You can't talk about agents of disruption without highlighting Steve Stoute. Music industry executive, published author, advertising CEO are titles that only cover a fraction of his accomplishments, power moves and cultural contributions over the past two decades and then some.
Along the way he's upended or, more importantly, improved, the way several facets of the business around him is conducted. So, of course, it was only right that he be included alongside Hype Williams, Ronnie Fieg, Iddris Sandu, and Complex's own Rich Antoniello for Disrupting the Future: How Collaboration Propels Culture, a ComplexCon(versations) panel about the ways they've bent their respective industries to their wills.
Later, Complex hopped on the phone with Stoute to discuss more on this theme from his singular perspective at length, and the next extension of his disruption: United Masters, the music startup he launched in an effort to give more power to the artist and less from the label.
One of the quotes that struck me on the panel was when you talked about our culture pervading society so much that it's becoming homogenized. I was wondering how much of that in your opinion is par for the course—especially going in line with the tanning of America and that concept—and at what point does it become potentially deadly?
That's a great question—I'm not sure if there's a perfect answer. When is it too much, and when is it mass, because that's what it's intended to be, and then when is it too much? When does that go too far? I do believe that there are aspects of hip-hop culture specifically that need to be preserved and understood, because if you strip the core values from it, then you can never return to it. There's this generation that has no affiliation, understanding or respect for the core values. To me, that's when it goes too far. It's so far that that's lost. It's like CB4. It goes too far; it starts to look like a mockery of what the culture's purpose is. I do believe there are times when we teeter on that, but we're not there yet.
That's when it has to be enforced a little bit and protected.
Yes, and I think the guys are protecting it. I think when you see what Meek Mill has done, Rick Ross. Kendrick, J. Cole, it's not like it's a real problem. I think there's an over-exaggeration because there's so much flashes of the "Macarena." There's so many flashes of just songs that are temporary, you start to think this is what it's gonna become. Some of them are appropriately aimed at a specific audience. Some of them are not necessarily representative of the culture. I feel like it's not like those things are sticking and the J. Coles and the Kendricks and the Meek Mills aren't. There's an appreciation for Pusha-T, there's an appreciation for JAY-Z's "What's Free" verse, there's an appreciation for "Uproar." When you see those things working, you know it's all good.
One of the other things you spoke about on the panel was the war between fame and talent. Where, or what do you think the front lines of that war are?
Attention. Attention is always gonna be the frontline. Attention equals money, equals audience, equals ticket sales, equals album sales or streams, or whatever the transaction to engage with the music is. That's attention. Even in the film business or the television business, it's the same thing. What you would want is a balance between what gets attention because of the talent involved and what gets attention because of just pure fame. There's been this increase in fame dominating the attention cycle, not substance, not talent. There's always been an art for the talent of knowing how to be famous, but fame with no substance is definitely on the rise, and I would say in most cases muting talent. That's a shame. That's true. Was Marilyn Monroe a great actress?
I don't think anyone would argue that she was. The point of the matter really is no, she wasn't a great actress. What she was was great at being famous and entertaining and knowing how to capture the moment. That's what made her famous. She was a heartthrob, very similar to Kim Kardashian in that regard. That's fine, because there's always gonna be that. It's just that it's become a thing where everybody is running to fame. You just go on Instagram and it's like public figure, public figure, public figure. I mean, why? For what?
There's no culture police.
Is that just something people have to just weather through? Or is it gonna take some steps to temper that and make sure it doesn't get out of control?
There's no answer, like, oh, we're gonna do... I don't even know who we are. There's no Culture Police. There is in different disciplines. There's the powers that be that they gotta make the great music so that people... If the writers aren't writing great songs, then you can't blame people for not understanding what a great song is. If a generation goes by and there's no great music, great songs of substance, then you can't get mad at the consumer for not knowing any better. Look at the video games we played back in the day. Look at them now. Horrible. We didn't know any better. Those were the best graphics out. Then graphics got better. People will adapt to what the right thing is, but the right thing has to always be available. Right now I would say music, as long as J. Cole, Kendrick, Meek, Drake, the Migos, and those guys are making culturally relevant things—visuals and songs and writing and production [too, like the] Mike Wills, etc.—everything is gonna be cool. That still has to happen in the film business, that still has to happen in television. Reality television is out of control. You need the great writers to write the great storylines that get the attention of a reality show. You need writers in the films to make films that feel like something, that make people want to appreciate it. If you're not making those types of epic films, then people are gonna go watch comedies.
