Nicki Farag, SVP of Promotion, Def Jam Recordings
By Fred Deane
Nicki Farag recently celebrated her fifteenth anniversary in the music business which coincidently parallels her 15-year stint with Def Jam Recordings. Yes, one career, one company, only works for highly driven people like Nicki if there’s a positive slope associated with that career curve.
Starting in 2002 at Island/Def Jam, Nicki was quickly drawn to the promotion department as an assistant to Pop Promo Head Erik Olesen. She would join a promotion executive staff of seasoned veterans like Erik, Mike Easterlin and Ken Lane who was then the SVP of Promotion.
In just over a year, Nicki’s talents were recognized and she was elevated to Regional Field Rep based in DC. Fifteen months later, she was promoted again to National Rhythm Director reporting to Rhythm Head Marthe Reynolds and it was back to NYC. In 2008 Nicki was up for another change.
At that time, Greg Thompson entered the picture as SVP of Promo and Rick Sackheim was Head of Rhythm, and in Nicki’s words, “The whole department got reshuffled.” Nicki was offered the number two Rhythm gig but had opted instead for another route. “I had rejected Rick’s offer and demoted myself to NY Regional Rep, and I told him that I didn’t want to do Rhythm for the rest of my career. I ultimately wanted to do National Pop and thought this was a better course for my career.”
Sackheim eventually became the Head of Promotion for Def Jam and in 2011 Nicki was promoted to Sr. Director of Promotion, relating to all formats. At the beginning of 2014, Nicki was upped to VP of Promotion and relocated to LA. In June of 2016, she ascended to SVP of Promotion, the position she holds for the label today.
You started as a promotion assistant 15 years ago and worked your way up to SVP. What do you attribute this successful quest to?
Relationships have been key to my success. I have an uncanny ability to connect with my team, clients, colleagues and talent that extend beyond music. I’m a straight shooter and will always be honest and trustworthy. I have a great ear when it comes to identifying talent and enjoy investing in their success. Since I started, the music industry has gone through so many changes, being adaptable, open-minded and creative has helped me promote talent regardless of platform. It also helps to have great hair.
Along the way, you have worked with several accomplished promo execs, as you do now. In what ways have these individuals inspired you and influenced you?
I’ve been beyond fortunate. Erik Olesen saw my potential when I was at Z100 in 2001. He taught me everything about promotion. The do’s, the don’ts, the 5 P’s of promotion, how to dress for the part you want, to listen first then speak later. He would always say, “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” As much as I disliked that expression, he was on-point. Till this day, I consider him a mentor.
Mike Easterlin taught me how to love my job while maintaining a personal life. I think they call it balance. He always had this uncanny way about delivering bad news, at the end of a conversation people would be apologizing to him! Maybe that’s because he always gave his clients the benefit of the doubt. Which still holds true for me until this day.
Greg Thompson ignited my inner fire and pushed me to my limits. He believed in me so much and for that I am forever indebted.
Then there is Rick Sackheim. He pretty much embodies all the incredible attributes from my previous bosses. He really gave me the insight, courage and respect I needed in order aspire to my goal of becoming a SVP.
There are numerous successful female execs in both industries, but there’s no discounting the gender gap in pure numbers alone. Can you describe the struggles you encountered as your career progressed?
This is a very important question about gender inequality, and regardless of the many gender biases that still operate all over the workplace, excuses and justifications won’t get women anywhere. I wish I could rewind ten years and tell my younger self what my older self knows now as I spent years trying to understand the relevance of “the boys club.” You know what I came up with? It’s a club that I never wanted to a part of. What I wanted was to be the guest speaker. I realized I provided something that they could never offer, a woman’s perspective. There’s so much value in that!
Sure, that may come with a little pride, but it also came with a lot of challenges and a lot of humility. You get to a certain point in your career if you don’t create opportunities and follow through with your instincts, you will never get ahead. So, I did just that. My passion, personality and vision is what took notice and that’s exactly what I wanted to happen.
What did you learn about yourself as you confronted the challenges that were set before you?
I learned some serious self-constraint. What I mean is, I was very in touch with my value as well as my insecurities. I just chose to be laser focused on my merit. I tuned out all the inner noise and tapped in to my loud, passionate, shrewd, witty self. I believed in my craft and not what my craft should be.
I think women in general keep themselves from advancing because they are taught not to have self-confidence. That was my experience. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. I believe that personal motivation is an incredibly complex thing, molded by our internal will, but also strongly influenced by the parenting we receive, the group of friends that surrounds us as we grow, the educational opportunities we get, the connections we make, as well as the expectations and prejudices of those around us.
It’s quite the conundrum as most of us want to be liked. But if our success means the others don’t like us, how motivated are we to do well? Which is why believing in your value is the foundation of a successful career path.
You have said to me that you work for two individuals (EVP Rick Sackheim and CEO Steve Bartels) who embrace you as an executive and don’t want to be part of a statistic. Can you elaborate on these thoughts?
Steve Bartels recently described Def Jam as “eclectic, vibey, authentic and honest.” To me, that is what depicts him as a great leader. The two go hand in hand, which is why “becoming a statistic” plays no role at Def Jam. Whether it’s the music we promote or the executives he hires. He believes in credibility and integrity, which is why he has believed in me regardless of gender.
Rick Sackheim is the best leader I have ever worked for. Period. He has this natural aptitude in finding your skill-set, makes you aware of it and then motivates you to attain it. I came close to leaving Def Jam years ago. Right about the same time I was struggling with the gender roles at the company. When he took the helm as EVP, I was ready to have an honest conversation about my exit strategy. Unbeknownst to me, he was ready to discuss the next five years of my life at Def Jam.
