I had the pleasure of speaking with Sandra Smith, who has been in the music industry for over twenty years. She has worked with some amazing artist, such as India Arie, Kem, Brian McKnight, Erykah Badu, Lil’ Kim, and the late, great Aaliyah, just to name a few. She has also worked directly with the Tom Joyner Morning Show, Rickey Smiley Morning Show, DL Hughley Afternoon Show and Yolanda Adams Morning Show. She currently works as a manager for Gospel artist Cheryl Fortune, professional volleyball player Juliann Johnson, and Soul singer Kirk Thurmond and the Millennials.
Here’s what she had to share with Southern Laced…
Q: So you’ve been in the music industry for over twenty years. What motivated you to pursue a career in music? And when did you get your first big break?
SS: I was one of those individuals that fell into it. It was not a strategic decision on my part. I was in college taking Italian and wanted to go to Italy for the summer to perfect my skills. So, I decided to get a ‘real job’ to fund my trip. A friend suggested that I apply where she worked because they were hiring. I did and got hired and thus began my career in the music business at Polygram Records ordering album stickers. It just turned out to be a good fit and I got promoted after six months.
I ended up staying at Polygram a lot longer than I initially planned. I only wanted to get a job and earn some money so that I could go and be able to support myself for about six months while I studied and became fluent in Italian. One thing led to another. Every position that I took within the company, I excelled at, the money got better, and I stayed longer.
I moved from New York to Detroit and started working at the local sales branch as an assistant to the Branch Manager; I later became a Merchandiser and then the first Single Sales Specialist in the company. The VP of Urban Promotions for Mercury Records, Wayman Jones, knew of my work in the field and offered me a radio promotion job. That was my really big break, I went on to stay in that area for the rest of my time working on the label side.
Q: I remember reading where you were a Criminal Justice major and thinking, “She went from Criminal Justice to being this?” It was like…
SS: The furthest thing from music, yes! I’m from New York. I went to school at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. I have a minor in Psychology and major in Criminology. I’ve only used the Psychology part over the years. Yes, completely the opposite direction of what I was going for.
Q: Your bio highlights that you’ve contributed to the Gold, Platinum and chart-topping success of artists such as India Arie, Brian McKnight, Erykah Badu, Aaliyah, Lil Kim, and so many more artists. Could you tell us about the role you played in the success of these artists?
SS: As field promotion person I was responsible for getting records played on the local radio stations in my regions of Detroit and Chicago. Later I became a national for Atlantic Records, I was still responsible for artist airplay, but it was now at a national level. That’s where I worked with Lil’ Kim, Aaliyah, Brandy, Timbaland and many other major artists. As a VP at Motown Records I worked with Erykah, Brian, india, and the legendary Smokey Robinson and the Temptations. I think a lot of people don’t realize that the music they hear on the radio it’s somebody’s job to get that music exposed. Radio stations get a lot of product and there is never any shortage of music trying to get on the airwaves. So, somebody must be there pointing out the merits of why this record deserves an extra five spins this week and so forth. Because of the competitive nature of the business you must stay focused and fight because you’re competing with a lot of other people who also have great music they are trying to get played. A radio station might only have two or three slots to add records per week and about 30 records that people are trying to get played. The bigger artist will get priority, as they should, but you still need to have people out there that are constantly advocating and doing a lot of other things to put the spotlight on the newer artist that you’re trying to get awareness on.
Q: Very few people can say that they have worked directly with the Tom Joyner Morning Show, Rickey Smiley Morning Show, DL Hughley Show and Yolanda Adams Morning Show. Tell us about the network radio journey.
SS: I was fortunate enough to work in the music business for a really long time. I started off ordering stickers for album covers and ended as the Senior Vice President of the Urban Promotions Department for Capitol Records. In 2004 my daughter and I moved from LA to Dallas. I was fortunate to get a job at Reach Media, which is the parent company of the Tom Joyner Morning Show. A lot of people don’t remember that Tom used to be on the air in Dallas in the morning then, he would take a flight from Dallas to Chicago to be on the air there in the afternoon; that’s how he got the “Fly Jock” name. Most people go from working in radio to working records, but I went from records to being in radio.
