Behind the Music – The business empire of Mathew Knowles
By Cheryl Alexander
Mathew Knowles, founder, president and CEO of Music World Entertainment, Inc. — one of the largest and most renowned music and entertainment corporations in the world with record sales exceeding 300 million — has achieved the heights of success in the music industry. While most people know the Knowles name due to his accomplishments in the music industry — and of course for his daughters, Beyoncé and Solange — the business empire of Mathew Knowles extends far beyond.
On January 9, 1952, Mathew Knowles was born to Mathew and Miriam Knowles in Gadsden, Ala. Gadsden is a far cry from Houston and the other cosmopolitan cities where Knowles moves around with such ease these days, yet this self-proclaimed country boy credits his parents and grandparents with inspiring his phenomenal success. “My people didn’t have a lot of education, but they had drive, ambition, a strong work ethic and a business savvy which I recognized at an early age and began to emulate.”
Knowles’ father drove a produce delivery truck during the day, and at night he convinced the company owners to allow him to use the truck to sell scrap metals. His mother, who attended high school with Coretta Scott King, worked as a maid for a white family during the day, and at night and on weekends, made and sold quilts and canned goods. Knowles’ grandfather, Dave Hogue, half Cherokee, was a landowner with 300 acres which he alternately farmed and leased to a paper mill, timing it such that the paper mill would clear his land for planting at no cost to him.
At Age 8, Already a Businessman
It was this entrepreneurial spirit exemplified by his family that sparked Knowles to launch his first business selling candy at the age of 8. He elaborates, “I knew from this young age that I wanted to be a businessman. I would buy a dollar’s worth of candy and turn it into three dollars. Then I would convince the store owner to give me a discount since I was a regular buyer. At the time, I had no idea of what I was doing; only that it was working for me.”
With that innate shrewdness, Knowles worked his way through school, being one of the first African-Americans in his junior high, high school and at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (where he was on a basketball scholarship). He conveys, “The fact that I was one of the few black kids in school had a huge impact on me. Negatively, it was stressful being a child who had to endure the trauma of the civil rights movement. Positively, it inspired me to always do the best I could do and to think outside the box.” Knowles eventually transferred to Fisk University where he graduated with degrees in economics and business administration.
At the age of 24, Knowles moved to Houston and went to work for Xerox Corporation, where his business skills became more honed and highlighted. He quickly moved through the ranks as a sales representative and in 1980 was promoted to their elite division, which was focused on medical systems — primarily breast cancer detection technology. For the next four years, Knowles was No. 1 in sales for Xerox worldwide.
Knowles enjoyed success in corporate America for 20 years, but admits, “Eighteen of those years were absolutely phenomenal, but the last two, I realized I just didn’t have the passion for it any longer. I knew I wanted out.” So Knowles took a leap of faith and launched his own music company, Music World Entertainment, which became a launch pad for Beyoncé’s group, Destiny’s Child, and later her solo career, as well as the careers of many other well-known solo acts.
The transition was difficult, Knowles admits, “Because I was so focused on the music and like any new business, money was tight.” Knowles also shares that finding the right artists to work with and projects to work on proved tough initially, “but those hard lessons really have given us a formula for success. I truly believe that sometimes it is through failure that we experience success, which means that to win you have to be a risk-taker.”
Influencing Music History
Taking risks is something Knowles has never been afraid to do, and success is definitely something he’s enjoying now after paying whatever dues were required to get here. His most widely known label, Music World Music, has had an unprecedented impact on the history of music. The label is one of the Top Imprint Labels of the decade with successes across the music landscape in Top-40, R&B and Hip Hop. It was additionally named the No. 1 Dance Imprint Label in the world by Billboard magazine and is home to Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé, Solange, Kelly Rowland, Michelle Williams, Chaka Khan, The O’Jays, Kool & The Gang, De La Soul, Ray J, as well as compilations such as The Essence Music Festival series and Grammy®-nominated soundtracks from the movies Roll Bounce, Cadillac Records and Dreamgirls.
Ten years ago, Music World Entertainment, Inc., expanded its already vast reach by forming Music World Gospel, the world’s largest African-American owned and operated gospel label. Knowles proudly says, “Music World Gospel has had six consecutive No. 1 launches and is currently enjoying collaboration with BET on a show called Sunday Best, which is similar in format to American Idol.”
Recently, Knowles garnered another “out-of-the-box” venue — this one, country-western. Capturing the sound and flavor of the South, Music World Country/Compadre is home to legendary Grammy® Award-winning artists and unique country music compilations. Offering a wide selection of country and rock releases, the diverse label showcases outstanding original and catalogue recordings. Music World Country/ Compadre includes recordings by country and cultural icon Johnny Cash, Billy Joe Shaver, James McMurtry, Trent Willmon and Kate Campbell.
Additionally, Knowles has launched Music World Kids whose aim is to entertain and educate the younger listener. The label created two popular flagship brands. The Baby Jamz series is an educational music journey where nursery rhymes and child favorites are reinterpreted by contemporary artists, and Kids Rap Radio releases offer “kid-friendly” versions of popular rap songs — sung by kids, for kids.
