On Beyoncé and Business: A Conversation with Mathew Knowles [INTERVIEW]

soulhead_MathewKnowles_MainImageBy Christopher A. Daniel | @Journalistorian

“I don’t consider myself a manager; I consider myself a music executive. I run record labels, but I never wanted to be pigeonholed. You have to know every aspect of the industry,” clarifies businessman, educator and philanthropist Mathew Knowles, seated with both of his arms extended across a plush sofa in the clubhouse of the luxurious Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Atlanta.

For the last quarter of a century, Knowles has built an empire from simply following his passions for educating and motivating people. The number-crunching father of sibling megastars Beyoncé and Solange Knowles sold highly technical diagnostic equipment for two decades. A native of Gadsden, AL, he became the world’s top-ranking sales rep for Xerox Medical Systems for three consecutive years, becoming the first man of color to be a neurosurgical specialist and seller of MRI-CT scanners in America.

Along with his ex-wife, Tina Lawson, Knowles co-founded one of the most successful and profitable hair salons in the city of Houston, grossing its first million dollars by 1984. “A lot of number ones have happened in my life,” says Knowles, “and they continue to happen. All of my corporate endeavors I’ve been the very best at. I was on that path.”

Once the corporate life was no longer fulfilling to Knowles, the alumnus of Fisk University and Cornerstone Christian Bible College transitioned into music. He started Music World Entertainment and devoted himself to managing a then-unknown girl group called Destiny’s Child full-time. Prior to Destiny’s Child, Knowles secured a deal for Houston rapper Lil’ O through MCA Records.

No stranger to sacrifice, Knowles, wearing black Louis Vuitton loafers, creased slacks and a black half-zip sweater, believes most music business successes are the result of many failures. “I’m not gonna do anything that’s not my passion,” asserts Knowles, periodically sipping hot tea and gripping his eyeglasses. “I’d rather be broke, but I’ll be happy with spirit.” One key element Knowles believes is responsible for Destiny’s Child’s massive success is the intense boot camp he organized.

Still the most successful female vocal group in pop music history, the chart-topping, Grammy-winning quartet-turned-trio workshopped their entire act: concentrating on physical fitness, building endurance, choreography, practicing potential mistakes, learning studio etiquette, songwriting, vocal coaching and team-building exercises. Knowles goes into a few details about his latest protégées, Blushhh Music, featuring two female rappers and a vocalist.

The trio has gone through the same artist development process as Destiny’s Child for the past year, collectively losing 78 pounds. “This is a pretty person’s business,” states Knowles. “It used to be you had one album, and the labels would evaluate you. Today, you have one single, and the record label will evaluate you. There’s even more failure today because you have less opportunity.”

Knowles secured a production deal for Destiny’s Child through Elektra Records when Beyoncé was 13 years old. By the time the future pop chanteuse who would go onto sell over 118 million records worldwide was 15, the group signed with Columbia Records. Knowles and his daughter’s business ties ended in 2010 with the creation of her company, Parkwood Entertainment.

Considering Knowles was responsible for once employing a few of his relatives at the hair salon, the accomplished executive couldn’t be more proud of how his daughters’ careers have evolved. “At 13, 14, 15 years old, [Beyoncé] was making zero business decisions,” says Knowles. “The girls were just following whatever the plan was at that time.”

It was Knowles who came up with the idea for the final lineup of Destiny’s Child to each release solo LPs with a three-album cycle. Music World developed its gospel subsidiary, Spirit Rising, originally because group member Michelle Williams wanted to record a gospel album. Knowles, along with Columbia Records execs, took a closer look at the business landscape for non-secular music and weren’t pleased.

The gospel division would add Juanita Bynum, Brian Courtney Wilson, Micah Stapley, Trin-I-Tee 5:7 and Vanessa Bell Armstrong to its roster. “We were not impressed at all,” says Knowles, who changed Spirit Rising to Music World Gospel. “This was nothing to do with being anointed. We got into gospel from a business perspective.”

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Music World has sold over 300 million records worldwide: releasing projects for kids and acquiring a country music label, Compadre Records. Knowles’ vast catalog now spans country, R&B, pop, gospel, hip-hop, rock, and jazz. He finessed his business savvy into other side hustles: a clothing line (House of Dereon), a luxury rental car company, a recording studio and multipurpose spaces.

Knowles’ management company added De La Soul, Sunshine Anderson, Chaka Khan, Dionne Farris, Earth Wind and Fire, The O’Jays, Mario, and Ray J to its roster. “I had the opportunity to work with some great people,” says Knowles. “I got a pretty cool catalog. We had a good thing going.”

When Knowles started managing rapper Nas, former Sony Music chairman Don Ienner convinced him to represent the rapper along with nine other artists. Their four-and-a-half month relationship ended over their inability to agree on Knowles’ management fee. Despite Knowles and Nas severing ties, the meticulous businessman acknowledges how effective he was representing the exceptional Queensbridge lyricist.

“I had to keep the same standard and number that I had with my kids and artists,” states Knowles, “and I wasn’t willing to negotiate that. I convinced him to work, go back and do radio and television interviews, be on time and be passionate about it.”

Always proud to share information, the eloquent Knowles, who’s been instructing at Texas Southern University for the past eight years, just released his first book, The DNA of Achievers: 10 Traits of Highly Successful Professionals. The soft-spoken businessman realized he could’ve chronicled the Destiny Child saga or completed his memoir.

Instead, he chose to interview some of his close peers and colleagues about developing a roadmap for success. “The first book needed to stay away from the music and my family,” says Knowles. “It needed to be focused on me and what my passion was.” Knowles, who holds his masters in Strategic Planning and Organizational Culture, considers teaching a privilege.

He teaches artist management, entrepreneurship and introduction to the recording industry, sharing practical knowledge and placing strong emphasis on critical thinking. “When we look at the microwave success pattern that youth have, it handicaps them,” states Knowles. “If I give them definitions, they can knock that out. If I give them a problem, they really struggle with that.”

His book’s companion day-long seminar, The Entertainment Industry: How to Get In, is the result of Knowles witnessing numerous failures in the music business. The interactive event consists of panels discussing the state of the record business, a two-hour Q&A session, workshops, and a VIP lunch-and-learn session with Knowles. The risk-taking visionary is also distributing packets to attendees filled with industry terminology and a rolodex with an array of industry professionals.

Knowles is excited about his upcoming seminar at Georgia State University on January 30th. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been around the block,” he insists. “When I hear these crazy comments about my seminar, these people don’t know my background. I’m back in the record business looking for artists for the first time.”

Looking back, Knowles is gracious for all that he’s built and achieved. Nothing inspires him more than meeting people throughout his travels who talk about their passion. Those encounters are what fuel Knowles to strive to build onto his empire. “When you love and talk about your passion,” says Knowles, “your face lights up a certain way. You have to be committed.”

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