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Chris Taylor is the president and CEO of MNRK, a record label that was formerly eOne Music. In this episode, he walks us through his journey from being a touring musician to having a legal practice to starting an independent label to heading eOne’s music division through its rebranding. He shares what it was like to sell Last Gang during the pandemic, to represent Drake and other Canadian artists, and to manage the Death Row Records catalog. He also offers advice as a record label executive to developing artists.
Get thrown back to the pre-streaming era and see how the music landscape is changing from the eyes of a veteran in the industry!
[02:18] What MNRK has been up to since its rebranding and the process of how eOne sold its music business to Blackstone
[08:40] On leading MNRK now compared to 2016
[15:52] The synergy opportunities that Last Gang and eOne lost because of its strategic partnership and the onslaught of COVID
[19:02] Chris’ thoughts on the music landscape from the perspective of music companies and record labels, legacy copyrights, and
[25:28] The highlights of his legal career
[31:58] What buying and listening to music was like in the early 2000s
[35:48] On managing the Death Row Records catalog
[40:15] On the opportunities for developing artists in the era of streaming and social media
[48:02] Why some record labels have gotten into trouble
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Dan: Hey, welcome to the Trapital Podcast. I’m your host and the founder of Trapital, Dan Runcie. This podcast is your place for insights for music executives, industry leaders, and heavy hitters who are taking hip hop culture to the next level.
And in this podcast, I had a great conversation with Chris Taylor, who is the president and CEO of MNRK, which is a record label that was formerly eOne Music, and Chris has been leading this record label since 2016 and we talked about what his journey has been like, not just as the head of this label but throughout the music industry.
Chris was in a band much earlier in his career. After that, he transitioned to a career as an attorney and he represented a bunch of clients that are well known in Canada, such as Avril Lavigne, Nelly Furtado, Drake, and many more, and he had also started an entertainment company, Last Gang, and he talked about that story and how that led him to selling that company to eOne Music, which now became MNRK.
So, we talked about some of the transitions there, what it’s been like to sell his company throughout the pandemic and just evaluating some of the M&A opportunity for that and some of the trends more broadly in the music industry. We also talked about what it was like for him representing Drake and other Canadian artists.
We also talked about one of the most popular assets that MNRK owns, which is the Death Row Records catalog. This catalog is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2021 so we talked about some of the ways that the record label has celebrated and commemorated Death Row such as releasing NFTs, virtual museums, and some of the bigger decisions that they had made last year, they had released The Chronic on all streaming platforms so we talked about some of the steps that went in with that decision as well.
Chris is a veteran in this industry and we covered a whole bunch of topics so I hope you enjoy this conversation. It was a pleasure to talk to him. Here’s my chat with Chris Taylor.
Dan: All right, we got Chris Taylor here, President and CEO of MNRK. First off, Chris, congratulations, we’re a few months in to MNRK. How’s it been? How have the first few months been?
Chris: It’s been busy as usual. Thanks for having me on. I’m a regular listener and a fan. Appreciate that. We’ve been busy. Our deal closed in July. I mean, it was about a year-long process before that. We were up and presenting to numerous potential buyers over the years so it’s been a busy year.
And now just getting acquainted with the new team, new people that we’re working with, you know, lots of time being put into that. We went through a name change in late September so that was a branding exercise and changing email addresses and setting up a new website and all of that work,
and in the meantime, the business of the music company continues, right? We have, you know, I’d say even since July, we had number one records with Lumineers. Pop Evil, one of our rock groups. Jonathan McReynolds, who’s on the gospel, inspirational side who’s had tours out on the road with Pitbull and Ricky Martin. We’ve had four or five songwriters nominated for Grammys on different projects they’ve worked on. And we’ve released the My Little Pony soundtrack over that period of time, so it’s been busy.
Dan: I could imagine. And I feel like you have a better glimpse into how the music market has been the past couple years, more than anyone. You talked about before just in terms of shopping it around and seeing how it was going. What was that process like? Were there any highlights or anything you could share about what the process was like of when you had eOne and then trying to find a buyer and then, ultimately, landing with Blackstone?
Chris: It’s — I mean, just like anyone who’s been through that understand it’s a time-consuming process. I don’t think I’m sharing anything out of school but for folks who haven’t been through it before, you know, really, you start with a preparation of a deck, you know? What is the business all about? How has it performed historically? What are the highlights? Where are you taking it into the future? What’s the vision for the future?
You know, lots of work on financials, historical financials as well as forecasting, how do you think the business is gonna perform going forward as well. And that’s, you know, a two-year, six-month process to get that right and pull all that information together to present.
