‘We Were Independent When Independent Was Not Cool At All’ – Exclusive Travis O’Guin Interview (Part 2 of 2)
What happens if Tech N9ne stops rapping? What’s the future for Strange Music? Why does Strange Music make the moves that it does?
Travis O’Guin answers this and much more in this revealing final half of our two-part interview with the Strange Music CEO.
Never before have we gotten such a glimpse into the business mind of the executive that took a basement operation and turned it into a multi-million dollar independent powerhouse.
Label execs (and frankly anyone who wants to be involved in the music business), take notes.
When is Tech ever going to stop rapping and if he does, what does that mean for Strange Music?
The other day this person sent me an e-mail and it’s a picture of their entire family and it’s all little bitty kids and they all have Tech N9ne shirts on and they all have Tech N9ne wristbands on and these kids are probably two years old, three, five and seven probably, that’s how old these kids are, right? They all got Tech N9ne stuff on, and oh there’s a baby, and he has a Tech N9ne onesie on. I think the e-mail read “Current and future Tech N9ne fans, love this life!!!” So I sent that picture out to a few people including Tech and he’s like “Wow, this shit is crazy. I’ll probably be the George Clinton of this rap shit!”
George Clinton still does shows today, right? So right now, you know what, I think Tech is really having a ball with it, I think that he really enjoys what he’s doing and doesn’t have any intention on stopping anytime soon. Many years back he thought about stopping, he thought about quitting, he thought “This is enough,” because there wasn’t enough people getting it fast enough. Or you have these bullshit, wannabe-critics that get on there and talk about shit that they don’t understand in a negative way.
So back when there was a negative headspace and not enough people were up on Tech N9ne, not enough people were getting it, not enough people were realizing the talent or opening their minds or their ears to listen, I think that was a source of frustration and that’s the only time that I’ve ever heard Tech talking about stopping.
Eventually not tour as much? I’m sure that’s going to happen for multiple reasons because there’s a lot of other things that we constantly turn down that we love to do. There’s some movie roles that he’s been offered, there’s a ton of other things that would require his time, attention and his person to go and do that we can’t because we tour so much. So I do see Tech slowing down on the touring front in the upcoming years out of necessity, not out of being tired of doing it, not out of being unwilling to do it but because we have to grow his entity and we’re going to have to do it in some kind of massive ways that are going to occupy his time. I don’t see Tech stopping anytime soon, however if he should have a change of heart and decides to not want to do anymore albums, what that means for Strange Music? We’ll be fine.
I mean fuck, he and I are business partners. We own Strange Music together, so regardless of him putting out albums, think about all the other people on the label. Look at the success we’re having right now with Rittz and the success we’ve had with Lynch’s albums, the success we’re having with Stevie Stone, the success we’re having with Prozak, the success we’re having with ¡MAYDAY!, Wrekonize’s debut album is getting ready to come out, the success we have with Krizz Kaliko, the stuff that we’ve done with Big Scoob. There’s so many other layers to the label that we’re going to continue to put out exceptional music by exceptional artists and I think that Tech will be in that makeup for quite some time, however should he choose not to we’ll just continue to develop the brand and continue to move it forward with great music.
What do you think you’d be doing now if you and Tech had never met about 12 years ago?
I’d be retired. I was really close to retiring when I met Tech. I have actually multiple other businesses outside of here. I own a total of nine different corporations right now, one of which is Strange Music. The other eight businesses that I do on a regular basis are very important to me but yet I only give them about a combined total of 10% of my time. 90% of my time is towards Strange Music. It’s because I think it must be what I enjoy the most, right? Plus the other ones are set up to where they don’t occupy my time but the business that I had prior to this, it treated me very good. I had 32 locations in 18 states so I originally told myself “Okay look I’m going to go ahead and retire at age 35.” I was rapidly approaching that age so I was going to be done at age 35, kick back and fuck I don’t know, buy some cars, travel the world and just kick it with my kids and my wife and just enjoy life but I got involved in this and to be honest with you it’s hard for me to stop.
