By Jack Carenza for TodaysHipHop.com
CEO and Founder of Digital Media Marketing Agency JIG Media, Vernon Jones, relies on over 25 years of marketing and sponsorship experience when helping clients to succeed. He’s applied that knowledge as manager of Independent Hip Hop Icon Kota the Friend. Jones is a pioneer of independent artist management, encouraging artists to take ownership of their career, and unlocking groundbreaking opportunities for FLTBYS and Kota alike.
In your eyes, what does it take to be a good manager in the 2022 landscape?
Vernon Jones: You have to make sure everything you do is in the best interest of the artist. A good manager should have the ability to identify opportunities that others might not recognize. The artist’s job is to create music and the manager needs to perform all other duties that will allow the artist the time and resources to do what he/she does best. The manager should understand how to connect the dots when it comes to PR, marketing, partnerships, shows and collaborations. I would also encourage artists to hire managers who understand business, not just the music business, but business in general.
What does it mean to represent an indie artist vs. one who is signed?
VJ: With an Indie artist there’s a lot more work that goes into it because you have to really understand the artist’s goals and dreams, and then help them to make those dreams become a reality. You need to understand how to maximize the artist’s value and earnings, which includes making sure the artist is set up to collect publishing royalties and streaming revenue. Working with Indie artists is like working with a business owner, because they own and operate their own brand. Your job is to make sure you help them to stay on brand and remain independent. A label artist is more like a worker. They don’t truly own their brand. The label has a big say in how they are branded and the label kind of pulls the strings. Managing a label artist includes working directly with the label. The label is ultimately in charge. I know label artists don’t like to hear that but once they sign that label deal, it is what it is. The simple way to put it is working with an Indie artist allows you to be innovative but working with a label artist is straight music industry basics. There’s no room for creativity or innovation, at least until the label recoups all of their money
What are some of the common challenges or tough decisions you face in your work?
VJ: As a manager for an Indie artist the biggest challenge is wearing so many hats. You kind of take on the job of 5 people. You have to put together a team, that might include a mix of staff and third party vendors, you have to make sure their deals are in place and cleared with your attorney, work with the artist on PR and marketing. And you have to keep the artist on task because by nature an Indie artist is their own boss so they are always coming up with new ideas. I tell Kota to let me know his dreams and ideas and I’ll work to make sure they become a reality. It’s as simple as that. Kota is multi talented so it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because he can do everything from writing songs, arranging music, shooting and editing videos and coming up with marketing concepts. The curse is that sometimes it’s hard for me to get him to understand that sometimes we need to allow others to take some of the slack so he can get even more done. I think we’re getting to a nice balance. I mean he’s really good at all of that stuff so it’s hard for me to find people who can do those things better than him.
How are you using social media as a tool to advance your artist’s career and your own?
VJ: For me it’s all about the artist because I’m not trying to manage other artists. In my case, Kota is great at social media because of his creativity. In 2023 it’s going to go to another level. I manage the FLTBYS brand as well so that’s the social media that I oversee for Kota. We use social media to promote the FLTBYS and Kota the Friend brands. At the end of the day we try to keep the two brands separate because we will be bringing on other artists under the FLTBYS brand, which Kota founded when he was in high school, and that’s the brand where all the business happens. Kota’s life has been an open book for the most part so he just keeps it simple as an Indie artist. He posts what he feels like and when he feels like it. He’s pretty on point with it so I just look at it and give my advice here and there but for the most part he’s usually right on his instincts so sometimes I ask why he did this or that and he always has a reason for it and he’s been successful so I wouldn’t do anything to interfere with something that works. And he evolves and makes adjustments when needed.
What are your thoughts on merch or physical records as an additional revenue stream?
VJ: Merch and physical records are crucial. Brands like Nike have been using athletes and entertainers for years, to sell their products, so why not create your own products and sell them yourself. That’s simple business. Artists are celebrities and celebrities help brands sell products. But again, you have to understand business as well or you can just be throwing money in a black hole if you don’t understand expenses vs income and profit. Physical records are making a comeback. Whenever we release vinyls they sell online immediately and when we have them available at shows we always sell out. I gave Kota the idea of buying a commercial building in Harrisburg, PA, of which he uses the first floor as the FLTBYS flagship store, so that tells you how I feel about merch. Make no mistake about it though I would never tell my client or artist to rent a retail space to sell their merch. Why not just own the building? You can sell your merch, own real estate and generate additional revenue by renting out the rest of the building. This is long term wealth that I think a lot of artists miss out on. As a global artist it doesn’t matter where your physical store is located because people from all over the world will order online. You will never earn as much from the retail location as you will earn online. It’s hard to keep vinyls in the store.
What opportunities are you seeking for your artists outside of their music?
VJ: The great thing about Kota is that he doesn’t like to spend money on cars or jewelry so that makes it easier for me when I’m showing him real estate that he can purchase for long term wealth that he can hand down to his children. I worked in the sports marketing and media world for many years and I would always say why don’t athletes buy one income producing property every year and when they retire they will own 15 properties, of which each might have 1-10 units in it. They would have amassed a real estate empire that would appreciate in value and they would earn a lot of money after their playing days. So I just told Kota that concept and he gets it. So outside of music it has to be income producing real estate. Not mansions or anything like that because that’s just fantasy island stuff. The real money in real estate is income producing properties. We’re looking at possibly developing empty lots as well. So it’s real estate and music royalties.
If you could give one piece of free advice to an unrepresented artist, what would it be?
VJ: Do whatever you have to do to keep your independence and Masters. I would also tell them to believe in themselves and read their contracts. The word they must all know and understand is “perpetuity”. That means forever and ever. Labels want to own the rights to your music forever and ever, for their own children, not yours. Artists must treat their name as a brand and as a business. Honor it and treat it with respect. I would also tell them to put in the work to make as much music as possible and make sure to learn how to get your music on the DSPs like Spotify and Apple. Promote every song you ever put out. Don’t be shy about that. Don’t spend money on cars and jewelry. Buy cameras, audio equipment and anything else that will help further your career to make your sound as crisp as possible. Don’t be wowed by a label calling you. It means nothing. They’re calling everybody.
What’s the funniest story you can share with us relating to your work as a manager?
VJ: My background is business marketing for corporate clients so coming into the music industry as a manager was a shock to my system because when I saw the first contract that was presented to Kota I laughed and thought it was a joke. I said no business person I have met over the past 30 years would take this contract seriously. But the funny story is when we were in a meeting with a distributor who was supposed to be the ones to help independent artists, and I asked if they could give me some bullet points of what they were going to do for their percentage and they all looked at each other like they didn’t understand the question. That’s when I knew at that very moment that the percentage is just to upload the music to DSPs, which any artist can do with Tune Core or Distrokid. So they are taking anywhere from 5%-20% of all of your music for just uploading your songs to DSPs. And then they charge you extra to provide services. So what’s the percentage for? I just wish I had a video of all of their faces when I asked that simple question.
Here’s Kota’s latest album titled ‘MEMO’