Meet New Merlin Board Member Jennifer Newman Sharpe (Exceleration Music) - Merlin

Meet New Merlin Board Member Jennifer Newman Sharpe (Exceleration Music)

Merlin’s Executive Interview Series is a monthly series featuring executives from across Merlin’s dynamic and diverse worldwide membership, discussing some of the most pressing topics, developments, and innovations in independent music today. This month’s piece features Jennifer Newman Sharpe, General Counsel & Head of Business Affairs at Exceleration Music, discussing Exceleration’s recent acquisitions and thoughts on female leadership within the music industry.

Exceleration Music has recently made significant acquisitions and partnerships with entities like Azadi, Redeye and its labels Yep Roc and Sundazed and publishing company Riff City, and Down The Road (the latter with the founders of Rounder Records). Can you elaborate on the strategic vision behind these moves and how they align with Exceleration’s mission?

Exceleration’s mission is to build a great music company that preserves and enhances the legacies of the incredible artists and entrepreneurs we work with, while strengthening the independent sector. We partner with music companies that  are culturally and musically significant, who share our values of integrity, fairness, openness and excellence, wherever they are based and whatever genre comprises their catalog. At the same time, we are building a best-in-class team of digital, creative, data and financial experts who work across our label group  and are an invaluable resource for the companies we partner with. With the Redeye acquisition, we are now invested in distribution, so we can offer a fully independent and well-resourced path to market for the amazing music we represent, both via the companies we own and the companies who partner with Redeye for their distribution.  

As General Counsel & Head of Business Affairs, what has been your specific role in these expansion efforts? How do you navigate the legal and business complexities involved in such significant acquisitions?

As General Counsel and Head of Business Affairs at Exceleration, I am responsible for all legal needs of the company. This comprises all business affairs needs of our 10+ labels and publishing catalogs, our various acquisitions and partnerships, and any other general legal needs that may arise, such as corporate work, financial transactions, and managing our IP portfolio. I also contribute to the strategy of our transactions and am in the conversation from the outset, working with the Exceleration partners on evaluating and negotiating prospective deals.

Each transaction we do is different, individually tailored to the specific needs of our partner, so I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of structures through my work at Exceleration. Depending on the complexity of the deal and what else we are working on, I may handle a transaction internally from start to finish or engage and manage external counsel. In all cases, I try to approach our transactions holistically, considering the nuances and priorities of our new partner as well as Exceleration’s operational structure, strategic vision, and business objectives. 

How does your recent expansion with the acquisition of Redeye Worldwide impact the landscape of independent music, and what new opportunities does it open up for artists and labels within Exceleration’s portfolio?

Truly independent, full service distribution companies are increasingly rare; many have been acquired by majors in recent years.  Redeye remains one of the few, global independent distribution companies who excel at both physical and digital distribution. Our aim is to preserve and enhance this independent path to market not just for Exceleration’s portfolio of labels but also the independent recorded music industry as a whole. 

We are passionate about adding value to our sector. Our broader mission and the expertise we are developing within the label group opens up interesting new opportunities for independents interested in  strategic partnerships or investment beyond distribution, and we are continually looking for ways to create exciting new partnerships.     

Looking forward, what is Exceleration’s approach to fostering the future of independent music? How do you balance nurturing existing talent with seeking new opportunities?

Exciting new opportunities approach us regularly from founders who are driven by a similar mission, valuing music as art rather than a commodity and appreciating the importance of a thriving independent sector.  Whether through Redeye as distribution partner or Exceleration as a rights company, we aim to be a true partner to independent labels to help them achieve their objectives and the next stage of their businesses, while respecting the importance of our role as stewards of these important legacies. 

Our owned labels are actively signing new artists and releasing new music. We offer our labels a full service team of experts in marketing, physical and digital sales, design and creative, data and operations, accounting, rights management, and, of course, business affairs.  Recent releases have been recognized through nominations and awards at the Grammy Awards, Latin Grammy Awards and Libera Awards.

In your view, how important is female leadership in the music industry, and what changes would you like to see to encourage more women to take up leadership roles?

We are at the cusp of a big shift in female leadership in the music industry. For decades, there were a few women consistently at the helm of some of the majors but less so at independent labels. Organizations like WIN, AIM and IMPALA have a long history of female leadership, yet this is not the case within their constituents. This seems to have shifted in recent years. For example, six of the eighteen members of the Merlin board are women this year, which is significantly different to when the organization started. Merlin has taken meaningful strides in recent years to address this disparity, including the launch of its Merlin Engage mentorship program, of which I was privileged to participate in the inaugural cohort. I hope that female engagement with the organization will continue to grow through this program and others and that this growth will be reflected through the board composition. For women to take up leadership roles, our sector and its leaders need to support this change. This support can come through hiring practices, mentorship, career development opportunities, and establishing safe and supportive work environments. 

As a mentor in the Merlin Engage program, what motivated you to participate, and what has been your approach to mentoring the next generation of female music leaders?

When Merlin approached me to be part of their inaugural cohort of Merlin Engage, I was immediately inspired by and drawn to the opportunity to mentor women within the independent sector. I attribute much of my own personal and professional growth to the mentors – both men and women – that I have been fortunate to have throughout my career. These relationships were never structured, formal or defined; rather, they developed naturally. I’ve been a mentor myself in these less formal capacities as well as through structured programs. 

With Merlin Engage, I appreciate the thoughtfulness that goes into the mentor pairings, the program’s overall structure, and the opportunities for all of the cohort to connect as a group and share experiences. The mentee identifies her objectives early on, so that the mentor is really able to hone her mentorship style and guidance on those individual needs. Whether in the capacity of mentor or mentee, I’ve found that these relationships can grow to be incredibly meaningful and longstanding, often evolving into working relationships or friendships.

You’ve spearheaded a new anti-harassment initiative with Women in Music. Can you give us a sneak peek into this initiative and its objectives?

For more than a year, I’ve been working with a small group of women from Women in Music to develop an anti-harassment initiative committed to fostering a culture of safety, empowerment, and healing within the music industry. The initiative will provide tools and guidelines for businesses in the industry to establish and sustain a safe work environment for employees. Likewise, it will provide support and resources to individuals who have experienced harassment, assault, and trauma, assisting them in their path to recovery and justice. We aim to launch in April, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, with a live event and publication of a comprehensive resource directory.

Finally, based on your extensive experience and your involvement in initiatives like Merlin Engage and the anti-harassment program, what is your vision for a more inclusive and supportive music industry in the future and what changes would you like to see to encourage more women to take up leadership roles?

Our industry needs to create a space where women feel comfortable participating, growing and leading. In my opinion, there are two critical areas where we have made recent strides but can still do much better: (1) eliminating harassment; and (2) supporting parents.

The new initiative with Women in Music will hopefully provide resources, tools and support to both individuals and companies in the industry, to lessen, and hopefully aid in eliminating, harassment. 

There remains a lingering perception in our industry that you need to give up on or pause your career if you want to have children or, alternatively, postpone having children as long as possible while you focus on your career. Companies need to develop work environments and policies that support parents (of all genders) and allow the flexibility that they need. I am grateful that Exceleration has fostered a company culture that not just accommodates, but truly values flexibility, work life balance, and openness.

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