Interview with BRYAN “BIRDMAN” WILLIAMS, co-owner of Cash Money Records - Feb 6, 2012
“When I started Cash Money I was hoping it would get us out of the projects and into a positive way of life”
For the first part in a Cash Money Records special we speak to co-founder and co-owner Bryan “Birdman” Williams about how the hip-hop label has managed to buck the industry downturn by delivering success upon success with the likes of Drake (US No.1), UK Top 10), Lil Wayne (US No.1, UK Top 10) and Nicki Minaj (US No.1, UK Top 10), and expand into new areas, such as pop with recent signing Chris Richardson, when other labels are cutting back.
What was the idea behind Cash Money at the very beginning?
When I started it I was hoping it would get us out of the projects and into a positive way of life. And we wanted to help other people get out of this poverty.
It was an adventure for us – we were young, reckless, excited with money, just having fun popping bottles – but once I got into it and we started making money, and became rich, then we started looking at it as a job and a business.
So how did you originally get involved with music?
When I was growing up my dad owned a ballroom and so all we heard all night was just loud ass music.
And then when I was about 16, a friend of mine was making records and I liked what I heard and so went to a few shows and thought, this is cool, this is something I’d really like to do. I've been doing this for over 22 years now.
From there how did you start making and selling records?
New Orleans already had its own local music scene. We were selling mixtape CDs right out of the hood – independently and hand-to-hand. When it became street hot in the local area people were coming from all kinds of different neighbourhoods looking for us in the projects. And it just kept spreading, and getting bigger and bigger.
Then when radio picked it up it gave us the drive to do more. We just kept on recording, doing new songs. Then eventually it reached a point where we had to start putting CDs in the stores. We were so big independently that I had to do a deal with a major.
How did people get know about it before radio picked it up?
It was just through the local clubs. Every night we’d go to the clubs in our neighbourhood and rock the mic.
So what was the point when you were selling so many CDs that you had to strike a deal with a major?
Yeah, we’d started shipping CDs and then about seven or eight years into it, it got to be too big for the independent distributor to deal with – they ended up owing us millions of dollars. That was Southwest Wholesale in Texas, one of the biggest distributors in the South and Midwest at that time. So it was at that point, sixteen years ago, that I decided to go to the next level and sign with Universal.
So How did the initial connection with Universal come to place?
A guy I knew called Tony Draper, who owns Suave House Records, took me up there to see them. There were a few people trying to sign us at the time, trying to take something from us.
I thought we really worked hard to get from nothing to something – we did everything ourselves, doing all the promotion, staying up all night putting up posters – so if they want to do a deal then I'm not going to give them anything – nothing but a small distribution fee. In the end it worked out with Universal.
When you met with Universal what kind of business plan did you put in front of them?
I just wanted to be able to put releases out. At that time we were doing like three or four albums a month. When you get with a major it's a different system, they need three to four months just to put one album out and so I would be sitting on all these records.
I had to go up there and see how they were operating. I was trying to get them to understand our way of putting out a lot of music on a consistent basis. But they said, “You can't finish an album and then put it out the next week.” They want to choose a single, work the single, and then drop the album. I listened to them and had to completely switch the way I was envisioning putting out music.
So once I understood their format, I just incorporated what I was about into that – my vision, my hustle, and how much I love to put out music, and to make money in this business you have to put out music.
Did you have your own radio and promotion team at that point that you were able to bring in?
I didn't have non of that shit – they had all of that. Before I was doing it on the streets and in the clubs. We were going to the neighbourhoods performing. Just being on the grind.
So what is Universal’s influence, where do they participate?
They have no say in how I release records, they just find out the proper way of setting up around us. If you just throw that shit out there it will just bounce off the walls. You've got to set the record up properly. I can put out as many records as I want but it's all about getting the timings right. Universal is also taking care of the personal things like royalties and publishing.
So you deliver a record to Universal and they take care of getting it out there?
