When Damien "Dame" Ritter started Funk Volume in 2008 he had an MBA from Stanford, and a history of consulting Fortune 500 companies. What he didn't have was knowledge of the music industry, so while some of his ideas were great, they didn't always work out.
"I tried to put together this alliance of artists," Ritter remembers, "reaching out to artists that were similar sized to us and just trying to get a commitment from each of their managers, or themselves, so when they'd come out with music we'd post it, and when we'd come out with music they'd post it. I was organizing so people would know what's on the horizon, and just so we could share fan bases." The idea made perfect sense from a business standpoint. He reached out to a dozen artists. Only one responded positively.
"At the time, when I didn't really understand the industry like I do now, it was mind blowing."
Now plenty of people would love to share Funk Volume's fan base, as Ritter has learned the ins and out of the music industry, and his label's roster includes Dizzy Wright, who is a member of this year's XXL Freshman Ten, and Hopsin, who was a member of last year's XXL Freshman Ten, as well as SwizZz, Jarren Benton, and DJ Hoppa.
RapReviews caught up with Ritter to find out more about how he built Funk Volume, and some of the lessons he learned along the way. He also discussed having artists named to XXL's Freshman Ten in consecutive years, and what that's meant to the label.
Adam Bernard: You have an MBA from Stanford. You were consulting Fortune 500 companies. How did your peers react when you said screw all this, I'm starting a record label?
Dame Ritter: To be honest, I wasn't quick to announce it. I was a little hesitant, and it was probably my ego getting in my way, because I had classmates that were making decent money, and a lot of people had already started businesses doing a million dollars in revenue. I started a different Facebook page so that I wouldn't bombard them with hip-hop posts and things like that, because in addition to what I was feeling, I also recognized that they're not typically our target audience. As time kept going Funk Volume started getting bigger, and I couldn't hide it. I became more confident in it, and I wanted to show it to people because it was doing so well.
AB: How about your family? Were your parents like "don't worry, we've kept your old bedroom the way it was?"
DR: Nah nah! I wasn't hurting financially. I had money saved up and it was a more comfortable space to be able to take a risk like this. I didn't reach out to them for any loans, or anything like that, and I think my parents, they were more comfortable with it because my younger brother is SwizZz, so they thought me teaming up with him, it gave them more confidence in what he was doing because he had to leave school to be able to do this. I think if he had left school without my support they would have been a little more concerned than if he left school with me helping him, and supporting him. Obviously they would have liked him to finish school, but I think me encouraging him, and helping him along the way, made it a little easier to deal with.
AB: You and Hopsin started Funk Volume in 2008 because you saw how difficult it was for artists to grain recognition. What made you think you were going to have different results than what you were seeing?
DR: I looked at the landscape of hip-hop, and how things were happening, and how new tools were popping up to go direct to fans, and to us it's very simple, as you grow your fan base different opportunities are unlocked. Now that we can grow our fan base on our own there's no reason why touring wasn't eventually going to be a possibility, I was sure the blogs would reach out at some point, brands would want to sponsor us at some point, because at the end of the day we all just need eyeballs for our own brands. If we're able to build a following online, then I believed other things would start to happen.
AB: You've built Funk Volume through your use of new media, and social media. With people now being able to buy likes, followers, and views, do you think that avenue is closed off to others because the authenticity isn't there anymore?
DR: No, you just have to do next level research to find out who's authentic and who's not. If you want to play that game with us, we've never bought any likes or followers, and I think we can prove that with the amount of interaction that's generated when we post something, or the people talking about things on Facebook. You just can't look at the surface level metrics now, because people are inflating those, so you can't just look at views, you can't just look at likes, or followers, you have to do that next level analysis to see to see who's really driving traffic. I think it's still very possible, and for independent artists social media is a must. You gotta reach out to fans.
AB: What was the hardest lesson to learn when you were launching the label?
DR: Coming from a more corporate background, and being more structured and organized, to the music industry, sometimes it lacks a lot of professionalism, and I'm still trying to deal with it. It's being more patient, and not taking it so personally. That was an adjustment, as well as managing artists. None of the artists on my label have my background, and have been in a more structured environment, so it's very challenging to try to implement structure to young people that have never had it before. Again, being patient with that, and that hasn't always been easy, nor have I been good at it. In addition to that, managing artists and realizing each artist is different and needs support in different ways. They have different creative processes. Some are willing to be open to interview and to perform whenever, like Dizzy. At the other end of the spectrum you have somebody like Hopsin, who is a little more closed off. You have to walk on eggshells a little bit around what he's willing to do, and not willing to do, but now an artist can be successful that way. Before, where the only route was a major label route, if somebody was dealing with Hopsin they might have thrown in the towel, or shelved his project, and maybe you never would have heard of Hopsin, whereas now, because we have more control and flexibility, and we're going straight to fans, I can create an environment that suits that. He is able to make a living, and build his fan base. That's something that's really cool about today's music industry as opposed to the industry maybe ten, fifteen, years ago. There were probably a lot of artists that record labels maybe didn't understand, or didn't know what to do with, or how to deal with them, and you just never heard of them. Maybe they went on to do something else.
