Masterminding Marshmello: ‘How do we turn this into the next Disney?’

MBW’s World’s Greatest Managers series profiles the best artist managers in the global business. This time, we speak to Moe Shalizi, manager of hugely successful DJ, Marshmello, and founder of The Shalizi Group. The World’s Greatest Managers is supported by Centtrip, the FX and banking solutions provider – which helps artists, managers and music businesses obtain an optimum currency exchange deal.

Marshmello has just broken records with a Las Vegas residency deal reportedly worth $60m. He’s also single-handedly dragged the music business into a new multimedia era with his live set in video game Fortnite – in which he played to 10.7m individual players concurrently.

The masked DJ is, beyond doubt, one of the biggest stars in the world, especially amongst Gen Z – many of whom consider him something of a ringmaster for non-judgmental communal enjoyment.

Marshmello’s manager, Moe Shalizi, meanwhile, is recognized as one of the smartest, most successful young executives in the global music business, having gone fully independent last year following four years working with Red Light.

The story of Shalizi and Marshmello’s rise owes much to a very serendipitous ride in a golf cart, and the ears of Diplo.

In 2013, Shalizi was just-about-getting-by as a co-manager of artists, working in tandem with DJ Borgore. The latest addition to this roster was Jauz, a San Fran-based EDM producer, who’d created the track Feel The Volume and released it as a free download.

Shalizi, excited by the tune, passed it to his friend Chase Fiedler at live agency Insomniac, who just so happened to give it an airing, in a golf cart, at Burning Man festival. Diplo heard the track, approached Fielder, and expressed his interest in signing it on the spot.

Jauz’s Feel The Volume was subsequently released on Diplo’s Mad Decent label in 2014, giving Shalizi his first success in artist management – and the impetus he needed to sign a game-changing JV deal with Red Light.

Shalizi was born in Palm Springs and grew up in Irvine, Orange County. In his freshman year of high school, his mom and dad moved the family elsewhere in California, this time to Corona, near Riverside.

Today, sat on a sofa in his pristine Encino home, Shalizi talks with pride about the family values instilled in him by his “lower class” household during his formative years – and the motivational effect his father’s death had on him when he was just 17 years old.

28-year-old Shalizi has long showed a hunger for entrepreneurialism. In his teens, he would purchase second-hand cars online, then pimp them with tinted windows and lowriders before selling them on at a profit. He studied finance in college at UC Riverside – a parting promise to his dad. While there, he began running weekly EDM nights in Corona, where over 200 kids would regularly show up, having been directly marketed to on Facebook.

Shalizi subsequently met Borgore, before finding success with Jauz and joining Red Light. As he signed on the dotted line with Coran Capshaw’s company, Marshmello had already been born – the fictional brainchild of Shalizi and the secretive man behind the mask.

Since then, Marshmello has become not only a cultural phenomenon – with over 1.2bn views of his official channel on YouTube – but also a bastion for artistic independence. Most of the DJ’s music is entirely self-funded and released by The Shalizi Group, with the exception of one-off pop singles featuring on-the-rise stars; Shalizi and Marshmello license these tracks to these acts’ respective record companies, guaranteeing heavyweight promotion around the world.

Marshmello’s mainstream hits with the likes of Anne-Marie (Friends, Warner Bros), Bastille (Happier, Capitol), Selena Gomez (Wolves, Interscope) and Khalid (Silence, RCA) have followed this model, never compromising the DJ’s core, fully independent, business. (Or, indeed, his ancillary businesses: Marshmello has now expanded into cookery shows on YouTube; his Cooking With Marshmello series regularly pulls in multiple millions of views.)

The major turning point in Marshmello’s career epitomizes his independence, as well as Shalizi’s eye for trailblazing marketing attuned to the Millennial mindset.

In 2016, as attendees of Coachella drove away from the ultimate festival de poseurs, they were confronted with a giant billboard carrying a picture of Marshmello’s face, under the words: ‘I’m working hard now so my future daughter doesn’t have to sell Detox Tea on her social media.’

(Detox Tea, if you weren’t aware, is a popular ‘network marketing’ item on Instagram, whereby wannabe ‘influencers’ promote the product on behalf of brands, effectively peer-pressuring their friends/followers into buying it. Some would suggest this trend carries hallmarks of a pyramid scheme, but those people may land us in legal trouble, so we shall dismiss them.)

Shalizi and Marshmello – who at this point was very much still just a dude with his head wrapped in a yoga mat – tapped into the zeitgeist with the poster, which set them back $5,000, a colossal expenditure for the DIY duo at the time. (To make the anecdote even more sumptuous, Shalizi was inspired to spend the cash after being quoted a ‘full-service’ PR campaign by an industry publicist for double the money.)

