- Feature Stories
- News Flash
- The Fence
- Beyond the Cut
- Inspire Innovation
By: Nicholas Ducassi (A'10)
Madison Avenue in New York City is one of the world’s most famous thoroughfares. It passes through Midtown, the Upper East Side, Spanish Harlem, and Harlem, so plenty of urban stories fill the avenue. In the middle of it all, at 550 Madison Avenue, is the Sony building skyscraper. In a corner office on the 11th floor, with an impressive view, Geo Bivins works—although teenagers everywhere may question whether what Bivins does is actually work, especially on this day.
While Wall Street stock traders scream their buys and sells, Bivins listens to urban hip-hop music—eyes closed, head bobbing. His mind churns: the lyrics, the beat, the hook, the swagger. Members of Bivins’ music promotions team surround him, and their heads bob, too.
The recording is by “ASAP Rocky,” the 2012 definition of an “undiscovered” musician. The 22-year-old has never released an album, but his three music videos combined have had almost 20 million YouTube views. RCA Records, owned by Sony, signed ASAP to a $3 million record deal a few months ago, which is why Bivins, RCA’s new senior vice president of urban music promotions, is giving a preview of ASAP’s debut single, Goldie, his undivided attention. Why should ASAP care about Bivins’ opinion? For starters, one of his artists, Usher, has sold upwards of 65 million albums worldwide, won seven Grammies, and generated nearly $1 billion in revenue.
The song ends. Bivins opens his eyes. “What do you guys think?” he asks his team. “It’s hot,” says one. “Authentic, New York. He’s flowin’ his butt off,” says another. Bivins agrees: “It sounds like a hit, man, sounds like a hit.”
How can he be so sure? The answer to that question goes back in time.
It’s the 1970s, and the living room of the Bivins family home is constantly filled with the soul-soaked sounds of legendary funk and jazz bands coming from WAMO, Pittsburgh’s urban music station. During one call-in contest for a pair of tickets to an “Earth, Wind & Fire” concert, young George Bivins frantically calls the station every time the DJ announces that the phone lines are open. After he wins his tenth pair, the station staffer tells him that it’s time to give some other listeners a chance.
As a teenager, Bivins is obsessed with music—listening to albums on loop until the lyrics become second-nature and spending weekend nights at community center dances to discover the latest artists and newest songs. His paper-route money usually buys records, and by high school, he mops hospital floors to support his music habit.
The janitorial work doesn’t just help pay for albums and concert tickets; it also pushes him to double down on academics. “I saw so many people who’d been there for 10, 20 years … it didn’t look pleasant. I didn’t want to clean floors for the rest of my life.” But after years of forced piano lessons, he knows he’s not destined to become a musician. Proficient with numbers and fascinated by computers, he hopes to one day become a data analyst. So, after earning his undergraduate degree in business from the University of Pittsburgh, he enrolls in Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College to hone his data-analysis skills. The two-year urban and public affairs program, predicated on using data to tackle public policy issues, captivates him.
Just before he earns his master’s degree in 1983, Mellon Bank offers him a position at its Pittsburgh headquarters. As a graduation present, his parents buy him a round-trip ticket to Los Angeles. Plans change as soon as the California sun hits his face. The beaches, the clubs, and the weather are too enticing. His return ticket goes unused.
Master’s degree in hand, he lands full-time work as a data analyst for the City of Los Angeles. In time, though, he realizes the job’s not for him. Over the next few years, he lands several well-paying positions in data analysis, programming, and accounting, but each one proves unfulfilling. He bounces from company to company for almost 10 years until a headhunter contacts him about an auditing and data-security position at the Music Corporation of America (MCA, now NBC Universal).
The job entails programming passwords and auditing inventory data at MCA’s record-distribution plants across Europe over three-month intervals. Bivins doesn’t even own a passport. Is he interested? Hell yeah!(Continued …)