This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Wendy Day, Founder of Rap Coalition, and CEO of PowerMoves.
In fighting for one’s rights within hip-hop in the music business, it takes more than a good powerbroker; It takes a dedicated powerbroker with a background as a lifelong fan.
For so many American hip-hop artists, entrepreneur, author, and artist manager Wendy Day is their shepherd, their advisor, their Ruth Bader Ginsburg; heralded for her intense advocacy of hip-hop; her straight-from-the-hip advice; and for the remarkable number of landmark deals under her belt.
Day, 57, possesses both sharp elbows and a sweet charm that have helped her pull countless hip-hop artists out of unsavory deals while educating them on the music industry with advice like “You don’t get what’s fair in this industry, you get what you negotiate.”
With nearly three decades of experience in the music industry, Day does not see her artist clientele as clients. She sees them as creative beings with frailties, insecurities, anxieties, and needs.
And they need her advice and guidance.
Founder of non-profit Rap Coalition, Day also runs the for-profit music consulting company PowerMoves, music incubator Artist-Centric, and is the author of the 2011 book, “How to Get a Record Deal: The Knowledge to Succeed,” which was updated and re-published in March 2016 with an audiobook narration from Slick Rick.
Day launched Rap Coalition in 1992 out of disgust for the way urban artists were being exploited in the music industry. Wanting to shift the balance of power to favor artists, she stared the advocacy organization and information hub to support, educate, protect, and unify hip-hop artists, managers, and producers via monthly panel discussions, seminars, and showcases.
In 1995, Day founded PowerMoves which helps artists and independent record labels start and helps managers maximize the money artists make from their music by allowing them to seek investors rather than major labels.
Day recently started Artist Centric, an incubator for rappers with investors; where they can learn how to build their careers independently, market and promote their music, and build independent labels. When they leave the incubator, they leave with 100% of their music ownership, and music publishing.
Day kicked off 2020 with “20/20 Vision,” a 31-day video series that consisted of one post per day providing guidance on a particular area of importance for artists trying to make it in the music business.
Day holds a Bachelor‘s degree in Graphic Design from Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, an MBA in Marketing from McGill University in Montreal, and a Master’s degree in African American Studies from Temple University in Philadelphia.
She is based in Atlanta, having relocated from New York City in 2005.
Your specialty for nearly three decades has been guiding rap and hip-hop artists.
(Laughing) Yes, it’s all been rap and hip-hop for 28 years, and I have the twitch to prove it.
You’ve overseen some often intricate contract negotiations on behalf of your clients, but you are not a lawyer.
The cool thing is that I’m not a lawyer. That is what kind of made it easy for me. When I came back to New York from (living in Montreal) in 1991 I had money for the first time in my life, and I could really choose what I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t in a position where I had to get a job right away and get into the 9 to 5 rat race. So I took a class that Bert Padell was teaching at the New School (in New York City). It was on pop music but, at that point in time, rap was starting to become popular culture, pop music. He was the accountant to the stars, right? So he was telling stories about how hard it was for young black artists in the music industry, and it (the situation) really spoke to me. It really pissed me off. I decided to do something about it.
(Biggie Smalls immortalized Bert Padell, a noted entertainment industry accountant and business manager who taught business management classes at the New School for 25 years, in 112’s 1996 single “Only You,” rapping, “Room 112, where the players dwell. And, stash more cash than Bert Padell.” During his lengthy career, Padell’s client list ranged from Joe DiMaggio, Robert De Niro, Faye Dunaway and Jackie Mason to a roll call of music celebrities including Alice Cooper, Luther Vandross, Madonna, Biggie Smalls, Run-D.M.C., Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, Britney Spears, Blondie, Talking Heads, Rakim, and Pink Floyd. Padell passed away in 2018 at the age of 84.)
You started Rap Coalition in 1992 and it quickly became a valuable resource for hip-hop artists due to making them aware of exploitative practices, encouraging them to connect with their peers with similar needs, finding third-party funding partners for artists, and arming them with the know-how they needed to remain independent. In the earliest days, you educated artists via monthly panel discussions at ASCAP’s New York City office, and by launching a support network to help them to better navigate the music industry.
Yes, I started Rap Coalition. I went to Bert early one morning before his workday started, and said, “This is what I want to do.” He looked at it (my proposal) and said, “You are fucking nuts. There’s no money in altruism,” and that (his reaction) kind of spurred me on. When somebody told me that I shouldn’t do this, of course I said, “Yes I will.”
You consult, support and help build out regional and national independent urban labels and artists in order that they retain control of their music. What steps can be taken in helping to get an artist out of a major label deal? Few major labels, if any, are keen to relinquish rights once they attain them.