My job was as a liaison between the syndicated shows and the radio stations that carry these shows. I was also responsible for helping to grow the number of stations across the country carrying these shows. Tom was on 120 markets across the US. He invented syndication and has been the most successful at it. That was really a lot of fun because I was working with the same program directors that I had been working with for years getting my records played. It was not as difficult as working records, there were some similarities, I still needed to present the merits of the show and convince the radio owners why they should give up a local slot to a national personality. When you are doing a syndicated radio show, it is a structure that is being replicated across the country. You’ve got to find ways to stay in contact with the local radio stations in order to have the show feel local and sound like its coming from that market. I think most people that are listening to a syndicated show want to feel believe the show is relevant to the things that are happening in their market. Not every market is the same; Atlanta is different from Detroit and Detroit is different from Chicago. It really is just about communication, relationships, and accessibility. My job was to be there for the programmers that were carrying the show to make sure that the show was operating smoothly and to make sure that everything they needed from us as syndicators were being provided. Anytime they needed Tom to come into a market, they would call me about that and I would facilitate that. I would make sure that his schedule was clear and that he could get into the market and do whatever the station needed him to do.
Q: Currently, you’re managing Gospel artist, Cheryl Fortune, professional volleyball player Juliann Johnson, and soul singer Kirk Thurmond. How long have you been managing artists? And was it something you always wanted to do?
SS: Again, life kind of unfolds for me. The things that I’m strategic and I plan to do sort of kind of go a little bit by the wayside. It’s that old joke, ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him what your plans are.’ Again, a friend of mine introduced me to a mutual friend Juliann and Kirk, that’s how I got into management. They needed somebody to consult on their music careers. Juliann had written and recorded an EP she wanted to release it in December. Kirk, was also working on his debut album release.
I was hired to help work Cheryl’s single Fighters get played at Urban AC, that is how I came to the new role of assisting in a managerial capacity. Sometimes I think I’m like Mr. Magoo. You just keep stepping and the ground appears.
Q: As a veteran in the music industry, has social media made your job easier or difficult?
SS: I really think social media is the age that we live in. I think social media has been an amazing marketing and promotion tool that if done correctly it can save you a lot of money, and it works. I think it’s a gift to independent artists, because a lot of Indie artist don’t have the funding to make big impact all at once. Funding is one of the major reason why people want to get signed by a major label, they often front all the money that an artist need to get their careers off the ground, to get their music exposed
Recording and releasing music is a very expensive game. I don’t think people recognize how much money it cost to really release a project and promote it properly. So, if you are really doing social media correctly, you have a huge advantage because it doesn’t cost much; It just requires you to really be on top of your game, it requires you to be really consistent, and it requires you to engage, your audience and to keep them engaged. I think social media is an amazing gift.
Q: We’ve lost so many artists over the years. Some people would say Prince was their hardest loss, while others would say Luther Vandross…
SS: Or Michael.
Q: Yes, or Michael, Whitney Houston. Those are the big-time artists whose music you grew up on. When you hear about their loss, it touches your heart. Who would you say was the hardest loss for you?
SS: I have two. The two hardest ones for me were Marvin Gaye and Aaliyah. Marvin was killed on April Fool’s Day, and I literally was at Tower Records in the village in New York when the guy behind the counter was like, “Hey, did you hear?” And I thought it was a joke. I was devastated because I loved Marvin. That was just a tragedy, the loss of him and the way it happened was horrible.
Then, even harder for me was Aaliyah because I worked with her. I didn’t know Marvin, but I knew Aaliyah. Aaliyah was literally an angel. She was cooperative and hard-working, the nicest person. A former assistant of mine, Gina, who I had moved with me to New York when I went to work at Motown Records, we moved from Atlantic in LA to New York; she was on that flight with Aaliyah when the plane went down. So that was like a double loss for me because I knew two people personally that were taken from us way too soon. I still struggle with that one. They have all left a void in our lives because they made such major contributions. Prince, Marvin, Luther, and Michael lived into their 50s. Aaliyah didn’t get a chance to really get there. She still had so much more to give.