He saw in me what I already believed in myself but didn’t have the gall to speak up. Now, he can’t get me to stop talking! I am very lucky to have had his guidance and friendship for the past ten years. If we continue to work together in the years to come, I would consider myself the lucky one.
Which other female execs in either industry do you admire?
This is my favorite question! There should be more women role models. The more women in leadership roles, the more this will help the status and opportunities of all women. These women have (as Sheryl Sandberg would say) leaned in to their roles, speak confidentially, take risks and own their accomplishments. I admire them so much.
Sharon Dastur is open-minded, strategic and she never judges a book by its cover. Brenda Romano is stoic and confident. Thea Mitchem is smart and honest. Jacqueline Saturn is confident and intuitive. Melissa Forrest is wry and uncanny. Michele Harrison at Monotone is trustworthy and ingenious.
You’ve also expressed tremendous interest in identifying young female talent and future exec prospects. How does this become more prevalent of a concept?
To get more women into leadership roles, we have to address our culture’s discomfort with female leadership. Young girls are called bossy on our playgrounds, while young boys are expected and encouraged to lead. This dynamic carries over into the workplace, where women walk a tightrope between being liked and being respected, and men do not. This persistent bias creates a double bind for women that we should want to surface and acknowledge. Younger women need to negotiate for raises and promotions as often as our male peers do.
In 2008, how difficult was it to turn down a promotion to a National Rhythm post and essentially accept a demotion to a field rep position?
It was difficult because I knew I was going to disappoint Greg, Rick or Erik. Yet at the end of it all, I knew what I wanted to do and what was best for me. I was already a National at Rhythm, it was whether I would stay in that position or demote myself to the NY regional position to get more involved in other formats. Which essentially was a part of my long-term plan.
Thankfully, Greg, Erik and Rick were very supportive. Eventually that led Rick to promote me from NY Regional to Sr. Director of All Formats. A position that doesn’t really exist at other labels but I knew where he was going with this. He knew I was effective in multiple genres.
One burning issue you’ve mentioned to me is the reluctance of Pop radio to play Urban music. After 15 years at Urban leaning Def Jam, is this cyclical or has it been a constant obstacle to overcome?
It will always be a constant obstacle to overcome. The tides are turning because streaming has proven year after year that Urban music is the most streamed genre in the US. In 2016, Def Jam had three of the Top 5 most streamed records in the country: Desiigner “Panda” (#1), Rihanna “Needed Me” (#3) and Rihanna “Work” (#5). None of those records were an easy get at Top 40.
I want to chalk it up to an education process, but the truth of the matter is Nielsen monitors radio. Nielsen is what advertisers look at and advertisers pay radio based on their Nielsen ratings. Do you see how record labels are not in that equation? We are working against an antiquated system. It’s a tough spot for a programmer, as I know many of them would like to play what they want. But if the record doesn’t call-out or show positive Mscores, they won’t keep up their ratings and advertisers may pull out.
It’s a terrible cycle. Instead of making it all about research, Top 40 radio should create a slot for “Pop Culture” records. Play songs that are novelty, that have over 300 million streams alone, that have over 100 million video views on YouTube. I guarantee your audience knows the music. We’ve proven it time and time again with Jay-Z, Kanye West, Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Ludacris, Avicii, Iggy Azalea, Big Sean, Desiigner, and Alessia Cara, just to name a few. Or in the end radio will become passé. We are in this together and if we don’t help each other out, we will both fail.
The label executed a wonderful Pop plan with Alessia Cara. Does that success enhance the Pop cred of Def Jam with T40 programmers?
We already have the utmost credibility at Top 40 radio. Look at the artists we have broken! Alessia Cara embodies exactly what Def Jam did since its inception over 30 years ago, pioneering artistry. We took our time with her because we believed in her.
Do you feel your label is somewhat at a competitive disadvantage by the way the national airplay system is structured where it favors the delineation of formats and rewards mainstream Pop-friendly artists?
This is a great question and one I have thought about at length, especially now in our political climate/state of America. Def Jam is in a position to change the industry and challenge what constitutes Pop-friendly or mainstream airplay. We are in the forefront and a driver of change. This is exciting for the label and our artists. A core principal of Def Jam has always been to support those we believe in. This is why Kanye West, Rihanna, Big Sean, Justin Bieber, Jay-Z and Alessia Cara are being played on Pop-friendly stations across America now. It’s also why celebrated songs from the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Run DMC and DMX from back in the day were also embraced. This label will always be at an advantage because of who we are at our core.
Can you describe the special experience it is working for a label that is as driven by culture and lifestyle as it is by music?
Jam is credited
I grew up in a predominately white, Jewish, upper-middle class neighborhood in Long Island, NY as a first-generation Egyptian teenager. I identified with the culturally rich lyrics, sound and aesthetic of the artists Def Jam was producing in the early 90s. They spoke of diversity and struggle, which in my own right I consistently felt as an outsider. I remember racing home to watch Yo! MTV Raps, House of Style and music videos while my allowance went to the latest albums Def Jam artists dropped.
Then and now, Def Jam will always be more than a record label. Because of its storied history. Def Jam proudly carries a social responsibility to influence, infiltrate and break down barriers for artists. While Def Jam is known historically as the Hip-Hop label that brought street culture to the masses, our current intermixture of genres proves the brands success over the years. Def Jam is challenging, rewarding, influential, relevant and creatures of culture. I feel proud, every day, to be part of this family.