It is mostly negotiation. It is getting ahold of the person at the major label that has the ability to let them go. Most major labels don’t want an artist who is just sitting there doing nothing on their roster. They don’t want that bad publicity. They don’t want that person out there, especially in today’s internet age, where an artist can post, “I hate my label,” and 20 million people see it within 20 minutes. But, if it is an artist that is not bringing money into the company—and that is what most disgruntled artists are–artists that have been shelved—something can usually be worked out. I’m going to use Atlantic Records’ (chairman/CEO) Craig Kallman as an example.
Craig joined Atlantic Records in 1991 after it had acquired Big Beat Records which he had launched in 1987. Big Beat was a significant independent label with hits by Robin S., Jomanda, Tara Kemp, Bucketheads, Artifacts, Double XX Posse, Dawn Penn, Inner Circle, Changing Faces, and Quad City DJ’s. So Craig comes from an urban music background.
He does. A dance and hip-hop background. He is also very artist-friendly. So he is probably the easier example for me to give, but he’s the one that popped into my head. It is a matter of negotiating the artist off the label. Many of the artists that I was able to get out of their deals was because I was bringing (other) artists that had leverage to the label. The best example I can give you, and still using Craig as the example, was when we did the (joint venture) deal for Twista at Atlantic Records in 1996. We were able to get releases for Mad Skillz, and Artifacts. We were able to get them released at the same time that we were able to get Twista to sign to his joint venture.
One of the reasons that I have been so successful at this is not because I have any great negotiating skills, but because I don’t want it (publicity). I never go the press and say, “We got so and so released today.” So there’s no reason for the major labels to shut me down. They tolerate me. I am very thankful that they tolerate me because that gives me the ability to help artists gain their freedom.
Atlantic Records may be more open to settling artist disputes because of the late Ruth Brown. “Crumbs from a rich man’s label,” Ruth had once scoffed at a “gift” of $1,000 from Atlantic Records’ founder Ahmet Ertegun during a fees dispute. As a result of an action she triggered– Ruth Brown vs. Atlantic Records–she eventually received her first check in 28 years for royalties that Atlantic had claimed weren’t due her. As well, the royalty status of numerous other R&B veterans was then reexamined and payments were received from Atlantic (once nicknamed “The house that Ruth built”). One of the problems had been that in 1967 Atlantic became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, now the Warner Music Group, and its bureaucracy had tried to stifle payments.
Read her book “Miss Rhythm: The Autobiography of Ruth Brown.” Her fight for musicians’ rights and royalties in 1987 led to the founding of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1988.
I will. I just made a note to pick it up. I didn’t know about that.
For over three decades now, hip-hop has dominated American music charts and its youth culture. As hip-hop first exploded in its formative years, the mainstream music industry largely stayed away. Major labels stayed clear of hip-hop. Radio wouldn’t play hip-hop. Tours were nearly impossible. Despite the enormous monies earned since, and despite the impact made on contemporary culture, hip-hop still gets little respect from the mainstream business.
Does that largely involve racial prejudice? That the music industry infrastructure has for so long been a bastion of white privilege that is unwilling to grant privilege to largely disadvantaged urban players? The blog Make Some Noise pointed out: “The power disparity between whites and blacks in the music industry suggests that music is another tool the mainstream uses to perpetuate black marginalization.” Even those rejecting the notion of white privilege may not be into hip-hop themselves. Also, despite the influence of African American artists on music, there are few powerful African American executives in the music industry. Far worse is the absence of African Americans in the technology and live concert spaces.
I think that it is the powers-that-be don’t appreciate it (hip-hop). Let me pick on the Grammys for example. I think that when somebody very high up in The Recording Academy doesn’t see hip-hop as an art form or they don’t understand the music itself–to them it is just noise– then it is very hard for an organization to embrace that music or that art form. When somebody doesn’t appreciate it. And I think that very often whoever is at the top of an organization sets the tone. The reason that some labels embrace hip-hop is because whoever is at the top is a bean counter. They are an accountant. So they see the financial side of hip-hop for the label. So they embrace it much more hardily than one of the more cultural organizations or more so than a publication might embrace it.
Rap’s crossover into mainstream white American culture with acts like 2 Live Crew provoked concern about the music’s lyrical content among parent groups, the religious right, and law enforcement agencies in the late ‘80s. Who can forget Ice-T’s controversial side project with Body Count, “Cop Killer,” a political nightmare for Warner Bros in 1992? Everyone from Vice-President Dan Quayle to Parent’s Music Resource Center co-founder Tipper Gore to law enforcement organizations across the country called for a boycott of Time Warner, the parent company of Warner Bros. Records.
Those institutional concerns about rap haven’t dissipated.
Yes, they see it as being super violent. They see it…..and I guess that every culture has its negative side, and I don’t try to hide ours. We are losing a ton of rappers right now to a drug epidemic, to violence. It’s the craziest time that I’ve seen for rap deaths. It’s crazy, right?
