Hip hop not only empowered a poor and disenfranchised minority, it became a worldwide phenomena that influenced culture, music, fashion, literature, language and just about everything in between. A genre that started as a voice for the voiceless turned into the voice, and in no small part due to one woman who looked out for the prolific talent that stood to impact the world for generations to come.
Look up “music industry legend” and you’re bound to find out about Wendy Day: a woman who quit her job and moved to the hotbed of hip hop to become a part of a movement that would forever shift our musical and cultural landscape. In a business where talent (especially African American talent) is pimped and discarded, Wendy founded The Rap Coalition, a non-profit organization created to empower and educate artists in order to protect them from predatory deals and contracts. After she learned to get artists out of bad deals, she helped them land good deals – great deals – that before would’ve been thought impossible for any artist. Through her assistance, an agreement between Ca$h Money and Universal was reached that XXL has called the 6th biggest moment in hip hop. Needless to say, if you talk to anyone that knows anything about the music business, especially hip hop, chances are they’ll know about Wendy Day.
We reached out to the industry icon (whose blog wendyday.com serves as a current “how-to” resource on navigating the constantly-evolving industry of music and entertainment) to get a background on her history, what she sees now in the business and why Strange Music is the poster child for everything she’s all about.
You’ve been a hip hop disciple since you saw Grand Master Flash open for the Psychedelic Furs, what was it about that appearance and that show that struck you so much? And why has hip hop had such a grip on you ever since then?
It was my first year of college, I went to art school in Philadelphia and I was majoring in graphic design. It must have been some sort of homecoming because it was a huge event on University of Pennsylvania’s campus and they advertised just this mish mosh of acts. It was the E Street Band minus Bruce Springsteen with Clarence Clemons, it was Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, and it was the Psychedelic Furs which, at the time, were my favorite rock band.
I went to see the Psych Furs and the opening act was Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, and I fell in love with the energy, the intensity, the music – the whole thing. When I got home from that concert – and too bad we didn’t have the internet back then because I would have become a junkie even faster – I started doing research and finding out what rap music was and I was smitten. It was all-consuming: I started going to the clubs that focused on urban and rap music, I started hanging out in the stores that sold the vinyl from New York, I started befriending the DJs that were playing the music and I really became immersed in the whole culture in Philadelphia. This was in 1980.
Around ’86 I went to New York for the weekend with one of my girlfriends and driving through New York, I was listening to the radio and I heard the Mr. Magic, Marley Marl radio show. Although in Philadelphia we had some rap on the radio, and we certainly had the clubs that were experiencing the new rap music that was coming down from New York, we had nothing like Mr. Magic and Marley Marl. It was just amazing. When I got home from that weekend I went in on Monday, gave my two week’s notice, I ended up only having to stay a week. I loaded all of my crap into a U-Haul, got out of my lease, and I moved to New York!
I moved to New York with no job, no place to live, no concept of what I was going to do – I just knew that that’s where I needed to be because the passion, for me, was that strong for the music. There’s something about rap music and the energy in it that just attracts me and here we are, all these years later, and I’m still a fan. It’s crazy! A lot of folks in my generation hate the new rap music they say hip hop is dead and that rap has changed. I don’t feel that way at all. I love all of the changes and growth and contortions and offshoots that rap has had over the years. I’m so amazed at how much it’s changed, and I don’t think it’s changed for the worse, I think it’s different but I embrace different, and I love different. I have my entire career. So that was the fan side of me.
Around 1992, I decided to turn my intense love for rap music into a job, and I decided to do that after I took a class at The New School, which is a very liberal university in New York City. They had a class called “The Pop Music Business” that was taught by Sid Bernstein who brought The Beatles to America, and Bert Padell, who’s an accountant to the stars and oddly still is today. I took their class and I learned so much about the music business. I especially learned that artists in the urban genre were kind of exploited in the music business in a bad way, taken advantage of. So I started Rap Coalition in March of 1992 out of disgust for the way urban artists were treated in the music business as a whole, and I guess as they say the rest is history. Here I am.
The Rap Coalition has helped people out of shitty contracts and then help broker groundbreaking deals that kept topping one another. Like the Twista deal with Atlantic, which was called such an amazing deal at the time, but you found out that once they recouped what they put in they didn’t really care because their investment wasn’t big enough so they weren’t going to concern themselves with promoting it as much as they did Brandy and acts they put more money into.
