MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. This time, we speak to Arnold Taylor, manager of DaBaby, amongst others – and the founder of Charlotte-based South Coast Music Group (SCMG). DaBaby this month released his third album in 13 months, Blame It On Baby; all three have been US chart-toppers. World’s Greatest Managers is supported by Centtrip, a specialist in intelligent treasury, payments and foreign exchange – created with the music industry and its needs in mind.
Let the record show, South Coast Music Group founder and CEO Arnold Taylor knows how to throw a party. But he also knows how – and more specifically when – not to throw a party. Not a proper one, anyway. So, he explains, the current COVID-dominated conditions meant the celebrations for DaBaby’s latest US No. 1 album, Blame It On Baby, involved “five of us in masks and gloves, six feet away from each other – I couldn’t even get a high five!”, adding that “we have a great amount of respect for what people are going through right now and remained mindful of keeping safe.”
Taylor has managed DaBaby since meeting him nearly four years ago, a pivotal encounter that prompted him to leave his last label job, with Epic, and concentrate full time on breaking the rapper from Charlotte, North Carolina, alongside building a label/management company, in SCMG, that is now also home to Toosii (“my next superstar”, for whom South Coast has just signed a deal with Capitol), Big Mali and Blacc Zacc (SCMG/Interscope).
Going solo was inevitable for Taylor, who describes himself as “first and foremost an entrepreneur” – he has had his own projects since he started working at a record store and created his own influential record pool while attending college.
It was Taylor’s position of influence with DJs – and as a conduit to local markets for national record companies – that saw him carve out a career, initially in promotions and then incorporating A&R, with famous labels including Blackground Records, Def Jam, and Interscope.
Along the way, working alongside artists and executives including Timbaland, Aaliyah, Cash Out, Yo Gotti and L.A. Reid, Taylor made sure he was always watching, learning, absorbing and planning – and always certain that he would get the chance to make his own mark with his own artist.
Sure enough, in the last couple of years, he and DaBaby have made a mark you can see from space. After breaking through in 2018, with his mixtape, Baby Talk 5, released through Roc Nation, his debut studio album, Baby On Baby, which kicked off SCMG’s deal with Interscope, went to No. 1.
The follow-up, Kirk (2019) also went to No. 1, and led to guest spots on tracks by big names such as Post Malone, Lil Nas X, Lizzo, Camila Cabello and Future. And, just last week, Blame It on Baby became the rapper’s third No. 1 album in 13 months – an astonishing feat, marked by a socially responsible celebration.
Taylor’s not overly concerned. He knows there will be time again for Champagne and bear hugs, as he plots a long-term career for DaBaby – the man he calls “the LeBron James of South Coast Music, our franchise player” – and tells MBW, “I always knew I was going to get here – the only detail I needed to fill in was when and how…”
At your last job, with Epic, the initial plan was for you to have your own imprint at the label, but that never happened. was that frustrating?
It was super frustrating towards the end, because I wasn’t getting what I wanted. But everything happens for a reason.
I was getting older, I’d started South Coast Music Group, I was doing both things, but then as soon as I signed DaBaby, that needed all my focus.
Baby was the artist I needed to break through. I had all these ideas, but I also needed product.
How did DaBaby first come across your radar in North Carolina?
My partner, King Carter [EVP and co-founder of SCMG] told me about him.
Baby was in the city, at the club, with like 30/40 people, already the smartest guy in the crew. I saw him one night, just watched the way he walked in, the leader of the pack, it was the way he moved, it wasn’t even about music. It was about finding someone who was headstrong and fearless, because I knew what the journey was gonna be; there was gonna be a lot of closed doors.
“Baby was in the city, at the club, with like 30/40 people, already the smartest guy in the crew.”
Arnold Taylor (pictured, main, with DaBaby at the Grammys 2020)
A hot artist has got to be mentally strong for what comes at you. Plus, a lot of artists have great music, they just don’t have the ‘it’ factor like Baby did.
I wasn’t blown away by the music so much, but it had enough potential so that I knew I could get it there. But when I met him in the studio I was blown away by how poised and intelligent he was, I was intrigued by his mind and how he was so fearless at such a young age. I was more impressed by him as a person than his music.
How did you become his manager?
I became his manager as soon as I found him, because I didn’t want anyone else to manage him.
Sometimes you sign artists to your label and they have a manager who’s too involved. I was so focused on breaking him the way I wanted to break him, I didn’t want no distractions. So I decided to be the label and manager to make sure everything was done the right way. People say it’s a conflict of interest, but there’s no such thing as a conflict of interest when you’re talking about your franchise player.
