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Gordan Dillard Isn’t Here to Follow Trends

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
The music manager and Capitol A&R executive speaks with Boardroom on what makes Doja Cat a 1-of-1, what he looks for in an artist client, and growing diversity in the music indsutry.

Gordan Dillard never had a Plan B, and he never needed one. All he needed was a way in the door.

His sister worked in Motown Records’ finance department, inadvertently gaining Dillard himself access to the building. Around 2009, he began working under industry titans like Bruce Carbone and Sylvia Rhone and undeniably gained their respect. The linear version of this story is that Dillard proved his worth as Cash Money Records’ pseudo-travel agent, segueing into a career in artist and producer management and eventually a chance meeting with Doja Cat, whom he now co-manages.

But while Dillard has been an exception to most rules, he’s just like the rest of us in that his success was not linear.

“It’s a mentality thing of how you perceive up and down because what you see as down could be — and most often is — your preparation for your up,” the now-SALXCO manager and EVP of A&R and Artist Development at Capitol Music Group told Boardroom. “It’s like when you’re trying to work out, and you’re stretching and breaking your muscles to build a new muscle. I’ve had some of the hardest moments ever, and even where we’re at now with the success we’ve been able to achieve, I still have those moments where I’m stressed out, and I’m like, ‘Damn, man.'”

“But it’s never like, ‘Damn, man. I’m ready to quit.’ I’m too much of a competitor to quit. There’s no losing in my vocabulary,” he said.

Dillard’s win column is overflowing — from running Doja Cat’s “entire business” with her co-manager, Josh Kaplan, to flexing his managerial instincts at Capitol. Below, he gave Boardroom a glimpse into it all.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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MEGAN ARMSTRONG: How did you get your start with Motown in 2009?

GORDAN DILLARD: I got my start with Bruce Carbone. Technically, I wasn’t even supposed to be in the building because I wasn’t in school, so it wasn’t a real internship, but I was working on Bruce Carbone, who was under Sylvia Rhone at the time. He just allowed me to come into the office and create value, which was the most important thing.

In hindsight, looking at that opportunity, I got really close with some of the Cash Money guys. I used to handle a lot of the travel for those guys. While doing that, [I was] discovering artists and producers and just trying to bring value to anything that was going on in the building that could help me build a name for myself and get a job.

MA: Had you identified before that you wanted to do whatever it took to get into music through any door you could?

GD: I mean, I always wanted to get into music. Music has been a part of my family, or at least the arts have been a part of my family. My mother was a film director and my father used to play the piano. I used to do art stuff in church and my brother was a rapper.

Photo credit: Cibelle Levi

You know, I just enjoyed the music business. There were a lot of influences at the time: the Roc-A-Fella movement and the early Def Jam movement. That side of the business was always very appealing to me. I just loved the industry. I loved the respect that a lot of those guys got — or, at least, what it looked like from the outside looking in, and so I’ve always wanted be a part of it.

My sister worked at Motown in the finance department. That’s how I got into the building because I used to visit her, and then I used to walk around, introduce myself to everybody, and build relationships from there.

MA: What’s the biggest lesson from your formative years at Motown that you apply to your career today?

GD: Again, it’s value. Adding value to things is always the most important thing — if you’re trying to scale up, if you want to want to network with a particular person, if you want to do anything. When I was in the earlier space of my career, and I wanted to meet certain people, it was, ‘What can I do to not only bring value to this space but also have someone rely on me for something?‘ To be held responsible for something was always my goal.

Again, going [back to] Motown, I handled all the travel to the point where they relied on me consistently to get the job done. I did it well, to the point where when I couldn’t do it anymore because I had to move on, they didn’t want to lose me. I had created too much value. And so, they provided me with a job. Now, it’s the same. How do you create value in an artist’s life? How do you create value for a label?

MA: What’s an example of a time when nobody was looking to you to do something but you found a way to add that value and change how you were perceived?

GD: I can give you the very first example, which is what got me my job at Motown. I was coming back and forth between the A&R department, and I was bringing them music consistently. So, I was using my time outside the office to find different producers, different beats, different everything that I could sit down with Bruce and play for him to the point where he used to look to me for certain things.