I guess in life we kind of learn as we go. The first deal that I did, or that I played a role in – I was just one of a handful of people – was Master P’s deal for No Limit Records at Priority. The thing that made that deal so spectacular was that I had just read a book about Lucille Ball’s life and in it she was talking about how when she and Desi Arnaz started Desilu Productions, they started it from a position of ownership. They set up their studio so they could own all of the footage, the masters and the reels, so that when they went to do deals inside of Hollywood they owned everything. After reading that I was like shit, why can’t we do that in music? So he was sort of my guinea pig in terms of asking for ownership of the masters, which I tried to apply that to every deal I did after it, from Twista to Eminem to David Banner’s deal, but where I was able to recreate that again was in the Cash Money deal, because Cash Money had enough leverage to be able to get a major to agree to let them keep ownership in the masters. That is so key in the music business, especially today, because the ownership is the control and that’s where all the money is. The ownership, the publishing, the masters, anything an artist can own within their own career – and nobody knows this better than Strange Music – but anything the artist can own, you’re able to then leverage that into deals. So if you want to be on a Chrysler car commercial, you have the right to say yes or no and collect all of the safeties, all of the money and income. For most artists, that’s where the power is: in the ownership.
An Audi commercial used the likeness of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and he never gave them permission to do that.
And he sued the pants off of them! I believe the early version of Apple did the same thing. I remember seeing an iPod commercial using Eminem’s music and I guess because they cleared the rights to sell his downloads I guess they felt like they also had the safeties to use him in a commercial, and they got sued as well. That was a multimillion dollar lawsuit because of the amount of times they actually used his songs and how many commercials appeared all over the place when they were first breaking iPods.
You discovered Eminem pretty early. Were you instrumental in his deal? Did you have any part of that?
I did, but I will say when somebody says they “discovered an artist,” it’s kind of like discovering America – you can’t really because America’s always been there. Just like Eminem was always there, you can’t walk up and stick your flag in him and say, “Oh, I’m discovering you!” I just happened to be one of many people that recognized his talent and had the energy and the power to be able to say “I’m going to help you get to the next level.”
I found Em rapping outside of the Atheneum Hotel in Detroit during a music conference in the early ‘90s. I didn’t really pay much attention because I had just gotten off of a panel. I had been speaking for two hours, I was tired, I was hungry and I was trying to pull an artist I had brought with me, Rhymefest, out of a cypher so we could go get something to eat. I had spoken to some of the guys who were on Eminem’s team that kept telling me he was great and that he was going to be the next great white rapper. Back then in rap white rappers weren’t taken very seriously. Vanilla Ice had been the most recent white rapper and he ended very scandalously because it turned out that his whole background was fabricated in order to sell records. So the industry, and myself included, weren’t very warm or receptive to a white rapper. I wanted to go eat, to be honest with you. I didn’t want to listen to him. I just wanted to go to Denny’s and get a sandwich (laughs).
When Rhymefest got in the car with me and handed me Eminem’s demo tape I looked at it and I said “Great,” and I threw it on the floor. Rhymefest looked at me and he said, “Man, that’s so fucked up. You’re white, he’s white, you know how hard it is. You love lyrics, you’re not even going to give him a chance. Man, that’s just foul.” I have to admit, the peer pressure got to me because he was right, it was foul. So I said “Okay, give me the tape.” He picked it up off the floor and I popped it in. At that point I was on the highway about two exits away on my way to Denny’s and I got through maybe half of the first song, maybe even to half the second song, and I made a U-turn across the grassy median strip on the highway and went back and scooped him up so that I could educate him about how publishing worked, how the music industry worked, how difficult it was going to be to shop him a deal and I told him I would do anything to help him. The funny part is, in doing anything to help him I shopped his deal for nine months. I was shopping it to label presidents, label vice presidents, A&R guys… nobody really wanted to hear it. And the really funny part is that I had burned his demo onto CDs and something had happened when I burned the CDs and they were blank. I didn’t know this because I wasn’t smart enough to listen to them before I brought them to the labels. So I hop on the subway with my twelve demo packets that I’m gonna deliver to all the labels and I hit all the labels with the packets. I gave one to Steve Rifkind, Rich Isaacson at Wild Records, Interscope, Universal, Def Jam – you know, I made the rounds. When I got home there was a voicemail on my machine from Rich Isaacson saying, “Wendy I don’t know if you know it, but the CD you gave me is blank.” So I kinda laughed to myself and burned him a new CD and went back into the city to deliver a proper demo CD, but I realized on the way that he was the only one to call and tell me this. So I then had to follow up with everyone I delivered a demo to and the next day I called everyone and said “Gee, I gave you a blank CD. Can I bring you a CD?” and some of them didn’t even bother to return my calls. These were people that I had just negotiated with to sign Twista and Do or Die within the past six months, so it was a little odd to me that I couldn’t even get my calls returned. I knew what it was – it was the fact that he was a white rapper and they just didn’t see the vision. I remember calling The Source magazine and trying to get them to write about him, and I remember them laughing at me saying, “Wendy, we’re not going to write about a white rapper. It’s too Vanilla Ice, it’s not going to sell.” I listened to his lyrics, and I really believed in him and I said “I’m not going out like this.”