AB: With the early success you've had, do you feel like you're beating the system, or simply have a better understanding of the system?
DR: It's definitely not beating the system. We just focus on the numbers. There's a metric that can either justify what we're doing, or tell us to do something different. If you tell me an artist is hot I should be able to back that up with certain metrics. It's just stripping away glitz and glamor, any ego, and focusing on what's really having an impact, and measuring that impact, and allocating our resources to the things that are making the biggest impact.
AB: Would you be more excited to hear about an artist that's hot, and it's backed up by the numbers, or hear about an artist that's dope, and be one of the first 100 people to view that person's videos?
DR: Probably the latter. I think numbers definitely back up whether or not somebody is making moves, but I'm a hip-hop fan, I've been around it a long time, I think I have a good sense of the artists that will do well, and stand out, in today's music industry.
AB: Your roster is only five artists deep, but you've had emcees on XXL's Freshman Ten list in back to back years, Hopsin last year, Dizzy Wright this year. That kind of press can build your name very quickly, but I also imagine it adds quite a bit of pressure. How has your life changed, as a label owner, since Hopsin and Dizzy earned this honor?
DR: I don't see pressure at all. Whether we get on that list, or not, I think we're gonna do well. I think us getting on that list is definitely showing people that we're not just some internet label, we're starting to be validated by other forms of press. That's just another notch in our belt to let people know that we're building something that's real, but I don't feel any pressure. Everything is moving in the right direction, and I do feel like we'll be there for a third year next year.
AB: The artists chosen for the Freshman Ten haven't had the best track record. Usually only a couple of them achieve success. What are you going to do to make sure your artists are the ones who make that leap from Freshman Ten to household name?
DR: I think it's just a matter of continuing doing what we're doing. For me, as we get bigger it allows me to build more relationships with bloggers, websites, brands, and continue to solidify our platform to give us a bigger and wider platform to launch new music off of. I don't think it changes what we do at all, I think that it just confirms that what we've been doing is right, and is working, so just keep doing it some more.
AB: So there's no need to rush out a mix tape in the next two weeks to capitalize on being on the cover, it's more about staying the course?
DR: Dizzy is a workhouse, so he's gonna release music to capitalize on everything. He'll have a mix tape dropping in July. Jarren's first album drops in June. There's not anything specifically that we're doing to capitalize... as a matter of fact, I didn't think XXL did a good job of really dropping the cover, so I don't think there's a lot of momentum at the moment right now, anyway, or as much as prior years, so there's not THAT much to build off of. Don't get me wrong, it's still a great look.
AB: It was a top trending topic on Twitter the day they revealed the cover.
DR: Yeah, but compared to other years, I don't think the momentum, to me, just seeing online, seeing the chatter, maybe this year wasn't as controversial. To me the perception of the cover is bigger than what actually happened, and I'm not putting down the cover at all, but I think the perception is out there that once you get on the cover you're just out there, you're doing it, people are calling. We don't receive any more calls than we had (received before the cover). We were already getting calls before. It wasn't like anything more has happened. I'm sure there's been a boost of his mentions on Twitter, and maybe his Twitter followers are going up, and Facebook likes are going up, but once you have those connections, they're not un-liking our page very often, so we have that connection, so we're not in a super rush to put something out. Dizzy's a workhorse, he's gonna put something out regardless. He's on tour right now, but he'll finish up the mix tape when he gets back, so he'll have plenty of stuff to capitalize on the additional momentum of the XXL cover. All I'm saying is the XXL cover, I think the perception of it is bigger than the reality, and impact.
AB: The perception is "instant fame," when the reality is "stepping stone?"
DR: Right, For sure. I think it's up to us. Now that people know who Dizzy is, it's easy for me to have conversations with some people. If they don't know who Dizzy is, maybe they know the XXL Freshman, and that peaks their interest and allows us to have further conversation. It helps. It helps a lot. Again, it's just not as big as what I think fans think it does.
AB: Finally, I know you can't really answer this, so I won't get mad when you say, "no comment," but admit it, you really wish Trinidad James wasn't on that cover.
DR: Not at all. I'll answer that question honestly. I say this to our fans all the time, that cover is not the ten best lyricists, it's not the ten best emcees. I think Trinidad will even tell you he's not the best emcee, but he's hot. There's nobody hotter than Trinidad James on that cover, so you have to have him there. To me the XXL Freshman are the hottest ten freshman of the year. Just like that MTV list. Future's on there, and Future is definitely not a lyricist, or an emcee, in my mind, but he's on a lot of hit records. You can't not acknowledge him. People need to learn how to strip away what they think is a good emcee, or a good lyricist, versus just who's hot, who's on the radio, who's driving social media, and whose name is in people's mouths.