Ask major-label record execs about the music biz and theyll start muttering about the myriad problems affecting the industry, from illegal downloading to a precipitous drop in retail sales to layoffs and shutdowns. Ask the principals of San Franciscobased indie SMC Recordings the same question, however, and theyll tell you theyre having a blast. Were having the time of our lives, says A&R head Will Bronson.
In the past five years, Bronson, 25, and his partners Ralph Tashjian, 59, and George Nauful, 56, have built an impressive roster of hip-hop talent, hosting regional sensations looking to make a wider impact and major-label castaways no longer deemed profitable by the suits. They have the Bay Area rap scene on lockdown, working with Oakland's Keak Da Sneak, Mistah F.A.B., Balance, and V-White; San Francisco's Messy Marv, Guce, and San Quinn; East Palo Alto's Dem Hoodstarz; and Vallejo's B-Legit, PSD, and Thizz Nation, to name a few. They've also released albums by Ohio's Bizzy Bone and Georgia's Pastor Troy. Recent signees, like Texas' Scarface and New York's Capone, increase the label's national presence, and SMC has even branched out into rock music with Detroit's Critical Bill.
SMC combines the industry savvy of a major label with the down-to-earth vibe of a smaller boutique outfit. The owners keep their overhead low, focusing on records that move anywhere from 10,000 to 60,000 units apiece, which they're able to get in stores around the globe through Fontana, an independent distributor owned by Universal. "We aren't selling records to a top-40 listener," Bronson explains. "We're selling to people that are fans of these artists." He feels the genre is returning to its origins in "small, crazy, exciting booms out of [regional scenes]."
For the Bay Area, that boom has focused for the past four or five years on hyphy — a soundtrack for youth-identified urban culture which has become a genre in and of itself. National labels have swooped in and signed everyone from Clyde Carson to the A'z and Keak Da Sneak, but hyphy's momentum has cooled while artists wait for their records to come out — the Federation's It's Whateva, for instance, was finally released October 2, after being in label limbo for a year and a half. SMC has the distinct advantage of having relationships with hot local acts and being able to fast-track their projects so the music is out on the streets in as little as 90 days. As Bronson says, "We're smaller, more self-contained. We're able to react faster anytime we see a change or a shift" in the marketplace.
Hyphy's crown prince, 25-year-old Oakland rapper Mistah F.A.B., has been working with SMC's Bronson since both were teenagers. F.A.B. signed to Atlantic, but maintains a relationship with SMC as well, noting of the indie, "They'll work as hard as you work. ... They do so much for your project a lot of major labels won't do." This was the case with F.A.B.'s "Ghost Ride It" video, which SMC helped promote, even though it had no financial ties to the single. And when Atlantic got cold feet about releasing F.A.B.'s major-label debut Yellow Bus Rydah this past summer, SMC stepped in and put out the rapper's Da Baydestrian in a timely manner.
As a small label, SMC also offers its artists both creative and personal freedom. Though he's mainly known for fairly fun subject matter, F.A.B. is planning to do an album on SMC showcasing his socially conscious side. "I have a song about the Jena 6," he says, referring to the six black teenagers charged with beating a white teen in Jena, Louisiana. "Another label, they're not gonna put that out."
While many indies survive by licensing songs to TV shows, hawking merchandise, or offering digital downloads, SMC still makes money the old-fashioned way — through CDs. As reported in Billboard last January, its 2006 sales were up 33 percent over 2005 — contrasting with an overall decline in rap sales to the tune of 20 percent in that same period.
To S.F. rapper San Quinn, SMC represents "the closest thing to a major" in the Bay Area. What separates the company from other labels and distributors, he says, is the personal attention the employees give to each release: "They really get behind the record."
SMC also puts a lot of effort into knowing its markets. For Pastor Troy's 2007 release Tool Musiq, the label hired street teams in Atlanta, Alabama, and Mississippi to spread the word. The album's title (originally Saddam) was changed so as not to offend Troy's large contingent of fans in the military. Having crunk's most volatile lyricist on board gives SMC a foothold in the lucrative Southern market, which has dominated rap in recent years.