Then you spend a period of time targeting people you wanna present that to and then you go into the presentation, you know, where you’re presenting to, you know, it could be over a dozen different potential buyers at that stage and presenting the business to them, walking them through what, for us, was about an 80-page deck ultimately.
And then you arrive at a particular juncture where a group of people that have reviewed the deck and seen the presentation and asked all the questions will make a proposal, you know, that kind of gets them into a second stage of the process so you sort of whittle down the wide group of interested parties and whittle that down to a handful and then you go into more intense due diligence after that and then you whittle it down to one and then you’re into negotiations and, you know, finalizing very, very, very long-form agreements with numerous attachments.
This is a company with a long history, right? Like 20-plus years of recording agreements and every agreement under the sun, you know, over that period of time so there’s lots of history there and a lot of things to due diligence and kind of look at before you’re moving forward and sort of making the announcement, which we did in April, I think it was April this year.
Then you go into the closing period after that so you sort of pick who you’re going to get married to and then you do your sort of longer form agreements from there which, eventually, closed on July 1st for us.
Dan: Got it. And I imagine too shopping it around, making sure that you’re getting what you expect to hear from the other side from the potential buyers as well, I’m sure there was also a timing element as well, because there were a bunch of other big pieces that were happening broader in the music industry, whether it was Universal and them going public or some of the other deals that were happening as well.
Was there also a bit of, “Let’s see what number that this company may go for and how may that influence what we may think we get or the influence that we might have on the negotiation table,” was that a factor at all?
Chris: Yeah, I think the, you know, it’s — you know, fortunately, I mean, the enthusiasm for the music business did not decrease over that period of time and there were different companies that were out on the market. I mean, we’ve now found, you know, Downtown was out there doing business, I think they sold a portion of their catalog to Concord. I think AWAL was out there in the mix and did their deal with Orchard so lots of activity in the market that kind of informs pricing and valuation and things like that.
So, you know, people on our sell side would be aware of, you know, how people were viewing things and how they were looking at various businesses so it’s part of the process and informs what you’re doing and where you land, I think.
Dan: Right, and, for you, you’d been with the company since 2016 and, even in that time, there had been a few changes, right? You were under Hasbro at one point and then, of course, the most recent deal and the rebrand to MNRK as well.
At the core, you are still leading and running a record label and, more broadly, an entertainment company, but how has the strategy shifted in that time span of the different eras of leading the record label? How is it different now as opposed to what it may have been in earlier points?
Chris: Sure. I mean, I can take you back to 2016, it was really an opportunity to move into a bigger company. I sold my law practice. At the time, I had an independent label called Last Gang which I sold into eOne as well, but it was an opportunity to be part of a larger, better resource opportunity that was globally scaled with real tentacles into film and TV production.
eOne was, I would say, the music part of that business was about — sorry, 10 percent of the business, right, it was a film and TV company along with a family and brands business, Peppa Pig, PJ Masks, and others. If you have kids or nieces and nephews, you’ll know about those.
So, moving over was also an opportunity for myself to sort of learn more about both businesses, film and TV in particular. So we were there. We were there for about a year. We purchased a company called Audio Network out of the UK which is a music library catalog business and then, shortly thereafter, there were discussions about the Hasbro purchase which altered the strategy somewhat at that point,
because I think our strategy, or my strategy, our strategy was to kind of go out and really do some M&A and look at really scaling the business after that Audio Network purchase, but Hasbro came along and made us an offer we couldn’t refuse so the business sold into Hasbro, which most of the listeners will know is the maker of some of your favorite games, including Monopoly and owners of the Dungeons and Dragons franchise and just a massive $11 and $12 billion global toy playing games business, which altered the strategy somewhat
and this is all kind of out there publicly, you know? I think, on the announcement of our sale, Hasbro would admit, they said, “Look, we bought eOne because of Peppa Pig and PJ Masks. They own IP in incredible toy brands. We make toys so, you know, that’s a synergy. And also we wanna make film and TV content that helps amplify our brand, so whether it’s Transformers or Dungeons and Dragons or Power Rangers or anything else, we wanna be making that content in house as opposed to using third parties.”
And music, you know, they would tell you what — I mean, that wasn’t core to their strategy. We definitely had a music strategy that integrated with film and TV. We put up the first Peppa Pig album, which continues to do incredible for people. I think I mentioned we just put out the My Little Pony soundtrack. So, developed a music strategy in and around that but it wasn’t core to what Hasbro wanted to accomplish with the $4 billion purchase.
And as we, you know, as we sort of moved into 2020 with COVID, Hasbro, you know, and, again, this is all publicly available information, I’m not sharing anything that’s sort of confidential, with COVID, the film and TV business couldn’t really produce film and TV, develop film and TV content, but their production shut down.
