The Woman Behind the Music

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A champion for songwriters—and paying it forward.

“I am a woman in an industry that’s still pretty much a male-dominated industry,” says Nicole George-Middleton C’97, a senior executive at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

While women took center stage at February’s Grammy Awards—with Alicia Keys hosting, Dolly Parton honored, and Kacey Musgraves and Cardi B taking home wins for best album and best rap album, respectively—that was only a year removed from #GrammysSoMale of 2018, when just one female solo artist got an award and the Recording Academy president suggested that women who wanted to participate in the industry just needed to “step up.”

Condescension aside, George-Middleton—who serves as ASCAP’s senior vice president for membership and heads the Rhythm and Soul division—has been helping women do just that since joining the organization in 2008, by working to provide opportunities for female musicians, composers, and other industry professionals to share information, experiences, and advice. In 2009, she created Women Behind the Music, a networking event ASCAP hosts that celebrates the work of female songwriters, engineers, and technicians. And she serves on the board of She Is the Music, a group whose goal is to encourage more women to enter all facets of the music industry.

“As long as I can remember, I’ve been lucky enough to have had female mentors and sponsors who invested in my career,” she says. “So this is my way of saying thank you to them. And I also believe it’s important to pay it forward to those whose goal is a career in the industry.”

More than 670,000 songwriters, composers, and music publishers are members of ASCAP. George-Middleton nurtures budding songwriters and teaches them the business part of the music business, so that they can then go on to teach what they’ve learned to others. In addition, she puts together the annual ASCAP Expo, a three-day music conference focused on songwriting.

“It’s really exciting to work with people I listened to growing up and help the next generation of people who create music,” says George-Middleton, who has worked with star performers such as Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, and Ariana Grande. “Music is such a big part of life—it changes lives, impacts moods, and create memories.”

As a child growing up in the Bronx, George-Middleton remembers admiring the silky voice of her mother, Debora, an amateur songwriter who sang gentle melodies over and over until the flow seemed just right. And she loved going to church to hear her grandmother, Ocie, the lead singer in the church choir.

“I tried my hand singing in my high school choir, where I was an alto, but I gave up the idea of making a living at it,” she says with a laugh. “I grew up listening to Frankie Lynn, the Five Stairsteps, Biggie Smalls, and Tupac. My musical taste was all over the place. The first concert I went to was Menudo.”

At Penn she majored in psychology, planning to become a child psychologist, but decided on law school instead. In her first year at Brooklyn Law, she interned in Arista Records’ legal department, where the nuts-and-bolts work on copyrights and royalties fascinated her. “It gave me a critical understanding of issues that help me today be a better advocate for recording artists,” she says.

After graduating from law school in 2001, she practiced entertainment law at several firms before joining ASCAP—expertise that comes in handy when negotiating with music streaming services on the behalf of hip hop, rap, jazz, and rhythm and blues artists. “ASCAP is not anti-technology,” she says. “The music industry is evolving, and we just want to make sure songwriters are compensated fairly for their efforts.”

Since its start in 2009, Women Behind the Music has been held every October, in conjunction with Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The event includes talks and panel discussions that have featured recording artists like Sheila E., Kandi Burruss, and Priscilla Renea talking about the hurdles they’ve encountered as women building their careers in the music industry, and how they overcame those challenges. And it’s not uncommon to see high-level industry executives in the audience along with aspiring songwriters, George-Middleton adds.

“The event came out of a brainstorming session about what types of innovative programs we could produce,” she explains. “I felt that more women who are working in our industry needed to be admired for their accomplishments, and I wanted to share their stories and information to help the next generation of women entering our industry.” In recognition of her work on the event, Billboard magazine named George-Middleton a top Woman in Music in 2011.

Her work on the board of She Is The Music—which was founded in 2018 by Alicia Keys and others—has been equally gratifying. “The goal of the group is to increase the number of women working in music around the world,” George-Middleton says. “We staged our first event in Nashville, and had a songwriting camp for female songwriters that work in all genres. The cool thing is it was solely fueled by women. The program will continue, and I hope to help put together more events like it.”

ASCAP CEO Elizabeth Matthews says George-Middleton not only empowers the people she works with but is a mentor for women throughout the music business. “Nicole is a superstar here at ASCAP, and her success is felt throughout the organization,” she says. “She has deep relationships with top ASCAP members and is a fantastic leader for her team. Nicole is a true champion for songwriters.”

—Benjamin Gleisser

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