Film and TV Ventures
Knowles’ ventures in entertainment don’t stop at music. He has television and film credits as well. He was one of the executive producers for the 2009 movie Obsessed, which opened No. 1 at the box office. He also recently participated in producing a reality television show, Breaking From Above, which debuted in 137 countries in 2012 on MTV International. The series features Knowles’ interactions with a British all-girls group as they go through Music World’s Star Power Boot Camp. In the process the girls learn that they will be competing against two new vocalists for a spot in the group. The series is available on iTunes.
Knowles knows so much about the entertainment and music industry that he teaches a class about it at Texas Southern University (TSU) — one of the self-proclaimed highlights of his career. This semester he is teaching “Entertainment Management.” Typically his classes have about 35-40 students, and in the course of the semester, Knowles shares some of the many trade secrets he’s learned over the years and offers insight to budding music executives. “I tell them one of the most difficult lessons I had to learn was the difference between school and life. In school, you are taught a lesson, then given a test. In life, you are given a test, then taught a lesson.”
The classroom isn’t the only place Knowles shares his life lessons and career success. He makes the rounds as a motivational speaker, espousing his equation for accomplishment with young people, corporate America and small businesses around the country. And this year, Knowles will celebrate a milestone — publication of his first book, 10 Traits of Successful People: A DNA for Success. In the book, Knowles not only shares some of his own insight to achievement, but also includes interviews with other accomplished individuals, such as the president of the American Heart Association, the former chairman of L’Oreal USA, the General Manager of the Houston Texans, the first African-American graduate of Harvard University, and the owner of the largest Hispanic advertising agency in the U.S.
Expansion into Real Estate
Beyond music and entertainment, Knowles’ empire extends into real estate with Music World Properties, which include investment holdings from high rises to luxury homes across the country. Knowles admits that he really wants to expand on his real estate holdings in Midtown Houston, where his Music World Entertainment campus (66,000 square feet at 1505 Hadley) currently sits on one city block.
The campus is comprised of the Rice Mansion — built by the founders of Rice University — which houses his Music World Entertainment, Inc., offices and has recently been renovated into a venue that can be rented out for upscale events for up to 100 people; Music World Studios — consisting of two state-of-the-art recording studios and a rehearsal studio, which has been used by artists like P Diddy, Chris Brown, Estelle, Lil Wayne, Estelle and of course, Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child to name a few; and the House of Deréon Media Center — which is a two-story, state-of-the-art event center that can be rented for parties up to 500 guests and expanded up to 1,200.
Knowles is also one of the majority owners of Scott Gertner’s Sky Bar at Houston Pavilion where he says Houstonians can prepare for “big changes in March. We are opening the rooftop, which will accommodate another 500 people, making Sky Bar Houston’s largest night club.”
Knowles is one of the original investors and a majority owner of Chicago Sky, a WNBA team. He is involved in the launch of White Box —“Think Red Box,” he says, “but with only inspirational movies and music.” These family-friendly options will be available at churches as well as retailers.
Philanthropically speaking, Knowles founded two organizations. One is the Survivor Foundation, whose mission is to assist families and individuals whose lives have been affected by disasters, natural or otherwise, and have been displaced. They also provide assistance to individuals dealing with HIV/AIDS and homelessness. Over the past few years, the Survivor Foundation has donated more than $2.5 million just in the Houston area alone.
His other charitable foundation is the Knowles Temenos Place Apartments. The project has been established to address the housing needs of vulnerable populations: the homeless, persons with HIV/AIDS and the developmentally delayed.
When asked which of his accomplishments he is most proud of, as one might expect, Knowles’ first reply was, “My daughters. I am extremely proud of the success of both of my girls and that I have been able to see their dreams come true.” Next, he is proud of his two honorary degrees: “I was awarded an honorary Ph.D. from my alma mater, Fisk University — doctorate of humane letters; and also a Ph.D. from Cornerstone Christian Bible College — doctorate of humanities.”
When Knowles was presented the doctorate of humanities degree, Cornerstone Christian Bible College President Dr. Oscar Dowdell-Underwood praised Knowles for his “immeasurable contributions in the fields of culture, public service and the fine arts. He has empowered so many through his extraordinary commitment to the development of human potential, gifts and talents. Millions of people around the world have been positively impacted by his unselfish deposit in the lives of others.”
Life has never been sweeter for Knowles as he witnesses his efforts coming full circle, and he vows that in this 20 years of success in the industry, he will certainly slow his pace a bit in order to reflect and be grateful.
“I aim to give thanks to all the people who have put their efforts into the success of Music World Entertainment,” he says. “I did none of this myself. My friends, my family, my amazing staff and the world community all have played a part.”
No doubt this attitude of gratitude is an integral cornerstone of Knowles’ empire and a lesson well learned by those who would follow after him.
For more information, visit musicworldent.com.