And in that period, Hasbro, as you can imagine, would be getting phone calls about a music business that was increasing in value and an attractive asset for third parties and I think that’s really what fueled the decision to sell the music business, that allowed them to take the cash, pay down some debt, stick with their scheduled paying dividends and things like that, and allowed us to kind of move to the next phase, which is where we’re at now, with the Blackwood buyers and owners that are enthusiastic and focused on our business, which is a great change for us.
I had a lot of great friends at Hasbro, I miss working with them and was looking forward to moving forward with them but I think the opportunity we have now is actually better, just in terms of resources and focus in the kind of fun we can have.
At the same time, we still have a continuing relationship with Hasbro. We’re working, Hasbro and eOne, we put out the My Little Pony soundtrack, we’re working, you know, probably doing music supervision on 10 to 15 different film and TV projects. We’re still, you know, very, very involved with them on that sort of music department side so it’s almost the best of both worlds moving forward.
Dan: Appreciate that breakdown and I —
Chris: That was a bit long winded, I know.
Dan: No, that was good. That was good.
Chris: You could just tell me if I’m going on for too long.
Dan: I mean, the M&A nerd in me loves to hear those and I think what stuck out specifically is obviously COVID just being a huge factor where it, in some turns, increases the value of the asset, that part of the company that you were running, and it decreased the value for a lot of the other assets and areas under the business so, of course, they’re getting the phone calls, which makes sense.
I feel like you alluded to this and I could also see maybe just a bit of a tension or challenge with maybe the concept versus the execution because I think that the idea of having a record label and an asset that is doing as well as the record label is working directly and partnering with an entertainment company makes perfect sense in terms of the synergy opportunities, as you mentioned, having things in house and whether it’s toys or different partnerships,
but when it actually comes to the functional aspect of having this in house and some of the gears that need to be turned to operate in tandem, does that look better as a partnership or does that look better as an acquisition?
And I — you may not have said this directly, but at least that was the take that I got that it seemed as if, of course, the company makes perfect sense from a partnership perspective but were there some synergy opportunities lost or not necessarily lost but what’s the value not necessarily unlocked as it could have been just because how you, in many ways, you being the most knowledgeable person maybe likely in the organization of how to run a record label and some of the things there, how does that sync up, you know, under a company where their expertise or some of their, you know, main focus areas or main objectives may not necessarily be as aligned with where yours are?
Chris: I was, you know, I was fortunate, you know, at eOne, so the founder there, a guy by the name of Darren Throop and he was a really big reason why I went to eOne. This is the guy that really built that business with his bare hands. He had a record store in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 25 years ago, then he had two, then he had five, and he had 55 and he had 105 then he bought Koch. He really rolled up a music business, right?
So this is a guy that was a hardcore music fan but also a hardcore businessman. He was a great partner for me. So, he fully bought into the strategy. It was a 12-page business plan that we discussed for about three years before I went to eOne. So I knew what I was getting into and he was incredibly supportive of the vision.
Unfortunately, you know, I knew going into eOne, the only thing that would sort of get us off track on that vision would be if somebody else bought the company or Darren wasn’t there anymore and, you know, unfortunately, in that regard, someone else did buy the company.
And they ultimately get to make the decisions on what they’re doing going forward. And, understandably, you know, there was just a different strategy and it’s nobody’s fault. COVID kind of punched everybody in the gut and nobody knew when it was gonna finish, when it was gonna end so I understand. I was sad about the decision at the time but, you know, I understand where it came from.
Dan: Right. I could imagine that and I definitely see how you, of course, have the objective, but in a lot of ways, no one could have planned for what happened in 2020 and we’ve just seen so much change as a result of that.
Chris: I mean, we can’t — we don’t really know what’s going on today, you know? I keep hoping every quarter, I kind of like, “Okay, by January, we’re gonna know what’s going on,” you know? We’ve got all these tours booked for next year, fingers crossed, you know, all kinds of activities planned but, you know, there’s — we have our first case of this new variant in California this morning, you know, where is that going?
I’m optimistic. I mean, I think we’re on the right path and things are getting better all the time, it’s just obviously not back to where we were in early 2020.
Dan: Definitely, definitely. And I feel like with all these changes too, as you alluded to, there’s just been so much movement happening overall within the music industry. We talked a little bit earlier about Universal’s deal and some of the others so I guess independent of what happened and the moves that have happened most recently with eOne and MNRK, what’s your take overall on the landscape for music and music companies and record labels and the companies that are interested in them and then the sales that have happened and the ones that likely will continue to happen?
