Parkwood Entertainment's COO Steve Pamon's Interview for Billboard
Executives Of The Year
Chairman/CEO, Parkwood Entertainment
President/COO, Parkwood Entertainment
"Speaking of the Queen. She just called.” The words, spoken by Parkwood Entertainment’s head of public relations, Yvette Noel-Schure, stop Steve Pamon midsentence as he sits on a chair in the company’s midtown Manhattan offices. “Does she need me?” he asks. “No, no. She’s good. She’s good,” Noel-Schure replies. Pamon, who’s wearing a white T-shirt beneath a navy blue suit offset by a red-white-and-blue stripe on the sleeves and pant legs, relaxes into the chair and resumes speaking about his boss and their company -- that would be Beyoncé, “B,” as Pamon, 49, often calls her, and Parkwood Entertainment -- and the milestones of the 12 or so preceding months that have earned them Billboard’s 2019 R&B/Hip-Hop Power Players Executives of the Year honors.
Parkwood began in 2008 as a video and movie wing for Beyoncé, co-producing Cadillac Records, the film in which she portrayed Etta James. But in the last decade, Parkwood has grown into the business empire and creative content company behind her greatest role: Queen Bey. Operating at a leak-proof level of nondisclosure the federal government can only envy, it has steamrolled traditional industry thought patterns, unveiling artistic breakthroughs as top-secret surprises, beginning with the 2013 visual album Beyoncé, which sold 617,000 downloads in just three days, giving her the best first-week results of her career, and spawned the Billboard Hot 100 No. 2 hit “Drunk in Love,” featuring JAY-Z. More recently, the unexpected July release of The Lion King: The Gift, the Beyoncé-produced and -curated companion album to the Disney remake (in which she voiced the role of Nala), generated 147.4 million on-demand streams for the album’s songs.
Pamon arrived at Parkwood in 2015 from JPMorgan Chase, where he headed the sports and entertainment marketing division. While still at JPMorgan, he helped set up the banking giant’s sponsorship of Beyoncé and JAY-Z’s joint On the Run stadium tour, which grossed $109.6 million, making it the No. 8 tour of 2014, according to Billboard Boxscore. A graduate of Morehouse College with an MBA from Stanford University, Pamon worked for the National Football League, HBO and McKinsey & Co. as well, a background that gave him a unique understanding of the intersecting worlds of finance, events and entertainment. He was a skilled negotiator perfectly positioned to set up triumphs like Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl halftime extravaganza and also able to navigate the startup world as she took stakes in the vegan meal plan company 22 Days Nutrition and the sports beverage WTRMLN WTR.
Parkwood has become known for shock-and-awe productions, foregoing traditional media promotion -- or hype -- and using the power of the unexpected to harness the energy of social media. Last year, The Carters’ Everything Is Love -- Beyoncé’s surprise duet album with her billionaire husband, JAY-Z -- dropped out of nowhere during their On the Run II stadium world tour. (The album generated 570.4 million on-demand audio streams; the tour grossed $253.5 million.) This year brought Homecoming, a two-hour documentary of Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella headlining show (aka Beychella) -- part of a production deal with Netflix said to be worth $60 million. A supporting live album followed.
Beychella and Homecoming paid homage to the traditions and marching bands of historically black colleges and universities, and in doing so emphasized a key Parkwood principle: self-determination. Beyoncé, 38, manages herself, runs her own label and production company, and in 2018 bought back a 50% stake of her athleisure line Ivy Park from Topshop after Topshop owner Philip Green faced allegations of racism and sexual harassment. This year brought the announcement that Ivy Park will expand with the help of a new partner with a bigger global footprint: adidas. Crucially, Beyoncé retains full ownership of the company under the new agreement.
While Beyoncé was taking some time off -- although clearly not tuning out the business -- Pamon sat down with Billboard to discuss Parkwood’s ventures during the past 10 months, his formative years growing up on the South Side of Chicago and the work ethic and mindset of a boss that, he says, requires everyone at the company to “level up” or risk being left behind.
Let’s start by reviewing Beyoncé and Parkwood’s last 12 months.
