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Sports
fall 2022

Change Agent

Top Talent Manager Jonathan Azu Took a Mid-Career Gamble to Pursue His Dream of Greater Diversity in the Entertainment World
Written by: WayMaker Journal Team

There comes a point in your climb up the corporate ladder when you have to check that it’s leaning against the right building. For Jonathan Azu, that check-in came after 20 years of carving out a successful career as a top talent manager.


As executive vice president and general manager at Red Light Management he led a team whose artist roster included marquee names like Alabama Shakes, Anita Baker, Luke Bryan, Lecrae, Luke James, Phish and Robert Randolph. His achievements saw him twice named to Billboard’s 40 Under 40 Power Players list.

But “I began to notice that when I was going to meetings and being pulled into various fundraising events that I had a seat at the table, I was sitting with some of the biggest names in music, from an executive perspective,” says the Drake University business and marketing graduate. “But consistently I was the only person of color sitting at these tables.”


The loss of his father and the birth of his second son spurred him to think about what he wanted from, using a golf term, the “back nine” of his life. “How do you want to roll it out? And what kind of impact do you want to have?” he began asking himself. “Do I want to be an example of a person of color that’s figured it out, doing it for somebody else, or do I want to do my own thing and show people that you can do it on your own, you can own your own company, you can really build something special and be of color? And I decided to do that.”


The result was he quit the security and prestige of his Red Light position to strike out on his own, founding Culture Collective. Over the last three years, the artist management business has added music distribution and branding consultancy to its services focused on minority faces and voices.

Taking a leap
In carving out a successful new career in midlife, Azu has lessons to pass on to anyone else contemplating a similar kind of switch. Three things are crucial, he says: mission, mentors and methodicalness.

I’m running my own race at the pace that I need to.

JONATHAN AZU


The mission is the thing that drives you—whatever it is that you just have to get out or it’s going to drive you nuts, like a songwriter with a song in their head. Then there is the need for mentors—people you can bounce your ideas off. And finally, it is vital to do things right, to get all your ducks in a row, which may also mean drawing other people in to help.


Part of that should involve establishing a board, he believes. “Companies have boards. Viacom has a board. PepsiCo has a board. Walmart has a board. You should have a board. You should start to put your board together and it can change over time. Boards change over time as companies develop and grow.”


Azu also speaks about the important role his wife played in his career switch, talking through the decision together. With her and their two children in mind, he was aware that “I’m not in a position where it’s just me,” he says. “There is some risk here: I do have mouths to feed and people to take care of.”


But, at the end of the day, there’s still a gamble to be taken, he says. There he was, “sitting at 30,000 feet with the window open of the plane and a parachute in my hand and looking at the ground and looking at the pilot and when’s the right time to jump ; when’s the right time to take that leap of faith?

I realized that there is no perfect time. At that point, you have just got to go.


The risk has proven to be “the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.” Culture Collective has seen a “phenomenal” response (Azu was included in Billboard’s Change Agents list last year) and already built an enviable stable of talent it represents. Among them are rising rhythm-and-blues artists Emily King and Cory Henry, and former Destiny’s Child member and solo star Michelle Williams.


Azu speaks admiringly of Williams’ advocacy on mental health issues through sharing about her own struggles. He recently got to return to Drake (where he sits on the board of trustees) with her when she spoke to students there, an experience he describes as a moving “full-circle” moment. “It was everything to be able to walk around the campus where it all started with somebody that you’ve been working with for so long.”


In addition to her singing and acting talents, Williams has “developed as a public speaker and what I saw her do at Drake was jaw-dropping,” Azu says. “When I say she’s changing lives, she’s literally changing lives—and, in some cases, saving lives.”


Pacing the race
Azu recently added adjunct professor (at the University of Southern California) to his resume, sharing some of what he has learned about the entertainment industry with students at the Thornton School of Music. It’s not only an opportunity to help the next generation, but a measure of tribute to his father.


Azu Sr. was adopted and brought to the United States by missionaries, becoming a surgeon and academic. “He always really wanted me to go to business school,” Azu recalls. “I know he’s up in heaven, looking down kind of probably smiling and shaking his head” at the USC position.


The music students “are getting a lot out of me, but I’m getting so much out of them,” he says. “I’m getting perspective not only in music or their perspective of the world, it is helping to form how we think about how we work with our artists.”


While Azu is all about passion and pursuit of your dream, he adds a third P that people who want to make a difference should embrace: patience. You’ve got to determine what’s the best pace to get you to where you want to be and not worry about the speed at which people are running in adjoining lanes, he says.


Patience “doesn’t mean that you don’t push yourself, increase your stride, work on your breath,” he explains. “Patience is letting the play develop,” he goes on, pulling out a football metaphor. “You’ve got to let your receivers run their routes, right? If you throw the ball too early, you throw it to nobody. You throw it too early and it gets intercepted. Look for the right timing.”


Easier said than done for high achievers, he admits. “I’ve gotten more comfortable that I’m running my own race at the pace that I need to,” he says, but it can still feel like he’s five years behind where he should be. However, he’s learning to focus on his own race and not compare himself to others, so it’s less of “a thing that frustrates me and I misconstrue as failure.”


A clear vision is essential in any venture, though you need to keep in mind it might twist and turn along the way. Having just moved into a new home, Azu notes how a finished house may look different from the original plans “and that’s OK. You have to be flexible, but you have to have a roadmap. You have to know what you’re working toward. Where are the goal lines? Where are the milestones? If you don’t have those things, you won’t get there.”


And remember that vision doesn’t have to be for something of your own. “You don’t need to go start your own company,” he says. “It can mean that you have a vision and you want to help somebody else realize their vision; I did that for many years. I was very successful at helping other owners of their companies realize that; I just chose [that] I wanted to do it on my own.”


Above all else, “follow your heart, follow your dreams,” Azu exhorts. “Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do [it].” Let the noes be fuel, he goes on. In fact, sometimes when he is trying to woo an artist, he will reach out to the person he knows is going to tell him no, “just to get me going… that’s that inner burn, that desire, that drive. You have to keep that same energy throughout your career and don’t think that you have figured it out just because you’ve had successes.”


From an interview with Louis Carr