It’s like every couple of month there’s a gun-related or drug death. Pop Smoke (aka Bashar Barakah Jackson) was just 20 when he was killed in an armed house robbery in his Hollywood Hills home on February 19th (2020), barely 18 months into a hip-hop career bursting with potential. In December, Juice WRLD died of a drug-related seizure at age 21. Last March, Nipsey Hussle was shot dead at age 33. In 2018, Mac Miller died of a drug overdose at age 26; XXXTentacion, 20, was fatally shot in his car outside Miami; and Jimmy Wopo, 21, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Pittsburgh. In 2017, Lil Peep, 21, died of an opioid overdose. It’s so insane the blood being continuously spilled within the hip-hop world by America’s unique gun violence and its widespread opioid crisis
It’s insane, yes.
I think one reason some of this is happening recently is that there’s less infrastructure within hip-hop. Labels aren’t recruiting acts early on, and this generation of talent coming up has no illusions about living and working in a world filled with hatred and arbitrary violence, or their place in it. They know of these recent deaths, but also know the fates of such iconic rappers as Biggie Smalls and 2Pac because our information age never quits. At the same time, they are cognizant of successes of Jay-Z, The Game, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Post Malone, Bryan “Birdman” Williams and Ronald “Slim” Williams, Nicki Minaj, and Drake and they think, “I can do that too.” But they can’t do it as easily today because there’s not the label/management infrastructure available anymore.
Agreed. There is also a huge dichotomy I’ve noticed between the old hip-hop business, and the new hip-hop music business. And what I mean by that is that people from my generation don’t embrace the younger generation, and people from the younger generation don’t embrace my generation.
So you yourself have the challenge of staying relevant. There are so many who started out when you did that have fallen away because they didn’t figure out how to adjust, and stay relevant in the music business. Any hip-hop artist aged 18-25 looks at someone past 30 today, and they write them off as “old school.” Also affecting that is the bulk of fans that monetize music are 13 to 26. The older generation isn’t deemed relevant.
Exactly, very much so. I noticed that this weekend in meeting with this 20-year-old from Baltimore. The new generation just really doesn’t have people on their team from my generation to educate them. So it is almost as if they are discovering everything anew the way that we did in the ‘90s. It is really disheartening because if the two different generations would just embrace each other, they would save each other from banging their heads. My generation is trying to stay relevant, and the younger generation is trying to educate themselves. All you need to do is to bring someone from a generation before you that’s already has experienced what you are going through, and you can save a lot of heartache.
Most successful artists have had bad deals when they started. Artists make mistakes no matter how sophisticated or knowledgeable they are. It’s part of the business, unfortunately. Hopefully, you can prevent artists from making a lot of mistakes or recognize their mistakes, and they can learn from them. Still an issue, however, is that much of the older generation lecture younger generation saying, “Look, this is the way it’s always been done” while the younger generation often responds, “Well, you have been doing it the wrong way.”
Yep because your way is not working.
A lot of decisions have to be made, especially at the inception of a career. A new artist may have to do things they don’t want to–sign certain things—but, as long as they know what it means, they can flourish. In the ‘90s, artists were either signed by labels or they weren’t signed. There was no middle ground. Today, there are options, and am alternate, indie-based middle ground; but it’s unclear what it consists of.
It’s not clear. It’s not clear and I feel like even the folks that do have a blueprint, they are so busy trying to sign people so they can make money themselves; that the newer artists, the younger artists, still don’t have a chance. It is almost like my generation has been the oppressor. So back in the day, you would give up all your rights to Sony or Def Jam Recordings or whatever in order to get on. And now, today, I feel that there are all of these middlemen saying, “Sign to me, and I will bring you to Sony” or “I’ll bring you” to wherever.
Acting like a production company.
Not just a production company but an evil production company because they are not bringing anything to the table. They are not even bringing production to the table.
What do you make of the methodology used by the majors to sign artists today? Years ago, labels sent A&R teams to clubs and concerts to discover new talent. Today, their A&R is busy checking out YouTube, and the various social media sites.
As Music Business International recently wrote, “Over the last five years, major labels and streaming platforms have been pouncing on data partnerships and startup acquisitions at an unprecedented rate, with the hopes of using algorithms to discover – and predict – the next big pop star.”
Few music industry people want to get their hands dirty doing grassroots artist development. So many labels seek to sign acts following a couple of releases, and after checking them out on streaming and social media sites.
At many labels, it’s a junior assistant sifting through the music sent in.
Probably, to be honest, the smartest person in the building.
Social networking moves faster than word-of-mouth of the past. Thousands of people will look online at an artist and check out their music but there might be nothing “sticky” about them. They aren’t important enough to those viewing their music. People just needed to look. An artist might have 10 million hits on YouTube, and they can neither sell their music via streaming nor sell tickets to their shows. The industry wants stickability.
Yeah, absolutely they do.
You tell artists to make a business plan. What should new artists put into that plan? Surely it’s more of a career plan? It’s figuring out what they need to do; how to plan it; and a timetable?
