Prior to being known to the public as Beyoncé’s and Solange’s father, Mathew Knowles had several decades of success in sales and marketing, as well as being a business owner in the 70s and 80s. Once it became clear that his daughters’ musical talents were above the ordinary, he focused his attention on their careers and the rest is history. I had the pleasure to speak with Mathew about his early career, his time in the music business, and his work with Destiny’s Child in the 90s and 2000s.

– Hi Mathew. Thanks for sitting down to talk with me. After graduating from Fisk University in 1974, you went to work at Xerox where you became their #1 sales rep. Can you tell me about those years?

Sure. I was living in Nashville after graduating from Fisk and had been working for AT&T. In 1976, Texas Southern University was playing Tennessee State, so I drove to Houston with my fraternity brothers to watch the game and ended up falling in love with the city. Houston was booming in the 70s, and since my time at AT&T was over, I decided to relocate there. Once I’d settled in, my friends and I would gather on Fridays to have cocktails at a bar. A guy walked up to me on one of those nights and said, “I’ve been listening to you and your friends for the last hour, and you have everything it takes to be a top sales rep. How would you like to work at Xerox? “. I was cautious at first, but he gave me his business card which said “Head of HR” on it, and that’s how I got hired at the company.

Xerox was the number one marketing and sales company in the world, and I worked in the engineering division for six months, followed by working in the copier division for a year. Then I spent eight and a half years in the medical division selling xeroradiography/imaging equipment, the leading technology for breast cancer detection at the time.

– By 1980, you were making $200,000 a year, correct?

My division did quite well, and I was fortunate to be the number one sales rep worldwide for a number of years. By the mid 80s, my former wife and I started a hair salon that made us our first million dollars. Beyoncé and Solange were born shortly after that.

– How did you turn the hair salon into such a successful venture?

Tina had been a house-wife for six years and was getting tired of it, so I asked what her passion was and she said, “I love hair, fashion and making women look good “. I told her, “If you go to cosmetology school, we’ll open a hair salon after you graduate “. So she did that, and we ended up opening the salon with a staff of five people.

Our core market was high-income black women making at least $75,000/year. I did my market research and discovered that the foremost complaint about black hair salons was the amount of time spent waiting. Our target group would actually pay more for a quality service that was faster, so by using what I’d learned in sales from waiting in doctor’s offices, we developed techniques to provide faster service. We also employed things like fax machines and cell phones, which was new technology at the time, plus we served champagne and wine to our customers.

– How did you go from working at Xerox to being a salesman for Philips and Johnson & Johnson?

The President of Xerox Medical Systems was hired by Philips in 1988, and since I was his top sales rep, he brought me along with him. It was an exciting time to sell MRI and CT scanners since it was the first generation of those devices. However, the sell cycle is pretty long when you’re dealing with equipment that costs $3 – $4 million to buy and another $2 – $3 million to install. It was very different from working at Xerox where I sold equipment for only $200,000.

During my time at Philips, I was constantly getting offers to sell for other companies. A new offer would roll in at least once a month, so I eventually accepted one from Johnson & Johnson to work in one of their smaller divisions as a neurosurgical specialist.

– It’s widely known that Destiny’s Child started off as a group called Girls Tyme in the early 90s. How did that come about?

Prior to Girls Tyme, I was a regular dad with no connection to the music business. One day, two managers walked into our hair salon and said they wanted to form a girl group that could be a younger version of En Vogue. Teenage groups were popular in the early 90s because of acts like ABC, New Kids On The Block, Kris Kross, Usher and TLC, so the idea made sense. Beyoncé was ten years old at the time, and they chose to build the group around her. I had no involvement in the business side and would only drop her off at rehearsals, but things changed after they competed in Star Search, the biggest talent show on TV at the time. In hindsight, they picked the wrong genre to perform because none of the judges knew much about rap music in 1993, which is probably why they lost. Afterwards, I remember asking the host, Ed McMahon, “These girls are crying their hearts out. What should I do? “, and he said, “For some reason, those who lose in Star Search eventually make changes to their organization and refocus themselves, leading them to greater success than the winners “. So I spoke with the main investor who was funding Girls Tyme and said we could do things differently. I went back to school to take artist management and music production courses, and I also attended as many music seminars as I could. Following that, I became the girl’s co-manager and ultimately their manager.

– The group went through multiple name and lineup changes in the early to mid 90s. I’ve heard there were 30+ members before the final lineup was settled on.

There was always a revolving door of members, even before I became manager. My niece Angie was in the group at one point (laughs). The managers prior to me were trying to get record deals with three of the backup dancers being signed as members, along with four vocalists, which was unheard of. Knowledge about the music business back then wasn’t as high as it is now, so it took a while to find a setup that worked.

– In order to launch their careers, what were some of the early deals the group signed?

The girls were initially signed to a production deal that didn’t yield much, so we signed a different one with Daryl Simmons’ company, Silent Partner Productions. Daryl was Babyface’s and LA Reid’s writing partner and his company was signed to Elektra Records. He took a chance on Girls Tyme as the next young RnB/pop act, and we moved to Atlanta to work with him.

