Whether it’s music or television, Phil Thornton is definitely one of the most influential individuals working in our industry. As Vice President/General Manager, Urban Inspirational at Entertainment One (eOne) out of Nashville, Thornton oversees one of the more coveted rosters currently in Gospel/Inspirational music; along with a roster expansion to include some R&B artists. Thornton has also chalked up quite a resumé as an executive producer of popular reality-based TV programs.
Give us some insight into your multi-faceted role at eOne.
My division is a very unique part of the company. We have our core Gospel and Inspirational business, but we recently started releasing R&B projects such as Lalah Hathaway’s Live album along with a forthcoming album from Tweet in February. We don’t want to overwhelm over selves, but I’m looking to release one to two core R&B projects per year. So I am actively considering some signings at this moment. We’re also expanding into the Christian Hip-Hop space, and we closely synergize with our television group which helps to cross-market some of our artists. An example would be Erica Campbell who is signed to us on the music side. She has the successful Mary Mary series on WeTV, an eOne-produced show. We produced The Sheards which aired on BET. Karen Clark Sheard is one of our artists.
In addition to Erica Campbell and Karen Clark Sheard, who else is on the Gospel roster?
We have quite an impressive and diverse roster starting with Jonathan McReynolds, who was just nominated for a Grammy. We recently filmed a video on Jonathan for the song “The Way You Love Me,” written and produced by Chuck Harmony & Claude Kelly. We have Michelle Williams, James Fortune, Donald Lawrence, Ricky Dillard, Hezekiah Walker, William McDowell and Deitrick Haddon, who also has a television platform. Shirley Caesar is on the roster and has a new album coming this spring. Shirley will be receiving her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in May. Kelly Price is coming with an Inspirational album this summer.
What attracted you to the Lalah Hathaway project?
Lalah and I have been friends for years. Once she became a free agent from her last label and the opportunity presented itself, I suggested we do something together. It was always a passion of hers to record a live album in honor of her father, Donny Hathaway. I said, “Let’s do it.” As we all know, it’s challenging to sell a record in this current climate, let alone a live one. But it’s proven to be a great idea. It came in at No. 2 on the Billboard R&B Albums chart and she’s got a Top 10 on the Urban AC Singles chart with “Angel.” So much is happening for Lalah. She’s won two Grammys in the last two years and was just nominated again. We have a video for her remake of Donny’s “Little Ghetto Boy” featuring Snoop Dogg, and we recently taped Jimmy Fallon. We’ll be working the Lalah project for a while.
With Gospel and Adult-leaning R&B as your department’s primary genres, where does your core business lie: in over the counter sales, downloads or streaming?
It’s case by case with each release. We have such an extensive catalog which accounts for a lot of our music streaming activity. R&B and Gospel are still primarily for physical sales consumers, and there are still some key Mom & Pop stores in different cities that we do campaigns with like Moods Music in Atlanta and DJs Music & Video in Norfolk, Virginia. We recently distributed an exclusive version of the Lalah Hathaway Live album with bonus tracks through Best Buy which has over 1,000 stores. “Lalah Live” has been one of Best Buy’s and Amazon’s top selling titles since its release.
Please share some of your successes in television production.
I was producing television shows and managing artists prior to my arrival at eOne. My first show was I Married a Baller (TV One), featuring Taj from SWV and former NFL star Eddie George. Then I did Lisa Raye’s Real McCoy (TV One). There was R&B Divas Atlanta and Los Angeles (TV One) and Hollywood Divas. After doing a few pilots for eOne, I became very familiar with their team. Once I was hired on the music side, it became a natural fit to collaborate in both arenas. We’re doing really well with season two of David & Tamela Mann’s show, It’s a Mann’s World (BET). I recently sold a biopic to Lifetime coming in 2016. Shaunie O’Neal and I have teamed up on a couple of projects, and I recently pitched a project to the Food Network.
Can you put out a successful music project without a TV platform?
I truly believe you can be successful without the visual component but it definitely adds value. Audiences have short attention spans today. I’m a firm believer that you have to have multiple drivers to basically have a successful project. It typically includes a great audio component; great visuals whether they be a music video, or a television show; and then there’s brand partnerships and touring. I think you need at least three components. Television is always helpful because you can reach so many people at one time. A weekly television show with the potential to reach millions is like a one-hour commercial. It’s certainly been a great method of promotion when I look at artists such as Tamar Braxton, or K-Michelle, Keyshia Cole, Monica and Erica Campbell.
How do you decide which artists to sign and how do you manage so many projects?
I sign people that I truly admire and that have true talent. It’s an indescribable feeling…something that I feel I need to a part of. I love to give people a platform to share their stories, their gift, and to share their truth. If there is a space or a need for it in the market, I’ll find the time and the resources to make it work. Besides, I have a great team both inside and outside of eOne that helps me to manage it all.
What’s the best thing about being Phil Thornton?
I get to live my dream. I get to have fun and it doesn’t feel like work. I love what I do and I feel like I’ve met my purpose. That’s the best part of being me.