The Detox Tea trick rocketed Marshmello’s socials amongst the Insta-influencer crowd, giving the DJ a solid platform on which to built his now globe-straddling presence.

Today, Fortnite conquered and Las Vegas residency secured, the future is looking extremely exciting for The Shalizi Group and Marshmello.

Here, MBW asks Shalizi all about his life, what gives him his drive, why he posts flashy shit on Instagram all the time, and the rise and rise of ‘mello culture…

Why did you end up in the music industry?

I honestly don’t know. No-one in my family comes from music, and I don’t have a musical bone in my body.

I went to my first rave when I was 17, and I fell in love with dance music. Dubstep was the coolest thing to me. I bought some turntables and tried to teach myself how to DJ. But I always thought like a hustler; I was always the kid that was trying to figure out how to sell you something. So I was like, ‘Okay, why don’t I just make money off these turntables and these speakers?’ I convinced this lady to let me take over her bar on Thursday nights, and I started meeting people through there.

“In high school, I was always the class clown; I was the fat, funny kid.”

In high school, I was always the class clown; I was the fat, funny kid. I always knew how to please everybody and how to assimilate with whoever I was with. I made sure there was never an awkward moment. And that’s essentially what we’ve done on a global basis with Marshmello – catering to all these different kinds of people.

We’re always thinking about that, like, how can we introduce the Marshmello brand to different audiences around the world?

What advice would you give independent artists who are building out there?

Play it slow. A lot of people get excited and go sign a label deal, but all of my guys [signed to Shalizi Group] are independent. That gives us the freedom to do what we want to do. What affects a lot of artists is that point when they start making a little bit of money. Everything changes, they go sign a deal and now they have a bunch of A&Rs telling them how their music should sound, following trends.

Some artists need a label, they need that infrastructure, and some artists don’t. And for the artists that don’t, if you’re starting to bubble, you did that yourself, you know? So keep doing it.

“We know how cyclical this industry is; how one minute you’re on the top, and the next you can be on the bottom.”

Someone mentioned to me the other day about the Fortnite thing, like, ‘How does it feel?’ And I’m like, honestly, we don’t feel anything, ’cause we haven’t stopped, and we’re not stopping.

We know how cyclical this industry is; how one minute you’re on the top, and the next you can be on the bottom. We’re immediately thinking: how do we do something bigger than that? How do we top it? You can’t get complacent in this business.

Now the madness around Marshmello’s Fortnite appearance has calmed down, what can you tell us about that experience?

We were really nervous when it happened just ’cause we were just praying it would go successfully, especially with the voice of [‘mello] talking into the game for everybody to hear. But, in the end, it was amazing. [Mello] was in this room, geared up head-to-toe with a body-motion suit and everything, with maybe 30 or 40 people [surrounding him].

It was a crazy thing to be a part of. We’d worked on [it] for six months with [Epic Games]; those guys were and are completely ahead of the curve, big time. I think what they’re doing is going to be revolutionary for music.

The business model of Marshmello’s one-off singles is fascinating. It’s interesting that for some of these artists, working with Marshmello can be a huge boost to their careers.

Totally. At the end of the day, we’re just a producer so [the artist] gets all the shine. Essentially, we help the artists more than we help ourselves.

We spent so much time in the beginning of Marshmello, the first few years, building our core audience. We didn’t put out any commercial records. The first [major label] record we put out was in August 2017 – Silence, with Khalid. At that point, we already had six million Instagram followers, plus a couple million on Facebook, and close to like 15 million on YouTube.

The mistake people often make is they go way too quick into the commercial space. And once you’re there, you can’t really jump back. We look at other artists, other DJs that are now tied to corny pop single after corny pop single to keep them relevant, which is like, just whack.

“We look at other artists, other DJs that are now tied to corny pop single after corny pop single to keep them relevant, which is like, just whack.”

It’s easy to go and get a big feature [with a pop star], but we stay away from them. Everyone we’ve worked with – like Anne-Marie, Bastille or Chvrches – aren’t [pop megastars]. We’ve taken the position, even with the hip-hop stuff we do, to leverage our audience with the core audiences of these artists who are crazy loyal. That helps keep the [‘mello] brand cool, you know? To some people, Marshmello is as far from cool as possible, but it’s not like we ever went and did an obvious record with the biggest pop stars. That helps set us apart.

The biggest thing [about the singles model] is that we A&R those records; we play that record label role. But we don’t care about the market share – the label gets to take all that stuff, and that’s usually a priority for them. The main thing we need from [the labels] is radio. That’s the one thing that the labels still have a very good advantage on because of their promo teams.