Even if I would’ve tried to retire at 35, I wouldn’t of been able to do it. I would’ve fucking done something. I would’ve gotten into something else. I would’ve bought more real estate. I would’ve gotten into the exotic car business or something. But I’m really glad that I’m doing what I’m doing. I still enjoy it and I still plan on doing it for quite some time. Until Strange Music is the absolute biggest – until Strange Music becomes one of the majors but one of the majors that knows how to do shit correctly and doesn’t get stuck with the bullshit title, because majors are always associated with fucking stuff up and fucking things up for artists.
I’ve never signed an artist that I haven’t put a record out. It’s never happened. Every single artist that we’ve ever signed we put an album out on. You understand what I’m saying? The majors are batting less than 10% on the shit that they’re signing. So imagine that lottery or that fucking crap shoot, where you have these majors signing a hundred acts and they’re only putting ten of them out? The fuck out of here. What kind of sense does that make?
So, you know, I want to be in this until Strange is the dominant force in hip hop and in music. Not just in hip hop but in music and if we can accomplish that goal, at some point when I look back and we got all the plaques on the wall and all the awards or whatever that shit means, I don’t really give a fuck, but when I think we accomplish whatever that goal is, then maybe I’ll kick back and relax and fuck around and do some more traveling and that sort of thing.
So it must not be the money then, because you have other ways you can make money. Why do you do this then? What’s your main motivation? I know you want to run a successful business and you have those principles intact but there’s other ways to make money.
Clearly it’s not about the money at all, for me personally, because I was okay money wise before I got into it. I was good. I was actually really good. I was cool, you know what I mean? I had a really good run, successful companies, and things were good, right? So it isn’t the money that motivates me.
I’m a music fan. I’ve been a fan of music since I was a little bitty kid and I grew up on music. I grew up on every kind of music because I have two brothers and two sisters and a mom and a dad that were very heavy into music. There was always music playing at my house.
Then when I went to the Kansas City, Missouri school system, the majority of my school was African American. My high school was over 80% African American. So I got turned on to that brand and flavor of music which was R&B and the early rap stuff and Kool Moe Dee, Roxanne, that early early shit. And then when the West Coast shit came in when I was 15, 16 years old and I heard Eazy E and NWA for the first time, I’m like “Oh fuck!” Then I got Ice-T and all these different records. So all those influences is what made me love hip hop and the early stuff was some of the better stuff to me too.
Back then I was always intrigued by the storytelling and intrigued by the way that people would put words together to tell a story and do it in rhyme patterns and do it with emotion and as things progressed I was a huge Tupac fan. I was a Biggie fan. I just continued to soak it all in and I always enjoyed music.
Even in my other businesses when I used to ride around and do service calls. Early on I would always have like a fucking service van with two big ass 15′s in the back bumping Geto Boys. You know what I’m saying? Music has always been a part of it for me and I think what I want to do is, I want to leave our mark with incredible music that’s going to be remembered and cherished by the masses for many, many years to come. So when people that were huge Strange Music fans and Tech N9ne fans and Krizz Kaliko fans and music that moved them at a time in their life that might have been difficult, but it helped them out, I want them to pop that music in or stumble upon it 20 years from now and crack a grin and really smile.
So I think it’s really about leaving a mark on music, leaving a mark. Like if you look at what Quincy Jones has done for music and you look at what Clive Davis has done for music. If you look at like what all of these people’s contributions have been, we hope to achieve some sort of that same recognition and same status. I want to give people incredible music in a fucking ocean that’s filled with a lot of trash. A lot of today’s music really shouldn’t be…played. A lot of today’s music isn’t that good. There is a lot of good music still being made but unfortunately there’s better music being made that never gets heard and that’s what I think we are. We are the voice for the people that are making exceptional music, we’re getting that music out to the masses where the majors oftentimes miss it because they’re trying to cookie cutter everything. I sure hope to be a big part of that, and not only that, we were independent when independent was not cool at all. It wasn’t cool at all.