SMC's road hasn't been without obstacles, however. "Where we're based out of, there is no industry," Bronson laments. Because of the Bay Area's relative isolation from media centers like Los Angeles and New York, it wasn't enough just to put out local records; "they had to be good records." Bronson points to San Quinn and EA-Ski's "Hell Yeah" as an example of a competitive single that could hold its own against national hits in terms of getting reactions from both club crowds and radio phone lines.
"The biggest thing is to be taken seriously, especially in our own market," Bronson says. Slowly but surely, SMC has gained industry cred: Artists like Keak and Messy Marv have broken through to KMEL airplay, while albums like San Quinn's The Rock have been positively reviewed by East Coast–based publications like XXL.
Dealing with authentic gangsta rap artists has also provided its share of difficulties. Messy Marv's frequent incarcerations for gun charges and parole violations certainly haven't helped his career. "He's been in [jail] a few times," Bronson shrugs. Marv was recently locked up again for having an unlicensed assault rifle in the trunk of his vehicle. Despite Messy's situation, the label has stood by him. "There's a sense of attachment with him that Ralph and I have," Bronson says. "I care about that dude. I can't lie."
It's taken a lot of hard work for SMC to get to where it is today, part of which relies on the backgrounds of its founders. As CEO Ralph Tashjian explains, "I didn't just parachute into this."
A former VP at Motown and once part of "The Network," an influential group of radio promoters, Tashjian has spent 30 years in the music industry. He's had his share of ups and downs: He fondly recalls escorting a karate expert to radio stations to promote Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting," a number one hit in 1974. But in 1989 he was ensnared in a big payola scandal, testifying to providing coke, cash, and prostitutes to radio execs in exchange for chart positions.
Yet Tashjian has remained a low-key industry player who has since launched several successful promotional companies, including the music-oriented Under the Radar and the video-game-focused CCCP. Nauful, SMC's CFO, co-founded the Grammy-winning world and jazz label Mesa/Blue Moon and later headed Atlantic's jazz and world music divisions. Bronson is the former music editor for Bay Area urban music magazine Showcase and has been an ardent fan of the local hardcore rap scene since discovering Too $hort in the fourth grade. He fondly remembers being introduced to underground acts like 11/5 and RBL Posse, and watching Andre Nickatina (then known as Dre Dog) videos on the California Music Channel.
SMC's principals seem an unlikely triumvirate, but each brings something to the table, whether it's Tashjian's promotional experience, Naufel's number-crunching skills, or Bronson's understanding of the rap market. "The whole operation could not tick without the three partners," Tashjian says.
The label began as Someday Records in 2002, after Bronson, who was interning for Tashjian, assumed A&R duties. Their first release, Messy Marv's 2003 album Disobeyish, sold almost 30,000 units and charted on Billboard. That same year, SMC put out Keak Da Sneak's Counting Other People's Money, which sold 36,000 copies, helping set the stage for the hyphy movement. Bronson eventually became a full partner at the label, which in 2005 changed its name to SMC, short for Someday Music Corporation.
To date, Bronson estimates the company has sold 375,000 units total. That comes in part because two years ago, SMC switched distributors from Navarre to Fontana, effectively doubling its sales and increasing its market penetration considerably. SMC signed more acts and bumped up the staff — there are currently ten full-time employees — and placed more attention on marketing and promoting records, not just getting them in stores. For example, in 2006, SMC teamed with Siccness.net and Thizz Nation for the Furls #1, a Mac Dre-branded sneaker. For 2007's PSD, Keak Da Sneak, and Messy Marv album Da Bidness, the label launched the innovative "Three Kings" ad campaign, highlighting the artists' status as rulers of Bay Area indie rap.
As the once-impenetrable hegemony of big labels continues to crumble like the walls of ancient Rome, SMC has evolved from representing thugged-out barbarians to becoming potential vanguards of a new music industry republic. Nauful points to a recent SoundScan report indicating that the independent label share of the retail record market is now 20 percent — up 5 percent from five years ago. "That's a pretty significant amount," he says. "It's increasing year to year ... as majors go down, indie sales go up." Indeed, Tashjian adds, "It's the only part of the business that's going up. Indies are the future."
SMC may not have reinvented the wheel, but it's doing a good job of keeping the local music biz on track. The label has proven that a focused business plan targeting regional niche markets is more realistic (i.e., profitable) than the old industry model, which appears to be headed for obsolescence. All of which is good news for rap music fans, both in the Bay Area and nationwide.