What’s ‘Cooking with Marshmello’ all about?

The typical musician can only upload so much content to YouTube, right? You can do a music video, a cover, and that’s kind of it. So what else do you put up on your channel?

Marshmello is a costume; it’s a character. So we have the luxury of being able to do more than other artists. We started this cooking show, and the whole idea behind it was to create a deeper cultural connection with our global audience.

“If someone’s looking to make Mongolian beef, they’ll find a Marshmello video first.”

We started making dishes based on the local delicacies of all of our biggest audiences internationally. So for Indonesia we did nasi goreng, which is like Indonesian fried rice. And the hope is the kids in Indonesia are like, ‘Yo, how does Marshmello know about this?!’

It’s like when you’re from a small place, a small city or town, and someone in a movie says the name of that place, you’re like, ‘Oh shit!’ We wanted to capture that feeling, around the world. But then ironically because of the sheer amount of subscribers we have, any time we posted a cooking video, it would go like No.1 on the YouTube cooking playlist.

So now, on the SEO side, if someone’s looking to make Mongolian beef, they’ll find a Cooking with Marshmello video first.

Tell us the story behind the Detox Tea ad at Coachella…

In the beginning of Marshmello, we always were like, we just need people to see Marshmello one time. You never forget the character after you see it once.

We knew a billboard could work. But how should we separate that billboard from everything else? It was about understanding who’s at Coachella, the hipsters and that whole Millennial crowd. At that time, Instagram models were at a real peak – everybody was an Instagram model, their bio said ‘wanderlust’, that whole thing.

“At that time we only had like $10,000 in the Marshmello bank account, and he agreed to commit to five grand for the billboard.”

We need to do something that people at Coachella would understand and be like, ‘That’s hilarious, ’cause I went to a school with a girl that now sells detox tea.’

We just hoped it would work. At that time we only had like $10,000 in the Marshmello bank account, and he agreed to commit to five grand for the billboard. We went to Coachella, took a photo of him in costume in front of the billboard, posted it, and then we also posted the photo of just the billboard.

Within a week, it went viral; The Fat Jew posted it and then every blog was posting this billboard. They would try to cut out the photo of Marshmello, but we put his handle so close underneath the text that they couldn’t chop it out. We got tons and tons and tons of impressions [on socials]. We got lucky.

This is interesting, and makes you especially unique in the music industry: what if Marshmello came to you and said, ‘I just got a call from Irving Azoff, I’m leaving you and he’s going to manage me’? Surely you’d be like, Erm, I invented you!

Totally. I’m not worried about that honestly, ’cause we have such a unique relationship. I could be like, we’re gonna jump off a bridge, and there are no questions asked: we’re both jumping. Same the other way around.

Some people will say it’s dumb of me not to think that anything could happen [ie. Marshmello leaving], but I really don’t because of what we’ve built together. We have both put so much into it. He’s the most talented musician – people don’t realize. He’s classically trained on the piano, and he plays guitar and drums and all these different instruments. Musically he can do anything.

“He’s the most talented musician – people don’t realize…”

I handle the business side, and he lets me do what I need to do, which isn’t always the case [with other artist/manager relationships]. He plays the shows, makes the music – and exists as an artist.

The whole thing’s been our brainchild together. So I don’t think any [other manager] could really come in and be like, ‘This is what we’re gonna do.’

They’d have to manage the character as well as the musician…

Exactly. Our vision now is like, ‘How do we build the Marshmello enterprise? How do we turn this into the next Disney?’

‘Cause the music is great and we have a huge platform, but now with Fortnite and things we’re seeing the real impact that the brand has. It’s greater than music. The reach we have is insane. And that’s where we’re like, ‘Okay. Let’s take this thing to the next level.’

A few months in, there’s 12 of you here at The Shalizi Group. You have in-house merch facilities, in-house YouTube multi-channel expertise, in-house streaming playlist pluggers, in-house radio promo, in-house HR operations and more. If I didn’t know better I’d say you were building a record company…

Kind of – but without that record label mentality. To me, the idea of owning other people’s music is weird. It’s like, if you were a painter and I was like, ‘Hey, paint a masterpiece for me, then I’m gonna own everything and give you 18%.’ You’d be like, ‘Where does the rest of the money go? Where does the 82% go?’

I mean, there is a lot of value that labels can add. But for artists, owning your masters is so important right now, ‘cause that’s your money in perpetuity. You can make money forever on those masters thanks to streaming. Streaming’s just growing, so not owning your own shit is crazy; just for an advance, you’re giving away everything.

“owning your masters is so important right now, ‘cause that’s your money in perpetuity.”

