Mike Navarra
Highlighting Key People in Hip-Hop

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In this industry, change is inevitable. For Mike Navarra of Columbia Records, his ability to adjust came early on. With the initial dream of becoming a veterinarian, the New Jersey native’s mind quickly changed after taking up a few intense science courses. Luckily for him, inspiration came knocking. While in his sophomore year at Penn State, Navarra sat in on a lecture from guest speaker Steve Barnett, the then Chairman of Columbia Records. At the time, the COO was introducing Big Red, the company’s summer program that allowed graduate students from across the country to work on music projects. It was that moment that inspired a change of heart for Navarra. After switching to a path of communications and public relations, he landed an internship at Sony Music. From his start as an intern at Columbia Records’ Rhythm Radio Promotions to his current position handling publicity for several major hip-hop and pop acts, Navarra has made great strides. Read on for more inspiration as he details his humbled beginnings with Dipset’s Jim Jones to now heading publicity for Juicy J’s upcoming album, Stay Trippy. He even gives advice for those aspiring to be in the industry. As always, take notes.

-Danitha Jones (@LifeLikeJones)


After being inspired by Steve Barnett, you actually ended up joining the Big Red program.
Yes. When he spoke during my sophomore year, I just had a change of heart and switched careers. It was cool being able to intern at Sony as apart of the Rhythm Radio team the summer after my junior year. Working in radio allowed me to see the joy of working a project and experience the feel of getting that number one record. When you come into the SONY building, you see all of these plaques. As an intern, you’re like ‘Whoa, this is awesome.’ After my first internship, I made sure to keep in touch with my boss Ayelet Schiffman. When I was about to graduate, there weren’t any jobs. I found out they were doing the Big Red program again. I just applied. I reached out to Ayelet for a recommendation. She recommended me and I actually ended up getting it. I started out running a blog here at Columbia Records.

What was next?
After working on a blog for the record label, the first artist I worked with was Jim Jones. At the time, he was apart of the Green team; the then urban marketing team at Columbia. This is when the song “Pop Champagne” was out. I just remember being with him while he was signing a bunch of champagne bottles. It was just the 2 of us in a room. As he was signing, I was putting them into bags to send to all of the radio programmers. We just started talking about Twitter. This was when Twitter was just starting and Diddy was the first to get one million followers. I was like “Dude, there’s someone pretending to be you with like 20,000 followers.” I set him up an account and put it on his phone. He came back like a week later like “Yo, this sh*t is like a video game.” He started doing the “What’s Ghetto” trend and his presence evolved. After that, he told me to come to the studio. That’s when we started building all of his profiles. After two weeks, I was in the studio with him, Diddy and Dame. I just thought that was the coolest thing ever. I was fresh out of college. All I did was help him with his digital presence. I would be at the office interning 10 am-6 pm and then I would be at the studio from 6 pm to 4 in the morning. Executives had me making sure he did drops or whatever to help prep for his release. That’s when I started doing all of his digital publicity.

What were some of the other things you handle in this role?
I dealt with all of the blogs and made sure that there was presence for the artists at Columbia. I had to set up contests, handle the interviews, all that stuff. When I would do an online interview, it would end up in print a week or two later. That’s another aspect of publicity. After a bit of a restructuring here, I fell into the publicity department.

Over the years, you’ve work on a variety of campaigns. What’s that transition like?
The difference comes with the type of artists. Take Jim Jones and Beyonce for an example. They were already established when I started working with them. It becomes new territory when I transitioned over to working with emerging artists. One Direction was my first emerging act. I watched them go from nothing to something. With the established artists, you don’t get to see them develop from those early stages. It’s different when you’re three or four albums in. But with the new artists, you experience the struggle. When you work with someone with a name, people answer your emails quicker, they’ll answer your phone calls quicker but when you work on something fairly unheard of, it takes more time and effort, but the results are greater. It helps to be apart of a great team and that’s what we have a Columbia. We’re all a great team. We build off of each other to make things happen.

What’s your role with Juicy J’s upcoming album, Stay Trippy?
I’m coordinating and figuring out the press plan for it. I have to be able to tell his story. He’s been in the game for 20 years. He’s been able to reinvent himself and not discredit who he is. A lot of acts these days are influenced by his music. We’re working with him, seeing his vision and figuring out how we can make it happen and spread the music. It’s a great album. I think people are going to be excited about it.

With an artist like Juicy J, what’s more important: the pitch or the relationships?
It’s a little of both. Without a story, you’re not going to be able to get anything written. A relationship only goes so far. You can pitch stuff at people all day but at the end of it, you’re going to get called out on it. With Juicy, it’s all real. I’m lucky to have been working with artists that have those stories. Being excited about the project makes the pitch better. Everyone has a story. You have to be able to listen to the music and understand the artist. A lot of that comes with time spent with the artist. I feel like I know Juicy J’s story so it makes me want to pitch it and make things happen. Sometimes, people can easily look at his past and count him out because he’s been around for so long. But you have to look at the Taylor Gang affiliation and the younger fans too, to them he’s a brand new artist. We have to school them on the history. Then, find a way to bridge the gap with the older fans. He’s the peoples’ champ. If he calls any rapper, they’d be down to work with him. He’s been able to maintain these relationships in the industry for so many years.

Speaking of relationships, how important is it for someone on the come up to have a mentor? Extremely. Benny Tarantini runs the publicity department here and is a great role model to me now. Also my first bosses Kathy Baker and Yvette Noel-Schure, they’ll always be someone I look up to for advice. You need to find those people in this industry that you can look up to and aways count on to be there with the right answers.

What’s your advice to people looking to get into publicity?
Do it because you love it. You don’t get paid a lot in the beginning. I honestly don’t think you get paid a lot until you’re in your thirties. When you’re the boss and executive and everyone questions what you do, you’re there because you put in work for multiple years. These people put in their time. Even today, I’m still putting in my time. I was at Good Morning America this week and I had to steam all of the artist and bands clothes. I’m a publicist, that’s not part of the job. But you have play those roles. You have to be able to adapt to every situation and help where help is needed. Also, find a healthy work-home balance. It’s a lot of work. There’s always something to be done in publicity but you need to know when to stop for the day and pick it up again in the am- the work will ALWAYS be there.

What’s next for you?
Continuing to grow at Columbia Records. It’s a great team here, we have each other to lean on. We have our supervisors who oversee the campaigns but we get to manage the projects on a day-to-day level. If I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I was given. Like with One Direction and Juicy J, I don’t think a lot of other places can offer that type diversity.

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