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Ashley Calhoun: The PULSE Pub Queen

A lifelong plan came to fruition when Ashley Calhoun became President and Head of Creative at PULSE Music Group — but she’s far from done making her mark.

The Pub Queen is how those closest to Ashley Calhoun know her — but due to her profound dedication to music publishing over the last decade, her official title has been upgraded yet again.

This week, Calhoun was promoted to President and Head of Creative at PULSE Music Group, the company co-founded in 2008 by Josh Abraham and Scott Cutler, exactly two years after she had been named Senior Vice President and Head of Creative and seven years after starting at PULSE as a creative director.

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Calhoun reflected on the moment with Boardroom:

“I’ve always aspired to become president of a publishing company. It’s a position that I’ve been working towards my entire career. One thing that I’m extremely proud of is that I never skipped any steps. I started as an unpaid intern, then an assistant, then an A&R manager.

“PULSE is a company where I was really able to flourish as an executive from the moment I started. Scott and Josh really trust the team they hire, and that’s important — one thing that I believe sets us apart from many of our competitors. This is a significant moment for me because I want A&Rs, especially women A&Rs and execs, to see that it’s possible to work your way up and to know that there is a place for us in leadership roles in this business. I couldn’t be more excited to take on this new role at PULSE, and I’m so thankful for Scott and Josh for always supporting me and for being great leaders and mentors. I’m grateful for every new position, because it means there’s new responsibilities on my plate and new things to learn.”

It’s only right that as Calhoun levels up, the producers and songwriters that call PULSE home are likewise home in the top three of the latest Billboard Hot 100 chart. Tyler Johnson co-produced/wrote Harry Styles’ ubiquitous No. 1 “As It Was.” Angel Lopez co-produced/wrote Jack Harlow‘s Fergie-infused “First Class.” FNZ and SprngBrk co-wrote Future’s “Wait For U” featuring Drake and Tems — with FNZ also having co-written “Stay” by The Kid LAROI featuring Justin Bieber at No. 10.

Their wins are her wins, too.

“Charts aren’t our primary compass when it comes to signing talent,” Calhoun says. “We definitely don’t chase the charts, but the goal is still to have all of our clients have success on the chart. So when that does happen, and especially with the clients that we took early bets on and really rolled up our sleeves and got to work, it’s one of my favorite feelings in the world.”

And none of this would be happening this way had Calhoun never taken an early bet on herself.

***

Calhoun acted as an A&R before she was old enough to know such a thing existed.

She grew up in Virginia Beach — home to music icons such as Clipse, Pharrell, Chad Hugo, Missy Elliott, and Timbaland. Her innate ability to identify emerging artists matched her legendary surroundings. Calhoun’s first music-related memories are of “jamming on toy drums” with her dad. “I genuinely wanted to learn how to play instruments,” Calhoun says.

In grade school, she joined orchestra and enrolled in various music classes. Her obsession with music intensified with age, but she struggled to commit to practicing. But all along, without realizing it, she was training her ear for something different.

“I was definitely the person in my friend group that was on everything super early,” she says. “People would always want to hop in my car or come over and listen to whatever I was listening to.”

One time, Calhoun was cruising in her Toyota Corolla with Lady Gaga’s newly released “Just Dance” blaring through the rolled-down windows. “My friends were in the driveway, and they were clowning me so hard for playing this song because we were listening to a lot of rap music, as I still do. That’s definitely where my taste leans. I was getting clowned so hard for listening to this song that was so pop and so dance,” she recalls.

Calhoun stuck by her instincts. She insisted her friends listen. They eventually followed her into Gaga fandom — buying tickets to an early concert for $25 before Lady Gaga became LADY GAGA forever more. The fan in Calhoun has always been pure, but unlike her peers, fandom itself was never the endgame.

“I remember me and my friends would drive by Missy Elliott’s house just to drive by it, or drive by Pharrell’s house blasting music,” she says. “I was such a fan of all their stuff, but all these great artists and producers being from my area definitely impacted me wanting to work in music. It seemed attainable.” (The full-circle moment came when she could call Chad Hugo a colleague after he signed with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings, with which PULSE has a venture deal.)