It was a heavy workload. At that time, [we were] dealing with all the Cash Money stuff. Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, there was a lot going on. They asked me to call travel, and I saw that as an opportunity. I became really close to the lady at travel. It got to the point where Birdman and Slim were calling me about travel, and I just held that down. I was doing it for free for like a year, and I was available whenever they needed me. That was my doorway in.

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MA: How did you discover Doja Cat?

GD: I ended up in Miami for New Year’s a few years back and I met this guy named Yeti [Beats], who is one of the guys [that was] part of discovering Doja and worked with her for years. He’s one of her main collaborators and producers. I met him in Miami with a few friends we shared mutually. They were looking for new management at the time, and I had just started a new partnership with Maverick [Management]. He eventually introduced me to her and the rest of the team and we started working. Since [2018], it’s been history.

MA: What did you immediately see in her that let you know you were in for something good?

GD: When she played me the Amala album, I thought she had something that was just different. Meeting her in person, her personality — one, she’s the sweetest person ever. Two, she has this energy. You gotta be around her to feel it, but she has this nonchalance. Like, nothing is going to impact her. When you talk to her, she knows exactly what she wants, and she doesn’t falter on those things. She doesn’t bend.

Doja is also very dynamic. When she raps, she raps harder than anybody. I hadn’t something like that [from a woman in rap] since Nicki Minaj. I remember the first performance I saw of hers was at the Pot of Gold Festival in Arizona. The way she commanded the crowd and the acceptance of where she was in her career, she wasn’t a prima donna. I’m like, ‘This girl is a star in the making.’

MA: What was the biggest obstacle to getting the mainstream to accept the Doja you saw?

GD: To be fair, it was already moving. [“MOOO!”] had already come out. There was already movement, and people were really fucking with Doja, so it was really just getting the gatekeepers and the masses to accept another female artist, a female rapper when there weren’t that many at that time.

I know it sounds crazy because we’ve seen an influx of them in the last couple of years, but in 2018, there weren’t that many. It wasn’t widely accepted, in my opinion. You had Cardi B or your Nicki Minaj, but even Megan Thee Stallion wasn’t big yet. She was growing. It was just building the creative [around Doja] because we understood that we had to put her out there visually before anything else, and that had to make the story.

Like the “Juicy” video — that’s what cracked the internet because she wasn’t afraid to show her body. That video is really what struck attention. It was staying consistent and not allowing anything to derail us.

You gotta love someone that loves and is okay with who they are. I don’t tell Doja what to say and what not to say; I’ve learned not to do that because she is who she is, and people are either gonna accept her or not, but I think people just love that she’s raw and authentic. The person that people get on social media, that’s the same person that I get when I talk to her and I’m sitting in her house.

MA: From the outside, it can seem glamorous to be managing somebody like Doja, but what is the most challenging aspect of managing one of the more famous people and most in-demand artists on the planet right now?

GD: Keeping up. A lot of times, I see people will run their artists into the ground. Doja is 27 years old, and she still has to be 27. She has to live. It’s the balance of allowing her to be who she is and still have moments such as the Schiaparelli fashion moment [Paris Haute Couture Week in January] or the magazine covers that keep things going while she lives her life.

She writes all her own music. Those are all her stories, so you’ve got to live a little to have material, you know? It’s finding the appropriate time to scale the business at the right moment.

MA: It’s picking your spots that feel most authentic to her to feed the beast, which allows her to take her time with the music.

GD: Absolutely. And it’s also making the right decisions. Right now, we’re in the game of less is more. We don’t want to do everything. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult or challenging because it’s not challenging; we now have a reputation for doing groundbreaking things. So, how do you continue to crack the asphalt? We try to set the bar continuously and we’ve been successful in doing so.

MA: Which of her accomplishments are you proudest of so far?