“I decided to be the label and manager to make sure everything was done the right way. People say it’s a conflict of interest, but there’s no such thing as a conflict of interest when you’re talking about your franchise player.”
Me and Baby have been through things that nobody’s ever gonna understand. I’m probably the only one who can dig deep and relate to him, because he knows the sacrifices I made, what I gave up and what I risked.
I never wavered from what I wanted and I didn’t want anyone to obstruct my vision, so I never even tried to find him a manager; I was always going to be his manager. We want to win together and share the same goals.
This was a once in a lifetime shot for you?
It was all or nothing, yeah. I wasn’t going back to working at a label; I was never going to be the No.2 guy again.
When I have my mind set on something, nobody can talk me out of it. I needed someone who was cool with getting doors slammed in their face and being told no.
Our view was, okay, we gotta work harder. We were mentally strong and we weren’t gonna let anyone stop us or mess with our confidence – I’m not sure anything messes with Baby’s confidence [laughs].
What was your plan to break Baby? It seems like it was quite an accelerated program?
Actually that’s a misconception; Baby’s been signed with me for four years. When it took off it took off, but there were ups and downs before then.
We were trying to bring an artist from a city that had never broken a hip-hop star before. And at the same time, I discovered a lot of my friends at labels weren’t as happy for me as I thought they’d be, because I wasn’t doing as much marketing and promotion for them anymore.
I had to focus on really grinding it out, we didn’t take no shortcuts. We had to build it, we had to do college shows and promo shows, and I had to spend a lot of money, but I wasn’t going to stop. I didn’t care what it cost, because I knew what I had.
“I had to spend a lot of money, but I wasn’t going to stop. I didn’t care what it cost, because I knew what I had.”
I’ve always been a person that is comfortable with being uncomfortable, you see what I mean? You make things uncomfortable for us, you make things difficult, that’s when we’re at our best.
The labels didn’t know how to market an artist like Baby. He’s a street guy who’s also mainstream and very smart. Nobody’s ever seen a guy with the street cred he has, who can also be that funny and that charismatic. He’s like a 50 Cent and Ludacris all in one. We stayed consistent and just didn’t give up.
What was the switch that changed everything and started the journey to where you are now?
It was probably a song called Pull Up Music , a cheap video, in a backyard, a cookout, just some down south shit, y’know. It went crazy, the numbers really started taking off, and I felt a shift in the way the audience was engaging with him.
Is that when your phone starts blowing up?
Nah, the labels still weren’t all in. But I was putting things out through Empire distribution anyway, because I always like to break the artist myself, before I take them to a major label.
When I take an artist to a major label, I like to have the blueprint already in place. I put the work in myself. It’s a business, and I know how major labels think; they want to be sure it’s a real product before you bring it into their system.
“I feel Joie [Manda at Interscope] can move his building. A lot of executives just can’t move their building, and that can be stressful.”
So we did the first couple of mixtapes out through Empire, and then we put one out through Roc Nation [Baby Talk 5, 2018] and by the time we put that out, everything was taking off. Everybody was calling after that, everybody was trying to sign us, and I met with a lot of labels – but they didn’t all get it.
I’d met Joie [Manda, pictured inset] before and the reason I chose Interscope is because I feel Joie can move his building. A lot of executives just can’t move their building, and that can be stressful. That’s why I went with Interscope, they’re a great machine.
What’s the most important thing a label adds for you?
I feel like Interscope is good at taking an artist from 50mph to 100mph. I knew I could develop an artist nought to 50mph, but taking it to 100 is what Interscope is really good at, and I knew they would help me build my label, as a partner.
And what’s it been like accelerating to 100mph?
When we put out Blank Blank and Baby on Baby, the numbers were just outta here; it started moving so fast. But we had put in so much work to get there. So, it might have been fast to everybody else, but it was slow to us. It was just time. We’d been waiting: when they gonna get it? And thank God they got it in the end.
Baby on Baby made everybody at Interscope believe as well. It was like, ‘Wow, you are what you say you are.’ That was when they realized Baby is a star, made them put the whole machine behind it, and that’s what they’ve been doing.
Did the level of success surprise even you though?
No, I expected it from day one. That’s not an arrogant statement, I knew I was gonna get here; this is what I envisioned. At the end of the day, I knew what I had, so I’m not surprised we got here.
I’m thankful that things aligned the right way and the chips fell the right way, because a lot of these things are about timing.