When I tell an artist to make a business plan, I always take that next step and break it down because the words “business plan” doesn’t always fit their lexicon. It is not something that they know because they are artists. If I talk about a “microphone,” they get it; but if I talk about a “business plan,” I get the blank stare. So I will always explain that it is the who, what, where, and how of what they are going to build; and how they are going to build it; how they are going to get it out there; and most importantly, how the investor involved is going to get their money back.
As well, today’s artists have to grasp the changes sweeping the music industry, and the pronounced advances in technology affecting the distribution of music as well as social media. Consumer choice keeps being revolutionized as music-based experiences increasingly become more effectively delivered in even more connected ways.
Yes. And that’s important, especially with rap, because we are very technologically advanced. So, in many cases, we are helping to build the technology. I don’t mean that from a coding point of view, but let’s use Snapchat as the example. If artists like DJ Khaled hadn’t embraced Snapchat early on (in 2015) it would never have caught on the way that it did. The fans embrace what the artists are using. So if a fan wants to hear the newest and the latest in music right now it’s TikTok (the multimedia messaging app that has 210 million daily active users). Snapchat is known. You go to TikTok to see all the new music because it’s there. At one point it was Facebook. At another point it was Instagram. Then it was Snapchat. So it changes very, very quickly. The way I market music today is very different from the way that I was doing it this time last year.
Artists still have to learn to promote and market themselves. Spamming content on email, Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat isn’t movement forward when most of the people they reach are annoyed that they are being spammed by their links. Do artists count too much on their social media?
So many artists bypass industry conferences or music seminars. You can’t get many of them into a room with someone teaching music business. Yet, we are a relationship business. As much as they can rack up streaming and social media numbers, a direct one-on-one meeting in the bar at a music conference might change their life.
Absolutely. I have this conversation with artists all of the time. Not just one-on-one, but in my educational videos saying, “You’ve got to promote in the real world. If you are only promoting on the internet”—and artists see that as free—“if you are only doing social media promotions, you are missing a huge chunk of the world. You have to get out there like a politician and touch people, shake hands, kiss babies, take pictures with fat girls. You just have to do that.” And I say that as a very proud fat girl.
In a relationship business, how does an artist create a buzz?
They create it by building their relationships. They bring people one by one into their franchise. They get their music out there. They just don’t hand somebody their music or play their music for somebody. They get people to discover it. Once they discover it they will do the most amazing things. They will share it with their friends because music is just one of those things that people want to share. It’s like food that tastes good. You eat something that is delicious, you want to say to one of your friends, “Here try this. This is amazing.”
Artists have to take their priority and make it a priority for others in the business.
Yes. And you want them (others) to discover it. You can’t really ram it down their throat. It doesn’t work that way. So even on social media, I find so many artists, even though the perception is that it’s free, I find so many artists blowing their opportunities because they are spamming their music be it on Instagram or Twitter to who they think are potential fans, instead of engaging them. Instead of going to the Instagram account of somebody’s music that has a similar sound to theirs, and start to talk to people who are posting comments under that artist’s pictures and things, “Hey, I see that you like Meek Mill” or whoever. “I like him too. Where are you from? Oh, you are from Texas. That’s cool. I’m from Atlanta. What kind of music is popping in Texas? Okay, I like that kind of rap too.” And, at some point, the person approached is going to go and see, “Who is this that I am talking to? Oh shit. He’s a rapper. Let me go and check out his music.” To me, that is the organic way of spreading music because if they like your music, they are going to spread it to all of their friends, and they are going to become like an ambassador for your sound.
The primary concern of most new artists is that they are so busy trying to live their lives while trying to be creative, trying to run a band, and overseeing bookings. They can’t afford to hire anyone nor can they often even find a manager. “I just can’t do everything.”
And it’s a valid remark. It is difficult melding the different worlds. At the same time, social media is driving interest in the music business but, while there’s also greater interest in knowing more about music-related business matters, many artists and songwriters don’t take the trouble to learn. Right off the bat I tell those that contact me to find Todd and Jeff Brabec’s essential industry legal guide, “Music Money And Success: The Insider’s Guide to Making Money in the Music Business” now its 8th edition, or Donald Passman’s “All You Need To Know About The Music Business” (1991), or even Diane Sward Rapaport’s “How to Make and Sell Your Own Recording,” which was first published in 1979.
At least start somewhere.
You are about to launch a music business education website tentatively titled SlavesNoMore.
I’m in the process of changing the name because we just have a different world with different politics now. We have a president who is pretty well a supreme racist. So I’m changing the name. I don’t quite have the name yet, but I am looking. It’s an educational website that I have been building out for the past couple of years. I have been recording interviews with different friends on different topics. It is sort of what I am doing on Instagram right now with the 20/20 Vision Series but on steroids. It will be a subscription-based service, and I’m trying to keep it around $2.99 or $3.99 per month. I want it to be like the price that I would have paid for a magazine when I was coming up, and magazines were it. I want artists to be able to afford it, but I also want to have accurate information. Not just from myself, but from people in the industry that do this for a living, and who are making money from doing this for a living. Not making money teaching something they are getting from other people. Not that that is bad. I just have a different business model. I want it to come from people who are actually doing it.