Chris: I mean, it’s anybody’s guess at this point. I’m so happy for my attorney friends who have weathered — I call it the Napster Winter, the Napster Winter from 2002 or 2001 to 2015, you know, where if you survived through that, you’re working in the music business, it was because you loved it on some sort of level. I’d include myself in that category.
And we’ve all kind of survived it and kind of come out the other end and we’re benefiting for it. Time will tell, you know, in terms of pricing and valuations. I remember, you know, in the early 2000s, BMG was out there buying catalogs that, oh my god, eight times multiple, 10 times multiple, these guys are crazy. This is never gonna work.
Now, I mean, we don’t have to buy a music publishing catalog at many times multiple, you know, they look like geniuses, you know, 10 or 15 years down the road. Time will tell if the new batch of buyers and the new batch of money that’s out there are making the right decision.
I’m optimistic. I’m an optimist by nature, but I do think, you know, there is real merit in that legendary Goldman Sachs report, streaming is going to continue to grow. There’s more new music listeners, new music platforms and music users on the scene every day. I guess the question is how fast does it grow, how long does it grow, and where is that growth going to be?
I think there’s an incredible amount of opportunity that’s out there right now. I think, you know, I think we’re gonna look back on this period of time and maybe wish we could get a catalog for 15 times multiple as opposed to 30 or wherever it’s going to.
Dan: I agree. I’m optimistic too and some of these multiples that you mentioned, some of them are crazy, especially when you get down to the single song level and you do the math for how much was paid for what, ultimately, is to get these three songs out of this massive catalog. It’s crazy but the math is there for a reason.
And, yeah, I think there’s plenty of question marks, right? The international growth piece of it is a big factor. I think there’s tremendous upside but it’s also relying on a model that is much more proven in the markets that it’s already established in and how is that going to work in some of the other areas that we grow.
And also, there’s this whole movement of emerging technology and newer platforms that are trying to fix or improve upon some of the challenges that a lot of artists or music creators feel that there are about the current landscape. But we’ll see. I still think there’s incredible momentum and even if things will continue to change, they’re clearly on a trajectory.
But, that said, the people that are selling them, especially the people that aren’t necessarily in their legacy years, they’re doing the math on their end and some of them are feeling like this is the high market, which implies that the market may not necessarily be as high later on.
So it’s been interesting to hear a few different viewpoints on this. I mean, similarly, I’m still optimistic on it as well but it’s gonna be interesting to see how the next 5, 10 years look for this, for sure, because it is banking on several things that are unproven but that’s business, right? That’s why these bets are happening in the first place.
Chris: Banking on bets that are unproven, you know, banking somewhat on interest rates, banking on the current state of the economy. You know, I think another interesting question, and, you know, as you see Joni Mitchell behind me here, is, you know, are people going to be listening to Joni Mitchell as much in 30 years? Are people going to be listening to Bob Dylan as much in 20 years as they are now?
I know I will be but, you know, the question on some of those sort of legacy copyrights and how you’re valuing those and what the durability of those copyrights are going to be over time is gonna be interesting to watch as well.
Dan: Right, because there is a shelf life. As much as we may think of these as evergreen content, Bob Dylan will be less and less relevant for each generation as time continues to go on and you assume that there may be some equilibrium, or what do they call that? A map? Like some aspects —
Chris: — to a degree, yeah.
Dan: Right, but where that is and what it looks like, who knows, but if you’re basing it at least on what you expect it to be from the time being, I do think that that is a smart bet, if you’re looking at it that way, but if you truly think that this is evergreen in the true sense of never declining, then that may just take a bit of a reset, because I don’t think anything, even some of the surest companies that we may have in the economy now, things just rarely don’t look like that, right?
Look how many times the companies in the Dow Jones change or something like that, right? Like these things always turn over.
Chris: It’s true, yeah. I mean, there’s people who would have maybe put similar bets on Bing Crosby back in the 40s or 50s and, at some point, people are listening to other things.
Dan: Definitely. One of the things that I like that you mentioned, you talked about the — what did you call it? The Napster Winter?
Chris: I call it the Napster Winter, that’s my phrase —
Dan: Okay —
Chris: — market or anything, you can feel free to use that.
Dan: The Napster Winter —
Chris: I lived that.
Chris: I lived it, you know?
Dan: You lived it and, to your credit, you talked about the people that really loved it when they were in it, you, in many ways, made your career during the Napster Winter and you started your legal practice, you then, you know, rose through the ranks as an attorney in the industry and you had a lot of great accomplishments under your belt.