I had just wasted nine months trying to shop him a deal and finally, The Source picked him up and started writing about him. Then I did an event out in LA called “Rap Olympics” and he was kind of the anchor of what I was trying to do. It was at a time when lyrics were no longer important to the industry. They were signing a whole lot of gangster rappers, which wasn’t a bad thing, it was just different and I just wanted there to be more lyrical artists to get attention than gangster rappers. So I did an event, it was an emcee battle with teams of people. I had a team, Wu-Tang had a team, I think KRS-One had a team and Project Blowed had a team – they’re actually the ones that won. Eminem was on my team, and he was the standout guy from the event and part of the prize for the folks that came in second was that they got to go on Sway and King Tech’s Wake Up Show the next night. So Em was the anchor of my five artists and he just stood out amongst everyone else. Dr. Dre heard him on the radio and came up to the radio station. I remember Em calling me and saying, “Hey, Dre wants to put me up for like another five days and he wants me to just write to his production. Do you think I should do it?” At that point in time Dre had just put out a compilation album that tanked, so he wasn’t the same revered Dr. Dre that he is today. He was the guy who left Death Row and nobody was certain if he could do it without Death Row, so it was a big risk for Em to take and he took it and I’m proud of him for taking it. He was able to sign to Interscope. He had a really great deal. If I remember correctly it was around 475,000 and 18 points, which is a great deal for a new artist. He signed and he put out an album and he’s probably the top selling rap artist of all time.
You have been involved with not only that, but Master P and Cash Money, which are some of the biggest movements this genre has seen. Right now Cash Money and the subset of YMCMB is everywhere, how does it feel to be an instrumental part of that?
The funny thing is, I don’t really think of it like that until somebody mentions it. Like, my boyfriend and I will be sitting at dinner and I’ll hear him say, “Yeah Wendy has sold over a billion records with the artists that she’s played a role in their deals” and I’ll think wow, that’s a lot, but I don’t live my life day to day focused on what I’ve accomplished. I’m kind of one of those people who looks forward, and in a sad little negative way, I focus on the losses not the gains – which is kind of sad in itself. I focus more on what I’m working on today and getting the artists that I’m working with today to that next level.
With most artists, and Cash Money is such a great example of this, their success – or lack of success when they’re independent – is that they just don’t work their music long enough or in a big enough area. Like when I found Cash Money, they had put out 31 CDs over a six year period, so they were really a real record label. They had put out quite a bit of music, but they had only sold between 5,000 and 25,000 CDs on any of their releases. So when I came on board it was obvious to me that I needed to break them out bigger than just Louisiana and Texas, which is what their stomping grounds were. So I brought them into the midwest and into the mid-south, and these were all markets that I had worked with Twista and with Do or Die so it was very easy for me to just start plugging them into my network so they were able to go bigger. They were putting out six CDs a year, and then working them for a couple weeks and then going into the studio to record a new album. What I did was I showed them the reality of why they’ve gotta work something longer than just two weeks or so in the Louisiana and Texas marketplaces. So when we were shopping their distribution deal, they put out the Big Tymers first record and we sold 75,000 copies because we worked it for four months. We worked it all through the midwest, the mid-south, the south, into the southeast, into the mid-Atlantic region, so we really worked it in a much larger area than they had ever worked a record before.
In the midst of shopping their distribution deal, not only had we proven to the distributors that we were worthy because we could fill a pipeline and we had a strong buzz in the South, but we were also able to show them that with the right partner we could really grow and become something. If you can sell 75,000 CDs independently, by yourself with a small budget, you know what you can do with a major label behind you. We were able to create such a bidding war that the deals turned from signing to the major label into the major labels just doing distribution at an 80/20 split for a three year period and Cash Money getting to retain the masters. That means that after three years, if they wanted to leave Universal, not only could they leave, but they could take Juvenile with them, they could take B.G. with them, they could take the Hot Boys with them. They were able to bring artists and their products with them and that’s the part of the deal that had the most value, at least to me.