A truism today is the more information we get, the stupider we get. With the internet, there is so much misleading or misinformation about the music industry.
Oh my God, you are going to have me grind an axe. That’s my biggest complaint, yes. The internet has created a monster. I thought that it would make everything better. We’d be smarter. We’d get better information. And it has made everybody an authority. So someone who has very little knowledge of the music industry is now being a pundit, and giving their input and people, who don’t know any better, think that it is fact.
Much of what you do has been breaking down music industry information to very basic, easy-to-understand forms. Like the episodes for your 20/20 Vision Daily Video Series. Creatives must understand that they must learn the business. If they are operating a small retail store they need to know the costs and lines of distribution of what they are selling. The same thing in the music business.
Yeah, absolutely. The idea for this 20/20 Vision Series came to me when I read some misinformation on the internet, and it pissed me off so badly to read this really crappy advice that I said, “Man, there’s has gotta be somebody out here that is reaching this base of new artists in a way that they want to receive it in a way that they can understand it.”
Many of the younger generation aren’t book readers either.
They are not. They are not at all. If it is not video…and I am going to take it a step further and tell you that a year and a half ago I started a video series to educate artists on my YouTube channels. I bought lights, and I bought a microphone, and I set everything up in a room in my house. I had books in the background. I had these big comfy red chairs. I worried about the aesthetics. I put on make-up. I combed my hair. I made sure I looked great. And the reaction was nothing. Then one day I was in a hotel room, and the muse struck me. With my iPhone, I recorded an episode, and that episode was 10 times more popular than anything I had shot in my glossy, squeaky clean, lovely studio in my home. And I realized that not only do people want information, but they want it in a very basic, down-to-earth and authentic-looking way. So I started shooting with my iPhone in my office with a window as my backdrop, and my views went through the roof.
People seek authenticity.
Yes, they want the realness and authenticity. And so when I started the 20/20 Series, I shot it sitting at my desk with that same window in the background. Some days I forget to comb my hair. There’s no make-up. The only thing that I do is that I switch my glasses so when I upload these episodes I know exactly which ones to upload. I don’t have to go through and watch them. I know that, “Okay the one with the red glasses goes on Monday; the purple glasses goes up on Tuesday.” This way I can shoot in a lump, 7 videos or so together, and I don’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out which is which. They don’t all look the same.
With dwindling recording income, and with fewer chances or even much interest by artists in being signed by labels, music publishing is now front and center. However, many artists and songwriters, even veterans, remain confused about music publishing. How many times have you sat with a young artist/songwriter and showed them the two royalty pies of songwriter and music publishing? Even seasoned artist/songwriters often don’t grasp it. That they always receive their writer’s share, but they can divvy up the music publishing.
Just did it yesterday. No exaggeration. I had to do that yesterday. I think with creatives…. and I am going to preface this by saying that one of my secrets to success is that I bring a left-brain understanding to a right-brain world because I think that I have both. I am both creative, and business-minded which is very rare. So I feel that I can explain to artists—and my world is rap. I was going to say rappers, but I really mean all musicians—I think that I have the ability to explain to artists how this works, and I break it down and I compare publishing to real estate because that’s the easiest form for them to understand when it comes to them to understand. Own it, and rent it to somebody else or own it, and sell it to somebody else if you need money. But I am forever drawing the pies, and it’s funny because 28 years into this I’m still explaining music publishing by two pies.
I do this all of the time with artists and songwriters.
I realized this yesterday. As I said earlier, there was a young rapper from Baltimore who flew in to meet with me. I pulled up the cocktail napkin. I pulled a pen out of my bag, and here I was drawing two pies on a cocktail napkin to explain to him how publishing worked. I kind of laugh because all these years later I’m still drawing pies on a friggin’ bar napkin.
One of the biggest untruths is, “Don’t give up your publishing.”
If it’s a music publisher that is going to help a songwriter’s career, it can make sense.
Maybe sell it.
There are so many variables of music publishing contracts including administration deals or utilizing restrictive reversion clauses where music rights are returned after a time period. As you know, many of the songwriters refusing to consider working with a music publisher a decade later have a drawer-full of songs that nobody recorded or heard.
Right or they have a hard drive that never went anywhere.
Many publishers remain wary of co-publishing, especially with newer songwriters, in which the publishing pie is split up with the songwriter while they do the administrative and pitching work. It can argued that music publishers pulled back significant investment support of their songwriter rosters with co-publishing diminishing their share from 100% to a lesser split. Yet, if you suggest 100% publishing to a songwriter today, they run from the room because all their friends have told them never to sign over 100% of their publishing.