I mean, whether it’s Drake or Nelly Furtado or some of the other acts that you’ve worked with. It’d be great to hear what you’re most proud of from that time in your legal career and what you look back on most fondly.
Chris: I’m most proud of just building that practice. You know, when I started in ’97, I was a touring musician so, you know, early 90s, was on tour from ’90 to about ’96 and when I came out of that and started practicing, even lawyers in Toronto told me, it’s like, “Look, this is not gonna work. Like you find these artists, lawyers fly out from New York, they’re really good and really hot, lawyers fly up from New York and they steal them and take them away. We’re left with the minor leagues,” you know?
I’m like, “I’m not gonna do that, like how do I — what are these New York lawyers doing that I can’t do?” Like, well, they have relationships in New York and LA and they get the band signed. I’m like, “Well, I’m gonna do that.”
So I started almost immediately when I started practicing in ’97, started flying to New York on a monthly basis and just started shopping Canadian bands. And, over time, I mean, I represented every single rap artist in Canadian history. I wanna say shout out to BrassMunk, shout out to Choclair, shout out to Rascalz.
You know, shopping them in America and really — had pretty early success doing that, introducing Canadian artists to US industry and international industry. It was a lot of work, it was a lot of trips but we were able to find deals for — you know, Nelly was really the first like big, big one for me in like 2000 and then worked with a band called Three Days Grace which is a huge rock band.
Sum 41, Avril, you know, found a bunch of record deals for people, was able to like build a real solid music practice that’s kind of — that has sustained itself. I mean, it’s still ongoing with my partners who I sold it to. They’re doing work with Tate McRae, Alessia Cara, really, really great law firm.
So I guess that’s probably what I’m most proud of and still have personal relationships with all those artists that I mentioned. I’m not sort of involved in their legal businesses anymore but have great personal relationships with a lot of those law firm clients that I’ve worked with over the years.
Dan: And a number of the artists you mentioned as well are Canadian artists and I think you had said that, yeah, if — oh, 100 percent?
Chris: Yeah, I never really, maybe from time to time, I represented a US recording artist, but it’s pretty rare. I would say 99.9 percent of the business was Canadian talent.
Dan: That’s great. And I’m sure too, especially with some of the higher profile Canadian artists that, especially when they’re rising, I’m sure you — what you alluded to had happened a bunch where, for instance, let’s look at Drake, you know, when he was rising up, especially with the mixtapes, I’m sure that all of the New York attorneys and everywhere else were coming in trying to sign him.
What was that process like and how were you able to not necessarily just land that but, you know, win maybe some of the negotiations or the business over some of your competitors?
Chris: My relationship with Drake is related to my history as a recording artist. I was a recording artist. I was managed by a guy, Chris Smith. Chris Smith, also manager for Nelly Furtado, who ended up becoming a huge artist that I worked with my entire career.
Chris had a recording studio that he would make available to different producers and developing artists in the community. One of those developing artists and producers was 40 and Drake so they would work out of that studio working on their demos and when things started heating up for him, that’s when they came in to see me.
So, you know, when industry people started calling to do business with him, that’s when 40 and Drake came into my office, I think that was in and around 2007.
Dan: Nice, nice.
Chris: You know, you remember — you may be too young to remember this but Myspace used to have — they used to set it up really nicely for you. It’d be like the top independent artists in Canada, there’d be a whole list, everyone would then go to it and take a look at it, like, okay, who’s hot, who’s happening. Let’s listen to the music. Let’s call ’em. And Drake was like number one in Myspace like week after week after week.
I’m like, “What is this like the grassy like guy, like — what is going on?” you know? And it was probably a couple of weeks after that that they just happened to like walk into my office so they were unrepresented at that time.
But the, you know, there’s certainly a lot of, you know, not just for Drake, but for clients generally, there’s certainly a lot of music attorneys out there that are happy, that sort of hover around looking to kinda steal your clients off you. I was — I get that, you know, in addition to other things I’m proud of is I’m proud of the fact that I had really long-term relationships with the clients that I started with and shopped and found deals for.
Dan: Yeah, that was a flashback to the Myspace music days. I remember that.
Dan: It was quite a time and it’s funny because even though it wasn’t that long ago, just thinking about the mechanics of it, it clearly was, right? And just thinking what it was like in 2007, which, in many ways, even if it was still the tail end for Myspace as, you know, I guess as a Facebook social network competitor, it was still big for music at that point too.
I mean, ringtones were so big at that point. This was also, you know, I think pre-streaming in a lot of ways. I mean, SoundCloud or Spotify may have just started but still in the early days. It was an interesting time.