Now look at it, now look at independent music. When you look at Rostrum Records and their success and applause to them. When you look at Top Dawg Entertainment. We aligned ourselves with Top Dawg back when we signed Jay Rock and believed in their whole roster, that’s why we did a deal with Top Dawg as a whole and then when things began to work out and they upstreamed Kendrick, because we had Kendrick signed to a first right of refusal, ScHoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Black Hippy all those guys, but I’m not going to get in the way of their progression and their dreams. When Dre took an interest and Jimmy Iovine took an interest, me and Dude talked about it, worked out the details and look at Kendrick now, he’s one of the biggest hip hop artists in the world. I applaud it because that kid was two years ago, he was on our tour buses, the hype guy for Jay Rock and now look at him man. He’s just a good dude too. I like that kid. Look at the success that Macklemore’s had. You know? With Macklemore, just a few years ago, we had him opening up shows in the Northwest regions: Seattle and those other areas and he found a way to make it work as an independent. Hats off to him man! Applause to him too because he’s doing really incredible things as an independent.
I just love the independent spirit and not only that but the fans gravitate towards that too because it’s a much cooler thing to be associated with because it’s realer, it’s not manufactured and A&R’d to death. It’s real content being delivered from the musicians through very little red tape and bureaucracy, directly to the fans. That’s what independent music is. It doesn’t have to go through a fucking committee of a hundred people to listen to it and see what they’re going to change about the song or change about the verses…fuck that. We give complete creative control to the artists to go out and create. I don’t censor motherfuckers. I don’t do any of that shit. We put what’s in their head out to the masses, you know what I mean? That’s what I think I do it for.
It seems the company is also leaving a mark on the way that the music business is run. If you talk to people who talk about Strange Music, you get the impression that Strange is in a bubble that exists outside a world that is full of bullshit and incompetence. Give us your statement on that.
I think that we applied Business 101 to a business that doesn’t necessarily follow any rules. The music business is a bunch of fucking misfits, most of them wanted to be a goddamn artist of some sort, or they wanted to be a rapper, they wanted to be a singer, they wanted to be a producer, but they weren’t talented enough to get it accomplished so they found another way to get into the business and they had no fucking idea what they’re doing. So one of the things we do here, I very rarely anybody that’s ever been in the music business at the major level. So if you were a major label executive who is out of work right now, we are not hiring, okay? You guys are so fucked up and corrupt in the way which you do things and that’s why companies are a billion dollars in debt right now, because you motherfuckers ran it into the ground with lunches, dinners and drinks and fucking parties and a whole bunch of expensive making-of-albums and videos that really didn’t yield you any fucking results.
When I first got into the business, I seen how bizarrely wasteful they were and how fiscally incompetent they were. I didn’t want anything to do with the music business side of it. What I wanted to do was say “Okay, I know how to run successful businesses. Let me find a way to operate within this music business but do it correctly.” Do it in a way that’s fiscally responsible as well, because if you look at it there’s so many of these majors that are in debt and they lose on the majority of their projects and they’re riding the coattails of all the successful ones to pay for all their others missed. What we’re doing is we’re actually operating a business that’s profitable. We’re operating a business that – I can’t write checks and be a billion dollars in debt, or a million dollars in debt. I can’t do it! I don’t even know how the fuck they’re pulling it – I do know how they’re pulling it off but I don’t want to get into that – but there are many many majors right now that are in serious fucking financial trouble but somebody keeps dumping money, dumping money, dumping money into it. So I’ll let them continue to do that until they burn completely out – and it’s happening, it’s happening every day, they’re in so much fucking trouble.
Everybody at the major labels are so afraid of getting their termination notice and being let go of because of downsizing that they’re afraid to be creative, they’re afraid to be innovative, they’re afraid to be edgy. All they want to do is make sure they’re fitting in and that they don’t get fucking fired and you can’t have creative juices flowing in that kind of environment. We’re totally the opposite of that. We’re out there doing innovative shit, we’re doing creative stuff, we’re letting our artists be creative and we’re still applying good business to it all. We’re growing at the right pace too. I’m not trying to go out there and bite off more than I can chew. I also don’t want to be the jack of all trades and the master of none. That’s why we haven’t signed that many acts: 12 acts in 13 years. We don’t sign everybody. Dude I get 50 demos a week. I appreciate that, that means people are checking for us, however I can’t do much with it because I don’t want to choke. I don’t want to bottleneck. Whatever fucking weird analogy you want to apply to it: I don’t any part of a fucked up system that chokes and ends up going backwards.