Her parents, since early childhood, had drilled into her mind that she could and should do whatever she wanted. By 14 years old, Calhoun had begun hatching her plan to pursue a career in music. High school was nothing more than an obstacle.

“While all these people were from Virginia Beach are doing all these great, very prolific things in music, I knew that you can’t do those things just being in Virginia Beach,” Calhoun says.

So, she turned 18, moved to Los Angeles, and never looked back.

***

Despite appearances, dreams don’t immediately come true as soon as someone gets off the proverbial bus in LA.

After leaving behind everything she’d ever known and relocating her life to the West Coast, Calhoun enrolled in a nine-month audio engineering program at Los Angeles Recording School. Her parents’ unwavering encouragement translated to financial support, as they covered her rent so she could focus on studying what she loved most.

Once she completed the program, the real crash course kicked in. Calhoun went to work at a bagel restaurant in Beverly Hills to make ends meet. Simultaneously, she hustled at Cash Money Records as an assistant to Josh Berkman, who also happens to hail from Virginia Beach.

She managed producers, interned wherever she could, and never lost sight of why.

“I do remember distinctly [that] she came into my office wearing a uniform, straight from work at a bagel shop,” says Zach Katz, the co-founder and then-CEO of LA label Beluga Heights who was recently appointed to COO and President at esports giant FaZe Clan. “Obviously, you could tell immediately she was passionate. We had a few meetings, and I made the decision early on, like, okay, this is somebody that can really be valuable to the music industry.”

Calhoun jumped at every chance to go to Katz’s office and play him new music. He was struck by her keen ear, consistently impressed by the list of artists and producers he would never have heard if not for her.

“There’s two kinds of people,” Katz says. “There’s people who want to be in the music industry, and then there’s people who are practitioners. She was already identifying talent, and she was already trying to work with talent. She wasn’t just like, ‘Oh, I dream about being in the music industry.’ She was already in motion.”

Katz told several people within his expansive network about Calhoun, and he learned that Kevin Hall, then at Rondor, needed an assistant. “They met, and the rest was history,” he says. Calhoun was Senior Creative Manager at Rondor, a now-defunct subsidiary of Universal Music Publishing, from 2011-15.

Calhoun credits her father — “my idol, my role model, and I’m literally a mirror image of him” — as the first example of fearless persistence in life and in work. Over time, catalyzed by her experiences with figures like Katz, she herself grew into an example of persistence paying off.

But soon, she’d also need patience.

***

There’s a parallel universe in which Calhoun’s profuse PULSE era begins nine months earlier than it actually did.

Calhoun was called into a meeting at PULSE with Maria Egan, who was managing JR Rotem. At the time, Rotem was working frequently with songwriter JHart. Calhoun assumed it was a run-of-the-mill meeting about scheduling more collaborative sessions for JHart and Rotem — until Scott Cutler pulled her into a conference room.

This is not a meeting about my writers, she thought. This is a meeting about me.

Cutler and Egan wanted Calhoun to come to PULSE and work A&R under Egan. Calhoun was intrigued by the company’s culture, but above all else, she was loyal.

“I had a whole roster [at Rondor] that I felt very committed to,” she says. “A lot of them were on the verge of having really, really big moments that we were all working really hard toward. I just didn’t feel like it was the right time for me to leave them in that moment and go to a new place of work. I really felt an obligation to stay with my clients at Rondor and see these things through.”

Calhoun only resisted PULSE for so long, but that extra nine-month commitment didn’t go unnoticed.

“After Rondor folded, when she gave us the news, I was in a session with another writer, Prince Charlez, signed to Rondor at the time, too,” recalls Rahki (50 Cent, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar), a Grammy-winning producer for whom Calhoun served as publisher. “She pulled up on us, and she was like, ‘I gotta talk to you.’ I didn’t know what she wanted to talk about. It felt really serious. I was just like, Yo, what could it be? Did I do something wrong? I was a little worried.”