Just to detour a little bit, what are some things in film and TV that you liked this year that did that?
There's a couple movies that came out recently that are great. Beale Street.
Yeah, man. I was actually just about to go check that out this week. I'm really looking forward to that.
That's just phenomenal. On the television side, Hulu and Netflix have great shows. It's not like there's a shortage of good content when you look at those platforms. What dominates is still reality TV on most cable channels. You have to go to paid, you have to go to premium paid subscriptions, I find, to get that stuff, because what's on cable, which is paid, but not premium paid, you get mostly reality shows or stupid contest shows. You see it. Everybody sees it.
Yeah, for sure. Switching up back into United Masters, I attended the announcement dinner, where you spoke on the broad goals overall that night, but getting a little bit more granular, what are the steps you need to take in 2019 to start really furthering and putting that plan into motion?
I think that we're pushing it from two different angles. The artists are realizing that their incentives and the record companies' incentives are not aligned. A, they want to own their rights, B, they want to be able to make their own decisions and control their music, and record companies, they use the advances and the money they provide you essentially for the right to control your music. That's what they want, the control of it. The control of it is of value to what their business model is. Artists need to have control over it because the business models have moved to being able to distribute and control the ownership of the right is way more valuable than it's ever been. You have thousands of movies, television shows that want to publish music, and you have the streaming platforms that all want music. The artists are incentivized to be able to control that right versus signing that right away.
Everybody is starting to see that. That's becoming clear, as well as the fact that the artists have the tools to some extent to at least get their shit going without the help of a major label—using the social tools that exist today, as well as getting music out there. They're getting their name and likeness out there through social tools, and then they're getting their music out there through the same tools. Basically, we know who certain people are before they even get a record deal as a result.
[JAY] didn't go 0-8. They went 0-8.
Why do you need a record deal then? In the past you needed a record deal because somebody had to make the vinyl, somebody had to make the CD, somebody had to ship it. Now artists just get their music on Spotify and Amazon. There are digital distributors for that, and that's what we do. There are others that do it, but that's what United Masters has done. What makes us different than those guys is we're bringing brand opportunities into play. You've seen the first one with the announcement of the NBA. When I start bringing brands in, I'm thinking as an artist you want to have a record company in your pocket, a mobile solution where you could literally upload your music, get your music out there, obviously get paid, but then through that same portal, through that same partner, get opportunities. Get into the NBA. Get into the other opportunities that we'll soon announce. Those things are super important to me because that's what artists are looking for right now. Brand partnerships, sponsorships. It's part of the ecosystem of an artist today, and we're the only guys who really could offer that.
Who are some of your favorite disruptors of late? Who inspires you or who do you feel shares a similar vision of yours?
I think JAY-Z has always been a disruptor. Most of the things that he's done and continues to do is something that is first and foremost with what happens, continues to push the system. I think he's a disruptor. I think Tyler, the Creator is a disruptor. He stays figuring out alternative ways to get things done, get notoriety. Launch a clothing brand, launch an album, be creative as a director. He's always somebody that's on the forefront of what's next. He's always early. He's a disruptor. I think the guys at Quality Control are disruptors. I think they're sitting between this management and record company model where they're producing and making songs similar to what Bad Boy and Roc-A-fella had done in the '90s. I think they're looking at that and really understanding what the math that went into making those companies great, and what it was was disrupting the system and not going for the status quo. QC and Top Dawg are both disruptors.
You could talk about other areas of disruptors, like fashion, obviously Don C. I think what Don C has done is absolutely amazing. He's a disruptor. I could go on and on. Let me keep it to those names.
