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Spaulding '86 returns to campus to discuss keys to his success

Barry McNamara
How closely is the study of government and philosophy related to the selling and promoting of music? Perhaps, one would think, about as closely related as Snoop Dogg is to Michael Bublé.

But Ron Spaulding, a 1986 Monmouth College graduate, showed how they all tie in together on a recent visit to campus. Currently the president of INgrooves/Fontana, an independent music distribution company in Universal City, Calif., Spaulding has experienced a career in the industry that included work not only with the aforementioned artists, but also with Metallica, Chickenfoot, NWA, Master P and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, to name a few.

“The courses in government gave me a good idea of the way our country is structured and, in relation to that, how organizations can be structured,” said Spaulding, who came to Monmouth from Jerseyville, Ill. “So it gave me an inward look at organizations. From philosophy, I’ve learned how to think about things differently.”

As a high school senior, Spaulding had “interest in and from” schools of various sizes, but what ultimately sold him on Monmouth was an admission representative named Irma Allen.

“She was the key,” he said. “She was in our community already, and she spent a lot of time with me personally influencing my decision.”

Spaulding also remembers being sold on “the student-to-doctorate ratio. … There were small classes, and they were taught by a professor with a doctorate. I was very impressed with the faculty.”

In addition to his double major, Spaulding was active as a wrestler and as a member of Alpha Tau Omega.

“Greek life was an integral part of my experience,” he said. “It helped me to cultivate lifelong friendships and showed me the importance of building relationships.”

Ultimately, he said, it is relationships that really matter, both professionally and personally.

“The most important thing for a person is to build strong relationships,” Spaulding replied, when asked what advice he would give today’s generation of college students. “Business is a web of relationships – relationships with your peers, your superiors and your subordinates. It’s critical how you manage them, because it affects how you will be perceived and directly influences performance results. We are tethered to devices, so it’s even more important to build strong, integrity-based relationships. That transcends so many things in the world of business and, really, in life.”

As Spaulding’s college graduation neared, he remembers thinking, “I had no idea of what I wanted to do, or what I could do. I thought I would perhaps go to law school and become a lawyer, but I decided to join the work force. I was going to be president of the world.”

After “stumbling around” initially, he worked for May Department Store Co., and its discount arm, Venture.

“I joined the executive training program and became a store operations manager,” he said. “There was an option after one year to stay working in the stores or to leave and work for the corporate office. I decided to choose the corporate office and was appointed to the position of assistant buyer in music. … I had no background in music. I was just a fan. Music was an integral part of my personal life, through things like concerts and a decent-sized music collection. But I had no idea there were any jobs in music outside of being a performer. I wasn’t aware of the intricate webs of the business inside music or, as I like to call it, what’s behind the curtain.”

A break came his way while he worked as a regional sales manager for JCI Records in Minneapolis, as the position “created a platform for a lifetime in sales. I called on retail companies in the Midwest. Minneapolis, in particular, was a hotbed for retail music. It was a great experience dealing with major national accounts such as Camelot, Best Buy, Target and Musicland.”

That led to a really big break – his nine-year career at Priority Records. From 1991 to 2000, the company’s sales grew from $20 million to $300 million while he served in various sales capacities.

“I was wearing a lot of different hats – finances, production, A&R (artists and repertoire), marketing, sales and managing a staff. All those various disciplines would have been compartmentalized at a larger company. Priority Records created a springboard to understand all aspects of the business, and that proved to invaluable. I didn’t realize it was a break at the time, just like you don’t realize how great you have it while you’re in college.”

Next came work with Warner Music Group – Elektra Entertainment and, later, WEA (Warner, Elektra and Atlantic) Distribition.

“I oversaw the day-to-day operations of sales – production, logistics, budgeting, goal and priority setting for a large sales organization,” Spaulding said. “That primary focus was sales, advertising, retail placement and promotion interaction with retail customers.”

In October 2007, he joined Fontana Distributions as executive vice president and general manager. Within the past month, the company was purchased by INgrooves. Spaulding and his staff fund, create and execute sales and marketing for more than 100 independent music labels and many familiar recording artists. The company coordinates operations and many creative aspects, as well as promotion, marketing and distribution to customers including brick and mortar retailers like Best Buy, and digital retailers, such as iTunes.

A typical week for Spaulding begins with a meeting with senior staff to set priorities and vision for the week, such as marketing vision of current projects and potential labels/artists to sign.
“There are lots of meetings,” he said. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job. We’re up early, we’re up late. In this business, a lot of the shows and events are at night. … Sales, marketing, finances and doing deals are our four horses.”

The jockeys, so to speak, are “integrity” and “leadership.”

“It’s vital to act with integrity in our dealings with customers, artists and their managers, and label owners,” he said. “I also strive to exemplify leadership daily and spend time creating a business culture of leading that people will want to follow. In meetings with artists and labels and in my daily interactions, leadership is key. People want to follow someone with strong character and strong vision. That’s solid advice for anyone, really.”

Has he succeeded in that regard?

Many people say the answer is “Yes,” including Jim Urie, president and CEO of Universal Music Group Distribution.

“Ron is that very rare and very valuable combination of a buttoned down businessman who also relates strongly to the creative community,” said Urie. “He’s the best music executive I’ve ever known.”

Asked to name some career highlights – other than his “behind the curtains” work with such artists and groups as Linkin Park, Ice Cube, Stained and many Grammy winners, such as Esperanza Spalding – he said a few came to mind.

“Some of the most exciting things were the launch of No Limit Records, which experienced phenomenal success in a short period of time” and helped mature the success of the hip-hop genre. “While I was at Warner Music, I co-founded the most recent incarnation of Asylum/East West. It was a new way to do business with independent labels/artists, and it proved to be very successful. Working at Fontana has been really exciting. We’ve experienced phenomenal growth, and it’s really been the culmination of years of experience. To do that in a marketplace that has been in decline (due, in part, to widespread piracy) has been my most significant professional accomplishment.”

While speaking later in the day to the college’s Entrepreneurism class, he added, “Our company’s international opportunities continue to grow and we plan to see exponential growth in the next five to 10 years overseas. The recognition that artistic material is intellectual property that deserves protection is growing in places like China. That means there is great opportunity out there.”