How A&R Ashley Calhoun Went From Studying the Music Business to Rewriting the Curriculum
There is no success without decisiveness. Born and raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a city responsible for birthing talent like Pharrell Williams, Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Clipse and more, Ashley Calhoun always knew she would work in music.
“Ever since I was a young teen, that was the plan,” Calhoun tells me proudly over the phone. “I grew up in Virginia Beach, influenced heavily by all of the legends that came out of the immediate area. There’s a big music culture in Virginia and a lot of pride for where we come from. I was always finding new music; I was always the kid in school who everyone wanted to ride around with to hear what I had in my playlists.”
With her playlist-making skills and a dream, Calhoun wasted no time, packing up at 18 and moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the music industry.
“I was very decisive,” she attests. “I wanted to be in music very badly. Everyone would always be like, ‘What’s your Plan B?’ Especially back home, before I moved to LA, it was, ‘Oh, good luck. What’s your Plan B?’ And that motivated me even more to prove everyone wrong. I was just like, ‘Fuck a Plan B!’ There’s no Plan B — ever. I just had to make this work, and I’m literally living my dream.”
To appease her parents, Calhoun enrolled in a nine-month program at the Los Angeles Recording School and began to pursue a slew of internships to work her way up the industry ladder. While classes and internships don’t sound like the monikers of teen rebellion and dream-chasing, the work was instrumental for Calhoun to come into her own as a creative. Despite her original goal of becoming either an engineer or producer, it was a fateful music business course at the Recording School that led Calhoun to realize she had always been an A&R.
“I was like, ‘Wow, that’s low-key what I was doing growing up — finding new music,’” she explains excitedly. “People would send me unreleased stuff, reach out to me for feedback because I was their top listener on LastFM, and I didn’t even know that’s what I was already doing. So when I took that class, I knew that’s what I wanted to do — A&R. I just feel like I naturally always had a knack for it.”
Calhoun’s gut feeling could not have been more spot-on. In less than a decade and shy of her 30th birthday, she has gone from Virginia girl with a dream to Vice President of A&R at Pulse Music Group. Her roster includes honorary Songwriter of Every Year, Starrah, GRAMMY Award ® winner Rahki, and one of the East Coast’s newest rap stars, Dave East. Calhoun’s eclectic roster also reflects the whirlwind of being an A&R. “No two days are the same,” she says. “But that’s the cool part — you never really know what the day’s gonna bring.”
Typically, Calhoun spends the bulk of her morning responding to e-mails like the rest of us but once the afternoon hits, she is moving between sessions, meeting with other A&Rs, heading to local shows and showcases, and planning trips to Atlanta, New York, Vegas and Europe to keep her finger on the pulse of music (pun intended).
While present in sessions, Calhoun takes a hands-off approach. “I don’t overstep as an A&R,” she explains. “I really like to see what the creatives are gonna do on their own and help guide it from there. I’ll make sure everything is on track and the vibe is good in the studio.”
From DJing high school parties to facilitating studio sessions, Calhoun has always made sure to privilege interpersonal relationships and let the work naturally grow from there. “I’m a big relationship person,” she says. “Obviously this business is built on relationships, and everybody has said that a million times, but it couldn’t be truer.”
“I spend a lot of time just getting to know clients,” she continues. “I’m a big believer in date before you marry. I very, very rarely will offer someone a deal right off the rip. I’ve done it a couple times just because it’s made sense or it’s been extremely urgent. In general, I like to spend time just getting to know the prospective client, just to make sure we do establish that trust and we have a great flow.
“I have to be able to look at someone and imagine where it’s going to go and have that trajectory for them in my head. That’s the biggest thing for me. Artists give off different vibes, but there’s a certain drive you can feel when you meet someone that’s passionate, and that’s what I look for.”
In as many words, Calhoun is looking for potential clients to have the same drive as her. In 2017, she took that drive one step further, penning the music business curriculum for Recording Connection. As she explains, the curriculum covers everything from publishing and management to PR and A&R, to accounting and finance. The program is intentionally succinct and meant to cater to students as decisive as she was when she chose to forego a four-year university.
“I feel like this is a great alternative for someone that knows what they wanna do,” she says. “You can just jump in and learn the basics, and more importantly, learn from someone who’s in the business. Not only do you leave with the information, you leave with the relationship of someone who’s relevant and actively working in the business.”
In general, Calhoun believes that more traditional forms of education aren’t tailored for creatives. “When it comes to actually being creative in any area, a lot comes down to taste and talent,” she attests. “I don’t know if you can necessarily teach taste. I feel like the best way to learn is really just to do it.” To that point, Ashley is a big advocate of internships, making connections and learning as much as you can on the job.
Despite her being successful and possessing a wellspring of knowledge, Calhoun still faces countless situations where her gender becomes a point of contention. “I’ve been in situations where a man will enter the room and not shake my hand, but I have always checked them on it,” she recalls. “I try to be aggressive when I’m in the room, and I try to demand respect so I’m pulling up a seat at the table. I’m not gonna sit on the outer edge of the room. I definitely assert myself. That type of stuff does not fly with me, and if it does, I will speak out on it.”
Whenever possible, Calhoun urges young women in the industry to follow her lead, assert themselves and demand their due respect. “I’m not saying be over-the-top but when you do assert yourself and you don’t tolerate being treated differently, people respect you more,” she explains.
Of course, not every woman is in a position to advocate for herself, and to that point, Calhoun credits the #MeToo movement for giving more and more women the courage and a necessary platform to speak up and band together. “Thankfully, now we are in the time of the #MeToo movement, which I strongly support, and all of these women are speaking out,” she says. “Women are becoming more empowered than ever.”
While it may seem like Calhoun has lived enough lives for 10 women, she still has many dreams to pursue. She hopes to take on a bigger role at Pulse Music Group, assist in building out the label side of the company, and sign more marquee acts. “My overall goal is to be a chairman of a major music publishing company,” she tells me. “So that’s where I will end up.”
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