Talking With Dru Ha

by Moe Arora on March 26, 2009

druha

CEO of DuckDown Records, Dru Ha

As CEO and co-founder of DuckDown Records, Dru Ha is one of the most influential entrepreneurs in hip-hop. He’s helped influence a flood of independent record labels that continue to develop their own empires and hold weight against the majors.

I caught up with Dru recently and had a great conversation with him in which he discussed today’s music business, getting Bootcamp on Twitter, and President Barack Obama.

Most people know you as co-Founder & CEO of Duck Down Records, but you’re also the Director of Urban Music at Cornerstone Marketing. Can you explain what your role is at Cornerstone?

Well, a lot of people don’t know my relationship with the owners – the founders of Cornerstone, Jon Cohen & Rob Stone. Both of those guys actually gave me my entry into the music business. Jon Cohen gave me a summer internship program at EMI – actually, it wasn’t EMI, it was SBK back then. He set me up with Rob.

Jon and I went to school together. He was older than I was, and I used to DJ at school, so when he started working at a record label, we stayed in touch and he said I should do this over the summer for the next couple of years and he thought I’d like it. I basically became a summer rep up at Syracuse.

I was doing that internship for Rob Stone, that’s what Jon hooked me up with. We were working in SBK’s Urban Music department; we worked Vanilla Ice, Arrested Development and a group called Fifth Platoon; that’s what I was really assigned to.

Anyways, when I graduated, I kept in touch with those guys and Rob hooked me up with Michael Weiss, who was the owner of Nervous Records. So those guys, they gave me my shot, and over the years, I’ve kept in contact with them, they’ve been like mentors to me; as well as good friends.

Eventually, we [Duck Down Records] were using office space out of Cornerstone. A couple people left the urban music department while I was there, and Rob approached me about it; asking if I could handle both [Duck Down & Cornerstone’s Urban Music department].

He felt like it would be a good fit with all of my relationship & contacts; that I could do the things he needed me to do up there and keep doing what we were doing at Duck Down. So we gave it a shot.

Regarding my responsibilities at Cornerstone; well, we do a monthly mix CD. Every month, we use different DJs from around the country; showcasing new music and singers who we think are about to break next. We developed a website, called 1200Squad.com, where we’re servicing music everyday. It’s a private network of DJs, industry insiders and tastemakers.

I’m also heavily involved in the corporate side of Cornerstone because aside from the music companies that we promote, we do a lot of lifestyle products. We have clients like XBOX, Levi’s, Microsoft Zune, Diageo and Reebok. We do a lot of music initiatives for them. I’m heavily involved in those programs from creative to execution to overall managing. That’s my role at Cornerstone.

So the site 1200Squad.com; that’s essentially a digital record pool right?

Yes, although it’s not public; it’s a private network, so you have to be approved to have access to it. We do a daily blast of new music to our members.

Do you only service DJs or would you also consider service bloggers as they are highly influential tastemakers as well?

Definitely. It’s an application process, and when you apply it asks you a number of questions – it’s not just DJs, you’re right, it could be magazines, websites, bloggers, it could be people that we think are going to spread the music – and who the labels would want to have the music. What we try to avoid is just having the average fan who the label would want to purchase the music as opposed to giving it to them for free.

We monitor what they’re doing too. We have people that go to the different sites and to different places and make sure the music is being streamed and not just given away for free.

There are a lot of similarities in working in marketing and working in music. The best way I’ve seen it described is in the book “Chasing Cool” by Noah Kerner. He discusses his background as a DJ and how the crowd is like a live focus group; you have to know what they want, before they know, and work with that sense of energy. How do you find your background in music effects how you work as a marketer?

Hmm. What you just said, that’s it right there.

I never read that book, but I’d love to now. I think it’s my passion and my confidence in what I feel is an expertise in the area; of being kind of like an expert fan. The passion for the music is so real, it’s not like I got into this because I saw hip-hop or this type of music and marketing was a fad. It’s the stuff that I was doing as a kid growing up.