I don't go to them and tell them nothing. I've got my own staff now. We’re talking about when I was young in the business. I can put out a record whenever I feel like it. I can put out a record in the morning, I can put out a record while we are speaking on the phone …
When I spoke to Cash Money A&R Josh Berkman he told me that the label is a really small company with just you and your brother and then Josh working on the A&R side …
Well, we've got a full staff; I've got my personal marketing and radio promotion, street team, you name it – New York, Miami, New Orleans, L.A. wherever. It takes a lot of people to run this. You have a lot of different acts coming in and a lot of different directions to move in. Every day I’m trying to strengthen my staff.
It takes a lot different departments to make those records do what they do. You don’t just have a hot record and that’s it, you need the staff to support making the hot records hotter. Every one of my acts has their own publicist; you have marketing teams, all the different managers, the legal part of it, the CPAs, radio promotion, distribution … Radio alone can be about 10 different people because they’re catering to different markets. And then you have to run the business with your president and VPs. The Universal staff works with me plus my own personal staff.
Ultimately it all starts with the staff. That’s what I have been working on for the last 15 years with Universal, to have the most powerful and dominant staff. While the industry is cutting back, I'm cutting on. It's all about expanding.
How do you find the right people?
There’s a lot of people that have been doing this for a long time and so you’ve got their track records. We now have more artists on the label and more records to put out than I’ve ever had in my whole career. So I have to strengthen everything: radio, video …
I love the challenge and competitiveness of expanding and making these young artists bigger. I want to be the best that there’s ever been. I love to put my goals real high in life and keep reaching for them. Michael Jackson sold over 750 million records, so we have a long way to go, but that’s something I want to do in my lifetime.
What’s a typical day like for you at the moment?
We’re going to the studio every night of my life – from 11pm to 7am in the morning. My son probably spends even longer than that there – maybe till 3 or 4 in the afternoon. It's business as usual no matter what time I get home. But I'm a family man, and so every day when I get home I pick my children up from school.
What kind of situations and problems do you have to deal with?
Business is always going to have bullshit, that's just the business. You just have to walk through them and hope you make the best decisions. You try to protect yourself by having the best team to look after things. It could be that a song you bought from some producer turns out not to be his. It’s simple shit like that that’s not pertaining to you directly but relates to you because you’re one putting the music out.
What kind of decisions are you having to make everyday?
Releases, music, albums, artist, songs, placements, videos, radio … Shit, it's an ongoing everyday decision making business.
So if one of your artists comes to you with a new song are you personally checking it out and deciding what to do?
Not just me, [Lil] Wayne, Slim, Mack [Maine], Chaz … But being an artist myself I know that it’s better to let the artist be free, let them do their music their own way. The artist might have a different vision than you have, but I respect that and always want to support their vision. If there’s something I like then I’d say, “This should be the one!” but I don't pick nobody's singles – it's a grown man game.
How does your working relationship work with your brother Slim?
My brother, Wayne and me, all work hand in hand. My brother tends to do more of the business side while Wayne and me deal with more the artist side.
How would you advise an aspiring artist looking to attract to attract the attentions of Cash Money?
You gotta do your own thing. If it's hot then it's going to make a name by itself. But if you ain't got it then you ain't got a shot – but you just got to keep working at it till you do get it.
Do mixtapes – that was the key to our success. Albums come from mixtapes.
You’re looking to expand your label, so what genres do you want to tap into?
I like to do all genres of music: country, pop, rap …
As a label associated with hip-hop, what's your approach in getting pop artists into the market?
It’s just through putting out hot records. And I also put them on other Cash Money artists’ records – and make sure Wayne gets on it.
I have Kevin Rudolf, Jay Sean and a new kid called Chris Richardson … I'm just trying to keep expanding.
What are the next releases coming up?
My album, Bow Wow, Lil Twist, Tyga, Kevin Rudolf, Jay Sean and Nicki Minaj.
What can we expect from your album?
It's called Bigga Than Life and I’ve working with Wayne and Drake, and several different producers. I got beats from Mr. Beatz, Cool & Dre, Boi-1da, T-Minus.
I don't want to do nothing else in this life other than this music. I'm excited about it, I'm passionate about it, and I feel blessed to be doing something I love to do.
interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: The Cash Money special continues with an interview with A&R Joshua Berkman
Read On ...
* A&R Dino Delvaille on signing Cash Money to Universal