In Rolling Stone‘s series At Work, we go behind the curtain with decision-makers across the fast-changing music business — exploring a range of responsibilities, burgeoning ideas, advice for industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
Eight years ago, Tunde Balogun and Sean Famoso were Georgia State students frustrated by the direction music was going in. So they set out to level the playing field. Today, Balogun and Famoso are two of the five founding members of Atlanta-based record, management, and publishing company LVRN — full name “Love Renaissance” — which has shepherded the careers of Summer Walker, 6lack, D.R.A.M., and Boogie.
Summer Walker’s 2019 debut album, Over It, scored the biggest first-week earnings for a female R&B artist since Beyoncé’s 2016 project Lemonade and became the biggest female R&B debut in over a decade. 6lack, who earned Grammy nominations in 2018 for his debut album, wowed fans this summer with an innovative marketing plan, and Walker’s marketing plan for her just-released EP was similarly outside-the-box, involving a socially distanced laser-tag game with protective outfits, in lieu of a traditional listening party.
Balogun and Famoso — who got their start as party promoters in high school — were rivals before they were peers. Balogun reigned over the east-side parties while Famoso’s territory was the north, and when Balogun was rejected at the door of one of Famoso’s events, a multi-year grudge was born. It wasn’t until college that they joined forces and started a huge operation for young-adult students in Atlanta. But they quickly realized they wanted to do more, linking up with fellow students Carlon Ramong, Junia Abaidoo, and Justice Baiden to form LVRN. The pair spoke with Rolling Stone about their journey to the upper echelons of music and about how they are responding to the pandemic with mental health therapists and new freelance projects.
What makes LVRN stand out to an artist who’s figuring out where to sign?
TB: It’s a collective of smart minds, thoughts, and ideas. But, also, we’re a global, 100-percent black-owned record label, management company, and publishing company. Sometimes we white-label our marketing to other companies outside of music, and we’re running into TV and films also. So, you could sum it up as a multimedia type of conglomerate.
SF: And what makes us different as a label is we’re one of the few that wasn’t built off the concept of only one artist; OVO doesn’t really exist without Drake, G.O.O.D. Music doesn’t really feel like G.O.O.D. Music without Kanye. The community of what LVRN is — and the ethos of what the five cofounders have garnered through all of our natural experiences — has become an environment that artists understand and want to be a part of. We appreciate the idea of storytelling and making sure that potential fans fall in love with not only the music but everything that an artist has to offer. And we’re really, really particular about how we go about introducing things that we care about.
“Back in the days when we had no money, all we had were good ideas… We still try to approach everything with the notion that it shouldn’t only take money to do what can be done by a group of individuals who know exactly what an artist stands for.”
Back in the days when we had no money, all we had were good ideas. And I remember when we finally had a budget to do something — we started doing some really tough stuff. But we had to take a seat and sit back. With any idea that’s good, the core of it should be free. You should be able to execute the idea for free; money should only make it that much bigger and better, and get that many more eyeballs on it. We still try to approach everything with the notion that it shouldn’t only take money to do what can be done by a group of individuals who know exactly what an artist stands for.
When did the idea for LVRN surface and how long did it take you to launch it?
SF: A mutual friend introduced me to Justice, because Justice had an artist at the time named Raury who he wanted to get off the ground. And Tunde and myself were the guys at school that had one foot in the music industry, because we were interning with DTP [Disturbing Tha Peace]. Justice and I clicked. I had known Carlon forever because he threw parties against us; same with Junia.
We decided to partner up on Raury — the first artist we worked with together. The “Love Renaissance” concept came from Justice’s belief that there was just a lack of love, or that the concept of being in love or falling in love just sounded so far gone. This was in the middle of the “trap epidemic.” This was when Future was blowing up, it was the end of the TI days and the Jeezy days. Atlanta was very one-sided from a bird’s eye view, but we knew that there was a community of people just like us. As much as we do appreciate [the trap scene], we also appreciate the left-of-center music. The whole concept of “Love Renaissance” was built off the idea of us bringing a balance to the music industry.
How are you wading into film and TV, as Tunde said?
