Taken from IDOL Magazine Issue #6
Illustration by Leornardo Corredor
Music sales figures in 2013 are not as healthy as they may appear. Single sales continue to soar but the popularity of individual track sales come at the expense of albums. And since album sales are where the real money lies, our shift to cheap digital downloads also comes at the cost of the music industry at large. It's more important than ever for music acts to seek capital elsewhere: touring, endorsement deals and product placements. This is where the Blueprint Group come in.
The Blueprint Group is a full service, multi-platform management and artist and brand development firm with an exclusively hip hop roster of A-list artists including Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj. Born out of a merger between management and production companies Hip Hop Since 1978 and Bryant Management, The Blueprint Group turns rap artists into crossover superstars.
They masterminded world tours of Nicki Minaj (Pink Friday), Lil Wayne (I Am Still Music),Drake (Club Paradise)and Jay Z and Kanye West (Watch The Throne) — all of which reached audiences around the globe and brought urban artists into lucrative arena venues. But besides live music, The Blueprint Group's other serious forte is branding.
The company prides itself on aligning its artists with brands to produce high-income business partnerships that raise music artists' profiles and earning potentials. Just a handful of the branding deals The Blueprint Group have generated include Kanye West's line of Air Yeezy sneakers for Nike and a further shoe collection for Louis Vuitton, Lil Wayne's TRUKFIT clothing range, and Nicki Minaj as the face of Adidas and star of MAC cosmetics campaigns.
In essence, The Blueprint Group makes brands out of rappers; and in the process turns their clients' dreams of success into a reality through savvy business acumen. "I'm honoured with that definition," says The Blueprint Group's co-CEO, Cortez Bryant. Alongside Gee Roberson, 33 year-old Cortez Bryant heads up this entertainment branding powerhouse and has amassed an estimated personal net worth of $66 million.
The New Orleans-born entrepreneur learned his craft hands-on — by hitting the road with long-time friend Lil Wayne as well as DMX and Nelly, while still a student at Jackson State University on a music scholarship. Fresh from graduating, Bryant started managing Lil Wayne. He became the Chief Visionary Officer of Wayne's Young Money Entertainment and founded his own management company, which ultimately turned into The Blueprint Group. "Wayne always had trust in me," says Cortez. "He had trust in me to come in straight out of school and ask me to be his manager."
Despite an unsteady start to his career, with the support of his friend and now client Bryant quickly thrived: "It was rocky at the start because I had to prove myself but Wayne has always been loyal to me, even when there's been times when I didn't believe in myself in the music business." On balancing his professional and personal relationship with Wayne, Cortez explains, "It works perfectly… We can turn off and talk about the past and growing up anytime, but we can also turn and talk about business… He trusts me and The Blueprint Group to carry out and represent his brand."
The Blueprint Group have had to fight to give their clients the high profile sponsorship deals and entrepreneurial opportunities they're known for. Despite Cortez's worry that "people are always scared of hip hop", he believes his clients are leaders when it comes to making hip hop mainstream: "As far as I'm concerned, our clients have knocked down a lot of doors for the hip hop space to move forward and to get the culture into that branding space. Now more than ever hip hop is more accepted in the corporate community."
Bryant is being coy. Hip hop is not only accepted by the corporate world, it's positively welcomed. And the jewel in the crown of rap music's crossover success is Onika Tanya Maraj, known as Nicki Minaj. Just as Motown invested heavily in their crossover queen Diana Ross, The Blueprint Group have similarly thrown their weight behind Minaj's widespread appeal. Minaj's pop culture supremacy has been cemented by a continuing string of extracurricular business ventures including, but not exclusive to, a seat on the judging panel of American Idol, being the face of MAC's Viva Glam campaign, creating her own fragrance with Elizabeth Arden, producing a line of nail polishes for OPI and inking a seven-figure endorsement deal with Pepsi. Minaj raps on Drake track 'Make Me Proud', "…best legal team so the deals is ill/It's MAC, OPI and a fragrance too/Apparel, I'm dominating every avenue." You can see why Cortez Bryant says the concept of "selling out" is an "outdated ideal".
To compliment her burgeoning business portfolio, Nicki Minaj has also developed a distinctly loyal and passionate fan base, bolstering her career's longevity. She has accumulated in excess of 16 million followers on Twitter, and her constant activity on social media is an asset that The Blueprint Group admires — but this isn't a requirement they force upon their artists. As Bryant points out, "when we signed her, she was already doing all of that."
He also fondly remembers a dinner date with Minaj that confirmed the closeness between her and her fans — or her "Barbz" and "Kenz" as she's christened them. "Once she was trying to give me a taste of Caribbean food for the first time, so she invited me to this restaurant in New York. I went to the restaurant and there's like 20 people at the table. I thought it was her family but she actually sent out a tweet asking her fans if they wanted to come and eat dinner with her. I thought that was amazing! She knew them by name and was talking to everyone like she knows them. And this was afterSuper Bass. This wasn't like an artist just starting out."