Calhoun informed Rahki that Rondor was folding. All of the company’s writers would be transferred to the Universal wing, and she would no longer be there to work with him.

“She hugged me, and she cried,” he continues. “And that moment, for me, was like, Oh, you really care.

“Her love for human beings is really key and important in this industry. She really cared for us as writers and producers first, you know? I could tell that this wasn’t just a job for her. It was a way of life. I was like, ‘Nah, we gotta continue this run together,” Rakhi says.

It isn’t just sentiment — Rahki ultimately made Calhoun his manager, and she later took on acclaimed producer G. Ry (PARTYNEXTDOOR, JAY-Z, Kehlani) just before he produced tracks such as “Nothings Into Somethings” and “Since Way Back” on Drake’s 2017 album More Life.

She manages both under the PULSE umbrella to this day.

“I always took notice of what she’s been doing. I guess you could say I was a fan,” G. Ry says of what drew him to Calhoun initially. “She knows publishing like the back of her hand, and she’s a force to be reckoned with. She’s a big dog in this gang. People know not to try certain things with her because she’s in business with everybody — indirectly or directly.”

“She’s the self-proclaimed Pub Queen,” he adds. “And she really is.”

***

This is a story about Calhoun as The Pub Queen, and the relationships she has nurtured throughout the music industry, but a good love story should never be ignored — especially because PULSE is tangentially responsible for Calhoun now being engaged to Brigitte Navarrete of the Deux Twins.

Four years ago, PULSE was planning its annual summer-end party. Calhoun’s goal was to book a woman to DJ. A colleague suggested the Deux Twins.

“I kept seeing Brig pop up on my Raya app — constantly,” Calhoun says, with a laugh. “I was kind of interested in her, so I was like, ‘That’s perfect. Let’s book the Twins.’

“We ended up booking them, and I just remember her walking in. It was like a scene in a movie — just like this goddess walking through the gates. We had a tattoo artist at the party, so I was getting a terrible tattoo on my hand of a burning house with one of our clients when she walked in. I went right to the DJ booth, and I don’t think I left that spot the whole party. From there, we’ve been inseparable.”

And while Brigitte Navarrete may be the only romantic relationship that blossomed from Calhoun’s time at PULSE, Calhoun is the main character in some heartwarming backstories across her roster.

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***

” I date before I marry,” Calhoun says.

Now, she’s metaphorically describing how she approaches signing artists, producers, and songwriters. When considering which creators to bring into the PULSE family, she needs to make sure she likes them as human beings. They break bread together, spend time one-on-one in the studio, and understand where one another is coming from.

“I want to meet everyone in music,” she says.

That’s a mindset that produced particular benefits for Brent Faiyaz (GoldLink, Future, Juice WRLD).

Calhoun was familiar with Ty Baisden, Faiyaz’s manager, when he sent her an email with no subject line and no text — just one SoundCloud link. “I clicked the link, and it was a link to some Brent Faiyaz demos,” she says. “I’d never heard of him. He had less than 1,000 Instagram followers at the time. I was blown away.”

Calhoun emailed Baisden and asked to meet Faiyaz for lunch as soon as possible. Faiyaz signed a publishing deal with PULSE in May 2016, and by January 2018, he was nominated at the 60th Grammy Awards as a featured artist and writer on GoldLink’s Hot 100 debut entry “Crew.” (Faiyaz now boasts 2.3 million Instagram followers, by the way.)

“Because of that, I make sure to try to listen to everything that’s emailed to me,” Calhoun says. “I would’ve been devastated if I missed that email and didn’t have the opportunity to come in on the ground floor and help Brent build his career and stay independent.”

Calhoun would have been equally devastated if she’d ignored an email from Nick Jarjour, manager to Starrah, that included raw demos — including one that would become Kid Ink’s “Be Real” featuring DeJ Loaf.

Calhoun called Jarjour and asked to hear more about Starrah’s story. Poetically, Starrah’s status at that time aligned with where Calhoun herself had been upon first arriving in LA. While selling hooks on Instagram, Starrah was working a full-time job and squeezing in sessions when she could. All she needed was a chance to transform music from her passion project to her career.

