Original story and exclusive interview appeared in July 2012 print edition of Empower Magazine
Mathew Knowles has come a long way since his early childhood days in Gadsden, Alabama, a small industrial town in the south.
Knowles, a self-proclaimed country boy, who didn’t see an inside bathroom until he was 14 years old, was inspired by his parents’ entrepreneurial spirit and, as a young child, always dreamed of one day becoming a businessman.
Today, he is founder, president and CEO of Music World Entertainment, Inc., one of the leading music and entertainment conglomerates in the world, boasting record sales exceeding 300 million worldwide. He has reached the pinnacle of success in the music industry, an accomplishment few have achieved.
This year, Music World Entertainment celebrates a 20 year journey that launched and transformed Destiny’s Child into one of the most successful female groups in music history, launched the mega solo career of globally renowned Beyoncé, and gave birth to Music World Gospel, the world’s largest African-American owned and operated gospel label. This year, the gospel imprint celebrates its 10 year anniversary.
Under Knowles’ visionary leadership, the company also has managed the careers of some of the top music artists in the industry, inked successful endorsement and partnership deals, launched film and TV ventures, invested in various philanthropic projects and garnered an impressive list of music industry awards.
But it all began with a dream.
Knowles’ entrepreneurial spirit was ignited early in life by parents and grandparents who, despite having very little education, had a strong work ethic and an innate sense of innovation and business savvy.
“My dad, Matthew Sr., was really a very gentle, kind man, who drove a truck during the day delivering produce and at night convinced the owners to let him use the truck to sell scrap metals from old houses and parts from old cars,” says Knowles.
His mother, who attended high school in Miriam, Alabama with Coretta Scott King, worked as a maid for an area white family by day and, at night and on weekends, made and sold quilts and canned goods.
His grandfather, Dave Hogue, a half Cherokee, owned 300 acres of land where Knowles spent time during the summers.
“I have so much admiration and was so proud of my grandfather because he owned this land and would lease it out to a paper mill. He timed it so that they would clear off his land at no cost to him so he could farm,” says Knowles.
Knowles followed his family’s example and started his first business in the third grade selling candy.
“I always wanted to be a businessman. I would go and buy a dollar’s worth of candy and make that dollar turn into $3 dollars and eventually talked to the store owner to give me a discount. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it worked,’ says Knowles.
A graduate of Fisk University with degrees in economics and business administration, Knowles knows exactly what he is doing today, as he steers the helm of one of the world’s most successful music and entertainment conglomerates.
But it is a journey he would never have begun had he not taken a step of faith to walk away from a six-figure income in medical equipment sales to launch his own music company.
“I was in corporate America for 20 years and 18 of those years were phenomenal. But the last two years, I didn’t have the passion for it anymore and knew I was transitioning,” says Knowles.
Surrounded by music as a child, he recalls serving as DJ after Sunday dinners as he watched his mom and dad dance in the family living room. My dad was 6’4” and 320 pounds, but could really dance for a big guy. I always loved music,” reminisces Knowles.
Later starting his own family, he and Tina welcomed two daughters into the world. A devoted father, Knowles carried his daughters, Beyoncé and Solange, to dance and vocal lessons in support of their love of the arts.
He recalls the first time his daughter, Beyoncé, a shy seven year old, competed and won her first school talent show. She sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” at St. Mary’s in Houston and brought the audience of elementary school parents to their feet, says Knowles.
“We didn’t know, we were just there to support her, but she was a different person on stage, she wasn’t the same Beyoncé that we knew as parents,” recalls Knowles.
Beyoncé competed in 30 or more talent shows. “She never came in second, always first,” says Knowles.
Beyoncé later became a member of a performance group called ‘Girls Tyme’ and was invited to compete on Ed McMahon’s “Star Search.” The girls lost and were devastated, recalls Knowles.
“I talked to Ed McMahon because they were crying their hearts out and I asked what am I supposed to do,” shares Knowles.
McMahon told him that a number of performers who had lost the competition, such as Boys II Men and Usher, had regrouped and gone on to success in the industry.
Knowles got involved in helping the girls do just that. It was a pivotal decision, born out of love for his daughters and in support of their dreams.