SF: A couple years ago, we had an idea to start writing a show. The reality is that we live a really crazy life. The five of us are all either first-generation Americans or immigrants — Junia was born in Ghana, and so was Justice — and we have a really unique perspective on our upbringing in the entertainment industry. We started slowly putting the show together. After a couple meetings, we sold it to somebody really big. We’re in the pre-production stage of it now. Since then, we’ve taken on some other things. Justice has scored a FX documentary. We’ve purchased a couple projects that we’re producing as well. Music is only the catalyst for everything that we really want to do, and we let it score all of our movements, but our mindset is a bit bigger than just the music industry.
How are your artists involved in the show?
SF: They’ll definitely be involved on a musical level. The show itself is not based in music. It’s actually about black kids being able to understand, in a certain realm, that you can use your complexion as a social currency. It’s about — without giving too much way — figuring out how to use that to your advantage in certain ways.
Does every artist you sign agree to be a part of the whole LVRN ecosystem? Or are there artists that are just signed for management or just signed for publishing, etc?
TB: Everyone is able to pick whatever services they want to be a part of. D.R.A.M., Cruel Santino, and Boogie are management, for example. We’re very transparent in saying what we have and what our abilities are.
There’s something to be said, though, for locking into the whole ecosystem of LVRN when it comes to what you get in return. Artist services — and giving them the best quality of service across the board — is most important to us. And we leverage and use all of our power and might to get the best for our artists, protect our artists, and make sure we make all their dreams and wishes come true.
On the label side of things, what made you decide to do a deal through Interscope?
SF: We had a unique [experience] breaking artists. With Raury to D.R.A.M., we got our feet wet with our first couple of deals. After Raury signed to Columbia and D.R.A.M. signed to Atlantic, every time that we came out with another artist, Interscope was always in the race — or the bidding war — of wanting to be a part of that artist’s career.
At a certain point, when we finally had enough money in our own pockets and we were ready to take 6lack to the next level, we wanted to do it independently. We were sick of labels like Columbia. Those guys did whatever to Raury’s career… And we weren’t super impressed with the system.
We were in L.A. We had sent an email around to the labels about 6lack saying respectfully we were not going to do a deal. We didn’t want to fly across the country and eat up travel-and-expense budgets and get taken out to these crazy dinners. At this point, we were friends with everybody — we knew everybody at every label. We just wanted to be respectful about the process and not just drag people along. On the way back from an Apple meeting, Joie Manda called us on FaceTime and was like, “I know you guys aren’t doing a deal or anything, but just come see me, come stop by.” And we stopped by. And then we did a deal. [Laughs]
But his conversation was unlike anybody else’s. Joie, John Janick, and Steve Berman, their whole conversation went something like this: “You guys, time and time again, have brought artists that we’ve missed out on for one reason or another. We’d be silly to think that it’s only the artists that have the talent, and you guys must equally be as talented for being able to get everyone clamoring over whatever it is that you guys have.” They realized it was more important to them to help us build a company and build a label rather than us continuously selling off artists. That’s kind of how we felt — like, you do everything in your power to get someone to a certain point until, ultimately, you lose control of it and just become a contractor. But they’ve been amazing partners.
TB: They really just learned how to stay out of our way when it’s time and then hop in when it’s time to hop in. Joie’s always like, “So, whatcha need? X,Y,Z? Alright, cool.” Janick and Berman: “Is that what you need? Alright, cool. Anything else? No? Alright, cool.” They saw us as businessmen and entrepreneurs from day one and not as kids. And they let us make some mistakes, allowing us to learn by ourselves and not trying to baby us around. And I think that’s why we’ve been able to grow, because we learn from our mistakes pretty fast.
What did Columbia do to Raury?
SF: I’ve had some time to think about that. I’m not going to say it wasn’t Columbia’s fault… but Raury came in at the worst time ever for an artist. The minute that we signed was the very minute that every label went to war with all the streaming services. The very platform that everybody found Raury on, Soundcloud, made us take the music down. Then there was the idea of playlisting versus radio and where Raury’s music fits. It was just the roughest time for an artist as experimental as Raury to take off. So, I’m no longer mad at Columbia.
LVRN started in Atlanta, but you guys just opened new offices and studios in Los Angeles.
SF: We’re global citizens now. Obviously, COVID has stunted everybody’s travels, but we were planning on spending this entire summer in London and bouncing around between different countries, just to really build our rapport. We’ve been intentional about wanting to grow and build a global brand. We’ve been blessed to have very strong connections in the U.K., we’ve spent time in Africa — Tunde’s Nigerian and we have an artist who’s from Nigeria — we’ve done many trips to Australia. So for us, this summer was about being as mobile as possible, and now we’re just on Zoom calls with different countries. I think we’ll be hyper-mobile for awhile. We do, however, have a really cool campus that we’re putting together that should be ready by maybe top of the year.
