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[Outside the Industry] Def Jam Forward: A Record Label Turns to Advocacy

July 21, 2022 @ 12:30 pm - 2:00 pm

Running a successful record label isn’t only about finding the next big star. Theda Sandiford, SVP, Commerce and Digital at Def Jam Recordings, will give us the inside scoop on how a successful record label managed to make a lasting impact not only for their artists, but for Black Lives and all marginalized communities.

Theda Sandiford, Def Jam Recordings


    • Theda leads revenue and digital strategy for Def Jam records and has been working in the music industry for the last 20 years 
    • She has won numerous awards and grants as a visual practice artist
    • Hip Hop culture is founded in African tribal music customs and emerged in the early 1980s within the Black community in NYC
    • From its very beginning, Hip-hop has embodied activism
    • Theda was asked to join the label task force in the wake of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s murders
    • The goal of Def Jam Forward is to fight for change and support the social awakening and equity for all and to create lasting and meaningful change 
      • The task force successfully lobbied for voters and was able to get people registered to vote
      • The company globally has days off to go vote
    • They worked with corporate communications to bring in new, fresh charitable organizations – over 500 
      • There were only twenty when they started
    • Getting out the vote is the main goal of Def Jam Forward now 
    • Hip-Hop has always been a vessel to fight for social change
    • They hired a corporate compliance officer in order to fight the right way and gain access to politicians and get people out to vote
      • Research showed that people didn’t even know where to vote 
      • They provided voting information such as profiles for all candidates 
      • They hosted voting parties — never underestimate the power of free food
    • Digital service providers, such as Youtube and Spotify, had similar task forces
    • Working together and learning from one another helps you move your own organization forward
    • Def Jam focused on its strengths — musicians and connections
      • They sent artists out with pizza and filmed videos and interviews and roundtable discussions 
      • Every bit of money goes to fund Def Jam Forward and the other partner organizations
      • Livestreaming in the last couple of years promoted dialogue and understanding through music and video to highlight diversity, equity, and inclusion
      • The program aims to surprise and delight while moving action forward
      • An artist can make music but they are also influencers, so Def Jam amplified those traits 
      • The purpose now is social advocacy
      • Black and Blue panel Livestream — each artist has recorded music speaking on police brutality, but in this panel, they were able to share their own stories
      • Def Jam Summer Fridays (Series) — DJs at an in-person event
        • They began using this on Twitch and YouTube — they had to fight Twitch to get the rights to have their music on the platform, and they won
        • They raised more than $50,000 on two events
        • The target audience was 18-24 year olds — they each pledged $10 each
        • Each of these events built on each other as they kept learning from them
    • They now do paid events and concerts
    • A goal of Def Jam Forward was to build sustainable programming overtime 
      • Respecting the DJ since 1984 — they used their platform to amplify the DJs and expand them into education
    • Edutainment — Def Jam entertains and educates – how did Def Jam Forward do it?
      • The yellow for the sub-brand is way out of their brand guidelines and it queues to the viewer that this is something different
      • They developed hashtags for rallies  
      • They organized staff to amplify frontline voices on the # — “I got 10k new followers because of you”
      • The staff was decked out in Def Jam gear
    • Def Jam is breaking barriers in the field
      • They celebrated Women’s month and had another compilation record just on women of Def Jam
      • They celebrate women at the company — in 1984 they had very few women working in the hip-hop industry
      • #Frontlinemessages
      • #Ivoted
      • #BreakingBarriers
      • They had artists from all over the world posting 
        • They asked them to share that they had voted 
        • Def Jam gained 1% of the discussion globally 
    • A mix of video messages mixed with static messages played very well with the social algorithms
    • Artists committed to different issues and then wrote a comic with Marvel and shared their aspirations for the future — police brutality, LGBTQ+ rights, mental health
      • One song on an album may just be a statement, but when you put them all together it creates a different experience
      • The record that was handed out at the beginning of the presentation is an example of this — a soundtrack for social justice
    • They also created a social game to help people learn the songs 
      • They are doing another compilation series as well 
      • By listening to the community, they know what they need to deliver 
    • Mental Health and Personal Development
      • Theda wanted to start pushing the personal development of staff
      • Mental Health is rarely talked about in Hip-Hop
