Label owner creates business plan through divine inspiration
By Charles Hallman
In today’s up-and-down economy, when music consumers opt for digital downloads rather than purchasing CDs, April Washington’s Habakkuk Records, which she started in 2008, has weathered the economic turbulence.
A seasoned veteran music executive, Washington says she applied what she learned from her years with major labels to her own label. “When I went to
Motown, I worked under Jheryl Busby,” she told the MSR in a phone interview. “He was a phenomenal executive. One of the things he taught us was really get on the ground…where the fan base [is].
“When I worked at Capitol Records, I learned how to make sure our product was covered in the stores,” continues Washington. “I worked in the inventory department and had to go out to the stores and physically count records.” She also worked at RCA and WEA: “Each label and each situation taught me something valuable that I need today,” notes Washington.
However, she admits that it wasn’t in her original career plans to start a record label, let alone a Gospel label. Although being religious, Washington was entrenched in secular music, and worked with the likes of Boys II Men and such rappers as Method Man and the Wu Tang Clan, she recalls.
“I was fine working with secular music, and I was trying to make it in mainstream [music] because that’s where the money was. I wanted to keep it separate, let my faith be my faith, and let my business be my business. I never, ever thought about a music label. It wasn’t something I aspired to.
“God had to pull me into gospel,” she admits. “I literally fought [against it] for six months — I didn’t want to do it.” Nonetheless, Washington “finally gave up. I couldn’t fight anymore,” and moved into Gospel music in 1997 becoming one of its top promoters for over a decade working with CeCe Winans and Shekinah Glory Ministry.
When asked what finally convinced her in 2008 “to push obscure or under-recognized [Gospel] artists” to national heights, “I can’t describe it, but it was divine inspiration for me to write this business plan, and I kept writing for four hours. Then God told me to open up the Bible,” responds Washington, who found herself in the Book of Habakkuk in the Old Testament, “and that’s how I got that name,” she adds.
The Baltimore-based Washington got start-up funding support from the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, which offer assistance for businesses owned by women and people of color. It is believed that she is the nation’s only Black female Gospel record-company owner.
Washington’s Habakkuk artists include Isaiah D. Thomas, who twice had two songs in the top 20 of Billboard’s Hot Gospel List (2008 and 2009); Papa San, whose Higher Heights made it to No. 4 on Billboard’s top Gospel album list (2009); Clint Brown, Gail Holmes and Kevin Levar. Lisa Page Brooks, formerly a member of the group Witness is the label’s flagship artist: her “I Want to Say Thank You” (2010) made it to the top of Billboard’s Hot Gospel List, and her God is Good album (2011) peaked at No. 14.
Brooks’ latest, “Better than Life” and Gerald Scott & Co.’s “Alright” is keeping her busy and her label out in the forefront. Washington in August conducted an eight-city promo tour with both artists and Cheneta Jones, whose Transformed CD made it to number 13. She also released this year an all-star compilation CD, Got Gospel? that features Brooks, Jones, Scott & Co. along with legends Vickie Winans and Rance Allen.
Washington calls Habakkuk a “boutique” label because as she puts it, she specifically tailors what is needed for each of her artists. “We are not like the major labels, and we are not quite a start-up label because we’re past that,” she proudly points out.
“Once you are in the business, you get pushback because of…gospel. People have a tendency to put gospel in a box,” surmises Washington. “They don’t understand the culture or how big and powerful the consumer base is.
“Radio is still the number-one driver to our music,” she continues. “However we, as a genre, don’t have a decent radio station outlet so we are forced to utilize social media.”
Washington has withstood the challenges, and sometimes the setbacks normally associated with a new business. She also prevailed being sued by a disgruntled former artist three years ago.
“When you are doing what you’re told to do, it doesn’t matter if the journey is difficult or not because you know you are doing what you are supposed to do, and it is going to be alright,” says Washington, whose Habakkuk Music still is holding its own and churning out hits.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected].