Growing up in a small town in rural Arkansas, Kaleena Arbuco, never had the thought of creating an international music company cross her mind, but this year, Arbuco has launched Selah Vie International, a marketing and digital agency empowering artists to expand their global reach.

A native of Melbourne in Izard County, Ark., Kaleena was better known by her maiden name Hutchins. Arbuco found a love of music at an early age.  She gained notoriety with her mastery of the harmonica, performing at the district and state fair talent shows, performing at churches and landing her first paid job in the music industry at 15 years old working at Stone county’s Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View as a harmonica player and square dancer.

“I also worked at John Taylor’s Sons of the Ozarks Theater, playing harmonica, singing and playing the drums. I had that job for about five years. It has closed now sadly, but I have some great memories of my first jobs playing music,” Arbuco said.

After graduating at the top of her class, Arbuco attended Lyon College during her freshman and sophomore years where she studied to become a pharmacist, before making a drastic change to her future plans.

“Initially I started as a chemistry major and wanted to become a pharmacist, and that was the goal, so you can imagine the shock of my parents when I said I wanted to move to Nashville and study songwriting. I did a 180 and left science behind,” Arbuco said.

Leaving the study of how things work, to study the chemistry of the heart and its expression through music, Arbuco attended Middle Tennessee State University, a path which would lead her to later working with known artists such as Justin Bieber, Avril Lavigne, Rihanna, Kanye West and Snoop Dogg to name a few.

Arbuco explained one of the requirements to graduate with her bachelor degree in Recording Industry Management was to intern and learn about her chosen profession.

In Jan. 2013, she landed an internship at Sony ATV Music Publishing in Nashville working in the creative department. It wasn’t long before a co-worker approached her with a job offer at a company now known as BMG.

“I was the only employee working in the songwriter building. I was a receptionist and would listen to the songs the songwriters had turned in, transcribe the lyrics and organize them. It was really fun because the songwriter would write a song, get excited and come ask me to listen,” Arbuco said. “That led to me getting to play harmonica on some of the demos and it was a really creative job. I loved it.”

Although she enjoyed the job thoroughly, as is the story for many who love music, the pay simply wasn’t enough. When she wasn’t working on music, she was at her second job processing freight shipments at night for a retailer.

“I would go home and sleep on my air mattress that had a hole in it, wake up on the floor and do it all again the next day,” Arbuco said. “I did that from May of 2013 until December.”

When asked how she went from Nashville to New York, she said it was a series of circumstances, but it initially started with the hope of love.

“I should have seen the red flag, but a person I was dating at the time said I either had to move there or we would break up. So, of course I moved,” Arbuco said.

While in the process of moving, she learned the company she was employed with had a New York office and there was the possibly of transfer, however, after selling her car and making her way, she learned there were no openings in the New York office and so the hunt for work began again.

“I moved two weeks before Christmas which is a time when the music business shuts down. I got a job working in retail in Queens to make ends meet. I started looking for a job and it was really hard to find anything. I didn’t have much experience, so I did an old-fashioned job search and Googled music publishers in New York City and I found this company called Carlin America,” Arbuco said.

Knowing it was a long shot, she soon found an antiquated website with little contact information for the company, but learned they held the copyrights for some of the world’s most well-known songs and artists such as AC/DC.

“I copy and pasted a cover letter and really, I think they felt sorry for me because they called me and said they were a small team of less than 30 people and that no one had applied there in years. They said they wanted to meet with me and point me in the right direction. I went to their office in Manhattan and shared my story and goals, and two weeks later, they called me back and said they wanted to create a job for me,” Arbuco said. “It was full time and came with benefits which is something I had never had before. I was working splitting time between licensing and copyright departments. I loved the licensing side of it because they had such a great catalog. I was getting work on licenses for TV shows like America’s Got Talent and Dancing with the Starsand was really learning a lot! The copyright part was like watching paint dry…”

She then worked there from February of 2014 until that May when she received a call from HR [human resources] at BMG, offering her a job as the company’s assistant to the president, CFO and head of operations.

“When they first called and asked I said ‘no,’ and basically to ‘stick it where the sun didn’t shine’ because I’d have starved to death by then if I’d waited on them, but after talking to my mom, she told me to call them back, apologize and interview for the job,” Arbuco said. “…The day I had my interview with the president, the subway had a derailment and 19 people were injured. I had to walk 25 blocks wearing new shoes. I didn’t know the interview was that morning because they had called last minute. I showed up in uncomfortable shoes, blisters on my feet, sweaty and not dressed for an interview and I was late because I had to walk and I thought there is no way I’m going to get this job…”

After discussing any and everything but the job itself with the president of the company, Arbuco said she was shocked when it was offered to her.

“I was the executive assistant at BMG for two and a half years. The president left and they didn’t know what to do with me, so they created a job for me again,” Arbuco said. “The job they created for me was on the publishing side of the business, working with songwriters and their attorneys.”

She found herself overseeing a recording studio with a team of seven engineers and as her career moved forward, the company continued to grow, forcing her to do the same.

“At this time, it was 2015 and BMG had started buying record labels. They had primarily been a music publishing company, and I never had any desire to work for a record label because I really liked publishing. I would go in early and stay late, and one evening the founder of a company called The End Records who had come on at BMG was also working late. He had been brought on for the international team for the U.S. and we were making small talk when he asked me if I would be interested in joining his team,” Arbuco said.

Initially, she internally laughed at the idea, outwardly stating “I don’t even have a passport.”

Two weeks later, she found herself in her new position, working on the international marketing team.

“One of the first songs I worked on was Freaky Friday by Lil Dicky featuring Chris Brown and that song ended up going multi-platinum in multiple countries. It was a huge global hit. It was really trial by fire. I had to learn quickly how it all worked. I loved my job there, and it was really growing. I was overseeing their East Coast repertoire and had a lot of autonomy and got to really craft my own campaigns and work in a silo because the rest of my team wasn’t in the same office,” Arbuco said.

Things continued to progress smoothly until 2020 when the pandemic hit.

Despite Arbuco having worked on three of the four most successful songs the company had ever seen, she was passed over in 2021, robbed of the financial gains she was due as a result of her hard work, forcing her to take a hard look at her situation.

“It came time for bonuses, and my boss called to thank me for my hard work and tell me I wasn’t getting a bonus, but in part because of my efforts, he was getting a promotion. It was very much the boys club. It was the same day as the presidential inauguration and I was watching the first female vice president being sworn in,” Arbuco said. “I said enough. I had been there for eight years, so I updated my resume, and applied for a job at Def Jam Recordings, which I got right away. I gained 30 percent more in salary than I was making with a higher title and it was an all-female team which was really awesome.”

During the next three years, Arbuco continued to master her profession, helping clients and even gaining a promotion.

“It was an amazing experience to be part of this really cool label and it allowed me to work on some major campaigns. I worked on Rihanna’s Lift Me Up single campaign for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and it was the first new music she’d released in seven years,” Arbuco said.

The progress soon came to a halt earlier this year when the music industry underwent a massive shift, exchanging relationships for computers.

“The music industry is undergoing a massive shift. I think Artificial Intelligence can replace a lot of things, but it cannot replace relationships. I do believe we are going to see a massive shift in the coming years of artists leaving these major labels because they cannot provide the services they say they can with fewer people,” Arbuco said.

During her time at Def Jam, Arbuco said some personal milestones were met, including welcoming the birth of her first child, with the love of her life and husband, Michael.

After being laid off, Arbuco used the time to her advantage as an opportunity to bond with her newborn, reflecting over her career thus far and planning her next move.

“Recently, I started my own company called Selah Vie International. Selah, is a musical term found in the Hebrew Bible 74 times and it means to pause and reflect on the former section of music. I named it that because I really like how Selah translates into everyday life. To reflect on the experiences and challenges you’ve overcome that led you where you are now and have gratitude for that before you embark on the next chapter. I also thought of the French phrase, C’est La Vie which means ‘that’s life or such is life’ .. Life goes on. I got laid off yes, but it was time to pick up the pieces and pivot. This company, this is me pivoting.”

Arbuco said she is currently an army of one, but has a team of people all over the world she will be working with, people she developed professional relationships with during her more than a decade in the music industry.

“I myself cannot run a radio campaign in Brazil but I know the best person who can. I know the best companies that can promote rock music in the UK and the best ones for pop in Germany… All of these people I’ve known for years. I’ve reached out to them and asked if they would be my teams for Japan or Poland or wherever and they all said ‘yes’,” Arbuco said.

There are advantages in working multiple positions essentially from the ground up in the music industry, and for Arbuco, what seemed dull in the moment, has now equipped her with the ins and outs of the entire music industry with regards to helping artists become successful.

Knowing your audience and using targeted marketing in areas artists are seeing organic traction helps them get more bang for their buck. One part is digital advertising, and the next part is digital marketing, press and radio where it makes sense.

“I’m here to work within the artist’s budget and help them reach their goals whether it’s getting more fans outside of the U.S. on their social media or if they’re out of country on tour and need a team to help them get more interviews,” Arbuco said. “I’m a dot connector between artists and teams that can promote their music outside of the U.S. Artists are paying me for my expertise and in turn I get the teams outside of the U.S. what they need to properly promote a release.”

During her time of reflection, Arbuco did not forget her roots in the Ozark Gateway Region, nor what it was like growing up in a small town.

“I never forgot my roots. Growing up in the Bible Belt, Christianity is a dominant religion and for me, my faith in God is absolutely the center of all of this. I have to say, and make this abundantly clear, the God I know and believe in today is not the God that I was taught to believe in the Southern Baptist Church growing up. The God I serve today is a lot more loving, caring and forgiving,” Arbuco said. “I have made a lot of mistakes along the way and there is no reason that God should have picked me to give me all these blessings and use me in a way that he has. I cannot really answer why it is he gave me this talent for music and really cares about my success, but I just know that things fall into my lap that are beyond anything I could have done myself. Yes, I have to show up and do the work. I just have to have faith that God has a plan that is bigger than me and beyond me. I have to be willing to say ‘yes’ to the things he puts in my path.”

She also shared a message for those who may question their feelings regarding faith.

“Anyone reading this, whether they’re in Arkansas or anywhere in the world, I want them to know God loves them despite any mistakes they’ve made. Anything you could do to stray from the path doesn’t change God’s love for you. I was really in a dark place my freshman year of college. I was this perfectionist, the valedictorian of my class, I was super type A and I found myself in a place of depression. I rebelled and started drinking. I was depressed and I found nothing but judgment from my church family, and that was really painful for me and it caused me to stay away. I struggled and I still had this faith in God and felt he had this plan for my life, but I felt so hurt by the way I had been treated. At a time when I really needed help, love and support I was met with judgment and I felt God was going to strip me from all of my talent and I was going to fail,” Arbuco said. “It wasn’t true. If you look at the Bible and the people God uses they have faults. We all have faults. It doesn’t mean that you’re not worthy of love and God doesn’t have a plan for your life. My faith is deeper and more meaningful now than it ever has been. God has shown me he is going to bless me with a life beyond what I could ever want for myself. God is working through and around me.”

She also extended sincere gratitude to all those who supported her in her developing years.

“I want to thank everyone in Arkansas. It is absolutely where I got my start and confidence. Performing on those talent shows, playing in school, getting written about by the Melbourne Timesearly on in my life shaped me. Performing on stage does a lot for your confidence. Mr. [Jim] Carroll and everything he did in band, he still today is the greatest teacher I’ve ever had. I’m very grateful for my upbringing and my roots,” Arbuco said. “I am excited for this new chapter.”

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Lauren is a an award-winning journalist who decided after 10 years of newspaper experience to venture out. Hallmark Times was born.