GD: The music has been the focus. It’s exciting to know that we’re going to venture off into different things. She has different aspirations, like acting, we want to grow in different businesses. She’s really into furniture and interior design. Even fashion, I think Rolling Stone just named her the No. 2 most fashionable artist right now, so there are a lot of exciting opportunities that are coming for her in fashion.

It’s about picking a few things and then trying to elevate and be the best at those things, but it all starts with the music. Without the music, we don’t move in those other spaces. Our focus right now obviously is the music. And that’s exciting because she hasn’t put an album out [since 2021’s Planet Her], so [we want to] get [her next album] out and let people hear what she’s at currently.

And then, solidifying her in the live space is gonna be a big deal. She hasn’t toured. We plan on potentially touring at end of this year, and that’s exciting as well. So, I’ll say is music, fashion, and film are where we’re really excited.

MA: What’s the dealbreaker for you when considering an artist to sign?

GD: Attitude and understanding. You have artists that are talented, but they just don’t have the vision and they don’t want to listen. When you’re a younger manager trying to gain a name for yourself, there are things you’ll probably put up with. That’s all trial and error. Every manager passes through a bunch of artists. It’s just how it goes.

For me, a dealbreaker is an artist not willing to put the work in. As managers, we work too hard and too often, and it’s a passion-driven business. Our passion derives from the artist’s passion. For example, when I have creative meetings with Doja, I walk out of those meetings, and I’m ready to kill it. Another artist I enjoy is Ice Spice — she’s young, but she understands what she wants, and she’s strict about that. As managers, we want to handle the business, but we want to drive the vision from the artist, so a dealbreakers are just artists who don’t know what they want.

MA: You were named the Executive Vice President of A&R and Artist Development at Capitol last September. We’re finally seeing more and more Black men and women in positions of power in music. When you were coming up, was it difficult to believe you could make it here because representation wasn’t as diverse?

GD: You know, the craziest thing is when I was younger, I didn’t look at it like that. I didn’t even pay attention to that. Now that I’m older and in a more mature space, [I understand]. Like, even going to Capitol, being Black, understanding where the culture comes from, and having representation of that culture in these spaces. It was different when I was growing up; I was just trying to get through the door, trying to create something for myself.

I didn’t see it as color, color, color — I saw it as the work being done. You gotta outwork these people with the greatest work. You’ve gotta outthink, gotta be smarter. You have to find the right talent. That’s the way I looked at things, so it wasn’t really a challenge. I never was in a space where I thought I couldn’t do anything because of either my color or whatever the hell it was. I still live in that space.

But now, being someone that people look up to, I feel it’s more important now to be a trailblazer or be a part of creating that change because I do feel like this industry is driven by Black culture. We don’t have enough representation in those spaces. It’s become an important thing, but growing up — I grew up [in Oakland] around a mixing pot full of a lot of people and different races — it was never a racial thing to me. It was more of a competitive space. I didn’t pay attention to it even though it was very much prevalent and very much an issue.

Photo credit: Cibelle Levi

MA: What was most encouraging about mentoring for the “Black Music Executives Are the Future” internship program?

GD: One of my biggest goals is to help and give information. I don’t believe in hoarding information and I don’t believe in not helping people out. I don’t believe in not educating the younger generation or anyone that wants to learn because I was a person that wanted to learn.

When I was growing up in the industry, not everybody was going to help you. Everybody was looking at you as a threat, or they just didn’t care. It’s our responsibility to be able to provide and give those kids information, especially young Black kids. Where else are they going to get that information? It’s cool to have people be inspired by you [or] look up to you, but if you’re not reaching back out to them, if you’re not doing the work and pouring into them, then we’re just people that talk about it but don’t back it up.

MA: What music industry trend are you looking forward to leveraging more throughout this year?

GD: I don’t pay attention to trends. That’s not the way I work. I just feel like people that follow trends are followers, and I don’t believe in following. I believe in leading. If there’s a great music trend, that’s cool, but if this trend is working, what’s the next thing?

Let’s discover the next thing versus the thing that’s being worked. By the time you catch on, it’s beat up, old, and washed up, and typically, the people that start the trends are the ones who actually benefit from them.

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