As far back as he can remember, Nabil Ayers played a part in the business of music.
“I was putting on shows when I was 5 years old and charging $1 at the door,” said Ayers.
Now U.S. president of the Beggars Group recording company, Ayers oversees a staff of 70 people, making strategic decisions on everything from sales to marketing to licensing and beyond.
Ayers spoke to students, faculty and community members at the Terry College of Business on Feb. 20 as part of a tour in support of his 2022 memoir, My Life in the Sunshine: Searching for My Father and Discovering My Family.
Ayers comes by his love of music honestly. His father, Roy Ayers, is a songwriter and producer known for his free-flowing, frequently sampled jazz-funk compositions. Along with chronicling his career as an artist and record executive, My Life in the Sunshine details Ayers’ attempts to reconnect with his famous dad and the complex personal discoveries unearthed in the process.
Rather than plot out a music career, Ayers parlayed his childhood obsession into a livelihood almost without realizing it. As a college student in the Seattle area during the advent of grunge in the early 1990s, he immersed himself in the city’s arts community, playing in bands, booking concerts and bearing witness to rock and roll milestones, including Nirvana’s first performance of the alt-rock anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Still, Ayers viewed music as purely extracurricular. “I was torn between these two worlds: reading, writing, thinking — all the things I thought I was supposed to be doing in college — and DJing on college radio, planning parties, playing in a band,” said Ayers. “I viewed those as things I was doing instead of spending time in college. I didn’t put together that those were all things being in college allowed me to do.”
With adulthood approaching, he weighed his options. “My friends were getting real jobs and corporate expense accounts, nice cars, new apartments — all things I definitely wanted,” said Ayers. “But I knew (that meant) I wouldn’t be driving around in a van playing rock music.”
Instead, he took a job at a local record store. “I learned so much about music,” said Ayers. “Suddenly, I had 10 or 12 other employees playing stuff all day. Every band came through. (I met) people from all the record labels. It was essentially grad school.”
With that knowledge and a wealth of industry connections, in 1997 Ayers and a business partner opened Sonic Boom Records, which quickly became a hub for Seattle’s emerging indie rock scene. Local bands such as Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie, soon to play to audiences of thousands, made the shop their unofficial home base.
The store grew with Seattle’s tech boom, and in 2002 Ayers started an independent label, The Control Group. A few years later, realizing his passion now lay squarely on the business side of music, he moved to his boyhood home of New York City. “I just thought, if I go to New York, I can stop playing and really focus on the music business stuff,” he said.
The move paid off, as Ayers became U.S. general manager for 4AD, the storied British label known for releasing albums by the Pixies, Cocteau Twins, the Breeders and others. After serving in that role for more than a decade, in 2022 Ayers moved into his position overseeing stateside operations for Beggars Group, 4AD’s parent company.
“I didn’t want this job,” Ayers admitted. “This wasn’t something I aspired to because it’s less cool and less fun. But I’ve worked with this great company for 13 years, I believe in it, and I believe in what we do for artists. And it’s almost like I needed to do this — I was the person to do it. And I also thought if I didn’t, who would have, and what would that look like?”
Ayers, who also sits on the board of trustees for the Recording Academy, the nonprofit agency that administers the Grammy Awards, acknowledged the streaming era upended music’s business model but emphasized he remains optimistic about its future.
Platforms such as Bandcamp give smaller groups a way to sell music directly to fans, he explained, while established acts can take advantage of an ever-growing field of licensing opportunities — something that particularly benefits labels with deep catalogs, like those on Beggars’ roster.
While acknowledging the circumstances allowing him to pursue his dream career, Ayers encouraged students to stay true to their ideals as they enter the professional world, drawing a straight line from his time slinging CDs after college to running an internationally renowned record company.
“(The record store) is how everything came together. It was that specific thing,” said Ayers. “I don’t know if that’s the thing now — there might be a different version of that. But I absolutely stand by doing what seems cool and fun and motivating to you, not what your friends are doing or what’s going to pay … The second you start making any kind of money, you’re never going to be able to make less money. Even if it’s not a huge salary, you’re not going back. So do those things while you can, and you can still move up later.”