Q: Even when they play Romeo Must Die, I still watch it.
SS: Me too! When you look at images of her, just from her beauty, I’m glad that M.A.C has finally decided to do this campaign with her; it’s long overdue. If you look at her images from when she was at the height of her career, from a beauty standpoint, she was amazing. Her look, images, and beauty presentation are relevant to today. Her eyebrows, for example, just a couple years ago everybody was on the eyebrow game and she was way ahead of them all.
Q: I had the honor of interviewing Cheryl Fortune last week.
SS: Yes, it was lovely.
Q: I’m sure her fans would love to know if there are any upcoming concerts or performances.
SS: We are currently in negotiations with a couple of different entities right now about a tour for next year. Stay tuned to social media because we are going to be posting it as soon as the dates are confirmed.
Q: Well, I know we are going to be excited.
SS: Thank you. Have you listened to her album?
Q: I have. I did listen to the single, “Fighters”, I loved that, it’s really inspiring.
SS: It is very inspiring. I have not had a long history with gospel music. I worked with BeBe and CeCe back in the day. But I think that her (Cheryl’s) record is a strong gospel record, I also believe it’s a strong spiritual record because of what she’s experienced. Her record is steeped in personal experience, overcoming, and victory, I love “Fighters” to me, it’s a record that speaks to everything that you could be going through in your and It’s uplifting and gives you hope.
Cheryl is one of the nicest people that I’ve ever met. She has no bitterness about what she has lived through. She really embodies for me, the idea of what it means to be a conqueror; to be somebody who thrives after tragedy. She is a living example of that.
Life is hard; let’s just be truthful about that – life is really hard at times and it is harder for all of us during certain times; there are peaks and valleys for everybody. Whether you are able to survive and come through the difficult things is determined by how you handle your situation when you’re in the valley. It’s easy when you are at the peak of the mountain because that’s all poppin’ bottles and life is great. When you are in the valley and you’re still, every single day, waking up and thanking God, and the person that you are radiates gratitude, I was just like you know what… again, “I kind of feel like God put me here to help you do things.”
Being an artist doesn’t mean that you have a lot of experience in the actual business of music. There is a difference between people who do the business and the people who create the music. I just wanted to help her (Cheryl) not make some mistakes that could be avoided. She’s a good example of what can happen when you are strong in your faith in God and you know that a better day is coming. We need to always be certain that no matter what we’re going through right now, any minute we’re turning the corner to a better day. We just have to possess the strength to hang on. She (Cheryl) put that message out there and lives it, which is what I think is awesome.
Q: That is awesome. Speaking of coming up, we’re getting close to the end of the year. With two months left in the year of 2017, tell us what’s on the horizon for you in 2018.
SS: I believe 2018 is going to be an exciting year for me. I believe 2018 is going to be a year of overcoming obstacles, we’ve all had our challenges. I’ve had mine this past year, and I am believing that God will continue to bless me, and by virtue of him blessing me, he’s going to bless others because I’m in the service of people; that’s what I do. I help people; I’m just made that way.
I see a lot of success on the horizon for all of the artists that I’m working with. Recently, three people that love me called me on the same day to tell me that I wasn’t living up to my potential. So, I took that as a clear message that I should be doing more. For a long time, I’ve been wanting to do some motivational work with people, conferences, and speaking engagements. I’m shifting some of my personal attention for me to be headed in that direction. I’m looking to build a platform where I’m going to be out there encouraging conversations about difficult topics that need to be discussed and things that will help to empower women and girls. I believe women are always under attack in one form or another. We’re consistently being treated like second-class citizens and I’m really, really tired of it and want it to change now. I want to use my voice to encourage change. I think that I’m going to have the platform, the finances, and the ability to get those things accomplished.