      • She started a virtual mental health day and staff began using the tools that the company provided for mental health
      • Use breakout rooms to discuss communications and breakdowns 
        • Communication is the cause of most breakdowns
      • She noticed that digital literacy was lacking and people couldn’t share their stories or thoughts and experiences
        • She created a weekly digital happy hour — free booze works too (like food)
        • They have guest speakers and conversations about all kinds of things — NFTS, sports, music, the metaverse, bitcoin
          • These are incredibly valuable because now there is a baseline understanding of all of these concepts
    • Day to day experience as a Black woman in the world has not changed much in two years
      • The amount of gaslighting and othering behavior would shock you
      • When you add in inflation, the assault on women’s rights, and the war in Ukraine, there’s a lot to handle, so Theda focuses her energy on the one issue 
    • Free Your Mind is a public textile art that collects and exhibits personal narratives
      • It’s becoming a bit of a physiological experiment
      • Theda is taking this to other cities and building a website that you can click on and see the stories
      • She just received a grant and is going to add all kinds of things that bring this project to life
    • Surviving the revolving door of trauma — she hopes for a life free of all of these things that people are struggling with and being bombarded with every single day 
    • Theda is bringing people together to assemble something new and she is a creative activist seeking justice for the social arts 
    • Questions: 
      • Def Jam rolls out campaigns the same way they roll out their records
        • They have a meeting every Friday where they talk about all of their social justice work since they use the same channels – they run Def Jam Forward like a business
        • They are also able to move money around to pay for these services 
      • HR and Corporate Communications
        • HR loves Def Jam Forward because they advocate for all the things they care about
        • Corporate Comms is another story – there are times when “they don’t need to know this”
        • They sometimes have to pivot to find new ways to get exciting ideas done 
      • Internal Campaigns for change tips:
        • No one wants to talk about mental health, but then you see people suffering and see how they’re impacted – reaching out to your team to make sure they’re okay shows that you care
          • People are really suffering from the issues and we need to do something about
          • Personally reach out and offer help and invite them to join events
        • Cancel stuff – mandatory 24 hours without looking at email and taking calls off
          • Sometimes the job isn’t the right fit for you and it also allows for others who are excited about it
        • Winning trust 
      • Evolution of your role as a leader
        • She feels that she is doing the same job – educating and informing and being curious 
        • The best skill to have as a digital person is being curious
        • Things get recycled – you drive new things but other things come back (ex. Vine to TikTok)
        • Attaching fan clubs to NFTs – she’s doing the same thing but the platforms have changed (ex. records to Spotify)
        • Ownership model to an attention economy 
        • Theda went to Barnes and Noble and bought HTML for Dummies to learn how to build Def Jam a website 
          • Digital knowledge is now a baseline 
      • What tools does the team lean into?
        • We love Slack
        • Monday.com
        • Box
        • Zoom
        • Microsoft tools 
        • Adobe Suite
        • Tons of free tools online and on app stores
        • Def Jam uses everything and they’re willing to try everything 
        • They have built great efficiencies through all of these tools
        • They are early on a lot of things – one of the first advertisers on FB and one of the first to put videos on YouTube without a licensing agreement 
      • The process of wrangling artists for Def Jam Forward
        • It is easier to do when it’s their idea
        • Jadakiss wanted to deliver pizzas to the frontline workers
          • The news came out about this and then several other artists said “we’re doing something similar”
        • Ask and listen to what they want to do 
        • In the past two years, people have really wanted to get out there and do something 
        • If it’s something the artist cares about then they really want to do it 
        • Finding people from the songs are generally already halfway there because they’ve talked about it
      • Planning
        • Set goals and KPIs up front – we want x people to show up
        • Every day they look at how far away they are from reaching their goal
          • This is the same that they do for their advocacy work
        • How much did I get? Personal stories, messages, videos, etc. 
        • Most of the time people want to be seen and heard
      • Why do you show up at the office every day?
        • “I make people’s dreams come true, what could be better than that?”
        • Theda meets with people and finds out what their goals are, then she and Def Jam Forward makes it happen


July 21, 2022
12:30 pm - 2:00 pm
Event Category:
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