Our progression always has to continue to go up. Every single thing we do has to go up. Every album has to get better. Every album’s results sales wise has to get better. Every tour has to get better. The merchandise has to improve, has to get better. Everything we do, we’re striving to get better and better and better and I think that all of that work combined makes us the talk of the industry. That’s what people are freaking out about, like “Holy shit! How are they doing all of these kick ass things? When the music business has been in a downward spiral since 2000, 2001, it’s been in a downward spiral and that’s when these fucking guys started?” Guess what? That might have been the best time to start! Most of the really huge companies that exist today were started in rough economic times and a rough economic climate. Look at when they started fucking MIcrosoft, it was in the middle of a depression. So if I can learn to navigate a business in its worst decline in the history of music but yet I’m still able to elevate and go upward while the rest of the business is spiraling out of control downward, imagine what’s going to happen when it begins to stabilize. Aw fuck, it’s going to be a good time for us, and that’s what’s happening!
Other people, I think that we’ve been kind of an inspiration for a lot of other independents to say “Look, we can do this shit on our own man. Look at Strange Music.” I know that I’m the topic and that Strange Music is the subject matter of a lot of really big meetings at a lot of really big labels. As a matter of fact sometimes it’s in positive light and sometimes it’s “How the fuck did these guys at Strange Music do this? They beat our release!” A release they might have spent 3 million dollars on, I smoked it. We’ve been the subject of a lot of those meetings and it’s kind of funny, it’s kind of entertaining, you know? I don’t wish them harm, I don’t wish them bad, but you motherfuckers are retarded, get your head out of your ass, start doing differently because the status quo isn’t working and maybe take some lessons from us. I don’t know. Take a look at it.
It’s not fucking hard though. That’s the funny thing about it. What we’re doing is time consuming, sometimes aggravating and sometimes an amazing amount of work. I think everybody here has two and three jobs, right? But the reality is our net result is good. Our net result is great and most importantly we’re successful and we’re getting the fans what they want, because without them it doesn’t matter.
It’s like if you’re building a house, laying bricks, is your mentality “Make sure every brick is perfectly laid” before you start trying to get out of control?
If the foundation isn’t there, then you’re fucked, and that’s the beautiful thing is that we’ve built this on an incredibly strong foundation. That analogy’s perfect because everything that we do is calculated, everything we do is timed, everything we do is part of a bigger plan and so there’s so many different things and so many different ideas and so many future things that we’re going to be involved with and we’re going to be doing but I’m not going to rush out there and try to accomplish them all. I can’t because accelerated growth, growth too fast, is the number one killer of small business. That is a fact. Accelerated growth, growth entirely too fast outside of the means in which it’s able to provide and adhere to is the number one killer of small business. I know that, so why the fuck would I go out there and try to take on the world and do everything? Why would I try to do this and this and this and this?
All these opportunities come to us. I got a thousand opportunities on my desk right now. I have to pick and choose what we have time to do and what I think the fans want us to do and what I think they’re going to get a kick out of and what I think they’re going to enjoy and what we’re going to enjoy as well. This has to remain to be fun to us as well. So we’re very, very carefully constructing this empire. I’m not in a huge fucking hurry. I’m trying to do it right. I’d rather do it right or not do it at all.
