— Jim Sabey, Head of Worldwide Marketing, Parkwood Entertainment
“I was born and raised in Seattle. I grew up in a conservative family and I think that at that time, the fear and insecurity and all of the things that go along with being a young gay person in that environment, music became my refuge. It was something I was passionate about, and something I really enjoyed and could escape into. There was a radio station called KYYX in Seattle that was all very new wave, all the time. There was a lot of The Cure, New Order, and Missing Persons. I was able to sneak out of my conservative microcosm and be part of an alternative community, and so the development process for me happened really early on. I majored in international business at Georgetown, and went to Paris for about a year. What I learned through that experience is that you can pick yourself up and put yourself in any situation and figure it out. You just have to force yourself out of your comfort zone.
I really embraced the fact that I was gay when I lived in Paris, but I didn’t really come out until I moved to New York and worked for my first boss in the international department at Columbia Records. He was gay, so it was a real epiphany: OK, I want to be that. He’s out and he has a boyfriend and he leads a normal life and he’s not a flamboyant caricature of what a gay person is supposed to be.
The first artist I ever worked with was Maxwell, as a product manager, on Urban Hang Suite. I love that record. It’s super emotional. I specifically took American brands and worked them oversees, so I met the Destiny’s Child ladies when they first were signed. Beyoncé was very shy back then. Kelly was much more the talker and outgoing. And I took them on my first promo trip, actually, to Amsterdam, Paris, and London. It was their first introduction to going overseas. What was interesting was Matthew Knowles, who is the manager for Destiny’s Child, came from Xerox and from the understanding that the world is a big place. And he’d done a lot of work with Xerox in Holland at the time, and what he understood from the very beginning was in order to succeed you had to compete as a local artist in each of those markets.
I think on the first record we did, like, seven promo trips. On the second record, we did 14 promo trips. And I loved battling all the foreign gatekeepers, who said, "Well, that’s urban—that only works in America." I remember of taking the president of the Spanish companies to a club in Madrid, and all the kids are in love with all these great, urban-leaning pop records. It was one of those, ‘Dude, you don’t even know what’s going on in your own market’ moments. You have all these sort of older, for lack of a better term, straight dudes who think they know what the world wants in music. And they have no idea. That’s the big fundamental shift that’s happened in the last the years. And frankly it’s why this company exists.
What Beyoncé understood early on, when she wanted to make a change, was that the industry fundamentally has changed, and that you can communicate directly to your fans. You don’t need to go through the promotional pipeline that, 20 years ago, really prevented people from being exposed to all kinds of music. I watched Columbia go from a huge company to a fairly small company. That was a challenging time period and it takes a real positive mental state of being to be able to go through downsizing, but what’s interesting about today’s opportunities is that people are enjoying music more than they ever enjoyed music. What’s changed for the better is that concept of manufacturing pop that happened in the '90s, when big budgets could take anyone into the studio and turn them into the next Madonna—you can’t fake that anymore. If a particular social media platform isn’t authentic to you, the fans will see through it. I think that’s the great democratization of the Internet—it exposes the frauds.
Now I’m going to sound totally cheesy at this point, but I went to Australia to present the Roseland DVD—this was when Beyoncé was pregnant, and the “I Was Here” portion of that DVD tells a great story of special moments in her life. There was a young lady in it, named Chelsea, who Beyoncé had pulled out of the crowd at a show during her Sasha Fierce period. Somehow, word had come back to us that Chelsea had passed away, because she had a very rare, very complicated condition. And so I called the record company to get in touch with her mother to get clearance, because we wanted to include some of that show that was a big moment in Beyoncé’s life, and a part of Chelsea’s life. We found out that Chelsea was still alive; the information was incorrect. And so Beyoncé asked me to do a private screening of the DVD for Chelsea when I was in Australia since Beyoncé was stuck here, in New York.
So I did this private screening with Chelsea: Here’s this young girl who just has been through hell and back, and continues to live in it, every single day with this terrible disease. She got up and did the “Single Ladies” dance. And I almost burst into tears—and I’m not the most bleeding heart person you will meet. I remember emailing Beyoncé that night, because she does a lot with the Make A Wish Foundation, a lot of things we don’t spend a lot of time publicizing, and I sort of said to her, ‘I don’t know how you do this. I’m emotionally a wreck, and I’ve only done this once, but you can change people’s lives.’ And it’s exciting, it’s cool, it’s fun. I don’t have to go to a bank everyday.”
Photograph by Ricardo Nelson