I got a text, actually no, a Facebook message the other day from a girl I went to elementary school with. We hadn’t kept in touch at all; we knew each other in school but never really that friendly, and she sent me a Facebook message saying “I remember you in 3rd grade, we had to bring in a record for music class, and you brought in Rapper’s Delight.” [laughs]

It was just funny to me, that someone remembered that, because I remember that. This is what I’ve been doing as long as I can remember; it’s the music that I love. That does translate when we’re marketing, when we’re in meetings and we’re making recommendations to companies.

We’re doing something for Smirnoff, where we’re pairing classic artists with some emerging talent and creating a whole music initiative for them. We did that last year; we did that record, “Classic”, with Kanye, Rakim, KRS-One & Nas. That was actually a music program.

So when we’re in meetings, I’m talking from my heart, I’m talking form understanding and the recommendations come from being entrenched in the culture & in the music, so I think it plays a big part. Everything from the fashion, to being original, to being creative; I think those are all elements of hip-hop culture and it does translate to how we try to market.

Everybody already knows how the internet has changed the industry in regards to sales. How do you find it’s changed the industry on the business side; meaning, what do you differently now, compared to what you did 10 years ago?

Well, for one, it’s where a lot of our advertising dollars are going. Let’s look at it 2 ways; as much as it’s helped [the internet], it’s also obviously right now hurting.  6-7 years ago, when the discussions were really becoming heated on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, you know; should we be giving our music away for free, should we be concerned about it… I think there was mixed consensus at the time. Some people thought it was a great form of promotion, while other people were kind of weary about it.

I think today, we can all agree that it’s hurting us. Our digital sales make up about 25% of our overall number, but our physical sales are falling at such a big rate – the whole music industry actually, I believe it was down 24% in 2008, it was down over 20% in 2007, and the same in 2006 – I’m not sure if those are the exact numbers, but sales have been down over 20% for almost 3 years now. These numbers are not being made up on the digital side.

The first thing people say is that the physical may be falling, but the digital is rising. Yes, the digital is rising, but it’s not replacing the number that we’re losing on the physical side.

Even though Hip-Hop has grown up and you’ll have older music fans; your primary audience is still going to be 14 to 25 year olds. That’s your prime buying consumer. A lot of those kids still don’t have credit cards, and that’s still the way you purchase music on the internet.

They have to go to their father, mother, brother or whoever and borrow their credit card. But it’s the option, when you ask your mother for $30 for a video game or $30 for 2 of your new favorite CDs. You’re probably going to go after the video game, because, especially if you’re a kid, you can find a way to download the music for free, and then you get both things; the video game that you wanted that you had to pay for, and you can illegally download the music.

The internet, at this stage, is killing us in that way. We get a leak on the internet, and it spreads within a day to everywhere. It’s posted everywhere. It’s like a virus, that you can’t stop it or control it. In that sense it’s hurting us.

On the flipside of that, it’s also leveling the playing field in terms of giving us a platform to showcase our music, showcase our videos and to get our message out there.

Commercial radio stations and video outlets were kind of phasing a lot of independent hip-hop out, obviously the internet became a great tool for us to not only advertise but to feature our music and to show our videos.

Looking back 10 years ago versus today; today we’re using a lot more of our resources and our budget are going towards the internet.

One major change I’ve seen in the music industry is the relationship between the audience and the artist. Whether it’s a website like YouTube, MySpace, Facebook or Twitter – or even a TV show like American Idol – the audience has transformed from being the end-consumer to where they are now as a member of the artist development phase; being able to have an opinion before any official release.

That’s a great point.

It’s really affected the way we market music now. Rather than a one-way stream of communication, where you just release a finished product and expect your audience to accept it, now you have to create a two-way dialog through some of these social networking sites and truly communicate with your fans through your online presence.

How do you approach your online strategy for an older, more established group like Bootcamp Clik?