I’m not going to take the advice of a lot of these fucking people who reach out to me “Hey Strange Music needs to do this this this and this!” And “Hey Strange Music needs to do this this this and this!” Okay! You know what? I might agree with one of those things, however it’s not time yet. “You guys should do this, it would be huge!” It would be huge to that person who may be approaching us from a super-fan perspective, however if the base isn’t large enough to really support what that idea is – in other words, if I go to manufacture this specific item because this fan thinks it’d be the coolest fucking thing in the world if we had that available, however I know that if I do that particular item to get it at the right price point, I’d have to do ten thousand of them. If I don’t think that I can move ten thousand of those units, that idea has to wait until the time catches up to where I think I can move ten thousand of that type of unit. So people have been beating me up over iPhone covers. I just now think that we’re to the level to where we can produce the iPhone 4S and the iPhone 5 covers to where we can sell enough of them and have it at the correct price point and accomplish our goal.
That’s just a merchandise example, right? But I’m not going to do it three years ago or five years ago, or whatever the case might be and sell two thousand of them and have eight thousand of them in a fucking warehouse that are going to be obsolete because the next iPhone came out. So I gotta do things smart. I can’t go out and produce a thousand iPhone covers because the fucking things would cost me ten bucks a piece and I’d have to sell them for x amount in order to be profitable. I’m not going to do that to the fans because then they’d be on my ass like “Dude, what the fuck?! Why is your iPhone cover this much money and I can go to the mall and buy them for this?” So I have to be very calculated in what I do, and that’s the most simplistic example that I can give you but it’s a very real example to say that these are the reasons why we don’t do some things, you know what I mean?
I have to do things when I feel that the base, when the fanbase and enough eyes are on Tech in order to do this that or the other, whether it be music related, whether it be other placements related or whether it be merchandise related or whether it be touring related. People want me to come to Turkey. I feel that we’re a little bit early to go to Turkey, however I know the base is getting big over there. We’ll be in Turkey probably within the next two years. We’ll also get to Austria within the next two years and I know that his fanbase is getting huge in Japan. I would like to be in Japan within the next three years. I know that we have a huge fanbase in Hawaii. I know that need to get to Hawaii because we haven’t done so yet. I know that I gotta get back to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. I’m trying to do that this November. I know that we need to get back over to Europe but I’m going to have to skip it this year because other things were more important to us to get done. So I have to wait and Europe will have to wait until later on, meaning next year. There’s only so many days in a fucking year and all of our days are spoken for.
In your position as CEO, what gives you the most satisfaction?
Going to all of these packed shows and seeing all these fans sing the song so fucking loud back to Tech, or back to Krizz or back to whatever artist that it’s almost as loud as the artists themselves. That shit’s incredible to me. That’s why on this past tour I told Tech “Listen I think there’s a song that you really need to do, ‘Dysfunctional’. I think that it’s an incredible song. I’ve always loved it. I look at the amount of traffic that we get on YouTube alone and I’m fucking amazed by it.” I’m like “Dude, add this to the show.” And he’s like “Really? ‘Dysfunctional’?” I’m like “Dude, trust me” and it worked out overwhelmingly well because when I went to the shows on this past tour and I’ve seen all these people in the audience singing the song back and it was so fucking loud, that shit is amazing to me because they’re really paying attention to this music.
They really love the music and so seeing all of the fans and seeing all the people react to it, whether it be the girls in the front row crying or the dudes every word to every fucking song, that’s the shit that’s probably the most pleasing. Seeing the results. Seeing the success, you know? Monetarily, that part’s great but guess what? We spend all the fucking money that we make back on the business.
If you look at what we’re doing: look at the video department, how we’ve grown that. Look at the new building and look at the studios that we’re building. I’m dumping two million dollars just into the fucking studios and that’s not including the building, you know, million-plus on the building, two million bucks upstairs, a half million dollars downstairs. We continually reinvest in the business so I love seeing the success from a monetary standpoint but I think the only reason I love seeing that is because that means the company can afford to build out and grow itself versus me putting more of my personal money in. So I love the monetary success so we can continue to grow the brand, grow the business, buy more buildings, hire more people and put out even more great music.
So, I don’t know, between the fans singing the music back loud as fuck and being able to afford to build new studios, shooting more videos and that type of stuff to give to those fans, that’s probably the most rewarding part.
Cool. Anything you want to say before we wrap this up?
It Goes Up.