We later did a production deal with D’Wayne Wiggins and his company, Grassroots Entertainment, and he ended up producing most of the first Destiny’s Child album.

– Looking back, why didn’t you go the independent route instead of trying to work with major labels?

This was in 1995, and the independent route wasn’t a realistic option for most people. You needed millions to invest in marketing, sales, and a team who would call up radio stations, video channels and international outlets. Some rap artists were successful as independents, but the A-listers were all signed to major record labels.

– Prior to Destiny’s Child signing with Columbia, the first artist you got a record deal for was the rapper Lil’ O, correct?

You did your research (laughs). Most people think I did my first deal with Columbia, but it was actually with MCA Urban. They had the number one urban label in the 80s and 90s with artists like Mary J Blidge, Jodeci and Diddy, so it was an honor to do my first artist deal with them. Lil’ O’s first single was “Can’t Stop”, and I convinced MCA to use a new Columbia artist as a feature, so Destiny’s Child are the ones singing, although they were credited as “Destiny” at the time.

– One of Destiny’s Child’s first sync placements was on the Men In Black soundtrack, correct?

That’s right. It was unheard of to land such a big placement without having released an album, but it came down to having the right relationships. I’d built relationships with both Tommy Mottola and Don Ienner, the Chairman and President of Columbia respectively, and that positioned us to get on the Men In Black album, which went on to sell 14 million copies.

Later in the 2000s, I started acquiring catalogs from other artists. People had no idea what my strategy was, but it had to do with sync placements – landing one good sync is enough to cover the cost of those acquisitions. As an example, we had a $1.7 million sync with Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor”, and a placement like that will both position the song and bring in revenue.

– Speaking of the first album, “No, No, No (Part 1)” was the lead single. How did the “Part 2” remix with Wyclef Jean come about?

That was a defining moment which got me accepted in the Sony building and the wider industry – not as a dad, but as a capable manager. Wyclef Jean was working on his album in Houston, so I approached him and said we needed a remix for “No, No, No”, but he said, “I leave tomorrow and my flight is at 3pm “. So I asked, “Can we meet at 10am then? “. But it was naive of me to think that he’d be there on time (laughs). The group arrived before 10am, but Wyclef didn’t walk in until 12:15pm, and the girls were annoyed by then, especially Beyoncé. I don’t think I’d seen her that irritated in a while, so when Wyclef asked her to sing the original, she sung the lyrics twice as fast out of sheer annoyance, but Wyclef said, “I like that! Let’s go with that “. So the outcome was a complete coincidence.

– From what I’ve heard, both “Part 1” and “Part 2” were counted towards the same single, which led to double the expected sales numbers. Is that true?

Yes it is. Broadcast Data Systems is the company that tracks radio airplay, so I called them and asked, “If I have two songs with the same lyrics but different tempos, and I name them “Part 1” and “Part 2”, can they count for the same BDS spin? “, and they said, “Sure “. I explained this to Sony in our next meeting and suggested we put the remix on the album, but they laughed and said, “Nobody puts a remix on an album. We send it to radio to extend the life of the single “. I kept insisting that both versions would count towards the same spin, so Donny Ienner asked one of his senior executives if it was true, and they said “I’ve never heard of that “. They got BDS on the phone, and the company said, “We remember Mr Knowles calling us about this. We don’t see why both releases wouldn’t count as one “. That’s how Destiny’s Child quickly had a #1 record from their first release in 1997, and we employed the same strategy on “With Me” in 1998. I even did similar things with Solange once her career got started – her second album on Interscope surprised everyone by debuting at #3 because we had a media player version selling at Walmart which counted as an album sale, and the stores placed a large initial order.

– You’ve talked in previous interviews about the five-year plan from 2000 – 2005 where each member of Destiny’s Child would have a solo career in different genres. Beyoncé did RnB, Kelly did pop and Michelle did gospel. In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?

Considering all we achieved, it’s hard to see what there is to change. Michelle had three #1 gospel albums and starred in Broadway musicals, Kelly won a Grammy for “Dilemma”, and Beyoncé’s first album went on to sell 11 million copies. The only thing I might’ve done differently was suggest that Kelly focus more internationally, which she eventually did in the late 2000s. Other than that, I wouldn’t change anything.

– What was the biggest commercial deal you negotiated for the group, and what did you learn from that experience?

We did a lot of endorsement deals, like the 2005 tour with McDonalds. I told the company there was no way Destiny’s Child would do commercials about hamburgers and fries, so we convinced them to do a salad and to use the Ronald McDonald Houses as the focus of the campaign. Other deals included the Samsung B-Phone, as well as Kelly and Beyoncé working with L’Oréal. We also did deals with Nintendo, Mercedes, Pepsi and American Express, to name a few.

– Your company, Music World Entertainment, was founded in 1992. Ten years later, you sold a portion of it to Sanctuary Records for $10 million and helped create their Urban and Gospel division. How did that deal come about?

