For most D-1 collegiate athletes, hanging up their 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 megastar 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 headfirst 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.”
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.
YouTube, the ultimate free marketing tool
“I could tell that the music landscape was changing and after just sitting back and looking at the entire music space and the market, turning to free music was our only option,” Zarou said. “Starting out, I thought, ‘How can I get eyes and ears on my artists?’ The answer to that question were sites like DatPiff and YouTube. To be honest, we really had no other choice. We had no relationships within the music industry and had zero major label experience.”
Zarou knew how hard it would be to charge standard prices for music from artists people hardly knew.
It may sound a tad cliché, but Zarou equates relationships within the music industry to the age-old saying that “it’s all about who you know.” For VMG, they really knew no one. In a “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” moment, Zarou established Logic and Bellion via a free music movement designed to bring fans directly to the label and its artists. Forget not having connections within the industry, Visionary decided to create real value for its artists before asking for even a penny in return.
Though this certainly wasn’t a new practice within the hip-hop industry, it hadn’t become standard practice in the pop world — i.e. Jon Bellion’s musical space. To that end, Zarou and Visionary used a pre-existing blueprint to help launch Bellion’s career and, as it had done with Logic, the approach paid off.
“Offering free music is super unique in the pop world, even free music and mixtapes are sort of unique now,” Zarou explained. “If it worked in the hip-hop space, it’s no different to bring it over into pop. Executing it with Jon was really cool and eye-opening and, without question, this strategy paid off with them signing with their respective major labels.”
As touched on above, Logic signed a record deal with Def Jam while Bellion works with Capital. Both artists still operate directly with VMG and maintain a relationship with the label, which Zarou sees as a partnership. While VMG operates independently with Logic and Bellion at times, other instances require the knowledge and community a major label like Def Jam or Capital provide. Though, Zarou made sure to point out that he doesn’t need to wait for anyone to say “okay” to release a mixtape independently.
Few things demonstrate VMG’s willingness to move when it sees an opportunity quite like Bellion and Logic’s nationwide tour to visit fans at their homes. This past spring, prior to the release of his traditional debut album, The Human Condition, Bellion hopped on a bus and popped in on a few lucky fans across the country. Each visit consisted of a meet-and-greet, an exclusive first listen to the new album, and a private concert. All that was needed to be considered was the submission of a short video telling Jon why they were his biggest fan.
“Getting out there and touching the people that matter the most (the fans) is the perfect way for us to market our music.”
“We pride ourselves on doing outside of the box, innovative marketing,” Zarou said of Logic and Bellion’s fan experiences. “Visionary is always striving to be innovative and disrupt about how we market our clients. I sort of feel like artists subject themselves to what I call the hashtag syndrome, in which they resort to simply sending out a tweet with a release date and hashtag once a day pertaining to their new album. I just couldn’t do that with VMG, it wasn’t good enough. Really getting out there and touching the people that matter the most (the fans) is the perfect way for us to market our music.”
While Visionary doesn’t give away its primary artists’ music anymore, the label finds other ways — a la the Jon Bellion and Logic meet-and-greets — to give back to fans. This dedication again paid off in big ways with Logic selling out a nationwide tour in support of his 2015 sophomore album smash, The Incredible True Story, Bellion’s sold-out tour following the release of his album, The Human Condition, and yet another sold-out run for Logic this year — this time an arena tour with Bay Area artist G-Eazy.
As Zarou previously mentioned, Visionary (along with Logic and Bellion) isn’t focused on the short term, and it keeps paying dividends. Both artists already have extended tours lined up for the fall, with Logic heading out to Europe and Bellion touring the U.S. on The Human Condition a second time. Album-wise, Logic treated his fanbase to a surprise mixtape over the summer titled Bobby Tarantino and constantly has his mind on music as his highly-anticipated third studio album takes shape. For Bellion, Zarou says the label is focused on getting the most out of his debut album as possible, calling it a “special album” that’s going to be the foundation of his career.
“Both our guys have had fantastic years and just continue to work hard every day,” Zarou pointed out. “Once Logic is done touring he’ll get back in the studio to work on some new music but the guy even works and records while he’s on the bus on the road. He literally is always working. For Jon, we think he’s just getting started. He’ll head back out in the fall to tour the album again. Then we’ve got something really exciting planned for him at the top of 2017.”
At the end of our conversation, Zarou wanted to make it clear Visionary is a small company that stays focused on being innovative and remaining ahead of the curve. He built the company out of the early days of YouTube’s rise and tried to take advantage of the attention of fans. After leveraging free music, putting his clients in front of their fans, and sparking globe-spanning tours, it seems as though the attention is now solely on VMG and its artists.
From the soccer fields of a D1 school to a sold-out arena in Los Angeles, Zarou found a way to be successful in the music industry despite the rise of something deemed an industry killer: Free streaming music. By using this disruptive technology to his benefit, the young entrepreneur found a way to channel his inner Rick Rubin. That and treating his clients just like dear old Mom seems to have paid off in a big way.
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