I think that we’ve done some of that some over the years, and we continue to do it. Twitter being the newest craze, we haven’t really set that up too tough yet. Some of the guys here are setting that up and are showing it to Sean [Price] and other members of Bootcamp who would do it.

We keep music out there though; we’ve used the internet to document the process of putting out a new record. We post new music early – we like to put our music up first on our site before people hear it anywhere else so that we can drive more traffic to duckdown.com, where you can hear new music, and like you said, be part of the process.

We were really active that way for Ruste Juxx, who was someone people kinda knew in Bootcamp, but unless you were a diehard fan, you didn’t know who he was.

We took a lot of his features from over the years and created a mix CD that featured all of Ruste’s features and appearances, which we gave away for free through a microsite on Duckdown.com.

But it really depends on if the artist is capable of it. You’ll see Q-Tip on Twitter and Talib Kweli. Talib Kweli is very active on the net. There are certain artists like that, who spend a lot of time staying active on it, which is the main thing; otherwise it’s not going to be updated and there’s no point of it.

The majority of our staff are all internet people. People like Franz, Othella and Mazza from our staff and a couple other behind-the-scenes people that we have, they help the artists with that. Sometimes they’re creating the artist’s pages for them and even maintaining them.

I think what you said is a great point, because what you described is the end of the demo.

What it’s done now, is that you create such a following online, that even before an artist is signed, you know whether or not that artist has a fanbase, and approval form the general public, not just a group of industry insiders. You’re able to see real feedback in real-time.

It’s definitely changed the game. Most artists can’t come to labels anymore and ask to make a demo or just spit 16 bars. Now the labels ask how many friends you have on MySpace and Facebook, what are your total views on YouTube. We want to see a following.

A guy like Mickey Factz is still not signed – from what I know, I believe he’s still not signed. It feels like he’s a signed artist though; he has that following.

The Cool Kids, for a long time, they just have a very independent type deal – they still do. I’m sure they’re getting ready to revisit their situation, but with them, they were on Chocolate Industries. These were just people that were doing it themselves.

But yeah, it’s made the fan and consumer very active and an integral part to the whole process. People see right off the bat, whether an artist has something or not.

Right. And that definitely affects the relationship the artists have with the fans now too. Now, fans see that they can actually communicate with and access artists via social networks. Do you think that might hurt some of the more established acts who already have a set relationship with their audience? Can it possibly hurt their “star power”?

Oh yeah, I think you gotta be careful with that. I think there’s a level of accessibility that does create an aura of “coolness”, when you can’t get to a guy.

But the opposite is true too; when a guy does grant you access.

It’s a tough call though. I remember being at the gym and watching CSPAN while on the treadmill; and they were showing Obama give a speech in a high school gym or auditorium. After the speech, which was only about 10 minutes, he told everybody to stay in their seats and he was going to come around and shake everybody’s hand. There must have been about 400-500 people there. He just said “do me a favor, stay in your seat and I’ll come to you”.

He was wearing a mic, which they left on, so while I’m watching this, I could hear what he’s saying to everybody in the room. He started on the right side of the room, and just approached people saying “Hi. How are you doing? What’s your name?… Okay good to meet you. I appreciate you.”

He’s changing up the line every 4 or 5 people, “I appreciate ya, nice to meet ya, thanks for coming out, how you doing?”, you know?

I was just watching this with a smile on my face watching him do this, thinking of how he’s granting everybody access.

He shut down photographs and autographs because he told everybody he wanted to go around and make sure he met everyone. He was really working the room.

I think a lot of those people are going to leave there and in 2012, they’re going to vote for him again. He’s continuing to strengthen his fanbase and his following, making people love him.

If your artistry is that sincere and people love your craft that much and you grant them a certain level of access, they’re going to feel that more touched, that they were able to speak to you and they were able to get some type of message across to you.

On the other side of that, if you’re not that hot, you’re kind of so-so, and you haven’t really done anything yet to attract people, and you’re just reaching out to everybody – as an artist, that can become kind of a bad look. You know, how could this guy be so easy to communicate with? Until you reach a Kweli level or the level of some of the people we’ve been talking about.

