The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.
Jennie Smythe, the CEO of Girlilla Marketing, began her career in the mid-1990s working for Elektra Entertainment, Spivak-Sobol Entertainment, Disney’s Hollywood Records and more. In the early 2000s, she moved to YAHOO! Music as Director of Marketing and Promotion, which eventually led her to move to Nashville to work for Warner Bros. Records’ New Media Department and then as Clear Channel’s Senior Director of Content and Marketing. In January of 2008, Smythe launched Girlilla Marketing, which celebrated its 10 year anniversary in 2018.
Smythe serves on the boards of Country Music Association, CMA Foundation (2019 Chair Person, 2022 Chair Person) and Music Health Alliance. She is also a former board member of Academy of Country Music, a graduate of Leadership Music (class of 2010), a member of SOURCE and a proud supporter of St. Jude. Smythe has been featured in Billboard, MusicRow, Fast Company, People, HITS, The Tennessean and has been included for 3+ years as a recipient of the Nashville Business Journal’s Women in Music City Awards.
Smythe will be honored as part of the current class of MusicRow‘s Rising Women on the Row on Oct. 20. For more details about the class and the event, click here.
MusicRow: Where did you grow up?
Denver, Colorado. My dad was a marketing guy for an oil company, so we moved around quite a bit towards the later end of my childhood. I ended up in high school in Phoenix and went to NAU at Flagstaff because I figured I would just go snowboarding during class, but there was no snow. (Laughs)
Since you couldn’t go snowboarding, what did you do?
I always knew I wanted to be in the music business, but I didn’t know anything about the music business. I would tell people that I wanted to work at a record company. I had no idea what department or specialty, I was just obsessed. When I found out that you could do that for a living, there was nothing more that I wanted to do. I ended up dropping out of college and going to a music conservatory because they had an intern program. That is how I ended up at Elektra in LA when I was 19. When I arrived in Hollywood at 19 and had my internship, I already thought I had made it. Anything past that point in my life has been like a bonus.
What did you do there?
After my internship, they hired me as a receptionist. If somebody else went on maternity leave or got sick, I would cover their desks, so eventually I ended up working in every department. I eliminated things that I didn’t really want to pursue or that I felt like maybe I wasn’t talented enough in.
What was next?
I just started taking jobs. I was at several record companies, including Disney and Hollywood Records. I was at several management companies.
Then I took a huge jump to go work at Yahoo. Even though I was still in the music business, I was at a tech company, so I had to learn how to be less of a music business person based in the United States and more of a global content person that was a citizen of the world. That literally changed the path of my life personally and professionally.
How did you get to Nashville?
I had to cover country music at Yahoo, so I had to learn country. I came to Nashville for CRS and literally could not believe what I had seen. I was like, “Wait a second. Are you telling me that for a week out of the year, everybody comes together to see each other all at once? They have shows and celebrate each other, and they all get along well enough to do that?” I walked away from my first CRS a little shell shocked because I was overwhelmed, but in the back of my mind, I thought “That’s how this is supposed to be.”
Country music online at that time was always just a smidge behind all the other genres. I was able to contribute by accelerating that a little bit. Bill Bennett was running Warner Bros. and he called. Lynette Garbonola was literally the only digital person at Warner Bros. and she needed help. I packed up my stuff and I moved to Nashville.
I thought I’d be here for a few years and then probably end up in the Bay. I had no idea what was in store. The DSPs didn’t exist, Facebook was just for college students, and Instagram was never even in my mind. I went from Warner Bros. and then helped Clear Channel start the iHeart brand. Then I started Girlilla in 2008.
What was your biggest hurdle working in the digital space in country music when you started?
The biggest fight was explaining to publishers that the internet wasn’t 100% evil and that there were opportunities there, even though artists aren’t compensated nearly what they should be. Because there was so much illegal downloading going on at the time, the value was really based in the information, not the strategy to stop the internet. We had seen that already with Napster, so being in that hybrid space of time between Napster and before a platform like Spotify, that was a very murky area in the music business.
No one knew how to put the parameters around it legally or explain to consumers what a download was versus a stream. That was actually a really difficult consumer messaging situation, especially in country. With country radio being the biggest driver of country music, [teaching country fans what streaming is] was hard. That was definitely a challenge from the marketing side.
What pushed you to start Girlilla Marketing?
It was really simple. I felt the need to advocate on behalf of the artists that I loved and respected to help them navigate the waters. They were complicated then, but not nearly as complicated as they are now. Now, I’m doing the same thing, it’s just 10 times more layered than it was 10+ years ago.
It’s been 14 years since you started your company. What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of sharing my life with some of the people that I work with. When we started, we were single, some of us had college debt, we didn’t have houses, or any of that. Sometimes when I’m walking through the building, I get overwhelmed at the idea that these people have children and houses.
I’m extremely grateful for my clients and for the work, and I still passionately love what I do. There’s nothing that gets me out of bed faster than a good idea. But it’s the idea that I’m building and have built something with them that they share in.
Who have been some of your mentors?
Jay Frank, was 100% the MVP of my professional life. I miss him every single day. Sarah Trahern and Joe Galante are some. My office mates, Ashley Alexander and Stevie Escoto, mentor me as much as I mentor them.
You will be honored at MusicRow‘s Rising Women on the Row breakfast on Oct. 20. What has your experience been like as a woman in the industry?
Amazing. I literally created the company that didn’t exist when I was coming up. I just look around at the office sometimes and take it in. When they forget that I’m there and they are playing music and laughing, talking about snacks and what they’re going to do together outside of the office, I lose it every time. I hate their music choices, there’s definitely a generational gap. (Laughs) But just the idea that there’s a room in the world where those awesome, smart, talented, funny people get together and their common ground is marketing and music, and they feel comfortable enough to let their hair down… I’m good.
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