Chris: Yeah, no, it was and it was nicely set up. You know, it’s kind of the — it was the beginning of the end of the art form of shopping artists as well. So, if you think about that, like Myspace made it kind of a statistical, digital kind of thing, which is definitely in vogue now. There’s lawyers who specialize in this in addition to everybody else across the industry,
but before that period of time, when people would mail you a CD, I’d have 100 CDs on my desk, I’d go in on a Saturday and you’d have to listen to them. You go to eat and listen to them. It’s like, oh, Nelly Furtado, I like that. Oh, Furtado there, I’m gonna take that to New York. Oh, [inaudible]. I’m gonna take that to New York with me on my next trip.
It all really started to wane, you know, in and around 2003, 2004, you know, when A&R — I’d be going down in New York and be like, “Hey, I got all my CDs. I got my hot bands,” they’d be like, “Oh, yeah, we already know about that. We already know about — that’s from Lethbridge, Alberta and that one’s from Quebec. We already know about that. This one has this many Facebook followers. This one has this much, you know, on Myspace,” like all the data started to accumulate so the art and the talent scouting of the process kind of really went out the window in and around that period of time. I miss that part.
Dan: Yeah, no, that’s cool. That’s really cool. And I think you may have mentioned this in an interview that I had read recently but I know that it — when it was time for you to sell Last Gang to eOne and then eventually take over the record label, I’m sure it was bittersweet in a lot of ways, right? Like it seemed like you really enjoyed that but here was this great opportunity to be able to run this record label and continue taking you on that path.
Chris: Well, it was, you know, because I took Last Gang with me so, you know, the roster and the staff and the catalog and everything moved into eOne, which comes over to us at MNRK, it was really about leaving my law practice, you know, at that point. You know, tears were shed. I had, you know, I love those people. They’re my brothers and sons and daughters and we built that firm and that practice together so that was hard that day,
but it really was about the opportunity at eOne and, you know, as much as — it was a recording company opportunity, it was also, you know, artist management, music publishing, music partner work, a live division as well which we were able to build at eOne.
So it was really — it was even more than that. It was about being able to sort of spread our wings a little bit and do more on a global scale with great resources behind us.
Dan: That’s great, and fast forward to today and the spot you’re in now. And shifting gears a bit, one of the things that I think has been really cool is being able to see you do, not just with MNRK and with eOne, is how you’ve managed one of the more popular assets in your — that the company owns, which is the Death Row Records catalog,
and this year has been a big 30th anniversary for that and it’d be great to hear what that process has been like, because I imagine there’s so much opportunity and there’s also so much interest with the fans but there’s also so many important stakeholders to keep track of as well.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, I often say on Death Row, I mean, Death Row is like managing a brand like Motown. It’s a legendary, iconic music brand. And I have to give, you know, almost all the credit to our team.
Brandon Squar, who’s our head of Sales and Marketing, has put this on his back. He is a Death Row fanatic and it shows in the work that he’s done alongside with Sean Stevenson, who’s the GM of our record label. Those guys that handled that with so much TLC over the year.
And it’s been amazing to watch that. You know, Brandon and Sean haven’t really been with us all that long but it’s really kind of changed the complexion on how we’ve been able to treat and promote that brand over the last year with the virtual museum and the NFTs that we’ve been doing and basketballs and pencils and the promotions we’ve done with Fatburger and the Grammy Awards.
It’s pretty incredible. When people check out the Death Row Instagram account, they’ll see all the work that we’ve been doing over the last year. It’s been pretty phenomenal and a lot of fun.
Dan: And one of the biggest things that I think we’ve seen come from the catalog has been the introduction, or the reintroduction, rather, of The Chronic to streaming. Comes out on April 20, 4/20, and I know that, of course, that’s symbolic from a date perspective but also I feel like from a hip hop perspective, it was one of the last big releases that people were waiting to hit streaming.
What was that process like getting everything set up so that that album could be distributed everywhere?
Chris: It was a long discussion and a long negotiation. Obviously, there was a period of time where it wasn’t everywhere and, you know, without betraying too many confidences, as you can imagine, it was a discussion, like, “Hey, we’re not doing this currently. How do we get to a point where we are doing it and it’s mutually beneficial?” And we were able to eventually get to that spot. It’s been great. It’s been great for everybody.
Dan: That’s good. That’s good. Yeah —
Chris: Was that vague enough? Or too vague? Yeah.
Dan: I mean, I can only imagine the stakeholders and everything so understand —
Chris: Yeah, I mean, with all our artists, but in particular there, I mean, when you’re talking about the artists and the recordings under that brand, I mean, those are some — I don’t say rap recordings, those are some of the greatest recordings of all time so we treat those with all the respect and care that we can and we don’t do anything that any of those artists wouldn’t want us to do with the recordings. We treat that very seriously.
