Originally published Aug 26, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/shavonlindley/2018/08/26/how-to-make-history-doing-what-you-love-a-music-exec-spills-all/#477ccce13f76
When Tom Petty sang about a girl from Indiana, he might not have been talking about legendary music manager Vicky Hamilton. However, that didn’t stop Hamilton from chasing down Petty’s tour bus in the late ‘70’s for an impromptu interview and some sound advice. In fact, nothing would stop Vicky Hamilton from pursuing her purpose and achieving her goals her way in the male-dominated music industry.
Music Executive Vicky Hamilton
Hailed as one of the most successful music executives in the business, Hamilton is a testament to living your calling. I was curious how a woman from Fort Wayne, Indiana ended up in Los Angeles guiding the careers of rock stars like Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, and Poison. Hamilton sat down with me to discuss how her journey went from managing rock bands in Ohio to producing a Grammy award-winning album for the first lady of country music: June Carter-Cash. With today being Women’s Equality Day I thought it important to share how these women made history doing what they love, something every one of us has the capability to achieve.
Discover your passion and pursue it. Hamilton worked first in a record store and almost accidentally fell into band management, helping to manage her then boyfriend’s band before eventually expanding her client base. “I started looking after a couple of local bands,” recalls Hamilton, “One from Toledo, Ohio called Ebenezer and another one called Destin from Fort Wayne and it was basically trial by error. I just learned by doing.”
Hamilton knew there weren’t many opportunities for band managers in Indiana. While dabbling in journalism, she hit her first roadblock. “Nobody at the record company would give me an interview. So, I pretty much stalked [Tom Petty] and his tour bus and chased him down in South Bend, Indiana.”
Petty graciously agreed to an interview and delivered advice that would propel Hamilton forward. “He said to me, ‘You know, you look like a California girl. You should just move to California.’ And that was all it took. You hear that from somebody that you admire and it’s like, ‘OK, I’m doing it!’” Finding the courage to pursue your passion sometimes only happens after someone else recognizes and points out your potential. When you lack self-confidence, a gentle nudge might be the spark you need. To truly realize the power at play here, be vocal about it when you identify that potential in someone else.
Learn how to embrace and create change. Hamilton received another nudge to move outside her comfort zone during a prophetic meeting with June Carter-Cash while working for Lookout Management. One of her bands was opening for country legend Johnny Cash at House of Blues, and Petty and record producer Rick Rubin happened to be in attendance. “I was saying how much I loved June Carter’s performance with Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin said, ‘You should make a record with June,’” Hamilton remembers, “and I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know anything about country music, but thank you.’”
Vicky Hamilton and June Carter-Cash VICKY HAMILTON
Removing self-imposed limitations is essential when embracing change , and the potential for greatness was waiting for Hamilton to venture outside of her box. The next morning, she had a message waiting for her from Carter-Cash, repeating the sentiment Rubin had voiced the night before. The two women met and clicked and began the process of working together to create Carter-Cash’s record. Hamilton immediately started shopping the project out to record companies, including Lookout Management/Vapor Records and was stunned to encounter a largely negative response.
“I shopped it all around Hollywood and New York and then Nashville, which was really surprising because June and Johnny Cash lived in Nashville and I just couldn’t believe that nobody wanted to work with the first lady of country music.”
There has always been a major lack of representation by women in the music industry. In 2015 during an interview with Country Aircheck a top radio consultant compared women in music to “tomatoes in the salad,” saying if radio stations want to increase listenership they shouldn’t play two female artists back-to-back. It’s a boy’s club that’s only becoming increasingly harder for women to break into despite the changing social view on gender diversity and inclusion.
When faced with an objection, become an advocate for change by creating your own opportunities. Hamilton decided that if no one was going to step up to help make Carter-Cash’s record, she would open a record company of her own, and so Small Hairy Dog Records was born. Having never started a record label she did what she had done in the past – learned by doing. She wrote out a business plan with pen and paper, convinced another label to joint venture with her on the project and began the task of picking songs for the album from tapes Carter-Cash and her son John Carter would send filled with tunes Carter-Cash had written over the years.
“I hired producers and it ended up being a guy named J.J. Blair, and John Carter-Cash co-produced the record,” says Hamilton. “J.J. had a studio here in L.A. and we took all of his gear to this little cabin in Nashville across the street from the Cash’s house… Every day June would say, ‘Let’s go make a little history’ and oddly enough, we did.”
A year and a half after completion, the album that nobody wanted to make was recognized as the Grammy award-winning record, Press On. For Hamilton, it was a testament to never taking no for an answer. “When I get something in my head that I want to do, I will leave no stone unturned to do it and I kind of go by the philosophy of you will get a thousand nos but you only need one yes. So, you just keep going until you get that one yes.”
When women join forces, incredible things happen. Hamilton had become a voice for Carter-Cash, and in turn, for women in an industry that was crying out for change. Even Johnny Cash shared his regret with Hamilton over not advocating enough for Carter-Cash as much as he should have. “He said, ‘You know, everybody says that they want to take credit for this. But I know you did this.’ It was such a grand moment because all he ever wanted was for June to be more known for what she had accomplished. People didn’t even realize she had written Ring Of Fire, which was one of his biggest hits.”
Vicky Hamilton and Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash LISA MARKS
With Women’s Equality Day upon us, it’s important to acknowledge how far our society has come regarding women’s rights to really understand how much further we need to go. Stories like Hamilton’s highlight the conscious and unconscious bias women face even now daily. Carter-Cash is akin to country music royalty, so why did it take another woman to rally around her project for it to come to fruition? This is a prime example of how women supporting women can change history, just like history was changed in the 1920’s when women were granted the right to vote after groups of women banded together to make a difference.
Hamilton has had incredible success and has continued to set new goals and explore new projects. She self-published a memoir spilling never-before heard stories from the time she spent guiding rock bands like
Artist Darbi Shaun, Vicky Hamilton and Artist Damian Sage, Cash Cabin, Nashville ERIC HILDEBRANDT
Guns N’ Roses titled Appetite for Dysfunction, currently launching a new record company, Dark Spark Music, and is in the middle of negotiating a television deal. She still uses her voice to help others get heard, representing up-and-coming artists like Damian Sage, Tender Beats, and Darbi Shaun.
Her advice to those with high aspirations? Listen to your own voice. People can tell when you don’t believe in yourself. Go ahead and give yourself permission to reach new heights and step outside your box. If you need a nudge, remember: women can make history faster and reach greater equality by coming together in support of one another.