What’s the first thing you do every morning?
SF: Check Zillow. Then I meditate for ten minutes — and then I work out. Everyone knows you can’t really get to me before 10 a.m. If I don’t work out, I just feel like my day is ruined.
How has COVID affected your artists’ rollouts and plans?
SF: At the beginning, everyone was waiting for COVID to blow over in two to three weeks and thinking, “Alright, let’s just push back a few weeks. We’ll be fine.” Then we realized we might be here for a while. I think the most important thing we did as a company, especially from the marketing perspective, is unlearn everything we thought we were good at. We talked to ourselves like, “You guys really think you’re that good at rollouts? Do it in the middle of a pandemic.” There were so many things that we had set in stone that we had to tear up and start from scratch, but I think we’re that much better for it. We never wanted to be a reactionary company; we’re trailblazers of new ways of thinking.
COVID also inspired your company to push forward a platform that gives freelance workers a chance to apply for LVRN’s latest animation and graphic-design projects.
SF: To Carlon’s credit, it was probably week two of lockdown: We were trying to figure out how we could take care of people close to us that we knew would be immediately hurt by the pandemic and we were talking about how the nightlife scene has been affected — the nightlife scene is the driving force for all of our DJ friends, our promoter friends, and bartender friends. In that same breath, Carlon brought up that it would be very hard for freelance workers in general to find work. And because we have budgets for things that we have to get done, regardless of pandemic or not, it made it very easy for us to allocate funds to up-and-coming creatives. The “Work From Home” program was birthed through that. It was super successful. There’s a couple things that we’re doing in the near future that came from some of those kids’ ideas.
It’s interesting how, sometimes, doing a good deed is really hard to do. The amount of red and yellow tape that you find yourself having to jump over and go under… It’s almost disheartening. The amount of money that we had to spend on legal just to make sure that everything was so aligned that we couldn’t get in trouble for doing what we were about to do was a lot. The same can be said for our mental wellness program.
“In the minority community, the idea of mental health is so far removed from our everyday psyche, because we’ve been worried about other things — like staying alive.”
Let’s talk about that new program, and the importance of mental wellness.
SF: I guess if it was easy, everybody would do it. The backstory surrounds the fact that we live in a volatile business. It’s no secret that we’ve lost too many people on the creative and executive side, due to them not being taken care of and possibly them not taking care of themselves. In the minority community, the idea of mental health is so far removed from our everyday psyche, because we’ve been worried about other things like staying alive.
Here’s the way it works: It doesn’t matter if you’re 6lack or Summer, an assistant or the drummer. Anybody can schedule time to have therapy sessions whenever they want. And it’s not like you have to go to your therapy session to talk about work — no, talk about whatever you want. The five of us [founders] have group therapy sessions. Often, people think about therapy in the sense of having to fix something that’s broken. We just think about in the sense of making sure that it doesn’t break; it’s a maintenance thing. We probably don’t have it perfect yet, but the idea is to grow the department to the point that we have multiple, different therapists on staff so we can service everybody at an even greater capacity.
Nobody’s tried this yet. We had to at least put our feet in the water, and hopefully somebody can come and do it way better than — because it’s not a win/lose situation. This should be an industry standard.
What were the biggest hurdles that you faced during your rise?
TB: The down times. There are always ups and downs, but when you hit the down times early on, it’s just like, “Damn, is this shit really going to work?” You believe in yourself but, sometimes, the success just seems so far away. You wonder, “Is this possible?” “Can I go from broke — not being able to pay my rent, and Sean and I almost living in a U-Haul — to where we are right now?” You ask yourself how that’s possible. [You say] “I don’t know, but I’ve got to just go figure it out.” One of the hurdles was really locking in and believing that, if you keep working hard, you’re determined, and you put everything into it, it will work out. That, sometimes, is a hard concept to go by.
Who were some of your mentors?
SF: Chaka Zulu from DTP, Jeff Dixon, Paris Kirk. They more or less raised us. And they showed us the importance of relationship-building and knowing that most transactions are barters. You might know someone for five years before you see the fruits of whatever that first conversation you ever had with the person was. It’s having the level of patience.