource for BIPOC and female professionals seeking employment in the music industry. And none of that might have happened if he hadn’t blown out his knee and George Clinton hadn’t descended from the mothership in Iowa. 

Pollstar: How did you come to launch your Diversity in Music Initiative? 
Jonathan Azu: Last year I was online and saw AirBNB had launched a directory for employees that it had laid off and I was thinking in our industry we should be doing the same thing. We’re laying people off and furloughing people, but companies are keeping it a secret as far as how many people and who. Then I thought, women and minorities will have a harder time getting jobs when the pandemic comes to an end, so there should be a destination for that. And that’s when I came up with the concept for Diversity In Music. I leaned on a bunch of great relationships. Gupta Media and Clarity PR and I built this thing out and we launched it last week. And it’s been well-received. A lot, because it’s needed.
How does this directory compare to others like Roadies of Color’s, Live Nation’s Black Tour Directory and Noelle Scaggs’ Diversify The Stage?
The site was created to connect hiring managers. I was getting a call from a lot of hiring managers saying that, “I want to hire diversity, but I don’t know anyone, people don’t apply,” right? “I don’t know where to find them.” The way the site works is that it’s a directory, but we are marketing toward HR directors and hiring managers to give them a place where they can search, discover and diversify their workforce.
So that sounds like it may be aimed for the bigger companies in focusing on HR ? 
The reality is, like with this pandemic, it’s cut across the board from the offices down to the stage. So that’s the impact it’s having. We’re creating a destination that’s all-encompassing.  Noelle and I were on a webinar last night, and we had not spoken, but we’re scheduling to talk this week. And Shawn Gee over at Live Nation and I talked a few weeks ago. But these are all great. They’re all needed. I don’t think there should just be one. I think we all kind of fall in a little bit different of a lane, but they’re all needed. We are all needed.
So I’m a person of color who just graduated college and want to get into this field. What do I do? 
We added internship to our search queries right prior to launch just to make sure we can include that group. But you will go to the site: first name, last name, here’s who I am, here’s where I live, here’s where I was employed before, here’s what I was doing. Here’s where I currently am. That’s going to eventually become a very important thing as we start to rehire and people have moved around a lot. So you’re able to put all those things into a site where a hiring manager can query and search against those. My goal in the next phase is to add more search functionality and insights, and give hiring managers more resources to be able to find people, diversify, and hire.
Can anybody access the site?
Anyone can access the site. It’s a directory in that sense that you go there, you submit your profile, it goes through an approval process, there’s validation that you are a human being, you’re not a bot. Once you are approved, you’re listed on the directory. Before launching it, I had conversations or reached out to most of the HR executives in our industry. They all knew this was coming.

Can you talk a bit about your own experience and how you first got into the industry? 
I talk about this all the time with young people, I’m currently a new adjunct professor at USC. I went to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, initially to play college football. I blew out my knee and this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t think of it like, “Oh, I want to work in music.” I always loved it. I went to a George Clinton concert with some friends, had an amazing experience. My sophomore year. The mothership dropped from the lighting rig. George came out. I said, “This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.” I don’t quite know how to explain it to my parents but I told my friends that night, “I want to bring George Clinton to Drake University.” They, of course, thought I was crazy.  I snuck backstage and met the producer of the show. And would you believe a year later I produced my first concert, which was George Clinton at my college? And then senior year, another goal of mine was to do a Dave Matthews show and I actually booked Dave Matthews to play my school my senior year with Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds. 
How did you go from there to working in the business? 
When I graduated, I thought I was hot shit. I went to New York. I hit the street trying to find a job and slept on the couch of a friend of my parents and found out that everybody in New York had done all the same things I did in college. I landed back in St. Louis and had interned at Clear Channel Ent./Live Nation. They found me a job in local radio doing low level marketing stuff, driving a radio station van and setting up remotes for CBS properties. I still wanted to be in New York and CBS had just brought John Sykes in to run the company and he was hiring a lot of music executives. A friend of mine had transferred to New York to work in accounting and she said, “I have gotten to know David Goodman on John’s team pretty well and I’m sure I can get you a meeting with him,” So I flew to New York and sat down with David, and we fell in love with each other and he’s like, “I’m building out my team.” He introduced me to John and everybody, and he was like, “Why don’t you come work for us at corporate?” I flew to New York and then the rest is history.
Then how did you get to Superfly and Red Light? 
I worked at CBS for seven years and became the VP of Music Partnerships. My job was to be the liaison between program directors of the 180 stations and the corporate sales team that was putting these really unique packages together. They were all music programs. AT&T had this website called The Blue Room and it was an advertising vehicle for broadband. I ended up going on to broker webcast deals with clients like Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, and Bonnaroo and I got to know the guys from Superfly very well. We built a really strong relationship. I had also done a lot of work with Coran Capshaw because when I was at CBS, we did a deal with Music Today very early on when they first started scaling because to me, K-Rock and WXRT were no different than your favorite band and you should be able to buy merch from those stations. So we started selling merchandise for Music Today for radio stations. We were the first to do that and setting up merch stores that you could buy from globally. 
I got to know the guys from Superfly pretty well. They were a young company and in year three at Bonnaroo. There was less than 10 employees, and they’re like, “Could we convince you to come over and do operations for us? Because we want to professionalize the way we do business, we don’t have anybody here that has a corporate entertainment background.” So I left the corporate world and went to work for Superfly as head of operations for the company. Some of the greatest years of my life were working with these guys at Superfly, who are amazing. 
I started talking to Coran, I was doing some work with him as it related to Bonnaroo, which was a jointly-owned asset between our two companies and he was looking for a general manager. I left Superfly and went over to Red Light as GM. I worked with Coran on the operations side of Red Light and at that time I think it was five offices. There were a couple of other offices that hadn’t come in yet. He was just getting started in Nashville, and I was there for a bunch of years, working with them and building up the company. 
How did you end up starting Culture Collective? 
I had started signing some talent myself and had an epiphany one day, three years ago as a guy who had navigated the executive ladder pretty well. I was sitting at a UJA luncheon at the Soho House. They were honoring John Sykes who I credit with starting the early part of my career. I’m looking around the room at 50 of the biggest executives in music, and there’s only four of us of color and none of us the owner of a business. You just say to yourself, “If this is the top, there’s something wrong.” And that’s when I started thinking through starting Culture Collective, which is a management company. We’re also a record label. But more importantly, we’ve really put ourselves in the center of the conversation around diversity and inclusion. And we launched two years ago next month.
It’s interesting you went independent and do your own thing outside of a corporate structure and you’re doing a directory where people may go into these corporate structures. Do you also advocate for some of these people to take the reins themselves as you’re doing? 

I’m a big proponent of that. I talked about this last night on this webinar. I find that a lot of young people I mentor – and I mentor a lot of young executive talent – there’s a good percentage of them that don’t want to work for Jonathan Azu or Irving Azoff or Coran Capshaw or Michael Rapino or Jay Marciano 
– they want to be them.