Dan: Makes sense. And I think you hit the nail on the head, just in terms of even though this is a legacy catalog with artists that aren’t necessarily releasing music under this record label anymore, you’re still conscious of what they want and how they wanna release it, which is no different, in a lot of ways, than the current artists that you have on your roster or even some of the ones that you may be looking at.
And that actually brings me to a trend that I’d love to get your thoughts on because there’s been so much of a push, especially in the streaming era and social media era of artist independence and being able to have artists themselves look at the tradeoffs of either doing things on their own or partnering with a bigger company in order to get to where they want to.
And I think there’s plenty of reasons why artists have chosen to go a certain path, plenty of reasons that they may not have and so many people wanna emulate what they may see from an artist like Chance the Rapper or Russ or plenty of the other artists that have been success stories.
But from your table and from your perspective as a record label executive, how do you view that landscape and how do you view the opportunities there?
Chris: I guess I view it a little bit — I view it differently than perhaps the sort of the common view of today. And I view this this way as a music attorney as well representing artists. And, again, I view it the same way as a manager of artists, right? We manage 20 to 30 recording artists. We do record deals with everyone, you know? We’ve done — we have artists that are signed to Warner, Sony, Universal, a whole bunch of different independent labels and then we do have other artists that end up putting out recordings themselves.
I would say you know, especially for developing artists, there’s a thousand things you can do, there’s no way you’re doing all of them. A well-resourced international music company partner that can help you with sync licensing, touring opportunities, corralling creative talent, locking down producers, getting the right mixers, providing you with capital and resources when you need it, locking in that great videographer.
I mean, maybe it’s not a thousand things but it’s a lot. And I think, you know, I guess you’re talking to a guy who — I went to law school before I decided to be a professional recording artist so I was all about the hedge. It’s like, why don’t — if you’re a developing artist, why don’t you want to stack the deck and compete with the best?
You know, record deals aren’t forever. Lawyers are all over the place. Nobody’s signing record deals without lawyers these days. That just doesn’t — not with major record labels anyway. And the deals are great. They’re not forever, you know? And there’s real opportunity. I would rather be a developing artist that makes it and gets through the window and becomes Garth Brooks or Pearl Jam or Drake, you know, and establishes themselves and establishes their brand — or Taylor Swift, you know?
Establish your brand and then move on, do the next deal and the next deal after that. Do a lot more of the stuff by yourself, you know? All of those artists I mentioned, except for maybe Garth Brooks, you know, are associated somehow, someway with major labels who helped them with some of the stuff, even though they’re fully developed and recognized brands.
And I think there’s a reason for that. I mean, I’m obviously biased to a degree, we do have a record company, we’re trying to convince artists of that argument every day, but you mentioned Chance the Rapper and, you know, it just seemed to me like there would be a lot more Chance the Rappers, you know?
Shouldn’t there be 500 Chance the Rappers at this point? I think Chance is awesome, but I feel like that’s a bit more of an anomaly. And we read about the success stories and semi-success stories but we don’t read about, you know, nobody’s writing stories about the 32-year-old musician who’s calling me to try to get a deal because it didn’t work out. It’s the ones that have worked or have almost worked and I do believe —
I don’t know if you’ve read Everybody Lies, the book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz? I don’t — I think the stats, if you analyze them, show that there aren’t that many artists making enough money to hire a good team, lawyer, manager, businessman, business managers, accountants, buy a house, pay taxes, live comfortably, let alone being able to set themselves up for life.
And, for me, I mean, you know, I just think I would want to build a team around me that can help me do those thousand things so I get out there and establish myself and establish my brand as opposed to worrying about keeping all the money, keeping all the control, owning the masters forever. That, to me, kind of feels secondary. If you don’t make it, none of that stuff matters.
Dan: I could imagine that being able to share that perspective with artists can likely get tougher over time but I’m curious how it’s been maybe the past few years? Because if we look at, let’s say maybe 2015 to 2017 is maybe the peak time where artists like a Chance the Rapper or even someone like a Russ were getting so much press for what they were able to do and I think we saw so much discussions about ownership since then.
But what has it been like, let’s say in the past 24 months, when talking to artists? Do you feel like things have changed in terms of what artists may want and what you may be offering artists as well?
Chris: I feel like we’re going through a period of transition now where, you know, we have had that period, I think there’s a lot of label service companies like low-margin companies that are signing everything under the sun and providing a platform and a distribution platform for independent artists
and we’re getting more and more artists that are going in and out of those deals and coming back to us. You know, sort of realizing having something that’s a little bit more high touch, it may be better than those other models.