“I am a motivational speaker and I often tell people that if Beyoncé had come to me and said ‘Daddy, I want to be a doctor,’ with my type ‘A’ personality, I would have tried to find out how to own a hospital,” says Knowles.
The Early Days
Knowles describes the early days following the launch of Music World as often “tough.” “It was tough because I was focused 100 percent on the music, and our funds as a family were limited,” shares Knowles.
But despite the financial and business challenges, giving up was never an option for the Houston music executive.
“I just don’t approach business or anything I do that way. If I am going to do it, I am going to always be creative and think outside of the box and approach it in a way that it can be a success,” says Knowles.
One of his most difficult business challenges has been having to change relationships with artists through the years.
“Those are stressful moments and I don’t like those moments,” shares Knowles. “But it is a part of the business and there are tough decisions that have to be made,”he says.
The Keys to His Success
Looking back, Knowles always imagined he would achieve great success.
“It did pass my mind and I was hopeful. I believe that if you don’t visualize success early on, it probably won’t ever happen.
Even when I was in corporate America, I always visualized what I wanted my success to be,” shares Knowles.
The Houston music icon credits his ability to recognize passion as the greatest asset that has shaped the success of Music World through the years.
“I believe it starts with a dream and that dream turns into passion, and without passion there would be no success.
I don’t look for ability to sing or dance or showcase first, I look for passion first. I think I am gifted with knowing and seeking out passionate artists,” says Knowles.
Through the years, artists have come to Music World excited about showcasing their talents and been shocked when instead they have been called into a one-on-one sit down with Knowles. “I want to sit down with an artist for an hour and get to know him or her and find out how passionate they are and how much they want to win,” says Knowles.
Knowles believes that passion coupled with a strong work ethic are the ingredients for success for artists on his music labels.
“It doesn’t matter how talented you are if you don’t have those traits,” says Knowles.
Knowles places a premium on artist development, a service Berry Gordy also provided his artists, according to Knowles. “I heard that he believed in artist development and he believed even in teaching his artists to sit down and eat at a dinner table,” says Knowles.
Knowles provides artists the opportunity to develop in Music World’s Star Power Boot Camp, which includes a course in “Music Business 101,” vocal coaching, choreography, fitness, A&R styling and wardrobe, media training and photo shoots.
Listening to the Room
On the issue of talent, Knowles calls it simple, ”the room will always tell you the truth.”
“Whenever an artist performs, the room tells them if they are great or not, the room will never ever lie to you. If you are not good, people will have their arms folded, no applause. If you are great, everybody is going to stand up. I simply listen to the room,” shares Knowles.
Being a visionary and having the ability to think outside of the box are other characteristics that have set Knowles apart in the industry.
“A lot of things we have done in 20 years, people didn’t get it. I have always asked, in the music industry, why do you do it that way. Some of the responses I got I didn’t like the answers, so we did it another way, and it worked,” says Knowles.
Building a strong team and having smart people with a shared vision surrounding him also has contributed to Music World’s long standing success.
Making It In the Music Industry
As a professor at Texas Southern University, Knowles has shared his insights in the music industry with students for the past several years.
“I feel it is a privilege and I get so much joy out of it. These young people are really wide open and like a sponge, absorbing every amount of knowledge,” says Knowles.
In his classes, he encourages students to recognize that there is no such thing as an overnight success.
“You don’t just wake up one day and become president. There is a process to become president, there is a process to become the best basketball player, the best teacher or the best doctor. You have to work the process and get really good at it,” says Knowles.
He encourages individuals seeking to break into the industry to begin honing their talents and developing a strong work ethic right in their own backyards. “Focus on and be the best in your community. Whenever there is an opportunity, go and perform regardless of how small it is, work at perfecting your craft. Be the best in your city and we will find you,” says Knowles.
Many aspiring artists have taken to the Internet and social networking sites, like Facebook and Twitter, to promote themselves.
“That is one of the things I tell someone trying to break into the industry today, take advantage of that,” says Knowles.
According to Knowles, many music executives mine those sites for potential new talent. He points to the discovery of pop artist Justin Bieber as a prime example of the potential impact of social media. “What we do now as music executives is look at YouTube and all of the social media sites to find out who is getting a hundred thousand hits,” shares Knowles.