Grammy nominations recently came out. You've been very vocal about your thoughts about their shortcomings and respecting our culture in the past before, so I'm wondering what you think about this latest go around.
I don't know. To be honest with you, I don't know. I think they've dug themselves a hole. They've got women upset and urban culture upset because of their lack of awareness. They have uphill battles. I think the hole is too deep. I didn't even read the nominations. You see the nominations, and it's like, OK, well, maybe they'll get it right this time. Who knows? Last year JAY-Z got eight nominations—he got nothing. You thought they were gonna get it right. Who'd they give album of the year to?
I don't even remember off top.
That's the problem. They didn't give it to Kendrick or JAY-Z. It's just crazy. I mean, who do you think? That's a setup question you just asked me. I don't even know what to think about these guys. Yeah, they have new names. They always put the names in that are popular because they need them to sell the show. They want you there, so they always get that part at least decent, because you're gonna invite Adele and Beyoncé, and you're gonna invite JAY-Z and Kendrick and all these guys, and you're gonna of course have Kendrick open the show and perform for 10 minutes. Of course you're gonna do all that, but you're not gonna bless the man with the award. They always invite the right people, put the right names on so everybody shows up with their fingers crossed. They know how to do that really well, keep everybody with their fingers crossed. [JAY] didn't go 0-8. They went 0-8. They got it wrong.
I just looked it up, Album of the Year went to Bruno Mars.
They got it wrong. I mean, that was the album of the year, for real? It was a good album, but shit. Nobody's bumping that now. I mean, it's cool. It's a shame because it's not right to Bruno Mars, it's not right to Adele when she won over Beyoncé. The person who wins, of course they want to win, too, so it's not fair to them that they're supposed to go, well, I didn't really deserve to win this. They worked their asses off to get in that spot. They obviously deserve that opportunity. What's screwed up is you gotta get it right. There are categories in which the Grammys vote in which it seems to be wildly unclear how those votes are cast and who places those votes.
Listen, back to United Masters, I think there's a revolution in music that's happening. We're in the midst of it, where independents and artists being signed to themselves and owning their rights is something that's gonna become the next wave of what musicians are going to do and need to do. United Masters and Empire and The Orchard, they're distribution companies that artists can go to, Spotify direct, to distribute their music. I strongly believe that our positioning of being brand-friendly and providing services that go beyond just getting their music out and getting you paid—to me, that's table space. You need to give services that allow artists deeper opportunities. It's important. As a result, I would say to you to me that's our north star, and that's going to be the guiding light going forward in 2019. More and more artists going independent.
The artists that you're seeing re-signing with labels are re-signing because they want to go back in time and get their masters. They've already given it to them, so they stay with the label in order to earn their masters back. It's a horrible concept, because it's actually sharecropping. You basically own something, you gave up the right to it, and now you have to work harder, or work as hard to get it back. Taylor Swift stays at Universal because Taylor Swift wants to get the right backs to her older recordings, so she has to stay there. If she leaves, the older recordings would stay where she was. You follow what I'm saying?
That's why you see artists sign where they stayed at. Justin Timberlake a few years back, Taylor Swift just now, possibly Drake with Universal. They'll stay because that's the only way they can get their masters back is to stay and then work with getting the stuff that they should've had in the beginning to start to earn that right back. That's just the problem with the record business, the record contracts, they were set up that you gave that right away early. In fact, that was the underlying premise of the arrangement. If you win big, that's great. You make money; we own it. If you don't win big, we own it, and we lost the advance.
So for 2019, going forward, what can we look forward to from you and United Masters, Translation, and anything else?
The two artists that I'm really excited about that we have: Neek Bucks—he's fucking great—and Tobe Nwigwe. Tobe Nwigwe from Houston, and Neek Bucks from New York. To me, those kids, they're both dope. We're working with those guys now. We got off and running, man, and we have a lot of exciting news coming out early next year on things we're gonna do to get better to provide artists more opportunities, and that's what I'm excited about.