Right, right. I have even said that. I tell kids all of the time don’t give up 100% of your publishing.
Still, they retain writers’ share which is 50% of the overall song when they are the sole writer on a song and then they retain say 50% of the publishing which gives them 75% of the overall song, and a music publisher 25%. The publisher is being both the co-publisher and the administrator and promoting the songs for their 25%. What is that songwriter doing as the other co-publisher? Are they active as a co-publisher? Not often.
Yes, in the scenario that you are outlining, there’s nothing wrong with it (full publishing) at all. My problem is with the publishers that don’t do anything.
Precisely my point. We are on the same page. If a songwriter already has a successful track record or is being an active co-publisher then co-publishing is certainly viable
If they (the songwriter) is going to hire someone to do the job or do the job themselves, I agree. And that’s why I am a big fan of admin deals. The reason I like admin deals is because the thing that an entrepreneurial artist really cannot do is collect money. It is just difficult. So I love admin deals for that reason, but only if the artist is truly going to be entrepreneurial, and pitch their music for film, games, and commercials. If they are going to do the work, then I feel that they should collect the money.
Admin deals also make sense in order to deal with international markets.
Yes. To me, it’s all international now because of the Internet. Thank you Internet.
I’m talking more about an artist that will need support in touring international markets. Not just someone throwing tracks up on the streaming services like Spotify, Amazon etc.
On Tunecore, yeah. It’s “international” in quotations.
(TuneCore is partnered with over 150 digital stores and streaming services across more than 100 countries worldwide, including iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, and Amazon.)
You are quite famous for brokering Cash Money Records’ $30 million distribution deal with the Universal Music Group in 1998 which allowed Bryan “Birdman” Williams, and Ronald “Slim” Williams to expand Cash Money’s roster of young artists, and let them invest further in Lil Wayne.
The thing that was so groundbreaking was that it was an 80/20 deal split where Cash Money was able to retain 80% of the income, and Universal retained 20% of the income while funding the label. Also, if Cash Money decided to leave after the deal was up in three years, they could take their masters because they retained ownership.
Why did the Williams brothers do the deal?
They did the deal for two reasons. One was because they needed cash flow. They were paying for everything out of their pocket and their distributor at the time which was Southwest Wholesale (in Houston, Texas) was not paying them. So they were selling a shit ton of music but they were not getting paid by the distributor. When I worked for them, it was 1997 to March of ’98, and they were all very very young. Lil Wayne was only 13. The original deal done in 1997 and signed in ’98 was for the Juvenile album (“Solja Rags”). That was the first album that Cash Money put out.
Cash Money started slowly, signing artists but releasing little product. Still, largely on the strength of Wayne’s prolific mixtape output, its reputation grew. Then in 2008, Lil Wayne had the best-selling album of the year and won a Grammy Award for “Tha Carter III” which sold 3.5 million units.
They ended up not paying me. I left…
You sued Cash Money.
I did. I had to sue them. They paid me before it went to court. It took me 2 ½ years to get paid. It cost me about $12,000 to sue them, but I was able to get paid so I was happy at that point. But I never went back. I never worked with them again. Once they didn’t pay me I was done. His (Birdman’s) attitude was, “Sue me, and I will pay you, but I’m just not going to volunteer it.” I never understood that thinking.
Throughout the 1990s, you brokered a number of pivotal hip-hop deals including Master P and No Limit Records’ 85/15 distribution deal with Priority Records; Twista’s 50/50 joint venture with Atlantic Records that we mentioned; and David Banner’s multi-million dollar deal with Universal Records. Those types of leveraged deals have since dried up.
Oh yeah, they are way gone. Yeah. As far as I know, nobody can do deals like that today, but the truth is that you really don’t need a deal like that today. It’s a different world. The Cash Money type deals probably exist not in terms of the giant financial structure because there’s just not that much income in the business anymore but the actual structure of the deal, really, it was just financed distribution deal. They got a distribution deal with a cash advance and they were able to use whatever departments at Universal they saw fit. They ended up using all of the departments but I had structured it so if they wanted to hire an outside radio team or an outside video team or an outside street team they could have done that. So they were basically paying Universal for whatever services that they used, but they didn’t have to use all of Universal’s services.
In the past artists were largely reliant on their record labels even long past their breakthroughs. Today, successful artists can hire their own management teams, and launch their own production companies.
Yes, agreed. When Taylor (Swift) did her deal with Universal, I wondered why she did it. I wondered why she just didn’t start Taylor Enterprises LLC, and hire her own team to fill whatever void that would be missing from not signing with a major label. I don’t know her deal. I’m not privy to her contract. I don’t know if that is what she’s done inside of Universal. But I was very surprised based on her knowledge of this business, and her strength as an entrepreneur that she didn’t start her own outside organization because she easily could have. And it surprised me that she didn’t buy her masters which, of course, hit the fan a little bit later when somebody else did. I was a little bit surprised that wasn’t her driving force.
