Hip-Hop Fridays: E-Letter To The Virginia Pilot and Ed Miller Re: "Steve Francis, Rap Mogul?"
I was really pleased to see your article, "Steve Francis, rap mogul?". In a short word-count you did a great job of slicing a good story on many levels. Only a reporter from a local newspaper could have written such a piece, with nuanced detail and context.
Your article made me think over the phenomenon that you so aptly describe as "many athletes want to be entertainers, and many entertainers fancy themselves athletes." I have seen this phenomenon up close having worked with several platinum Hip-Hop artists as well as professional athletes who have aspired to rap careers. I have mixed feelings about its enduring impact.
The most instructive example of this phenomenon for me was my friendship and interaction with Ricky Waters, the All-Pro running back (and Super Bowl champion as a San Francisco 49er) when he was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. We met through our involvement with a project that paired recording artists with NFL stars. There was a country music album and a Hip-Hop music album. I worked on the Hip-Hop side of the project, met with NFL officials, agents, and athletes as a result. We ended up with a recording between Ricky and Method Man of Wu-Tang Clan. It was a lot of fun and the studio sessions were a riot. The artists and athletes, throughout the project, interacted very well. The football players came at all levels of talent. Some could actually freestyle (create previously un-written rhymes spontaneously) while others were still in the "fat-cat-hat-mat-bat" end-rhyme stage. There were many instances of ghostwriting, rest assured.
The compilation album didn't do very well commercially but that was no surprise to us because the vast majority of the participants were involved not just for the money (we did get paid, upfront) but because of the networking opportunity and the fun of seeing the phenomenon you mention at work (perhaps the NFL and the record labels could have simply thrown a couple of celebrity parties. The result would have been the same but the cost much cheaper).
At a certain point during our relationship, Ricky discussed with me the possibility of starting his own rap record label. I discussed the idea with Ricky's trusted agent (who also represented boxing great George Foreman) and outlined what it would require, but the agent sat on the project. I gather that he saw it as a risky venture and an outgrowth of Ricky's passion as an artist rather than as the idea of an entrepreneur seeking a profitable business. Although I question whether the agent would have approved of the venture even if he thought it was profitable, I think his assessment was accurate. Ricky, like many athletes was involved in rap music because he enjoyed the culture, loved the music and aspired to be a rapper. I can't speak for the others but Ricky Waters was dead-serious about becoming a rapper. Before I met him he had already recorded a full album with top-flight producers and rappers (like E-40) from the Bay Area. I gather, from your article that Steve Francis, although openly denying an interest in becoming an artist, is probably not that much different from many athletes that don't view Hip-Hop as a business venture as much as they do a cultural force or vehicle to vicariously live out dreams from their younger years.
Just by reading your article I can see that Steve Francis will probably earn more "psychic income" from his record label than financial income. I don't think that is a negative thing at all. Anyone with a heart would be touched by how the young children, described in your article react to Steve Francis. By promoting his record label, Steve Francis is becoming more engaged with the community and is inspiring young people in the process. And he certainly is betting on young people at a time when others are demonizing and rejecting them. All of this is an entrepreneurial act on his part, but possibly not in the best business sense of the word.
The music industry can really only become a source of riches for an entrepreneur if they view their engagement with it as a business activity, not a cultural or political (go to the parties; meet the rappers; gain street credibility; give childhood and college friends jobs; use it for positive publicity and philanthropy; helping those less fortunate) one. There are probably better (and certainly less expensive, in terms of money) ways to accomplish these cultural and political goals than through starting a record label.
From my experience there are three principal reasons why the athlete-as-entrepreneur (not artists - several have gone platinum and gold) forays into the music business have failed and why I am confident they will continue to meet unfortunate fates.
First, as the title of your article indicates, the motivation for many athletes, as they get involved with the music industry, is to be viewed as a mogul more than an entrepreneur. "Moguls" enjoy the social aspects of the industry more than they understand how the industry works, or stay on top of business operations or the latest market trends. The best moguls, in my view, are those that have the political and social sagacity to parlay their business success into increased power in other spheres. But that usually comes, after the business is built. To get too immersed into the socializing aspects of an industry, before the business is built is a recipe for failure. Too many athletes are more interested in what the "tabloid sheets" are saying than what is present on the balance sheets. This is natural, of course, as most athletes, and young people learn of the music business through music video programs, rap music magazines, and radio shows. They almost never really learn it from study and professional mentoring.
I have also found that most athletes seek to self-finance their music-related ventures with their own money. This appeals to ego and the notion of self-sufficiency and independence. But again, these concerns are often more culturally relevant than they are best business practices. There is nothing wrong with O.P.M. (other people's money) The best successes in business have occurred when talent (entrepreneur) has been matched with capital (investor) in arrangements that hold both sides accountable to one another. When the talent and capital are the same source, accountability can suffer as checks and balances are usually diminished and even non-existent as the interests of the business can take a back seat to other personal motivations and weaknesses or vice-versa. When talent and capital challenge and support one another in a dialogue of trust and honesty, mistakes are minimized and persistence in errors is prevented. This is not an impossible outcome for a self-financed venture, but history indicates it is more difficult to obtain under such a "monopoly" structure (perhaps the lessons of the self-financed political campaigns of Steve Forbes and Ross Perot can be instructive).
Lastly, the music industry is currently in an upheaval. Profit margins are falling, losses are accumulating, and the industry is experiencing a distribution crisis. The best opportunities for an athlete-entrepreneur, in my view, are presently in the management and marketing fields because these areas rely less on a detailed knowledge of the music industry - and its current failing business model - and more on networks. Athletes have some of the very best networks in the world and have doors open to them in corporate America, for example, that are still not open to Hip-Hop artists. An athlete managing a musician can broker endorsement deals on behalf of artists that most lawyers, business managers and personal managers in the music industry are unable to. Starting and running a record label can be a risky undertaking that over the long haul (5- 10 years) is unprofitable. On the other hand, a management and marketing company (if begun by a celebrity entreprenur) would require less start-up capital and less risk. Athletes, with the necessary seed capital (and access to more) are well positioned, as celebrity entrepreneurs, to leverage their networks on behalf of artists they represent. Even in your short article, you can see that it is Steve Francis, in his management/marketing capacity, that is generating early traction and publicity for his new artist. Instead of using that form of capital to jump-start a career and sell records, Steve Francis, as manager (head of a company that doesn't require his constant presence), might want to avoid the early heavy-lifting and scoop up a few gold and platinum artists that are already signed to majors. Then, with the increased music-industry experience, revenue, and network generated from management and marketing deals, Mr. Francis could groom and develop new artists under his own independent record label or broker deals for them, with leverage, at major labels.
This way he could bring in financial income from a real business, to compliment all of the "psychic income" he obtains from just being involved with the culture.
I hope you will continue to follow Isoh Entertainment , its young artist, T'Neq, and its young CEO, who just happens to play professional basketball.
Friday, June 20, 2003