Jumping a little bit, what would you say is the toughest part of your job?

Hmm. Good question.

[laughs]

I’d say most difficult part is giving everybody enough time.

Everybody wakes up and comes back to work on Monday and they have a set of problems or a set of goals or some new ideas, and they want to bring them to me. When you’re a label or a manager, or you’re a label that’s dealing with managers and artists, a lot of people want to talk to you, or make suggestions and do different things.

It’s difficult managing everyone’s expectations and be able to give everybody time so you can listen to them. A lot of times, people have great ideas and suggestions to make things even better, but sometimes it’s just hard to manage your time to get to everybody and to really listen the way that you should. And not only just listen, but then to get off the phone and try to execute what you just talked about before you take the next phone call, that might be a totally different artist with a totally different criteria. That gets a little tough sometimes.

Dealing with artists can become tough also – especially for a small label – because as you can see, we put our resources and our energy into one act at a time. That’s still the position that we’re in.

We’ve stepped up the amount of releases that we do in a year, but at any given time, we’re still only doing one release.

So at that given time, maybe some of the other artists are feeling like not enough is going on for them or they might have a whole bunch of stuff that they want to do that we can’t get to.

So, just overall people management.

What advice would you give to someone building a career as a professional in this business?

One – you’re not going to do it overnight. You hear that a lot, but it couldn’t be more true.

Two – you have to learn patience, humbleness and humility. You have to know that sometimes you’re going to fail before you succeed, and that sometimes you’re going to have to take some steps back before you move forward. A lot of those are clichés, but they really do apply to business.

And three – you have to be willing to take chances. Not everything that you do is just gonna happen. In this day and age, you can’t listen to every website out there just take it for what it is. Just because they all say something isn’t good, doesn’t mean that it’s not good. Sometimes, you just gotta trust your instinct and take chances.

The biggest thing is just be patient. Put your heart into it, put your dedication into it, make sure you love what you’re doing. I think that’s really important. If you love it and you’re passionate about it, it’s going to make it easier to put the long hours in and make you more determined to want to put those long hours in. You’re going to have to work hard.

The people that just blow up overnight, usually blow up again by the end of the year, but they blow up the other way – their whole model blows up in their face.

It’s about longevity and consistency.

Look at Bad Boy. Look at how consistent and expanding Puff has been over his career. Whether you love him or hate him, look at how he keeps you buying the brand.

It’s about longevity. See how long you can make a plan and make it last.

Also, you need to surround yourself with good people and surround yourself with people that are smarter than you.

[laughs]

You don’t have to be the smartest person on your team, or the most creative or whatever. You just have to be able to identify those people and keep those people around you. You don’t need people that are dead weight.

n713043701_1403952_4696In hip-hop, obviously, we get a lot of entourages, we get a lot of extra people; I’m not sure how relevant that is to the business world, but it can translate in.

Pick good people; not just your friends or your cousins, or people that you feel you owe something to. Pick good people and keep them around you.

In my team, I’m fortunate to have my brother Noah, who basically runs DuckDown these days from the marketing standpoint.

I feel funny with titles at DuckDown, because we’re only 6-7 people at any given time. We have a lot of indies that we use that makes our team much bigger when a project comes into play. It can go up to 15-20 people when you’re adding in the distributors and all the people they bring to the table.

But it takes good people to manage and bring all those people together to make sure everybody’s doing their job and getting along and respecting everyone else.

So I have Noah, who’s running marketing for DuckDown; people like Franz who are really helping out on the internet; Mazza, and Shucky who’s been with me for 14 years running our street team program.

Those are things I’m proud of.  I love watching those guys grow and keep building the label up.

At DuckDown, we’ve had our ups and downs too. We’ve had a resurgence in the past 3-4 years, and a lot of those people are a big part of that.

So, remember to surround yourself with good, smart people.

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