Phil Thornton Talks to Radio Facts about Raising the Bar at RCA Inspiration

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RCA Inspiration has had a great year. Phil Thornton is still relatively young but has a resume that people twice his age would envy. Success comes to those in the industry who are confident and know their value, and Phil is no exception to that rule. He’s an out-of-the-box thinker when it comes to branding and promoting artists, and that comes from working various positions over the past 25 years. I’ve watched RCA Inspiration this year, and I have been impressed with the label and the marketing and promotion efforts. 

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Phil started in the industry at an unbelievable 12 years of age with an internship at the legendary WOWI, Norfolk, VA. Kandi Eastman and the late K.J. Holiday saw his passion and gave him a chance. After that, almost a seasoned vet at the ripe old age of 15, he started his second internship with Arista Records. He credits Craig Davis, Benny Pough, Jeff House, Lionel Ridenour, Vanessa Barryer, and many others that worked at Arista during that time for showing him the ropes. 

In 2003, Thornton graduated from college and then took a chance as an entrepreneur by starting a management/consulting company called Bright Star Entertainment. There, he worked with artists like Lil’Mo, 112, and various producers in New York. In 2006, he moved to Los Angeles and started a management/production company, Ten 2 One Entertainment, with two business partners (Marcus Spence and Paul Coy Allen) and managed a variety of clients—Mack Wilds, Faith Evans, Kenny Lattimore, and Michelle Williams, among others. He also produced a number of music videos, commercials, and other content. Around that same time, he started producing reality shows with his friend Datari Turner. His first series was I Married a Baller for TV One. He went on to produce more shows like the R&B Divas franchise (TV One), It’s a Mann’s World (BET), and Surviving Compton (Lifetime) among many more projects. Then he started managing more Gospel artists after he started Ten 2 One: Coko (SWV), Jessica Reedy, and Dorinda Clark-Cole. 

All of these artists were signed to Entertainment One (eOne) Music. In 2012, Entertainment One offered him the position of VP Marketing and New Business Development; two years later he was promoted to VP/GM of the division. [email protected] June 2016, Sony decided to shift RCA Inspiration from New York to Nashville and asked him to spearhead the label, and he accepted the SVP/GM position. We got a chance to talk to Phil about his team, the label, and gospel music.

Tell me about your management team?

Phil Thornton: I have the best team in Gospel Music! Tamar Rand is our VP of Promotions & Strategy. I have known Tamar for years. We worked together at eOne Music for a few years, and she dealt with me in my crazy days as an artist manager. She has witnessed my evolution! Tamar is smart and one of the best in the business! She is supported by industry veteran Cathy Carroll, aka “Chi-Town Cathy”. They make a great team. Multiple number ones this year with Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, and two from Travis Greene. They are on fire!

Jarrett Dyson heads our A&R department. He is a smart guy with a wealth of knowledge. He is supported by A&R manager Jeremy Castro.

Our marketing team includes some superstars in the making. Gabby Jones and Justin Tomlinson have the hunger, passion, and forward thinking I look for in marketing executives. Industry veteran Damon Williams joined the team as a consultant at the end of summer. He has been a great asset to the team. 

Charlene Bryant is the (physical/digital) sales manager and Ritz McCain, aka “Sister Streams,” is the streaming manager. They are an unstoppable force and keep our releases prominently featured on all physical, digital, and streaming platforms.

Aliya Crawford and Jacinda Chen from W&W Public Relations handle all the media needs for RCA Inspiration. I have been working with them for over five years now. They consistently deliver for my artists. 

Last but definitely not least, my assistant, Tamone Bacon. He is an executive in training! He is definitely the “glue” and keeps the entire team on track—and this is no easy task. 

Many people only see the success of what we do, and they are rarely aware of the demands and the work that it takes. To that end, what’s a typical day like for you? 

My day generally starts between 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. CST. I talk to God, thank him for another day and seek guidance. I start responding to emails. I turn on The Breakfast Club to check out DJ Envy, Angela Yee and Charlamagne Tha God—my favorite morning show. Then I have CNN in another room. Last but not least, I check my favorite news outlet—Instagram. (lol)

I normally have calls/meetings at the office before 10 a.m., so I like to get settled. I communicate with every department at some point daily and some of our other Sony Music divisions—to explore synergy for our roster. I make it a point to check in with our artists on a frequent basis. I pride myself in being accessible to our artists, managers, agents, lawyers, etc. I’m getting better with “work-life balance.” Many nights I may have a dinner meeting, but I limit that to two to three evening meetings weekly. On average I have 14 to 16 hour days. I look forward to the weekends!

You moved to Nashville (I believe) to take the position. I hear it’s an amazing and growing market for all kinds of music, your thoughts?

Nashville is truly the “Music City”! I love this city! I’m going on six years as a Nashville resident. I appreciate the communal vibe of the city. So many in Urban and Pop have moved here over the last few years—Jill Scott, Chuck Harmony, Claude Kelly, and Justin Timberlake to name a few.

Many people associate Country Music with Nashville. So many other genres have roots here: Gospel, Blues, etc. Plus, in 2019 NMAAM (National Museum of African American Music) is launching in the heart of downtown Nashville (5th and Broadway across from the historic Ryman Auditorium). I’m proud to be a board member for such a momentous museum.