Taylor portrayed the situation as being betrayed by Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta selling her music to someone she accused of bullying her. Scooter Braun bought the Big Machine Label Group for $300 million with the help of private equity fund Carlyle, a minority stakeholder. According to Taylor, she had the opportunity to purchase her catalog from Big Machine — or the company itself — but she declined the terms offered. She claims she was offered the rights to one past album for each new one she delivered. Borchetta, however, denies those claims. Taylor reduced the matter into one issue: Her right to own and control her music. You and I both know that very few companies will relinquish masters.
Okay, as you said, you don’t have a law degree. How did you fall into the legal side of the hip-hop industry?
I came as a fan. I started listening to rap in 1980 when it was kind of a new baby. I lived n Philadelphia. I was getting an undergraduate degree in graphic design. I went to an event at the University of Pennsylvania which was like a subway ride from where I was living to see the Psychedelic Furs. The opening act was Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. When they took the stage I was in love. I loved the energy, and the passion, and the music. That took me down the (rap) rabbit hole. I started to go to the local record shops Sound Of Market Street 1, and Sound Of Market Street 2 in Philadelphia every Tuesday which was when music dropped. Not only would there be one or two pieces of vinyl that were being pressed up on the underground tip, but mixtapes were available. Mixtapes back then were live recordings from the clubs in New York. So I was getting the music, even though I was paying for it. I was paying for a cassette, I was getting the music fresh from the club from Saturday night on Tuesday. Or fresh from the club Friday night on Tuesday.
In the ‘90s, artist mixtapes became a legit and proven entry point into the music industry
In the ‘80s, it was live recordings and battle rap. So there were live recordings where somebody like you or I would go to whatever the hot club of the moment was at 11 PM, and record two different tapes, two or three hours of music, and then we’d send it out around the country and get paid to do that. The mixtapes in the ‘90s were those made by the artist like Lil Wayne going to a known mixtape guy and saying, “Hey, I want to put out a mixtape, and I want you to be the DJ for it.” Like with DJ Drama or DJ S&S or DJ Ron G, whoever they would deem worthy of being the host of their mixtape. So that was kind of the historical growth of mixtapes. But when I was listening to mixtapes (in the ‘80s) they were fresh out of the clubs, and it was all different kinds of music. It was people rapping over disco breakbeats and then there was another kind of mixtape that we could buy that was super exciting and that was battle raps. It would be like Busy Bee in the club battling whoever the other hot rapper of the moment would be.
Busy Bee was famously roasted by Kool Moe Dee at Harlem World in Manhattan in 1981 in one of the earliest documented rap battles. He had a large following through MC rap battles in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and New Jersey and worked with Melle Mel, Afrika Bambaataa, Kool DJ AJ, and Ice-T. He’s known for his comedic rhymes.
It was almost like they were dissing each other back-and-forth but in some respects, it was not only talented but it was only funny. Like they would start with Yo Mama Jokes (making fun of someone’s mother). So there was a lot of entertainment value which is why somebody like myself would spend $10 or $15 to buy these cassettes living in Philadelphia since I couldn’t get to the nightclubs in New York to hear them.
So you were raised in Philadelphia. What did your parents do?
My dad was the guy that when you went into a post office to buy stamps, he was the guy at the window that would sell you stamps. My mom stayed home and took care of my sister and I. We lived in the North West suburbs. It was a great place to grow up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I was born in ’62. So my childhood was at a real fun time. I grew up listening to rock and roll. Music was my life. I always had music playing and yet I came from a house that did not. My dad, if he listened to the radio, it was baseball games. My mom listened to talk radio. So I didn’t come up in an environment where music was really important, but it was to me.
You didn’t go to the cool schools in South Philly where urban music was prevalent.
Not at all. I didn’t even know what black music was until I went downtown to go to college at Moore College of Art and Design. It was at the art school, but they had liberal arts. It was an agreement that I made with my mom because she didn’t want me to not have a liberal arts education. So while I was learning graphic design, I still had to take English and history, and French.
You have a Bachelor‘s degree in Graphic Design from Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, an MBA in Marketing from McGill University in Montreal, and a Master’s degree in African American Studies from Temple University in Philadelphia What did you plan to do in life back then?
It wasn’t a plan.
You lived much of your life in New York City.
Yes, and I feel like a New Yorker. My whole goal after I graduated from art school was to move to New York City. I thought that I would work in advertising. I thought that I would be an ad executive at some point. Then I went to New York for the weekend with a girlfriend and I hear the Mr. Magic & Marley Marl show and I moved there a week later and I was immersed in rap. That was it. I just loved it.
It’s a bit of a jump from being a fan to being a hip-hop consultant, Did that come with you founding Rap Coalition in 1992 after selling your condo, investments, and car?