I can make it very easy for you. This time last year, Beyoncé and JAY-Z were in the middle of the On the Run II Tour -- 49 stadium worldwide. That tour ended in Johannesburg, South Africa, in front of 90,000 people at the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100. Some of the biggest artists in the world performed at the largest concert in African history to raise over $1 billion for charity. Forget about working on that stuff. It’s a privilege to be a witness to that stuff.
Early this year, it was announced that you were partnering with adidas to relaunch Ivy Park.
We think it will be the biggest athletic partnership of all time. And from there, we rolled straight into the Homecoming film project and then the Homecoming Live album. We rereleased Lemonade, and that went back into the top 10 . Next, came The Lion King soundtrack with “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” with Donald Glover and Beyoncé. I mean, we had three top 10 albums. The marketing of The Lion King movie followed by the “Spirit” and “Bigger” videos. In July, we released The Lion King: The Gift album, which was Beyoncé’s Quincy Jones moment. As accomplished a performer as she is, she is also a hell of a producer, director and arranger. And we’re just 10 months into the year. It’s like the old Army ad, you know: We do more before 7 a.m. than most people do all day. But that’s Parkwood. And that’s the standard that Beyoncé has set.
You have been at Parkwood for four years...
Yes. Sometimes it feels like 40, and sometimes it feels like four days. You’re never comfortable, and you never know enough. That’s one of the things I love about B.
You have a front-row seat to Beyoncé’s creative process. What can you tell us about her that most people don’t know?
Everyone tries to copy the outcome, but I’ve seen few people really want to emulate the process. One of the things I say all the time is that if people want to be her at 10 p.m. onstage, they have to want to be her at 4 a.m. in rehearsal. And they have to be her at 5 p.m. in the conference room. If you want to be that mogul, if you want to be that entertainer, you put in the work. She puts in the work.
What are her strengths as an executive?
She is so secure in what she’s doing -- which came directly from how she was raised -- that she gives opportunities to people who don’t think like her or look like her. And when you merge her talent and drive with a team that’s able to see things that maybe she doesn’t see, that combination is unstoppable.
Define Beyoncé and Parkwood’s mission.
We’re not just doing entertainment. We are moving the culture forward. People use that term all the time, but few understand that culture is defined as a series of art and actions that helps shape a society and its worldview. If you think about what Beyoncé has done for African culture -- for African Americans in particular -- along with women and others who feel less empowered, she has moved the self-esteem of these groups in a positive direction. That is history. I tell people all the time, “You can make money, but can you make history?”
How did she make that transition from being simply an entertainer to someone who wields such a powerful cultural voice?
She got rid of the duality of trying to please everyone -- of chasing the dollar -- and freed herself of some of the things that not only hold back as a group, but that hold society back as a whole.
Given the fan loyalty and positive media she generates, what do you make of Homecoming not winning a single Emmy, despite six nominations, or your history with the Grammy Awards?
First of all, I don’t even consider those things as losses. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Going to the Emmys is a dream for me. You know, there are three types of stakeholders with like the Emmys. There are the fans, there are the critics, and then there are our peers. The fans and the critics don’t vote for the Emmys, but I can’t be mad at our peers. What we experienced at the Emmys motivates me.
After the Emmys, a Boomerang video showing you and other members of Beyoncé’s team throwing your middle fingers circulated. Were you angry?
That was taken at the Netflix afterparty, and it was a joke. We were just letting off steam and having a great time. The recognition that we got for Homecoming, particularly from the young students at Prairie View A&M, Texas Southern, Grambling State, Morehouse, Spelman, Hampton University, North Carolina A&T -- man, that’s 10 times bigger than any award. Look, who doesn’t want to win those types of things? But we smile and go on. Trust me, there are greater things to come. We’ll be back.
What’s the strategy behind your company’s intense secrecy?
First of all, it has become part of Beyoncé’s brand to surprise and delight. The other big piece, mathematically speaking, is the amount of money and effort that people put into hype. B is really trying to create art. She’s pushing the culture forward. So why not put the energy into that instead of a billboard or an advertisement or social media?
How do you maintain that secrecy?
Beyoncé sets the tone. Our job is not to tell people about the project. Our job is the project. And the brilliant thing she has been able to do is get us to emotionally attach to one another as well as to our professional obligations. There’s no NDA tighter than your love for somebody else.