That deal came through my attorney after Sanctuary approached us with the idea. They were the largest indie label in the world with offices in LA, Houston, New York, London and Berlin. They had 750 employees, and once we created the urban division, another 75 people were added. I ran Sanctuary Urban for six years, and we had acts like The O’Jays, Chaka Khan, De La Soul, Sunshine Anderson and Kool & the Gang. We also built the number one gospel label and partnered with BET on a reality singing competition called Sunday Best.

A big part of my work with Sanctuary was to acquire management companies. I bought up six of them, including companies owned by Troy Carter and J Erving, Max Gousse, Kendu Isaacs, and Demmette Guidry. I also acquired Tony Davis’ company, who managed Nelly, which is how “Dilemma” came about. Between the six of those alone, Sanctuary ended up with artists like Eve, D12, Nelly, Floetry Mary J Blidge and Mary Mary. The original managers stayed with their artists, and I advised them on strategy.

– What was the difference between your executive role at Music World/Sanctuary Urban versus Columbia? 

Even though I had a role at Columbia, I never formally worked for the label, so there wasn’t any difference between my role with them versus Sanctuary, but because of the success I’d had previously, I was able to work on projects at both labels.

At Columbia, label staff would have lunch on Wednesdays and all the departments would gather in one room to go through each project. As my career grew, I ended up running my own label lunches for the six artists I managed. I even managed Nas for eight months during that time. Once my Columbia work was done for the day, I’d go to the Warehouse District to work at the Sanctuary/Music World building.

The one regret I have from my Sanctuary days is not pursuing more projects in different genres. Sanctuary started off as a rock label whose first client was Iron Maiden, so I would’ve liked to do more projects on the rock side of things, but labels back then were very segregated when it came to genres, and their divisions didn’t mix.

– Were there any senior executives showing you the ropes on how to be a good music executive?

Donny Ienner and Tommy Matolla were running Columbia back then and they mentored me on how the business worked. Tommy even wrote the foreword for my book “The DNA of Achievers”, and we remain friends to this day. He always told me that Beyoncé would be a star as long as I kept her grounded, but if she went off track, her career could be derailed. I always kept that in mind during those years.

Donny came up under Walter Yetnikoff, so he could be very spirited (laughs). His approach was very much, “I don’t care what you have to do, just get it done “. Even if that wasn’t my approach, I learned things from that too.

– Beyoncé has won 38 Grammys, and 21 of those came during her time with you. You’ve mentioned in past interviews how there’s a strategy for winning Grammys. Could you shed some light on some of them?

Well, I was on the board for one thing (laughs). There are rooms for every major genre, with 15 -20 people who listen over a period of three days and remove the songs they feel aren’t in the right categories. Then those who are eligible vote on which songs should win. But that’s all I can say about it.

– Your time as Beyoncé’s manager ended in 2011. For those on the outside, it seems strange that you stepped away from managing the biggest music star in the world. It’s been rumored that the companies she’s in business with would rather have you removed from the picture. What are your thoughts on that?

I’m sure there are those who wanted me out of the way – I’m a black man after all. Ultimately, I stepped down for a family-related personal reason that had nothing to do with music.

– Since stepping away from managing Beyoncé, we haven’t seen you manage any other global superstars. Is there a reason for that?

I’ve had conversations about it, but it’s difficult when you didn’t help build things from the start. Instead, you’re brought in to work with an artist who already has their way of doing things, and rather than be a manager, you’re just someone who’s given tasks to perform – I never wanted that. As an example, I had a meeting with a big girl group that I won’t name. It took a month just to organize the meeting, only for one of the members to not show up. I remember thinking, “This is exactly why I didn’t want to do this… “. So I decided to only manage people who were part of our organization. As an example, I managed Le’andria Johnson, who won a Grammy in 2012 and was the number one female gospel artist in 2013.

– In 2021, you mentioned transitioning out of the music industry and focusing more on mentoring, academia and film production. How is that going?

It’s going well. I sold my record label three years ago, so I’m no longer involved with the music business in a direct way. My focus has shifted to film and TV projects, but my biggest passion is educating and motivating, so I travel the world as a keynote speaker and professor, talking about entrepreneurship, health and wellness, and music business.

– Thanks for talking to me Mathew. It was a pleasure to learn about your career. Can I end things by asking why your first name only has one “t” in it?

Sure, I’ll tell you (laughs). My name was spelt “Matthew” all throughout school, but when I got my job at Xerox and went on my first international trip at 23, I needed my birth certificate to get the visa. I’d never looked at it before, so when it arrived in the mail, I saw that my name was written “Mathew”. I was born in Gadsden, Alabama in 1952, and most hospitals had a colored wing where the personnel weren’t always educated or didn’t really care about certain details. So someone probably said, “What’s that Knowles baby’s name? “, and whoever wrote “Mathew” didn’t know how to spell it correctly. That’s pretty much it.

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