As a marketing powerhouse, Amani Duncan spent nearly two decades delivering superstar promotional success for some of the most influential artists in rock and pop.
We’re talking Jay-Z, Janet Jackson, The Rolling Stones, Lenny Kravitz, Bon Jovi, Joss Stone, Gorillaz and more.
During her tenure at labels like Def Jam and Capitol Music Group, Duncan’s bold and innovative approach to music marketing included groundbreaking partnerships with consumer brands like myspace, Champion apparel, Chase, Southwest Airlines and the NFL, among others.
She walked out the record label door and into a plum position as Chief Marketing Officer for Sean Combs Enterprises (Yes, THAT Puff Daddy), spearheading the marketing for all of his products and brands.
So what is she doing at Martin Guitars as their new VP of brand marketing? That’s what I set out to uncover in this fascinating conversation with one of the most dynamic marketing professionals in our industry today. Check it out.
GUITAR WORLD: What made you want to jump into the music industry in the first place? Are you a musician?
Oh, gosh. I fell into it by complete fluke. I’m from Los Angeles. I graduated college with a political science degree and was on the way to law school and had an “Aha!” moment, but it wasn’t a clear “Aha!” moment, because I didn’t know what to do. I just knew I didn’t want to go to law school.
It was a really difficult time in my life, because it was the first time I was allowing myself to think of something other than just going to law school and being a lawyer. So literally, one day as I’m lying on my mom’s couch, I said, “I like music. I’m going to work in the music business.”
This is a true story. I got the Yellow Pages and was looking at record companies and came across Def Jam. They had an office in LA, and I literally cold called them. It just so happened that the vice president of A&R picked up the phone. She was very rushed and hurried. And I went into my, “I’m a recent graduate. Are you looking for an intern?” She’s like, “Just show up tomorrow,” and hung up the phone. And I was like, “Did I just get an internship? I think I did?”
And I showed up, and I worked. I had no clue what I was doing. I worked for three months for free. My parents were just beating my back, like “What are you doing? What’s this music industry?” And I was always told I wasn’t going to get hired, you know, they said, “We don’t have a position for you.” And I was like, “You know what, it doesn’t matter, I just want to learn.”
And when the three months came up, I had to find a gig, and they offered me a job. It was for the Office Manager. I was like, “I don’t want that, but I’ll take it.” And then a couple months after that, they offered me a position in New York. Literally, on a Friday they called me, and said, “Okay, kid, are you ready?” Because I had been bugging them for months. I would call everyday, like “I need to be in New York! I need to be in New York! I need to be where the action’s at!” Because the LA office was just a tiny, little satellite office. And they were like, “Oh my god, this girl is a crazy stalker.” But when a position came up, they thought of me.
I know, I know. I’ve been called that before, among other things. I didn’t know a soul. And I figured it out. I walked away 17 years in the record business. It was so different back then. It was so much fun, and it was vibrant. And we were just kind of making it up as we went along. And then it just changed over the years, so grossly. I just became critical and disenchanted. But it has been good, I have no complaints. I had a great career, I worked with some great labels, amazing artists, did some really interesting things, so I don’t have any complaints, whatsoever.
That’s a good life lesson. You gotta know when to walk away. So, then you went to work for Sean Combs Enterprises in a marketing capacity, correct?
Right before Sean, I was head of marketing for the pop/rock side of Capitol Music Group, which was great. I was looking at my next move and it was right at the beginning of the recession. Sean came a knockin’, and we had never met directly. Six degrees of separation, obviously being in the business for so long. We knew all the same people. And he called me on my personal cell phone. I literally thought it was a prank call. It it took me about two weeks to return the call. I finally called him back.
I went over there as his Chief Marketing Officer. It was really interesting because he has so many different line extensions and brand extensions, and I was overseeing the marketing for all of them. So we ranged from his fragrance line, to his film and TV, to his charities, to his clothing line, to his record album.
And then how did the Martin position come along?
By a stroke of a luck, and again, another right place-right time opportunity, Martin called. And they had the executive recruiter contact me who said, “Hey, came across your CV, and we have an interesting opportunity. Don’t hang up. Do you think you could work for Martin Guitar?” And I was like, you know, I grew up in a musical family. I’ve played piano since I was 5.
My mom and dad both play guitar. They both play Martin. So I was very familiar – obviously, being in the music business, I was familiar with the brand. And they were like, “Well, it’s in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.” And I was like, “What? Huh? Where?” Like, I had no idea. I was like, “Where is that?” You know? We started our courtship, I should say, and here I am today.
That must have brought a whole new set of challenges with it.
The fact is that I had to come on board and just ... And when I say, “Take my hand and just wipe the book clean.” I mean, I don’t think I kept anything. Everything was just disjointed and there wasn’t any brand continuity. 179 years of awesomeness, best in class. You can trace the roots back to players from... I mean, you know the history, it just goes back from Woody Guthrie and Elvis, and Crosby, Stills & Nash, you know, it’s endless.
And the product is just beautiful and gorgeous, and inspirational. And then you had literature and ads, and pieces of paper and websites and things that were supposed to represent that Best in Class brand, and it just stopped. It was end of the road. I said, “We need to make sure that everything that comes out of the marketing department is Best in Class like the products we make.” Our QA department spends hours scrutinizing the guitars before they’re shipped out. We need to have that same diligence in marketing, you know? So I had to come in and be that messenger, hello!
How did that go?