What was growing up in Chicago like?
I grew up on the South Side in Auburn Gresham, which now has goofy nicknames like Chiraq. If there is one story from that time that I attribute to my professional success and how I move as a person, it has to do with my dad, who was a Chicago police officer. He and I loved going to the movies every weekend. It was our way of bonding. The thing is, we would always be late to the movies because on the way there, my dad would stop and talk to every person. I used to think, “Is my father trying to be mayor?” This happened over the course of a few years, and when I got to be 12 or 13, I thought, “Let me challenge this.” I said, “Pop, do you have to interact with everyone? Can you and I just have our experience?”
How did that go down?
My father is a very talkative guy like me, but he got kind of quiet. He opened up his jacket, and he pointed to his shoulder holster. He said, “Steve, how many bullets in this gun?” I’m like, “What’s that got to do with anything?” I guessed six. He said, “How many people do you think are out here in these streets? A lot more than six. So don’t you ever think this badge and this gun is what’s keeping you safe out here. What’s keeping you safe is the love and support that I’m giving everybody because we could help a lot more than six people.” That math always stuck with me -- that you could love much more than you could ever hurt. He was trying to teach me that growing up in that neighborhood, I wasn’t going to fight my way up. What saved my life, to be honest, is being cool with everybody, showing love, being proactive. Being a giver.
And you have applied that lesson to your work at Parkwood?
At Parkwood, we don’t have enemies. We don’t have beef. We have love. I tell people all the time, this tough-guy thing -- where nobody can win but us -- that’s outdated.
What lessons did you take away from your work at Time Warner and JPMorgan Chase?
At the end of the day, it comes down to, how do you provide value? How do you make something happen? And a lot of that isn’t about me. It’s about we. Phil Jackson, the basketball coach, used to say that all the time. One of the most unfair things a person can do is treat everyone the same. If I care about you, I have to know you and what motivates you. Dick Parsons was an incredible mentor not only for what he said and how he moved, but also for his ability to create a culture where everybody felt good.
What are you looking for from someone who would want to work at Parkwood?
Beyoncé is media and entertainment, but she’s also health and wellness. She’s fashion and beauty. We refuse to be put in the box of “just music.” This is about a lifestyle, and for someone who wants to join our team, the question is, can you put in the work? The work ethic here is -- listen, anybody that’s been around it has to level up. It weeds out a lot of people.
In other words, you are not going to be at parties with Beyoncé.
Right. Part of the reason that most of the world doesn’t know me is because I don’t do that stuff. I’m not part of the industry. I’m part of this team here. That’s why I wanted to be photographed with them because they toil in obscurity -- on purpose. They help B and me do what it is we need to do together. I don’t consider this acknowledgment a referendum on my success. This is a referendum on the team’s success.
What’s a typical work day like?
I look at my job as managing the three P’s: the people, the projects and the partners.
Dick Parsons was a mentor. Whom else do you look to for honest feedback?
Sylvia Rhone is somebody I look up to in a huge way. JAY-Z is someone I can always call who will tell me straight up how things are. He’s the Clarence Avant of today. Jon Platt is impeccable -- his counsel and leadership is unparalleled. Miss Tina Knowles and Richard Lawson -- fantastic. And then B herself. My mother is one of my biggest advisers, as are my family, my uncles. That’s my village. I tell people: One dot is a data point; two dots makes a line. Three or more is confirmation. I generally try to get three or more opinions as affirmation.
You mentioned Clarence Avant. What impact did Netflix’s The Black Godfather documentary have on you?
It hit me like a ton of bricks. One reason is that so often people assume they know what other people are doing based just on what they have been made aware of. The Black Godfather shows how powerful someone could be behind the scenes without credit or compensation. It was a real demonstration of how we have to build as a people. If you have an opportunity like I have and you don’t give back, it is being disrespectful to people like him.
Avant used his connections to lift up presidents. Right now, we have a president who is not lifting up anyone. Are there plans to connect creatively to what’s going on in our nation right now?
Absolutely. Everything we do is connected to what’s going on in the world. The moves that you have seen us make over the past two or three years have been about affirming people’s self-esteem and generating love. To me, the best way to combat what is being propagated, particularly by people in power right now, is to continue doing that.