Jonathan Azu, Founder and CEO, Culture Collective

Jonathan Azu
– Jonathan Azu

In His Own Words:
My Journey To ‘Making It,’ But More Importantly Making A Difference

Jonathan Azu
Founder and CEO, Culture Collective  

Your second year of business is supposed to be easier than your first!

With only 12 months of business under my belt, like so many other businesses, I found myself in March of 2020 wondering how I would get to the next day. Despite so many obstacles, Culture Collective defied the odds and shined a massive light on the mission of the company, client successes and most importantly – the conversation of race, entertainment and the systemic challenges our industry faces.

Prior to launching my own company, I was GM of industry behemoth Red Light Management, former head of operations of Superfly Presents and EVP of Music Partnerships within CBS Radio’s corporate division first job in radio – though that wasn’t my first job with CBS.

As a recent college graduate with what I thought was a killer resume, I headed to New York City seeking a job in music. I found myself weeks later with zero offers and quickly realized every kid my age was looking for a job in music, just as talented and had great college experiences. I eventually landed back in St. Louis where I applied for a job to work at CBS radio stations’ KEZK and Y98FM – something I thought would not lead to a career working directly with talent.

In my second year with the station group, a co-worker was transferred to CBS’ corporate finance team which gave me a pipeline to a relationship that could potentially lead to a big break. And thankfully, that former colleague was able to coordinate a ‘fly by’ meeting with the head of marketing, David Goodman and CBS Radio CEO John Sykes.

What started as a five-minute hello eventually turned into my big break, securing a job with CBS Radio’s corporate music partnerships team. I still look back to that moment and share it with the next generation to never give up on your goals and look for support around you to help open doors. My entire professional career has been built on the shoulders of many people who don’t look like me but saw something in me – investing time and resources that lead to growth and opportunities.

In 2019, everything changed. I attended the prestigious kick-off brunch for UJA-Federation Music Visionary of the Year Award honoring John Sykes, who became iHeartMedia’s president of entertainment. It was a complete full-circle moment.

It was wild thinking that not all that long ago I was pitching myself as hard as I could to get a job working for John and his team and now 10-plus years later, here I am with a ‘seat at the table.’ It was indeed a proud moment but also one of frustration. Like far too many other occasions in my career, I was one of the only executives of color at a major music event. This was the moment I said to myself, I need to be part of the change. This is when I decided to launch Culture Collective.

I started Culture Collective to be a driver of change within the industry while also representing creatives redefining their culture; to be a vehicle to provide clients with services to build their careers; and to exemplify and promote diverse and inclusive leadership in entertainment— something greatly lacking today. It’s been a banner year for us. Culture Collective’s roster of artists with a “capital A” now includes 2021 Best R&B Performance Grammy nominated soulstress Emily King; arguably the best funk/soul/R&B instrumentalist in music Cory Henry; and 2021 Best R&B Album Grammy nominated vocal powerhouse Luke James, whose album was released through Culture Collective’s label division and others. Also, this year I was added to University of Southern California’s faculty teaching artist management to the next generation of executives.

I started Culture Collective with intention – not shying away from publicly discussing the systemic challenges in entertainment that have led it towards a structure that has kept executives of color from advancing professionally. When I started the company, my perspectives and viewpoints were not always understood. Sadly, one of my former non-minority colleagues said focusing on artists of color was really smart, because that is “where all the money is.” I think about that comment all the time. It drives me to make a change.

Mid-pandemic and a year and a half into forming my company, the world stood shaken by the horrific miscarriage of justice that resulted in the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It was at that moment our industry finally took a long-overdue look at itself in the mirror and said, “I don’t like what I see.”

Not a week went by where I didn’t hear from a former co-worker asking for perspective on what they could do better as individuals and businesses. Even as dark a time as that was, my spirit was lifted. I could provide my colleagues with guidance that would help us rebuild a better industry and world.

As the dust began to settle, I stumbled upon AirBNB’s site, which had launched a program promoting the employees they had furloughed in an effort to find them other work. It was big of them to face the reality of the situation instead of keeping it a secret as others have; instead, they stepped up to find great people great jobs. In our industry, we are being less transparent about layoffs and furloughs and we know it will be the underrepresented minorities in music who will have a harder time finding work once the world comes back online.

Instead of sitting idly by, I stood by Culture Collective’s core mission of advocating for diversity and inclusion in entertainment and developed and launched, the first directory in music for minorities that also acts as a platform for hiring managers to connect with prospective employees. I have been blown away by the response since the site’s launch. It proves that something like this was so very needed in the industry. We are actively working to launch phase two of the site which will make it even easier for our industry to further include and diversify after so many decades of turning a blind eye to this crucial issue.