Indie Industry: Damien Ritter on the Business of Being Funk Volume
Forget friends; business runs best when blended with family. The folks at Funk Volume - Hopsin, Dizzy Wright, Jarren Benton, DJ Hoppa and SwizZz - are not bound by blood, but the bond is strong as steel. As one of hip-hop’s fastest rising indies, Funk set more rules than it followed on its rise to prominence. Honest pragmatism, wielded by company CEO and patriarchal figure Damien Ritter, abhors smoke and shatters mirrors. “I believe in transparency,” the co-founder says in a phone interview with DJBooth. “I believe in treating people right and making sure the artist is able to take care of themselves in the future.”
Ritter, a practical, Stanford-educated entrepreneur, entered the game as a twenty-something knowing next to nothing about label history and underground hip-hop: “I didn’t even know who Tech N9ne was. I didn’t even know Strange Music.” The path he continues to walk down began about a half-decade ago when he, Hopsin and SwizZz agreed to a joint venture with one crucial caveat. “I think they really just wanted something where the artists can be themselves,” he recalls of the initial meeting in 2008. “We didn’t know how big it would get, but they did know they didn’t want me intervening in the creative process.” Without an artistic bone in his body and unwilling to wreak harm on his own artists, the novice wholeheartedly accepted. Six years later, the governing principle holds true.
“We didn’t know how big it would get, but they did know they didn’t want me intervening in the creative process.”
Rather than study the early work of Funk’s predecessors - Tommy Boy, Bad Boy, Profile and Def Jam - Damien focused on what he believed to be the key for growth - fans. Lots of them. “To me it was really just about the fans,” he affirms. “So if we just focus on building a fan base then we can figure everything else out later. It’s not that tricky of an industry, it’s pretty straightforward.” With business models morphing like mutated Transformers and a dizzying, criss-cross network of revenue streams and record companies, “straightforward” might appear arrogant, if not ignorant. But in a time that saw the inception of Facebook struggle spam, he and his team of acts treated each possible supporter with nurturing care, building another familial bond, expanding their house of influence one individual at a time. As artists and industry types obsessed over blogs, Ritter organically built a buzz blogs couldn’t ignore.
“We’re online, and you probably can’t see it as much now, but when we were coming up we would respond to pretty much everybody,” Ritter says. “We would host video chats. We’d have online battles. We would have our annual contest, online conferences. Hop’ would Skype call people, and he still does that a ton. We used to do this thing called FVTV on Ustream, where SwizZz would freestyle while people threw out words to him. Just sharing that journey with people, with our fans that we’ve picked up along the way, is special. They’ve kind of gotten to know us on a different level outside of just the music. That’s what creates that type of fan base. It definitely wasn’t created overnight, it’s something we’ve been working at for six years now.”
Some call it direct-to-fan marketing, but Ritter prefers to view Funk Volume’s outreach as a genuine effort with real people, exchanging stories and, occasionally, all-too-real problems. “I’ve had people that wanted to commit suicide reach out to me, and I don’t know them at all. It’s tough because you really just have to understand that you can’t please everyone. You can’t be there for everyone.” Though delicate situations forced him to scale back fan interaction, listener participation continues to drive the label’s success.
Loyalty allows Funk Volume to defy industry sales trends, finding even physical sales fruitful. Each artist on the label will sell at least 1000 hard copies, pre-sale, with flagship rapper Hopsin selling between three and 5000 before the release date. For an independent, those numbers represent a significant windfall that enables expansion. “If we can recoup half of the cost or all of the cost of making the album with just the hardcopy that means all the digital is profit,” Ritter says, before addressing streams. “Even if you just have CDs as collectors’ items, it’s worth making some. I’m not a huge fan of streaming because it doesn’t compensate the artist well. But on the flip side it’s also promotion and people that may have never heard your music will give it a try. That’s a valid argument.” Ritter fondly remembers going to the store and buying DMX’s classic record, "It’s Dark and Hell is Hot", though he admits “that was super long ago.”
“If we can recoup half of the cost or all of the cost of making the album with just the hardcopy that means all the digital is profit.”
Merchandise and touring join music sales as the big three income sources for Funk Volume, though Ritter says the central pot varies for each artist—music accounts for the lion’s share of Hopsin’s revenue. The label suffered a rare misstep when it failed to appropriately register its publishing, losing untold amounts in undelivered royalties. With that bridge in the mending process, along with collaborations and sponsorships, “[the artists] are all in pretty good situations.” Ritter revealed how he distributes earnings, which are dynamically split: “You start at a certain percentage—label-to-artist—and as they turn in more albums, it gets better in their favor.” Hopsin, also co-owner of Funk, taps more revenue streams than anyone else at the label. “I don’t want to squeeze these guys dry, I want to be able to work with them for the rest of my life.”
Ritter keeps his operations simple to avoid unneeded overhead. Instead of an opulent office he’d hardly visit, he works from home. Rather than maintain in-house designers, lawyers and staff year-round, he keeps them on retainer. His sole permanent staff member, a personal assistant, allows him to maintain control of the multi-faceted label, which he likens to “running five businesses in one.” The modern method reflects the very fabric of Funk, which does not house enough artists to plot definitive releases each quarter. Ritter requires flexibility to thrive. He applies the same logical approach when working with albums: “If you got 14 quality songs and three lesser quality songs, then it should be 14 as opposed to 17. But if you can make 50 super dope songs, which is very difficult to do, and make a four-CD box set? [Laughs] That would be crazy!”
As for his proudest moment as the chief of Funk Volume? XXL Freshmen placements (Funk Volume has seen three of its artists grace the lauded cover in three years) and national tours are nice, but little compares to his fatherly love for bettering the lives of those around him. Nothing beats human connection. “Some of these guys have never had any type of structure,” he says. “It goes deeper than friendship. I can help them become better artists, better men.” It also goes deeper than music. “I’m making sure these guys are cool financially,” Ritter continues. “That they understand money management and can open up retirement accounts, proper investment accounts. We talk about everything—family issues, insurance, whatever—because I always want to make sure the guys have a comfortable environment to create and grow. Why create an environment where you’re constantly having to sign new artists because you’re being shady?”
“It goes deeper than friendship. I can help them become better artists, better men.”
No matter the paradigm, Damien’s down to weather any changing business climate. If people relate to the music, if artists and their supporters see respect instead of shade, things tend to work out. “Even if you don’t have a heart, it’s dumb from a business standpoint to treat your artists unfairly,” Ritter says. Sometimes finding success rests on seeing the simplest truths.
To keep up with all things Hopsin and FV, check out MyFunkVolume.com.
[By Alex Siber. When not writing, he struggle tweets at @Alex_Siber.]