“We bake the cake – Interscope puts the icing on it.”
We definitely did the deal at the right time. I could have waited out, waited for more money, but it wasn’t about the money, I didn’t want a crazy amount, I wanted a partner that really loved what I was doing, because if you don’t love what I’m doing, then you can give me a whole lot of money, but it still won’t make sense.
I think some people, when they sign to a label, they stop working. For me, I’m as involved as ever, I’m the same whether it’s Interscope’s money or my money, plus I have my own people, my own A&R, my own promotions.
It’s not that I don’t want to be a great partner, because I need Interscope to take us to the next level, they have the bandwidth, but as South Coast Music Group, we supply the product, we take it to them for their machine. [We] bake the cake – they put the icing on it. That’s all they gotta do, it’s already baked when it gets to their building.
There have been three albums in the last 13 months, which is a lot of new music in quite a short amount of time. Who’s driving that?
Baby’s an artist, and nowadays most artists want to put out music every day, that’s the generation we’re in.
Also, we’ve trained his audience that he’s going to drop every six months. Some artists, like J Cole, they will drop every two years, because they have a different type of audience and they’ve been trained different.
“Right now, Baby’s audience can’t get enough of him, and he’s just so active, he never comes out of cycle.”
Right now, Baby’s audience can’t get enough of him, and he’s just so active, he never comes out of cycle. They’re gonna expect another new record in a few months. And that’s fine, because we can do the sort of numbers in six months that other people can only do every two years.
What’s this latest album release been like, in current difficult conditions?
Well the world is slow right now, people are at home, they’re paying attention, not flying around, they want to be entertained, so for me it’s a time to drop new music.
Our sympathies are with everyone that’s been affected, we don’t take that lightly, we’re sensitive to what’s going on, but we want to entertain people.
I know I’m listening to more music right now than I have done for years, and I might not ever go back to running at 100mph without taking time to enjoy things and having some quality time with my family.
What’s next for DaBaby?
The sky’s the limit – for Baby and for South Coast Music Group.
People have approached us to talk about movies, all sorts of other content. I’m looking at SCMG Comedy, SCMG Sports. I love music, I always have, but I’m an entrepreneur first and I’m looking at everything.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned during your time in the industry?
I would say patience. My kids have probably taught me that more than anything, but in the industry as well, I’ve learned to have patience.
“I’ve learned to not be such a micro-manager.”
I’ve also learned to trust my people. I mean, I’ve never had a partner before. Interscope is my first time having a partner, and I’ve started a lot of businesses. I’m so big on doing things myself, but I’ve learned that I need good partners, to get as big as we want to get. I’ve learned to not be such as micro-manager.
Were you a bit of a control freak?
Was I?! [Laughs] But now I bite my tongue and trust people. Actually, I wasn’t a control freak, like arrogant – I always listened, I’m a sponge; I take on what everybody says and make my own decisions.
I also always wanted to take my own risks. A lot of times, I might not want you involved because I don’t want you to take the risk; I might be protecting you.
“I’ll take plenty of risks – but with my money and my time, not yours.”
So it wasn’t a selfish thing, it was more, let me try, and if it works, I’ll bring you in.
I’ll take plenty of risks – but with my money and my time, not yours.
What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to a young manager starting out?
Make sure you know who you’re dealing with. I talk to my artists for maybe three months, six months, sometimes a year, just helping them, getting them together, I might get them to the point they’re putting music out and I won’t even have signed them yet. I’ve lost a lot of artists like that, because other people rush to sign them. I’m very picky about who I sign, I don’t base it on what they’re streaming right now.
“Don’t just be a manager where you hanging around the artist. If you’re a homeboy manager, you’re probably gonna get fired at some point.”
Also, [artist] managers should learn every aspect of the business – learn publishing, learn touring, learn everything you can – so that you can bring value. Don’t just be a manager where you hanging around the artist. If you’re a homeboy manager, you’re probably gonna get fired at some point, when the artist realises you’re not bringing nothing to the table. So make sure you’re bringing value.
If you had a magic wand, what single thing would you change about the industry right now?
I would make it more about culture. It’s become too much of a business and people have forgotten about the culture.
To me, the Kendricks, the J Coles, the Babys, and going back to the Kanyes and the Jay-Zs, they’re culturally relevant, and that gives them the sort of longevity that you won’t get with somebody who’s just got a bunch of numbers right now. That could be a fad.
I don’t play the volume game, I play the quality game.
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