The 80/20 split, amongst a few other facets of the deal, seemed to leave a lot of people pretty astonished. What was the reaction that you got from the industry after this deal had been brokered?
It was disbelief. So many people asked me how it went down that I actually wrote an article breaking it down so that people could see and then when they asked me, I would just email them the article and say “this is how I did it.” But it was mostly disbelief.
The really sad part for me in doing their deal was that they didn’t pay me. We had a contract, but they reneged on their obligations. They just stopped returning my phone calls. I went to Universal and showed them the contract and said “I really feel like you need to pay me” and their response was, “Wendy, you’re going to have to sue them because this is between you and them, not between you and us. If the deal was with us we would have paid you more than what you asked for because it has tremendous value, but unfortunately you’re going to have to sue them.” Which I did, and I was able to collect my money three years later, but I think them not paying me overshadowed the deal and the value of the deal. It was really kind of sad because as people would call me to get interviews or discuss the deal, it always focused on how did you get them such a good deal and they didn’t want to pay you? It left me in a position to explain that I used to take it personal, because why would somebody do that to another human being that worked for them for nine months and got them such a great deal? But as time went on, I learned that they didn’t pay anybody. The security team they were using back then, they didn’t pay them. Which at the time was fruit of Islam, through The Nation of Islam, they didn’t pay The Fruit Of Islam. They didn’t pay their T-shirt manufacturers, they didn’t pay the CD pressing plant, they didn’t pay their staff, they didn’t pay their artists, they just didn’t pay anybody, and I quickly learned that it wasn’t personal, it was just their business model. When I sued them I got paid, I was able to collect what was owed to me, but it’s just sad that that’s what it took because it kind of took a lot of the shine from me and a lot of the excitement of doing that deal away. At that point they owned all their own publishing, I knew they had a film company that was coming.
There were certainly more deals and more value that I could have added, but when they started calling me asking to negotiate their film deal, my attitude was “Why would I do that, you didn’t pay me for the record deal.” And then of course, their attitude was “We’ll pay you for the record deal when you do the film deal.” It’s like “No, pay me and then we’ll talk.”
In a lot of the situations that you’ve witnessed where an artist gets themselves into a predatory deal with a label, what are some of the most common problems that lead to that situation?
There are a lot of answers to that, but I’ll try to keep it simple so that your eyes don’t glaze over.
I think the number one thing that I see is an artist that signs to a record label that isn’t really a record label. Meaning some guy somewhere starts a label called “Play It Loud Records” and it sounds like a really good deal in his bedroom and he’s got 10,000 dollars that he’s willing to invest into “Play It Loud Records” because he has no idea that it’s going to take a million dollars to break an artist and not such a small amount. So I think the number one problem that I tend to see is artists signing to record labels that aren’t really qualified to be record labels. They don’t look at the fact that the label has no track record of success. They don’t look at the fact that there’s nobody who works for the label that has any experience putting out records. They just get really excited to be able to tell their friends that they have a record deal and it’s pretty problematic.
I think the next problem that I see most often are artists who just sign the agreement without having any legal representation look over the contract. If you and I are going to sign a contract, it’s going to list what I’m going to do, it’s going to say what you’re going to do and then more importantly, it lists what happens if we don’t do what we’re supposed to do. But if one side of the negotiation is responsible for creating the contract and the other side doesn’t have any representation, that contract is almost always very one-sided. It explains what each person has to do, the side that has the power in the negotiation often doesn’t make a list of what they’re supposed to do, and they never tell you what gets to happen if they don’t do anything. So a lot of artists will sign a very unfair document thinking that it’s their big break and they don’t have the right to negotiate, they just kind of trust the label. Then they get into a situation where they might be shelved, or the label doesn’t like the music that they deliver and they want them to change their style, or they want them to work with different producers. Or something goes horribly wrong and then the artist is stuck in a contract they can’t get out of and if they had just had some legal representation, one sentence or one paragraph could be put in to really protect them better.
That is a very enlightening facet of a contract: “What happens if these things aren’t met?”
Absolutely, and it’s very key. You know, if I signed to Strange Music tomorrow – and I know this would never happen because I think you guys have a really great label and you’re very artist friendly – and then a week later you find a better artist than me and you sign them, although I’m in the same lane as them, I have no recourse but to just sit there on the label. I don’t ever get to put out an album, I don’t get to be released, I don’t get to go to another label and record, I just have to kind of sit there until the label either chooses to let me go or decides to finally put out my record. And the thing about a contract is it’s so easy to say hey, if my record doesn’t come out in a year or 18 months or whatever we agree is a fair amount of time, I get to leave. It’s such a simple, basic one paragraph in a contract, and I’ve never had a problem getting it into a contract, because most labels will tell you that they don’t want to sign you and leave you sitting there. It’s bad press for them if I’m going to every event bad-mouthing my label because they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do. So it’s one little thing that’s missing from a contract that most artists don’t know to add in, and it can be a very frustrating situation to sit still for three, four or five years while your peer group is coming up around you becoming superstars. It’s prevalent.
What kind of inspiration have you gotten from Strange Music and they way that they do business since they have ascended?
Okay, I’m really going to sound like a fanboy. The thing about Strange Music is that you guys are my poster child. Everything that I preach, Strange Music lives. It’s the most amazing thing, and I hate to just drone on about how amazing Tech and Travis are, but here are these two guys that started a company, and out of a frustration for the way the artist’s career was going, they built an empire. It started in Travis’ basement and has grown into a compound.
When I was there visiting you guys at the end of July, I was amazed at how much you had grown over the past 10 to 13 years. There’s a studio now with two different recording studios, something like forty trucks and wrapped vehicles parked in the parking lot so that when you go out on tour each artist has their own tour bus, you can bring all the merchandise. That’s in a wrapped vehicle so that’s a moving billboard for whoever the artists you’re promoting are, in the case that I’ve seen it’s been Tech N9ne. You’ve got an office that handles all of the creation and shipping of the merchandise. Not that you create every little thing in house, but everything that you can, you do.
It’s amazing how the love for music and the love for an artist created such an incredible business that feeds so many people and their families and so many artists and their families, and you do it successfully. Strange has proven that you can sell music, merchandise, you can get paid from streaming videos on YouTube. There are so many strings of income for an artist and you guys have proven that you can make money doing this and make money successfully, still pay your artists and everybody eats. It’s such a wonderful, wonderful example.
When I was there in July, the one question I kept asking Travis was “Why haven’t other rappers come out and seen this business model and sat down with you and executed their business model?” Because Travis is so forthcoming with information. Why hasn’t T.I. blueprinted Strange Music for Grand Hustle? Why hasn’t Jay Z blueprinted Strange Music for Roc? Why hasn’t Puffy done it? You know, why do these guys still take advances from major labels to only get a small percentage on the back end?” I never understood the advance game, I never understood being in debt. It floors me that more people don’t set up models like Strange because it works, and it’s proven that it works.
Maybe some people don’t want to spend the time on it, but on the other hand, there are some artists on the majors that probably have the start-up capital and it would make sense to follow the example.
It would, but they would rather buy a liquor company or they would rather buy into a basketball team. It just seems like they’d rather invest outside of their career than into their own career.
Do you think Strange Music has set trends and has pioneered new ways to do business and do you see other people picking up on some of the hints they have been dropping over the past 13 years?
Absolutely. Certainly Odd Future, I’m sure they took a look in at Strange Music and said, “Shit, if they can do it, we can do it.” I think Macklemore definitely took a look and said, “This is what I want to do, this is the right model for me.” I believe there are many artists that have seen the independent model you guys offer, even just from the outside looking in, even if they’ve never come out to Missouri to see what you’re doing. I think that a lot of artists look at you guys from the outside looking in. They read the articles. You know there was a great article in Billboard that explains how you do it, there have been a couple articles in XXL that explain how you do it. I think that artists are starting to be more savvy and beginning to understand the value of ownership and making the lion’s share of the money in the music industry. You know, major labels are becoming dinosaurs and I just think there’s less and less reason for an artist to sign a deal. As I told Travis when I was sitting with him, it’s easier to find an investor today than it is to find a label to sign you.
Do you think labels are more hesitant to make bold choices than they used to be?
Yes. They are spending less money because they’re making less money. And the really funny thing about that is even though they’re making less money, they’re still making great money – it’s just less. So it seems like they’re taking a hit, but when you really look at the financials there’s nothing wrong with the money they’re making today. They’re just being a little bit greedy and saying “Okay we need to make more because ten years ago we made more. Ten years ago we made 92% of the income on records.” Today that may have dropped into the 70th percentile, but it’s still great money. You’re still making good money compared to selling widgets, or shoes, or furniture or whatever, it’s just less than what you’re accustomed to, and greed kicks in at that point.
Do you think that the landscape of the business and for the consumer would change for the better if some of these major labels adopted practices of companies like Strange Music?
It would definitely be for the better. I don’t see any downside. It would stream music to the fans the way they want to receive it at a price point they want to receive it in the type of genre that they want to receive. Meaning that if I work for a major label, it’s very difficult for me to sign an artist that doesn’t fit perfectly within a major radio box. So if I feel there’s a market for an R&B singer that’s a little bit left of center, I may not sign him because there’s no radio station that’s going to play his type of music. The cool thing about Strange is you don’t get sucked into fitting people in a box. Your model is based on “We’re offering great music. We’re going to go find out who’s going to buy our great music and then we’re going to sell it to them,” and that is the basic tenant of marketing, of sales, and of business.
The music business wasn’t erected based on business, it was erected based on relationships. So the way a major label executive thinks is, “Oh, I’ve got a really great relationship with Clear Channel, and the bulk of Clear Channel’s radio stations fit in this certain genre. So I need to sign artists that I can then feed through my relationship at Clear Channel to get radio play so I can reach millions of people so I can build my superstar.” That’s great for building superstars, but it’s not great for good music, and I think the fans have spoken. The fans have proven that they want really good music. They’ve lined up to buy Adele, they’ve lined up to buy Kendrick Lamar, they’ve lined up to buy J. Cole, they’ve lined up to buy the artists that deliver really, really great music.
There’s nothing wrong with the pre-fabricated pop artists, I like pop music myself. It’s upbeat, it’s catchy, and when I’m sad it cheers me up. It certainly has a place in society, but it’s very disposable. So when you look at an album by a Soulja Boy or a Miley Cyrus, and this is no disrespect to them because they are great marketers and they’re great artists in their own right, but they’re built to be disposable. They’re not built to last the way Aretha Franklin or Stevie Wonder has. That’s not what the label has in mind.
Speaking of artists, what do you think about Tech N9ne as an artist?
I think Tech is amazing! Here’s what I like about him as an artist: he’s very, very lyrical first of all. I think the face paint throws a lot of people because they’re just not used to seeing their artist wearing face paint. So I think when he first came out he had to prove himself to the nth degree because of the face paint, but I believe that once people sat down and began listening to him, they really began to embrace him and realize that he is a tremendous talent. He raps about stuff that is very interesting. A lot of people look from the outside in at his career and they see the album cover with fire, or they’ll see devil horns and say that he’s devil worshipping because they don’t understand. But his fans know that that’s not what he’s about, he’s just a very unique talent that talks about everything that is happening in his life. I think once a fan is able to look past what the assumption of him is then they really find that he’s an incredible, incredible talent.
If you look at rap music, other than Too Short, I don’t know anybody that’s had as many releases as Tech N9ne. And I gotta say if you put a Too Short concert next to a Tech N9ne concert, Tech’s going to sell out more times, to more people for a higher ticket price than Short ever will. They’re very different in terms of their fan base. Look how loyal Tech has been to his fan base over the years: he’s really delivered 13 strong albums that the fans absolutely love and are rabid about.
You know, one of the articles I’d love to see one of our hip hop publications do, they’re always talking about how big tattoos are in the hip hop community and in our world… I would love to see them do a story on what artist has the most fans with their logo tattooed on them, and I’m willing to that bet it’s Tech N9ne and Strange Music. I’ll bet there’s more Tech N9ne tattoos out there than there are No Limits tanks tattooed on people, than there are whoever the fan’s favorite artist is. I think there are more people out there that are rabid fans of Tech N9ne than of any other artist, and they show it by buying his merchandise, buying his music and attending his shows. And he’s doing it all without a major behind him, it’s remarkable.
Yeah, even though Jay Z is undoubtedly bigger and selling more records, you don’t see any Jay Z tattoos.
I agree, but his fans aren’t rabid. His fans are just sort of like fans of his movement and fans of his business acumens and fans of his music. They’re more about his movement, whereas with Tech, the fans can recite lines word for word, pound for pound for 13 albums. And, not that this is a good thing, but I’ll bet there’s more fans that are willing to climb through a window at Tech’s house to meet him than would do so for Jay Z. I think Jay Z is a star, and he’s a superstar, but he’s a different kind of superstar. I think that he’s not really of the people, for the people. I think he’s sort of seen as that unreachable, untouchable thing that sort of floats above everybody, whereas Tech is a star based on the fact that people really relate to him, they really understand him, they really get him and his lifestyle is their lifestyle.
He’s like a Rocky for hip hop.
He is. He is what they tried to build Kanye as. You know, when he first came out he was a college dropout, blue collar rapper when every other rapper was talking about materialism and Phantoms, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Louis Vuitton, and Versace. Although Tech wears all the brands, he doesn’t pepper every song he has about materialism. I think that when Kanye first came out they were trying to take him in that direction, but unfortunately he got sucked into the hype like every other rap star and started cutting Maybachs in half to make music videos (laughs).
What do you think the future holds for Strange Music? Despite having such an emphasis on being different and being independent, do you think there’s potential to become a superpower in the industry? Or have they already reached that point?
I think Strange has reached that point. You just have to look at their success based on independence as opposed to what we’re used to. If every day we get up and we see that apples are red, apples are red, apples are red, when we see a green apple we go, “Wait a minute! What’s wrong with that apple? It’s not red.” And there’s nothing wrong with a green apple, we’re just not necessarily used to seeing green apples – and I think that’s what Strange is. In a world based on major labels where we’re so used to seeing the major label’s system and artists doing interviews complaining about their labels: they didn’t come out when they were supposed to, they didn’t make the kind of money they thought they would make, they got sidelined because Nicki Minaj was the priority or they got sidelined because Drake was the priority. I think when you look inside at Strange, you can’t measure them with the same measuring tape that you use for a major label. You’ve gotta really put your “indie glasses” on in order to see the strength and the ownership and the decision-making process that comes from being an independent label.
To me, and this is just my opinion, a major label is like a cruise ship: it’s big, it’s beautiful, it rides on top of the water and it’s slow moving but it can go really, really far and it cuts through the water and it’s majestic and people want to take pictures of it because it’s so beautiful. Independent labels, to me, are like jet skis: they can turn left on a dime, turn right on a dime, make U-turns when they have to, they’re buoyant, they’re fast, they can make decisions quickly, they can get to where they’re going very fast. They’re just different. They’re two vessels in the water but they have different purposes and different reason for being. I think Strange has just been a really successful jet ski, cutting through the water quickly, able to get from point A to point B in a very timely fashion because there’s not all that weight holding them down of every other artist or a staff of 4,000 that has to meet payroll.
I think that if Strange were to try to become a cruise ship, it would become a cruise ship, and it would become a successful cruise ship, but it would still be a cruise ship. It would no longer be a jet ski. I see Strange Music as an array of jet skis. I see Krizz Kaliko on his jet ski, I see Tech N9ne on his jet ski, I see Stevie Stone on his jet ski. I see you guys able to move through the water quickly and respond to the fans quickly. So if you put out a song that the fans don’t like, you don’t have twelve departments inside your label already working on it. If something goes wrong you guys can turn on a dime quickly and put out a different single and get what the fans want out there. Your feedback process, because you’re a smaller label, is on point. You can really tell what the fans are embracing on an album so that if you need to change what you think is the single to what the fans want the single to be, you can do that. You can’t do that at a major label because you’re already in the pipeline. So I think that if you guys wanted to be a cruise ship, you very well could be but you would have to forsake a lot of what you’re known for and what your success has been based on in order to become that cruise ship. And I’d rather see you tie together a million jet skis than build a cruise ship, that’s just my opinion.
You have been able to meet Travis and spend some time with him, what do you think about him as an individual and as a CEO?
I adore Travis, even before I met him, I’ve always adored Travis, because Travis is one of the smartest business men that I’ve ever met who doesn’t possess the negative qualities of a business man. What I mean by that is my introduction to Travis was he called me up one day, out of the blue, and said, “Hi, I’m Travis” – I knew exactly who he was. He said, “Hi, I’m Travis and I work with Tech N9ne and Tech really wants to go after urban radio, what do you think about that?” and I said “Shit, I think that’s a really bad idea, and here’s why.” We had this whole philosophical discussion on the pros and cons of going for radio spins for Tech N9ne, and he really listened. He really wanted to know my opinion, and he called a bunch of other people, seeking the same counsel before making his decision. Most CEOs don’t do that. Most CEOs sit in their office, they make a decision based on whatever they use to base a decision on, but it rarely consists of seeking counsel of other people, and then they say, “This is what we’re going to do, this is law. We’re not going to veer from this, this is the plan.” That’s not Travis. Travis really wants to succeed in everything that he does, and if he did have something that probably irks him in terms of something about himself that he could improve, I’d be willing to bet that he would like to add extra hours to the day. I think that would be his wish for himself.