And it’s not necessarily for everybody. You know, sometimes you have superstar managers who can do a lot of this stuff for you and kind of organize it and get it going and do it right. I just think that’s more the minority than in the majority from what I see.
But there’s still, you know, the deals for artists are, I mean, they’re way better than they were in the Napster Winter. If you lived in the Napster Winter and you saw a record deal during that period, those were tough. Those were tough deals for artists.
I think an artist who’s been able to build some audience for themselves independently, who walks into Universal, Sony, or Warner or MNRK armed with their attorney and is ready to negotiate, they can do a pretty good deal for themselves, which isn’t forever and isn’t abusive and can be mutually beneficial.
Dan: Yeah, it’s been impressive, even if I look at an artist like Olivia Rodrigo, how she was able to sign a licensing deal where she’s going to own her masters in the long term, that’s just not something that you normally would have seen for someone at her station, her career to be able to do with the type of major record label that she was able to do it.
So times are definitely changing, especially when you look at that or you look at an artist like Taylor Swift now, you know, as you alluded to, now, with her second deal, she was able to sign something that is much more advantageous for her and I think, you know, some of the other artists on the Universal Music Group and some of the others have likely renegotiated things as it’s continued on.
So, it’ll be interesting. I don’t see that changing anytime soon but it clearly feels like there has been at least a shift towards artists using the leverage, whether they’ve been in the game for a while or, in Olivia’s case, even if they’re just starting out but they have the potential.
Chris: I think where record labels have gotten themselves into trouble more than anywhere, you know, as opposed to owning masters for life, a copyright or anything like that is they just find too many things and too many things get ignored and don’t get the TLC and they don’t get the thousand things done for them, you know?
Because there’s just too much stuff in the pipeline to get any sort of focus. And I think that’s where you see or hear some of the resentment in the artist community or management community. It’s like going into some of those companies that you can get shelved. It happens all the time. You’re not getting any help. That’s the worst case scenario, not signing a deal that’s tough to you. You can have the label, get them to work with you and help get you to the next level.
Dan: You saying that reminds me of something I saw a friend of mine post. He said that he saw that there were major record labels that had found out about an artist releasing music because they had seen what the artist had put out on social media as opposed to the artists themselves having the conversation with the record label which I guess is an indication of the relationship there which I think speaks to your point of not wanting to be shelved or not feeling like you’re not getting the —
Chris: That’s the word for me. Being in purgatory and not being able to do stuff in your prime. If you look, I mean, you’ve got a period of time from the age of 20 to 30, you know? I’ve read all the music industry biographies about artists that have been successful. It’s like there aren’t a lot of artists that are happening at the age of 32.
So you’ve got a window of time where I feel like you’ve gotta stack the deck, make it work for you, get through, build a career, build a brand. And that’s not to say don’t sweat the details, sign anything that’s put in front of you, but be focused on that, you know? Making incredible music and building your brand and building your story and your audience and your relationship with your fans.
Being focused on owning your masters or having the greatest royalty rate in the world, to me, I mean, for the artists I manage, it’s like, “That’s good. It’s awesome. How about making the most incredible music in the world and going toe to toe with the best?” That’s what gets me excited.
Dan: Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how this conversation continues to develop, I think, over the next decade or so. It’s definitely been very thought provoking. I think it has at least raised some important questions for the past 10 years or so but, yeah, it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves, especially as we see how some of these platforms and things shake out.
But, Chris, this was great. You shared a bunch of insights and it was really great to hear a lot more about your career and everything leading up to this point. But before we let you go, is there anything else that you wanna plug from MNRK or to let the Trapital audience know about?
Chris: We’ve got some big records coming next year. We’ve got a Lumineers album that’s coming that we’re really excited about. We’ve got a bunch of projects we’ve been working with RZA on next year, launch some music out with him, some collaborative projects, you know? Live touring, fingers crossed, you know, comes back next year, we’ve got great tours booked with management clients, [inaudible], the entire roster. I mean, all these artists are like ready to get out and get back out on the road so I’m looking forward to that more than anything, seeing live music again and seeing bands and artists out there doing what they love to do.
Dan: That’s great. That’s great. Yeah, same here. I went to a few live shows towards the end of this year and I am hoping to do a lot more this coming year. Stuck in the house way too long.
Chris: I hope we get to go together at some point.
Dan: I know. I know. I gotta get back down to LA soon. I’ll definitely hit you up. Keep me posted if you’re up here.
Chris: I look forward to seeing you.
Dan: All right, well, Chris, thanks again. This was great. Appreciate you coming on.
Chris: Appreciate you.