Balancing Success and Failure
Knowles has masterfully built Music World Entertainment into the powerhouse music and entertainment conglomerate it is today, yet says that he has learned as much from his failures as his successes.
“I think it is only through failure that you can be successful. And sometimes failure comes because you are a risk taker, but you have got to be a risk taker,” says Knowles.
Knowles’ ability to view failure as an opportunity was never more evident than when he took action to regroup and restructure following the group’s loss on Star Search, exemplifying the tenacity and risk-taking spirit that would fuel Music World’s future success.
In looking back over the past two decades, he says there are many things he would do differently. As a father, one of those things would be finding a better way to separate fatherhood from the business—because of the impact it can have on a family, shares Knowles.
At the end of the day, he calls his greatest fulfillment and success, his two daughters. “I have two daughters that I am so proud of and am so happy that they are such really good people, that is my greatest success—Solange and Beyoncé,” says Knowles.
Changing the Landscape
Transforming Houston into an entertainment city has been another of Knowles’ dreams, however he admits it has been a challenge. “It is very difficult because the interfacing of key decision makers in music and entertainment is really in L.A., Nashville, New York, Atlanta and Detroit,” shares Knowles.
Although the landscape for entertainment in Houston is changing, Knowles would like to see it happen faster. “A key complaint is that the city shuts down at 2 o’clock, and in most cities you can hail a taxi or cab,” shares Knowles.
Despite the challenges, his resolve and commitment to keep Music World in Houston remains firm.
He recently formed a partnership with Jazz musician and vocalist, Scott Gertner, for a new night club in the Houston Pavilion.
Knowles, who owns the city block in Midtown where Music World’s corporate office is housed, has plans to redevelop the area.
“Let me just say it this way, in two years from now, this block will not look the same,” says Knowles.
Knowles’ plans for the future are to bring several mixed-use commercial projects to the area, including luxury apartments, a restaurant, and more. “One of the things we look to do in any redevelopment project is to incorporate a music component. If it is a restaurant, we are going to have live music,” says Knowles.
Building On A Legacy of Success
The Houston music icon is not resting on his laurels, but continues to position Music World Entertainment for continued success.
His latest project, a new British all-girls group, “From Above,” appeared on Teen Nick, June 25-30 in the American debut of the international hit reality TV series, “Breaking From Above.” The CD “Breaking From Above” is available on iTunes.
The debut series shows Knowles interactions with the girls as they go through Music World’s Star Power Boot Camp. In the process the girls learn that two new vocalists have been introduced to the series, who they will be competing against for a spot in the group.
Knowles and staff also are poised to take Music World Gospel to new heights with new artist acquisitions as the gospel imprint celebrates its 10th year anniversary.
In the midst of milestone celebrations, Knowles recently was honored by Cornerstone Christian Bible College on Father’s Day with an honorary doctorate of humanities degree. In his commencement address to graduates Knowles shared his insights on “The DNA of Success.”
He was praised by the college’s president, Dr. Oscar Dowdell-Underwood, for his “immeasurable contributions in the fields of culture, public service and the fine arts.”
“He has empowered so many through his extraordinary commitment to the development of human potential, gifts, and talents. Millions of people around the world have been positively impacted by his unselfish deposit in the lives of others,” said Dowdell-Underwood.
Deeply moved by Knowles’ speech, former Los Angeles Laker great, A.C. Green, referred to Knowles in his commencement remarks as one of his ‘new heroes.’ The occasion marked Knowles’ receipt of his second honorary degree and brought together a host of family members—many whom he had not seen since his childhood days in Alabama.
Life has truly come full circle for Knowles, a visionary, a leader, an educator and a philanthropist, who started his journey as simply a young boy with a dream.
In tribute to his 20 years of success in the industry, Knowles plans to take his “foot off of the pedal,” if but for a moment, to reflect on his company’s success.
“I am so grateful to a lot of people for the success of Music World Entertainment. It was not just myself, it was a combination of friends and family, a very dedicated staff and community, all coming together. I want to thank everyone who supported Music World through the years.
And if you didn’t support us, I want to thank you, because it made us better,” says Knowles.
Originally featured in the July 2012 print issue of Empower Magazine.