Merlin Engage Alumni Interviews: Katie Alberts - Merlin

Merlin Engage Alumni Interviews: Katie Alberts

Merlin Engage Alumni Interviews is a series highlighting the experiences of former Merlin Engage mentors and mentees. Merlin Engage is mentorship program crafted specifically for our members that pairs executive-level mentors with talented mentees to shape the next generation of female leaders in independent music. This interview features Katie Alberts, COO at Reach Records (mentor). 

Can you tell us about your motivation for becoming a mentor in Merlin Engage and your initial expectations for the program?

I was really excited to participate as a mentor in the Merlin Engage program because female representation in leadership is something I’ve always been passionate about. At Reach, I’ve tried to express that passion with fair pay practices that remove gender and racial bias, a short term strategy, and equal maternity and paternity leave, a long term strategy for more female representation within executive leadership. So when the opportunity came about to play a part in helping to grow more female leaders outside of Reach, I was on board immediately. The level of thought and intentionality in the structure of the program far exceeded my expectations and my mentee and I were a prime fit. 

What unique insights or experiences did you bring to the mentorship as COO at Reach Records?

Reach Records is a small to medium sized independent record label based in Atlanta. We serve a very niche audience at the intersection of hip hop music and Christian music and are the dominant player amongst that genre. Because of that, many people in the industry have not known how to categorize us. Especially in the early days of the label, Reach was too Christian for hip hop and too hip hop for Christian music. That beginning spurred a drive to carve our own path in the industry and over the years, it’s become baked into the DNA of Reach. We often refer to ourselves as scrappy and able to pivot quickly. I started as an intern at Reach and along the way to COO, I’ve been able to touch nearly every aspect of the business, from legal to PR, social media to finance, sync to distribution and everything in between. That gives me a unique perspective to be able to see a bird’s eye view of how the pieces of the business work together. When paired with a scrappy and nimble mentality, that fresh outlook can help cut through some of the noise to see some simple solutions that could be super high impact. 

The music industry, like many others, has historically had gender disparities. What are some of the unique challenges you’ve observed women facing in leadership positions within the independent music industry, and how can mentorship programs like Merlin Engage help address these challenges?

Like many other industries, gender disparities today are a reflection of policies and practices that took place decades ago. What makes things particularly tough for the music industry, is that so much of the work is based on relationships. I.e. not what you know, but who you know. So while equal access to education made leaps of progress for women in many business professions, success in the music industry oftentimes isn’t based on what education you received, but more so your experience. And experience is often gained by having a relationship with someone who gives you a chance. The classic ‘mail room internship’ stories that so many in the music business have. And subconsciously, men are oftentimes more naturally drawn to mentor men. Whether informally from a friendship built, or in seeing themselves in a young employee. 

There’s also the difficulty of breaking stereotypes. We need to see more women in leadership roles in order for the next generation of female leaders to envision themselves not just as an executive assistant, but as the executive. Which can be a bit of a chicken or the egg issue. 

So in order to address these layered issues, you need both short term and long term strategies. You need fair pay practices today and mentorship programs, like Merlin Engage, for leaders tomorrow. A formalized program like Merlin Engage allows an easy entry point for both men and women to be a part of building a future without a gender gap in leadership. And I highly encourage any male thinking about participating in the next program as a mentor to do so! Be a part of building that future. 

In the music industry, networking and relationship-building can be crucial. Can you share some advice or tips you would provide any mentee on how to build meaningful connections within the industry?

Relationship building has to start somewhere. So no matter how small the opportunity is, especially in the early days of your career, show up. Whether it’s a cocktail networking party or a casual coffee with a fellow intern in the industry, value the relationship and invest in it with your time and heart. Genuinely care about people. And with time, the next generation of leaders will grow, that intern you got coffee with could become the CEO of the next big independent label. 

As you develop your career, keep showing up for opportunities. Especially any speaking engagements. During those speaking engagements, don’t just connect to the people in the audience, but look to your left and to your right on those panels. Some of my most precious relationships have come from keeping in contact with people I spoke alongside of. 

And lastly, be as organic and authentic as possible. We’re all humans and no one likes forced interactions!

As a mentor, what advice do you give to mentees about finding their unique voice and identity in the competitive music industry, and how can they stand out authentically?

My first piece of advice is to dive into whatever you can get your hands on and try new things. You won’t be able to identify what you’re passionate about purely by speculation, you’ll need time actually doing the work to figure that out. Try the work and have an opinion about it. In the vast majority of cases, no one is preventing you from innovating on the job but you. 

A good mentorship involves a two-way exchange of knowledge and growth. Did this program influence your own perspectives and professional development?

The program was definitely mutually beneficial. My mentee actually came from a much larger company than Reach, so some of her unique challenges helped me to learn about problem solving on a different scale and the complexities that come with that. She was also preparing for her maternity leave during our mentorship which gave me an up close look at how I can support future employees of Reach who will be going through a similar life change. 

Looking ahead, what advice would you give to aspiring mentors who may consider joining the Merlin Engage program in the future, and what are your hopes for the program’s continued impact?

To the aspiring mentor, I highly encourage you to participate in the program. It’s a low cost to your time, with a high impact for both your mentee and yourself. I also hope there’s a long term impact of more female leaders being raised up not just in a few companies, but all across the music industry. Independents are usually able to be faster and more nimble than majors and I’d love for us to pave the way on having diverse representation in leadership. 

Finally, what is the best piece of advice or inspiration you received from a mentor or other leader that guided you on your path to becoming a leader?

The best piece of advice I’ve received is less of a pithy statement and more of a posture for relationships: that conflict is often healthy and when people are able to bring their whole selves to the table, the best ideas will rise to the top. Let’s not be afraid of difficult conversations, but lean into tension in a respectful and productive way. 

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