I have always considered myself an agent of change. And I know the good and the bad that comes with that, it’s a double-edged sword. And I’m okay with that. I gravitate towards brands that need, kind of, I call it “joo-jee.” They need a little facelift, they just need a little sparkle.
I call that the fixer.
Yeah, I was told, “Oh, you’ll never change anything. Slow moving ship. They’re like the Dreadnought – they never change.” Blah blah blah. And I was like, “Okay, I’ve listened to everyone with a grain of salt.” I was like, “Uh huh, uh huh.” But little did they know, you’re talking to a person who thrives on proving people wrong, you know? I love a challenge.
So what I did was I came in with a velvet glove approach. I had to be firm because I had to kind of silence the voices, you know what I mean? I had to say, “Okay, guys. You don’t have a plan, so therefore your opinion, at this moment, doesn’t really mean anything. It rubbed some people the wrong way, because I wasn’t asking permission. I wasn’t consulting, you know, because I knew I had a very short period of time to make a big impact. And I did it. When I came here, they had 900 people on Facebook. They have 111,000 in 18 months. We had less than 800 people on Twitter. We have over 20,000 in 18 months, you know?
It just blows my mind the companies that don’t pay attention to social media.
Honey, they hadn’t changed their website in over 10 years. I changed Sean’s website every three months. I’m like it’s a living, breathing vehicle of truth to create awareness.
I tell people all the time, it’s about balance. Like, my strategy was about not cutting off my nose in spite of my face. I value the fact that I can say we have been around for 179-plus years. That is something our competitors cannot say. I wanted to appeal to a new consumer that would eventually become the core, but then I also wanted to not piss off the core, which you’re going to do anyway because anytime insert a new change, it’s very hard.
We have all of these amazing players, from Dylan to his son, to Woodie Guthrie and Neil Young. The fact that you can connect all these gods, it’s cool! So then, that’s what I started to do. To bring in young ambassadors, start a Martin Ambassador program. So We got Dierks Bentley, we got Hunter Hayes, we got the Avett Brothers, we got Mumford & Sons, we have We Are Augustines, we have Ed Sheeran. We have really cool, vibrant, young, credible players.
And Weezer, we even got Jimmy Fallon to put down his beloved Gibson and fall in our love with our new 28. He plays it all the time now.
And you’ve beefed up your presence in Nashville too, right?
Nashville is a big push for me because I was like, “We have to be prominent in the three major music cities – LA, New York, and Nashville.” In Nashville, we were just nowhere, nowhere. So I went down there. We sponsored “VH1 Save the Music Songwriters in the Round” last year. And we did an activation in Nashville, LA, and New York. And when I went down to Nashville, and we had our guitars on display, people – their reaction was just over the moon.
Right. If anyone can appreciate a Martin guitar, it’s a Nashville player.
I hired a brilliant consultant at an Artist Relations and Marketing company down in Nashville, because I know we have to have someone on the ground, we can’t do this remotely from Nazareth. We’ve done partnerships with the Country Music Awards, we have artists there. We have guitars, we’re going to be featured in the ABC Nashville show, that’s premiering October 10th. We’re written into the script! I mean, when I set my mind on something, I put the urgency behind it. I’ve shaken up a lot of things, rubbed some feathers the wrong way, but like I always say, “No one can argue with success.”
Which is why Year One was so crucial to get numbers on the books and get some big ticket success in here. We’ve done partnerships with Porsche, UPS, Life is Good, VH1, you know? I’ve taken my record label business savvy and creative juices and just applied them to a different product. I always looked at artists as a product. I’m like, we’re promoting a product, you know, who just so happens to talk back!
Ha! So, what’s coming up for Martin 2013?
My focus for marketing from a creative standpoint is really focusing on the tradition. We have a very exciting tradition behind Martin. We have some really exciting big-ticket items that are happening in 2013 leading into 2014 that I can’t really go into great detail about. But, from a creative standpoint, it’s still producing Best in Class business, still making very smart, strategic partnerships and expand our brand awareness and focusing on the tradition and the history of the brand.
Have there been any challenges that you face as a woman in the music industry?
Yeah, the answer would be yes. I’m a woman, and I’m also a woman of color. So it’s been an interesting ride, an interesting journey. Coupled with the fact that I started out with urban music and ended up in pop/rock. So that’s a triple whammy. And there have been challenges of respect, credibility, making sure that your voice is heard, making sure that people understand that you are a power player and not be dismissed. But, I’ve learned. I’ve made mistakes along the way. But I’ve always tried to be true to myself and not be afraid to do the right thing and say the right thing. And it’s served me well. It’s also helped to have allies in the right places that supported you along the way. But yeah, my biggest challenge was making sure that my voice was heard and that I was not compromised in any way.
It’s really a male-dominated industry, it’s really easy to be dismissed. It takes finesse, and it takes a certain velvet glove approach and sometimes not a velvet glove, you know? You just kind of have to read your audience really well, and make sure you know your stuff.
One of my mentors said to me, people were like talking about me, and I was like, “Why are they talking about me?” And he said to me, “Amani, it doesn’t matter. People are always going to have something negative to say about someone. What matters is your work. Make sure they cannot discredit your work.” And that has never left me. People don’t have to like you, and they won’t, it’s not a popularity race, not everyone’s going to like you. But if your work is amazing, they have no choice but to hire you, you know?
Check out the full line of Martin guitars and see what’s in store for 2013 right here.
Here are some photos of Amani Duncan, some Martin Guitar beauty shots (nice!), and some of her new Martin Ambassadors thrown in for good measure!Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents 65amps, Dean Markley, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the co-producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.