Tell us about Kirk Franklin and Donnie McClurkin’s recent wins at the Dove Awards.

We have been fortunate this year. The Dove Awards is another testament that we are doing something great for Gospel Music. Donnie is having a great year! We celebrated a number one single with “I Need You” in March. It was his first number one since 2005 [“I Call You Faithful”]. I’m very excited about the future with Donnie McClurkin and extending our relationship. As for Kirk, he has had an amazing year! He won a GRAMMY®, Billboard Music Award, Stellar Award, and Dove Award this year for a project still going strong since 2015. We work multiple singles at RCA Inspiration and remain committed to our artists and label partners. The awards are cool and we’re grateful for them. But as Kirk [Franklin] and I always say, it’s about “making God famous.” That is the biggest reward and pay off! 

It’s been stated that the gospel music industry is very frugal and old school (still likes CDs), your thoughts?

The Gospel consumer is evolving before our eyes. Charlene Bryant [RCA Inspiration Sales Manager] and I constantly review the sales, overall consumption weekly, all pertinent data. Gospel is still heavy with physical—similar to the Country Music consumer. But we are seeing a lot of activity in streaming, especially with our catalog titles. We are creating various activations to encourage digital consumption of our music in partnership with some of the digital service providers. As digital consumption continues to grow in the future, further education in the Gospel/Urban space remains important. 

I see that RCA Inspiration thinks outside of that box by doing things like Facebook Live for Marvin Sapp’s 11th album. How did that turn out?

We actually kicked off our Facebook Live promotion with Travis Greene in August. We partnered with BET Gospel to celebrate Travis’s pre-order. The feedback was awesome! We launched Marvin Sapp’s latest release with Facebook as well, and partnered with the WORD network. Gabby Jones and Justin Tomlinson continue to bring fresh ideas to the table weekly and make RCA Inspiration (and our artists) stand apart from other labels. Those two work around the clock and constantly strategize—truly grateful for them both.

How does the label come up with exciting promotional concepts around release dates, and what are some of the things that make RCA Inspiration stand out?

I would definitely say it’s a team effort. Although the marketing team will drive the conversation, Tamar (promo), Charlene (sales) and Jarrett (A&R) will weigh in. I love the collaborative environment. We still create marketing plans for every release and believe in executing them. My team is a younger team, and they are not afraid to try new ways of marketing/promoting in this ever-changing music industry.

You’ve been an entrepreneur, you’ve worked in TV, and you have worked with mainstream artists. What have you learned most from each of those positions?

I have learned to value the relationships and people at each juncture. You would be amazed at the people that I dealt with as a television producer, artist manager and in other roles who are now many of the same people working with me in this new chapter. You have to be integral and give people respect. 

How have those experiences helped you with this position?

It has worked out great for me. I treat everybody with respect, from the intern to the CEO. I was an intern 20 plus years ago. I’m grateful to all of the people that poured knowledge and wisdom into me at a young age. It’s my responsibility to pour into the next generation.

How important do you think it is for industry people to diversify their skills as you have? What do you believe in the greatest advantage in doing so?

I think it’s great to diversify your skills. I took time and I didn’t intend for everything to happen at once. But I have an amazing team at Sony and at Ten 2 One that keeps things moving. In this industry knowledge is power. You must show your value and encourage each other. Among my team, I don’t just want them to “stay in their lane.” Staying in your lane may limit your growth potential as an executive.

What are some of the other things RCA Inspiration is working on?

We have some great things happening in 2018. We have had a record-breaking year of sync placements (Greenleaf; the Tupac film, All Eyez On Me) and brand partnerships (Ford, McDonald’s, Cracker Barrel). I want to continue to bridge the gap between the television/film community and our roster and create more unique partnerships with brands. 

Also, we are looking to launch a few Gospel [outdoor] festivals and stage plays in select cities next year, for the entire [Gospel] genre, not just limited to our roster.

What would you like to see more of in the industry that would help the Gospel industry be more successful??

Originality. Kirk Franklin is one of one. You can’t duplicate his success. The same goes for Marvin Sapp, Travis Greene, Donnie McClurkin, Donald Lawrence, and the rest of our amazing roster. They are unique and can’t be duplicated. While you may hear some artists who do sometimes compare their results to other artists in this industry generally, it’s your unique voice and talents that are the key to growing as an artist, in any genre. 

Also, I would love to see more young professionals get involved in Gospel. Gospel remains vital in music worldwide, and welcoming fresh ideas from new generations at the various labels, at management firms, and agencies, is important.

What would you like to see less of?

I would like to see less of people voicing their frustration with Gospel Music sales and how it’s going away. Gospel Music is not going anywhere. The future looks bright. I want to encourage people and educate them that it’s about consumption—digital plus physical plus streaming. Plus, there are so many revenue streams for the genre (touring, brands, etc.).

Also, I would like to see less of Gospel artists trying to manage themselves. You need qualified people speaking on your behalf and creating value. You need a manager, agent, attorney, label partner, etc. It takes a TEAM to handle a successful artist in any genre. 

Anything else?

Thanks again to my amazing team at RCA Inspiration. I couldn’t do it without you! Congratulations on a great 2017! Also, a special shout out to our CEO, Terry Hemmings—one of the greatest executives I have worked with. Looking forward to 2018!