Charese Fruge’ Talks To Nicki Farag

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “Women To Watch” series, written by Charese Fruge on November 17, 2020

She started her career in the Music Industry in 2002 when Darren Pfeffer hired her as a Promotions Assistant at Z100 in New York. Today, Nicki Farag is Executive Vice President of Promotion for Def Jam Recordings. Over the course of the last 18 years, she has been a part of the team responsible for the successful launch of some of the biggest artists in the world; Justin Bieber, Jay-Z, The Killers and Rihanna, just to name a few. It all started for her when in March of 2003, 15 months after her going to work for Z100, Erik Olesen, who at the time was the VP of Pop Promotion at Island Def Jam, hired her to be his assistant. And as they say, the rest is history.

For Nicki, the transition from radio to records was easy. “Before Z100, I was a little ole’ DJ in college at the University of Connecticut. I had my own show, but I didn’t particularly like it. I was more interested in one on one conversations. Which is what led me to Z100,” she says. “My cousin interned there, and they were looking for more interns. I got the job and 6 months later they hired me full time. I remember walking through the hallways of Z and seeing a bunch of people sitting in the lobby. I asked one of them what they were here for and they said they were here to play Sharon, Tom and Cubby new music from their artists. I was like ‘is that a thing??’ I was immediately intrigued,” says Farag. “From then on, I befriended every label rep and asked 100 questions as to how they do their job and what I needed to do to get on board. And then, I met Erik Olesen and my career took off.”

She’s not joking when she says that. Nicki is one of the most respected executives in the industry and has many major accomplishments to prove it. “The first thing that pops into my head is becoming Head of Promotion for Def Jam, let alone the first woman to own this coveted spot,” she says. “I have been here almost 18 years and it was the ultimate goal to achieve!” In regards to music and artists she adds, “Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Alessia Cara, The Killers, NE-YO, Fabolous, Big Sean, 2 Chainz, YG, Logic, Jeezy—none of these artists were a shoe-in. We took our time and developed each and every one and because of that, every single one of these artists has had incredible success at Top 40. This is what Def Jam does! We believe in artists, not just songs.”

One of Nicki’s biggest challenges in her career continues to be an ongoing issue in both records and radio. “By far my biggest challenge was not being a part of the boys club,” she says. “I struggled because I was incredible at my job but didn’t reap the benefits like my other male counterparts. And I’ll tell you what—I’m SO HAPPY I didn’t. I took that frustration and just did my job, and like I said, I was really good at it. I kept my head up and worked my ass off. I felt unstoppable. That’s when the doors started opening for me. I never swayed away from who I was just to fit in. In fact, I doubled down on me and now I’m on top!”

“I believe more women now have the confidence to be themselves,” says Farag. “I’ve been approached countless times from women just getting started in the business and they are terrified to be who they really are, as they want to fit in to the ‘boys club.’ And over and over and over again, I keep saying, it’s better to be a guest, and then a member. Go in, listen, observe and then contribute. The smartest person in the room is the one that listens.”

Since Nicki has a radio background and deals with programmers on a regular basis, I asked for her thoughts on why there are so few female radio programmers in the business. “That’s a tough question,” she says. “Do women not know those positions exist or do women get overlooked because it’s uncommon to have a female PD? Nevertheless, more and more women are being considered to program. The guy to girl ratio is still nominal, but we are making strides.”

2020 has been a challenging year thanks to COVID-19 and the impact it’s had on the economy. Nicki describes it as daunting, but doable. “Fortunately, I have not lost anyone to COVID-19. I have a job, I am healthy and my family is safe. I feel an enormous sense of gratitude. To top all of that, I have spent the past 8 months at home with my 3-year-old daughter. Her safety, as well as the safety of my friends and family are what keep me up at night. My prior schedule had me in New York every other week and the mom/work balance was really hard to govern. Having this time with her is a dream come true.”

“Fortunately, the music business is thriving,” says Farag. “Entertainment is at an all-time high because a lot of us need an alternate reality to cope through this year. What concerns me, as an industry is, we all need to support the live music space until it can come back in a healthy and sustainable way. As marketers and promoters, there is nothing like the power of live to enrich the connection between artists and fans and songs. We need to be creative, innovative and supportive.”

Another big challenge for 2020 was America’s realization of just how bad social and racial injustice is in our country. That’s an issue that both Nicki and Def Jam take seriously. “Our internal task force, Def Jam Forward is an exciting new part of my job,” she says. “I am extremely proud of our internal organization, as we are committed to fostering a community that values, promotes and demands respect, freedom, equal opportunity and justice for Black lives. Through educational webinars and social media outreach, using our industry-leading social platforms, we have created over five and a half million impressions for Def Jam Forward’s voter education and registration initiatives.” Those are initiatives whose results we can all definitely look forward to.

Follow Nicki Farag on Instagram @nickifarag