Another high-ranking figure who admires Nicki Minaj's fan interaction savvy is The Blueprint Group's general manager and partner, Al Branch: "The thing about Nicki is that she knows how to conduct herself. I'm really impressed with how she does it." And Al is a man to listen to.
Back in 2009, before The Blueprint Group had come to exist, he wrote an article forBillboard titled "The Deals Of The Future" in which he essentially predicted the formation of the innovative firm he is now a part of. In 2009 Branch argued: "record labels are exploring new and drastically different business models. The model du jour is called a 360 deal, which allows labels to get income from live performances, merchandise sales and other revenue streams… this model could help revolutionise the label as we know it by giving a way to make up for the loss of revenue from sales of recorded music." When asked about the foresight of his Billboard article, Al roars with laughter. "Nobody believes I wrote that!"
So do record companies welcome the money-spinning non-music endeavours The Blueprint Group offer their music artists? Al stands firm that his company supports rather than distracts artists and that whilst record labels are busy surviving, The Blueprint Group is thriving. But surely if branded deals are making up more and more of artists' incomes, they must also be giving a similar ratio of their time and energy to corporate arrangements as they do to their art, which begs the question: should an artist ever compromise their art for the sake of a business opportunity?
"Never," Al asserts.
"Ever" he stresses.
"No," he confirms.
"If a deal isn't right for you, it's going to hurt you in the long run," Branch explains. He points to Jay Z as a shining example of striking the right balance. "He's successful, but at the same time he has never compromised himself." Lil Wayne too, Al believes, is an artist who maintains the right music and business equilibrium. "Wayne is generous, but at the same time he never compromises himself or his art for any brand or partner."
That brings us around to the tricky subject of Lil Wayne's sponsorship deal with Mountain Dew. In March 2012, a multi-million endorsement deal between the PepsiCo-owned soft drink brand and Wayne was announced. It was the biggest sponsorship pay-out in Mountain Dew's history. At the time of the partnership Jamal Henderson, Mountain Dew's brand manager gushed, "We are celebrating Wayne through this campaign as an artist who found his personal success by following his own path." He also praised Wayne for "always dancing outside of the box but mak[ing] no apologies for who he is." Unfortunately, Wayne would be making a public apology just months later.
A lyric written and performed by Wayne on a cameo spot for Future's 'Karate Chop' remix track sparked complaints and the rapper was dropped by Mountain Dew. The lyric in question sees Wayne boast, "Beat the pussy up like Emmett Till". Till's family were incensed and pressured Mountain Dew to sever ties with the rapper.
Emmett Till was a black 14-year-old boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after reportedly whistling at a white woman. The teen was beaten up, had one of his eyes gouged out, was shot in the head, had a cotton gin fan fixed around his neck with barbed wire and his body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. Two white men were acquitted of his murder by an all-white jury. Once Till's mutilated body had been recovered, Emmett's mother insisted on holding a public funeral with an open casket. It was an act that shocked the civil rights movement into America's dialogue.
"We're dealing with Emmett Till's family right now. Direct," Cortez informs us. Whilst Cortez admits he "understands people's sensitivity to this issue," he is also defensive of his client's intentions. "Artists are artists. They use lyrics and words to paint pictures. That applies to artists of every genre." When specifically addressing Wayne's lyric, Cortez maintains, "I think that the emphasis was on how good Wayne is in the bedroom. He took a historical moment and he applied it to his prowess in bed to make a picture… Wayne didn't have any intention to attack what happened or to make light of it. If anything, his plan was to make people realise who Emmett Till was and make people go back and look into that." Nevertheless, Lil Wayne issued a public apology to Emmett Till's family. PepsiCo cancelled their deal with Wayne.
Lil Wayne's endorsement deal, rather than his music, was the focus of the Till family's campaign. Business Week ran the headline, "How Mountain Dew's Hip Hop Ads Misfired".
However, it's onwards and upwards for Cortez, Al and The Blueprint Group — a company that the pair refer to as "a family" and "a blessing." Cortez is excited about the development of young rapper Lil Twist. "You can look out for him as the next artist coming up," Bryant promises. Al too is enthusiastic about the fresh talent The Blueprint Group are involved with, in particular the alternative rock pop sounds of G-Eazy.
As their roster and infrastructure expands, so do their business ventures. They are busy planning projects — a Nicki Minaj KMart clothing line, her own Beats Pro headphones, a range of wine-based low alcohol content beverages called Myx, a part in a movie and a return to the studio.
As Al Branch succinctly concludes, "We want to be like the guys who brought George Foreman to the George Foreman grill."