Kieron Johnson interview with Mathew Knowles
Dr. Mathew Knowles
Credit: MATHEW KNOWLES/MUSIC WORLD ENTERTAINMENT
Moguls Inc.: Mathew Knowles on building ‘brand Beyoncé’ – from the Deep South to Destiny’s Child
Published on July 23, 2018
“An important or powerful person, especially in the film or media industry.”
Branding Bosses (series one and series two), The Founder (series one) and Brand-tastic! (series one and series two) have one thing in common – they all consist of weekly interviews with chief executives, chief marketing officers and other members of the C-Suite from Forbes lists of the “world’s most valuable brands,” the “world’s most innovative companies,” etc.
Moguls Inc. is different. It’s a set of stand-alone interviews with “important or powerful people, especially in the film or media industry” – i.e. moguls (according to the Oxford dictionary).
Welcome to Moguls Inc.
Dr. Mathew Knowles has, in his own words, “seen it all” in the music business.
As a record label owner and talent manager, Knowles has successfully navigated the music industry for more than a quarter of a century.
Knowles’s clients – past and present – include the likes of six-time Grammy Award winners, Earth, Wind & Fire, 10-time Grammy-Award winner, Chaka Khan, and arguably one of his most famous exports to date, two-time Grammy Award winners, Destiny’s Child.
Knowles is the father of Beyoncé and Solange Knowles. Best known as Beyoncé’s former manager (they parted ways professionally – on an amicable basis – back in 2011), he remains the manager of Destiny’s Child – one of the top three girl groups of all time, according to Billboard magazine.
Despite his astronomical success, Knowles cuts a figure of humility. Mild-mannered, softly-spoken yet oozing quiet confidence, 66-year-old Knowles is the founder and CEO of an independent record label, Music World Entertainment, which has churned out Grammy Award-winning artists like a conveyor belt for the last 25 years. (With 22 Grammy Awards to her name, Beyoncé is second only to country singer, Alison Krauss, who – with 27 awards – holds the record for the most number of Grammys won by a female artist. But with 62 career nominations, Beyoncé has the title of the most-nominated female artist in Grammy history.)
In our first interview, Knowles was promoting his new book, Racism: From The Eyes Of A Child. Despite the sweltering (98 degree) heat in Houston, Texas, he was a cool customer. Knowles talked openly about life growing up in the Deep South, the challenges of building the Beyoncé brand and the future of music recording.
Humble beginnings: Life in the Deep South
Born in 1952 in Gadsden, Alabama, Knowles grew up in a racially hostile environment which, less than 50 years beforehand, was the site of a particularly notorious lynching of an innocent black man.
A 25-strong group of masked white men lynched 28-year-old local man, Bunk Richardson, who was a material witness to the rape and murder of a white woman. In 2016, the city of Gadsden erected a memorial to Richardson at the site of his murder.
It’s against this disturbing backdrop that, in his book, Racism: From The Eyes Of A Child, Knowles writes: “Racism, being such a bold statement of hate, looms as something monstrous to an innocent child. It is a poor representation of what being human is all about.”
‘Racism: From The Eyes Of A Child’ book cover. Credit: THE IMAGE WORKS
In our interview, Knowles talks about how – in junior high school – he played into racial stereotypes of black people in order to get preferential treatment from his white peers. “I’d never played basketball,” he reveals, “but the coach probably thought, ‘he’s a tall black guy – he must be able to play basketball.’ But I couldn’t – I was awful! I soon realized that, as I got better at basketball, I got treated differently…better.”
Whilst he doesn’t appear to court controversy, Knowles doesn’t shy away from bringing controversial topics to the fore either. Earlier this year, he highlighted ‘colourism’ – a subset of racism – in the U.S. pop radio industry. “I talk about these issues – expose them even – because the only way we can change is by talking about things that make us uncomfortable,” Knowles explains.
Glory years: Building ‘brand Beyoncé,’ Solange and Destiny’s Child
Before embarking on a career in music management, Knowles was a prolific sales executive. But how much of a factor did his aptitude for sales play in advancing his music management career?
“It’s everything,” insists Knowles. “We’re always selling ourselves,” he says candidly. Knowles recalls “working with three major corporations – Philips Medical Systems, Johnson & Johnson and Xerox” and being “a trainer to sales reps.”
He points to having “a lot of experience in management, sales, and international marketing” – a skill set Knowles firmly believes laid a solid foundation for building the brands of his daughters, Beyoncé and Solange, not to mention arguably his most famous group export, Destiny’s Child.
Selling the virtues of his artists has always come second nature to Knowles but, as a father-manager, he often grappled with having to balance Beyoncé’s personal interests (as his daughter) and her commercial interests (as the talent he was responsible for handling). Knowles reveals that “it was easier with Solange because she was a solo artist whereas Beyoncé was in a group. As a manager, I had a fiduciary duty to treat all the members’ careers the same. Sometimes, this wasn’t [necessarily] what was best for Beyoncé.”
The future of music: Traditional versus online music recording studios
In March 2018, Knowles was appointed to the special advisory board at Tunedly – an online music recording studio (co-founded by Chris Erhardt and Mylène Besançon), which connects songwriters with world-class musicians to create professional music.
According to the Tunedly website, people who sign-up for the service can collaborate with “Grammy, Emmy and Oscar winners from around the world.” Knowles walks me through how Tunedly works: “You can send them a demo and say, ‘I’d like you to put background singers on’ or ‘I want you to put an orchestra on this.’ Whatever you want Tunedly to do for you musically, they can make it happen.”
“It’s a new approach,” admits Knowles. “But from the beginning of time, technology has changed the way we do things. We take in music differently to how we did 15 years ago. We don’t use a CD or a cassette – we’re streaming. Technology will also change how we record music.”
Knowles’s top tips for global success in the music industry
With his artists’ global record sales topping 300 million, Knowles draws on his vast experience as a talent manager, record producer and record label owner to share two tips to the top of the international music scene.
“First, the artist should spend time outside their home country in territories where their record label has offices,” says Knowles. “Then, the artist and their management team should build a [quality] relationship with the team working on their project.”
Documentaries, docu-dramas and ‘Destiny’s Child: The Untold Story’
Knowles is already hard at work writing his next book, Destiny’s Child: The Untold Story. “I’m on chapter three,” he says, almost apologetically. “But the book will be 400 to 500 pages long with a lot of interviews from people who worked with Destiny’s Child up close and personal.”
Meanwhile, Knowles’s team has been set the unenviable task of indexing audio and visual material accumulated at Knowles’s record label over the last 25 years. Knowles plans to use some of this content to make documentaries and docu-dramas. “We’re finding some jewels – in audio format – that we had forgotten we recorded!” he says excitedly.
Stay tuned for the second part of my interview with Dr. Knowles.
Previously an editor at the Reuters news agency, Kieron Johnson is a creative content consultant at Regal Content. He is also a contributor to Forbes, Fortune magazine and Business Insider. In 2017, LinkedIn recognized him as one of its “top voices.”