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How a Visionary music label used free music and YouTube to mint stars

For most D-1 collegiate athletes, hanging up  the cleats in favor of starting a record label is unlikely. With scholarship money and aspirations of playing professionally to keep one afloat, taking a flyer on a fledgling business venture would be a textbook leap of faith. Yet Visionary Music Group CEO and founder Chris Zarou decided to walk this very path.

Zarou’s decision ultimately paid off in spades — VMG now employs the services of hip-hop mega star Logic, and the recent force to be reckoned with in the pop world, Jon Bellion. Like any big challenge, the road to success was paved with an incredible amount of hard work. But while hard work has the ability to take anybody far, it was a different core belief Zarou points to as the real reason Visionary found success.

“People are always confused when I tell them this, but my actual philosophy is that if you manage your clients like they are your own mother, you will always end up doing what’s best,” Zarou told Digital Trends in an exclusive interview. “You’d never put your mother or someone you care about like that in a shitty situation. You’re not going to chase a check and say ‘long term, this probably isn’t something I should do.’ You wouldn’t do that to your mom.”

“With both Logic and Jon, I listened a lot to my gut and went solely off intuition.”

Before he could put this earnest technique to use, though, Zarou needed to scour for talent in Visionary’s early days. For a 20-year-old college student taking classes full-time and working on the side, this wasn’t an easy task. Guiding him through Visionary’s formative years was the desire to pursue something he was passionate about, despite lacking any formal training or experience. Prior to breaking figurative ground on his label, Zarou had yet to even work for — let alone start — a record label. Instead, he decided to jump head first into the industry and learn as he went along.

While some may view this a reckless way to start a business, Zarou knew from the beginning that keeping busy and learning by experience would benefit him more than reading textbooks — there was no time to sit back and relax. Perhaps no part of Zarou’s story resonates more with this philosophy than when a friend of his tipped him off about a young man named Jon Bellion.

Finding hungry, ambitious artists

“I had just started working with Logic when a mutual friend introduced me to Jon and basically told me, ‘Chris, you have to listen to this guy’s music,” Zarou explained. “After that conversation, I jumped right in my car, drove out to his house, and knocked on his door. Those were Visionary’s early days. If I came across someone I liked, I would just start talking to them and creating relationships.”

Before driving out to Bellion’s Long Island home on a whim in 2012, the young entrepreneur was artist-less and looking for a solid foundation. His will to never stop moving initially led him to a young rapper out of Gaithersburg, Maryland by the name of Logic. Though most backstories dedicated to Logic’s upbringing point to his self-released 2010 mixtape Young, Broke, and Infamous as his official introduction to Zarou, Chris remembers it differently. According to him, he stumbled upon the gifted emcee after seeing a minute and a half acapella rap video on YouTube in 2011. Like any millennial, Zarou naturally introduced himself to Logic via Facebook message.

“With both Logic and Jon, I listened a lot to my gut and went solely off intuition,” he continued. “Both of these guys are young, hungry, and ambitious, and for them to trust their careers with me meant the world. Especially when there were other people they could’ve chosen to work with, and they decided to choose me.”

The path to success is paved with patience

Knowing how serious it was for two young musicians to entrust their professional livelihood to a startup label, Zarou focused entirely on doing right by them. To almost anyone else, this would be capitalizing on each artist’s number one export: music. But the first dime spent on Jon or Logic didn’t actually occur until Logic’s debut album Under Pressure hit stands in 2014. Until then, VMG worked closely with both artists to create and distribute free mixtapes which would essentially serve as their introduction to the music industry.

Zarou and VMG leveraged three album’s worth of entirely free music to catapult Logic into the spotlight.

For Logic, this took the form of three incredibly well-received mixtapes: Young Sinatra (2011), Young Sinatra: Undeniable (2012), and Young Sinatra: Welcome to Forever (2013). Though they were distributed via sharing platforms like DatPiff, the success of each album allowed Visionary to send Logic on U.S. and European tours and, most notably, caught the attention of Def Jam who signed the rapper to a recording contract. In other words, in the span of roughly three years, Zarou and VMG leveraged three album’s worth of entirely free music to catapult Logic into the spotlight. As the saying goes, patience is a virtue.

“Patience is something people don’t focus on enough in the music business, it’s so important, it’s everything,” Zarou said. “It’s especially crucial when you’re trying to build a career and that’s what I’ve been focused on since day one. I’m not interested in having a big year or a big six months, I want to build careers. If free music is the platform I can use to build my artist’s career and get them off the ground, I’m absolutely taking advantage of it.”

Both Bellion and Logic bought into the philosophy and trusted it would benefit them in the long run. Furthermore, Zarou knew how hard it would be to charge standard prices for music from artists people hardly knew. In this sense, charging an entry fee seemed illogical; free music was the rational way to operate from the start.

However, this was only part of the equation for Zarou and his label. Handing out free music and developing a fan base had more to do with the medium in which it was consumed than the sheer act of doling it out. Since streaming services were still getting off the ground when Zarou founded VMG in 2010, he had to get creative about how he interacted with fans outside of a site like DatPiff. That meant turning to a little video-streaming site by the name of YouTube.

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