When Rondor folded, Calhoun called Jarjour and explained what happened. They went to lunch on Fairfax, and Calhoun met Starrah for the first time.

“My first impression of Ashley was that she was a young boss, and I knew I could trust her,” says Starrah, the prolific singer-songwriter behind such No. 1 hits as Camila Cabello’s “Havana,” Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You,” and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage Remix” featuring Beyoncé. “I knew she was going to fight for what she believed in, and she believed in me.”

“I’m taking meetings and wherever I go, I’m going to make sure that I can sign you as my first signing,” Calhoun told Starrah at lunch that day. “Let’s trust each other and do this thing.”

Most places recognized Starrah’s undeniable star power when Calhoun met with them, but they paused short of wanting to sign her so early. When Calhoun presented Starrah to PULSE, however, they were “super supportive.” Calhoun signed Starrah within her first official week at PULSE in June 2015.

And if Starrah was her first signing, Kehlani was her most elusive.

In February 2015, Calhoun watched Kehlani open for G-Eazy on his From the Bay to the Universe Tour at the Wiltern in LA; Calhoun says she was “1,000% sold” on Kehlani based on her performance alone. She was determined to sign her, heading to a Las Vegas stop on one of Kehlani’s early tours to spend more time with her and her team and “chasing” the artist around SXSW as she performed every possible showcase. Calhoun’s commitment was there and a rapport was steadily building, but Kehlani’s existing deal with her label complicated the viability of an outside publishing partnership.

They reignited conversations the December before Kehlani’s sophomore 2020 record It Was Good Until It Wasn’t. The meeting went well. Kehlani played them her new music. It appeared, though, as if a major label was going to swoop in and scoop up the two-time Grammy nominee.

“But with anything I do, I always go as hard as possible,” Calhoun says. So, she offered to facilitate any features Kehlani may want for It Was Good Until It Wasn’t.

“I would love to get James Blake on a record,” Kehlani told Calhoun. “And I have a song in mind.”

“She played me ‘Grieving,’ and we had just signed James Blake [at PULSE],” Calhoun continues. “I remember she left, and I was like, ‘I have to make this happen.'”

And she did.

Kehlani went over to Blake’s house. The session went so well that she made a FaceTime call to Calhoun as she was leaving. She wanted to sign with her and PULSE.

“It’s a different journey to how I found every client and how we started working together,” Calhoun says.

***

PULSE Music Group will always be Abraham and Cutler’s baby, but if they’d never found Calhoun, it may not be the powerhouse it is now.

“Ashley came in and signed some really hot talent,” Cutler says. “She signed Brent Faiyaz, she signed Starrah, she signed OZ, and she signed OG Parker. All early on, all on her gut. Josh and I talk every day at seven in the morning. I probably call Ashley at eight. I wouldn’t make a move without running it by her and making sure she was comfortable with the idea, which is new at PULSE. It’s been Josh and I doing that for years and years and years.”

He sighs. He’s having trouble finding the words for Ashley’s value. “She’s just my favorite person,” he says.

That’s perhaps the best way to describe PULSE: a bunch of passionate pros who additionally consider one another to be their most favorite people — and who happen to be incisive musical tastemakers on top of it all. And as vast as its reach has become, PULSE still operates as an independent publisher and positions creative autonomy at its center.

It’s the only environment in which the fledgling 3:02 Music Group can exist.

Unveiled on March 8, Starrah created 3:02 as her own publishing company in partnership with PULSE, one in which she’s empowered “to sign and develop her own roster of artists, songwriters, and producers.” The new entity represents the same north star that Calhoun followed all the way from Virginia Beach, and the one that’s still guiding PULSE toward a boundless future.

“PULSE was started by a songwriter and a producer, Scott Cutler and Josh Abraham. It’s the whole ethos of our company,” she says. “We’re helping clients, brick by brick, build their businesses. It’s our goal to empower creatives across the board. If I could leave everyone with their own versions of PULSE, whatever that means to them, then that’ll be the most rewarding thing ever.”

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