It did. I started out as a fan in the ‘80s and up until the ‘90s I had moved to Montreal in the late 80s. I went to McGill University to get my MBA. I went to Concordia University, and I went to McGill.
How did you come, at age 26, to live in Montreal?
I was selling advertising in Time magazine and Sports Illustrated, and I had access to all of their research information which was top of the line at the time. My boyfriend’s best friend’s father was starting a liquor company. So I pulled a bunch of research for him and, then went to Montreal for a weekend to visit my boyfriend. I took the stack of research to his friend’s father, and I dropped it on his desk and said, “heard that you are starting a liquor company. Here’s a bunch of free research. Have a nice day.” He was so impressed that I did that that he offered me a job. I explained to him that I lived in New York City. My life was amazing. I was making more money than I had ever contemplated in my life. “Thanks but no thanks.” He wrote down a figure on a piece of paper, and he said, “This is what I am willing to pay you.” And I moved there a week later. The thing that did it for me was that, even though he was going to pay me a crapload of money, he said, “Do it until it’s not fun anymore.” And I related to that.
In Montreal, you decided to further your education.
When I moved to Montreal I got married in order to be able to work legally in the country (in Canada), to get into the country. Surprise, surprise, that didn’t work. When I went to school in Montreal it was really because I wouldn’t be at home so I wouldn’t kill my husband. I married a guy that I only knew for 9 months. So I took classes in the Russian language. I took basket weaving. I took ceramics at Concordia University. I was just taking classes like crazy.
While disco had flamed out elsewhere in the late ‘70s, Montreal–the second most popular disco city in North America–continued dancing long after the fire had died in New York. Montreal’s bass-accented productions transitioned well into newer forms of music, including Hi-NRG, garage, house, techno, rap, and ‘80s pop.
My favorite groups while there were, aside from rap, were Skinny Puppy, and Ministry. Those bands came to Montreal four times a year. I also saw (Quebec singer/songwriter) Michel Rivard who was fantastic as well Sarah McLachlan, Celine Dion, and some bands from France like Indochine.
One of the coolest things I’ve ever heard about recently is the immersion course Tour: Smart Bus Edition by which 11 students joined the tour of industrial rock supergroup Pigface. Their first tour after a 10-year hiatus.
This was a 16 day, 16 city tour with two full-size tour buses, 11 all-star alternating players members, two tour managers, opening act Chicago-based I Ya Toyah and her manager Danesh Kothari, the documentary filmmaker, and photographer, and you.
Your role was to help teach the students about the music business.
Oh, dude, that is the coolest shit that I’ve ever done. Oh my God, that was awesome. The tour was for 16 days with 11 eager students—5 students for the first 8 days and 6 students for the last 8 days. November 22-25th (2019) were the dates I went out on.
Millikin University faculty member and Pigface drummer Martin Atkins put the tour together and funded the student experience?
Martin financed it himself. He’s doing it again in May or June. He just emailed me asking if I was up for another round and I like, “Hell yes.”
So very cool.
It was the coolest thing I’ve ever done in the music industry to date. I wish I had done it when I was younger so I wouldn’t have felt it on my back and my hips as much as I did in my 50s. It was really, really awesome. Not only did we get to educate people, but Larry, on the selfish side, I learned so much as well. It was just incredible because Martin was so open, and forthcoming with information. We knew what his door sales were. His VIP sales. His merch sales. It was as if it was our tour. As you know that is hidden information usually. It is really hard to get anybody to tell you what they are earning or what their income is.
Every night we’d climb back on the bus, like at 3 AM after the show, and we’d have a session that lasted for about 45 minutes. As tired as we all were, that would pump us right up because the whole reason that we were out there was to make enough money that all of the musicians—as you know it was an all-star group—so everybody had to get paid. That’s not always easy to do. There are some cities where you don’t make as much money as other cities. And you have to make it work. Martin, with his experience, and his ability to just hustle, he really figured it out. There was one city where the door was a little bit light, and he raffled off the shirt that he was wearing while he was drumming. I just thought that was so brilliant. He just really gets it. To have somebody like that, a supreme hustler, teaching and leading a group of people, it was just an incredible experience.
What was the reaction from the embedded students?
It was phenomenal. The first group is who I spent the bulk of the time with. I’ve kept in touch with them, and they are all still doing something in touring. That is so rewarding because back in the ‘90s I started a company called Visionary Management, and I was training managers working with the guys who managed Wu Tang Clan, and Black Rob. These were guys already managing established artists. But none of them stayed in management. They all went on to either start labels or go to tech or they got out of music. There’s nothing worse than teaching somebody how to do something, them getting really good at it, and then moving on. You want them to stay in order to teach the next generation who then teaches the following generation. The great thing about Smart Bus is that I feel that these guys (embedded students) are going to do this for a living, and they will keep teaching the future generations. And that is what matters to me.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.