As far as the human being side, the thing that makes him amazing as a human being is he really wants everybody to win. He wants to share with everybody. It’s not his company or his way or the highway. It’s very much “Yes, I want to run the company and I want to be the best business man I can be, but I want to make sure that everybody is paid. I want to make sure people are taken care of. I want to make sure that things are going properly.” At the end of the day, I’m sure that everybody on the staff probably wishes they were making more money – everybody should wish that. I wish that in my own life, but I think when you compare yourselves to other independent record labels, or even the guys that work at the majors, the money is better and the stress is less. Yes, you have stress and yes, you should all be making more money because everybody should, but the reality is, in comparison, he’s very fair and he does what’s right, and it’s very rare to see that. We’re in an industry where one person wants to own 100% of the publishing, 100% of the masters and along comes this guy in Kansas City who doesn’t think that way. He wants to share, he wants to make sure that everybody can eat at the end of the day, if he’s making money, you’re making money and that’s so rare in this business.
What is the one thing you want to see more of in the business, and what is the one thing you would like to see less of in the business?
Great question. I’d like to see more knowledge of how the business operates. I’d like for artists to educate themselves as to how this business works, how it’s run and who the players are instead of them just jumping in with both feet without looking or doing research first, which it seems like everybody does today.
I’d love to see more professionalism in the music industry, just the basics of getting phone calls returned. It’s a lot easier for me because of the success that I’ve achieved in my career, but I remember when I started out, I couldn’t get anyone to return my phone calls, not even interns, and I never understood the ignorance behind that. You know, somebody emails you, or somebody talks to you online or somebody puts a phone call in to you, at the very least have somebody on your team respond if you can’t. For some reason in the music business, we don’t do that, we just ignore people and I just never understood the business acumen involved in that because there is none. Those are the things I’d like to change.
I would love to have the industry set the bar a little bit higher, both for artists as well as the people behind the scenes. I think that because it’s so over-saturated right now that we really put up with music that isn’t as good as it could be. Meaning that it’s not thought out well. It doesn’t have the components of a song that are necessary to even be a song. It’s not mixed and it’s not mastered. I would like to artists step their game up a little bit before they just put out a lot of music that they deem free so they don’t put a lot of time into it. I’d really like them to only put out their best work.
As for the people behind the scene, I really wish there was some sort of measuring tool that they would have to be judged by, at least by their peers, before they get into the music business. It just seems like anybody can go to Staples, Office Max, Kinko’s or FedEx Office and print up business cards that say “I own a publishing company,” “I own a record label,” “I’m a rapper/manager/lawyer” and it seems like there’s no measurement to find out if they’re even good at that before they get to call themselves that. You’ll see me joke on Twitter a lot, I’ll say, “Today I’m a cardiologist,” “Today I’m a brain surgeon!” because I see so many people in hip hop that call themselves managers but don’t even know what that job entails. They don’t even know what skills they need to manage an artist’s career. We’re not selling toilet paper here, we’re not selling widgets, we’re selling people’s dreams and their lives. So if you call yourself a manager and you sign somebody to a five year management agreement and you completely fuck it up, you have totally taken away five years of their life. You’ve totally impacted their dreams and to me that’s unconscionable.
I wish there were a way in music where either we had to get some sort of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval or some Better Business Bureau stamp or some sort of committee of peers that say “Okay, these are the real managers that exist and these are the ones that are in training, or these are the ones you need to avoid. Because artists can’t seem to make that distinction for themselves. I see them choosing poorly day in and day out. They’ll choose the worst radio promoter, they’ll choose the worst manager, they’ll choose the worst marketing person, and they’ll choose the worst label consultant. They’ll just choose the worst of the worst and hire them to represent them. I just wish there was a way to sort of clean out the industry and get rid of the people that aren’t good at what they do and the people who aren’t trying to be good at what they do.
Is there anything else you would like to say before we wrap this up?
I thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. You’re one of my favorite companies and I love what you guys do, just keep doing it.
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