But then I’ve sat with artists [who signed major label deals] and they’re like, dude, I was at a place in my life where the $150,000 advance I signed allowed me to make the music I make now. I’m like, fair enough.

We were lucky never to be in that position. But yeah, I get it; for some people, they need that peace of mind of having some money in the bank and being able to focus. But at what cost? A five album deal? That’s a lot of fucking music.

Are there any other managers you look to for inspiration?

I mean, the OG’s, like Scooter and [Tony] Sal, Future the Prince… Ian Montone I met the other night who was super dope. I’ve watched what these guys do and admired from a distance. I haven’t had one specific mentor that’s been like, ‘This is what you need to do.’ I’ve always just figured it out on my own.

There are so many good young managers out there. Chris Zarou who does Logic; Jake Udell who did ZHU; Rebeca León who does J Balvin; Dre London who does Post, and Austin Rosen who does Post with him; Andrew Gertler with Shawn Mendes. I admire all of them.

“We’re all kind of the next generation… we understand social media way more than the older generation of managers does, ’cause we’re living in it.”

We’re all kind of the next generation. There’s no prerequisite of being in the music industry for us, so you get all kinds of characters. The biggest thing is that we understand social media way more than the older generation of managers does, ’cause we’re living in it.

That’s what makes these new managers so deadly – we can see something like the Fortnite opportunity that nobody was thinking of. [To others in the industry] it was just a game their kids played.

That’s a supportive answer regarding your peers.

100 percent. There’s so much money to be made in this business; we can all get rich and not have to compete with each other. There’s no point in being like, ‘Oh, that person sucks.’ Ego just gets in the way.

I had a management meeting today with [a prospective new artist client] and I’m like, ‘Who else are you meeting with? Here’s all the amazing things about all those guys. You should meet with all of them and then you feel who you vibe with best. ‘Cause that’s the most important thing.’

What are the most profound ways that your upbringing has affected who you are and your hunger to succeed?

That’s a good question. Obviously losing my dad at 17 was just like, I didn’t know if life would ever go on. When you’re young, you always think that your parents are the guide to life. When you’re 12, it’s like, ‘How does my dad know all these places on the freeway?’ You think as a kid you’ll never be able to learn all those things.

Losing him was such a pivotal moment because it really made me realize that I had to fill that role, especially with my mom and my sister; I knew I had to go into survival mode and do whatever I could to take care of my family. No-one in my neighbourhood was rich by any means.

There’s not a lot of people in life that really and truly want to see you succeed. But with your parents, it’s different…”

To this day, people are like, ‘What would be your biggest thing to achieve?’ It’s something I can’t have: to give back to my dad, to show him, like, ‘I made it!’ It sucks for him not to be able to see this. The first thing I did the second I started making money was allow my mom to retire, like, You don’t have to work anymore. Taking care of her – that’s what keeps me going.

There’s not a lot of people in life that really and truly want to see you succeed. If something huge happened to you tomorrow – let’s say you [got promoted and] took over your whole company – your peers would not be totally happy for you. Because everybody would be a little like, ‘Why am I not doing that? Why am I not getting that break?’ But with your parents, it’s different. They don’t care about that. At the end of the day, they love you unconditionally and they just want to see you win.

How do you explain your bling Instagram posts?

Other managers are like, why are you so flashy? The thing is, I’m not doing it to be like, ‘Oh, this is what I have here, my chains, cars…’ It’s more so all the people that follow me followed me from the beginning of my journey can see [proof of my success].

Five years ago, I moved here to L.A. making nothing, and then started making like $70,000 a year. I thought I’d made it. Then when I got to six figures? Oh my God, I was set – I was living!

“L.A is the best motivation… You realize that even if you make a million dollars a year here, it doesn’t matter to anyone.”

But this is L.A, and the truth was I was still living paycheck to paycheck. If I lived in Corona – where I grew up and all my friends are still based – making 150 grand or something like that, it would have been like, Yo, I’m a millionaire. L.A. is completely different. You realize that even if you make a million dollars a year here, it doesn’t matter to anyone.

But L.A.’s the best motivation, man. You see how much people are born into money here. And then you’re like, damn. Like, here I am in the music industry fighting to make it, but that guy just sold his tech company after three years for thirty-X of what I make. Okay, I need to work harder…

What advice would you give to a young manager starting out today?

Experiences are what makes a manager. In my first two years doing this, I made no money. I was spending everything that I made to [commission] press photos and things. When you have nothing, nobody does anything for free; the fucked up part of it is when you start making money and [your artist] becomes famous, everyone starts doing everything for free. It’s the complete opposite of how it should be.

“Management involves a lot of luck, and good management is really about what you do when that luck finally hits.”

But the biggest thing for managers is that you have to really believe in what you’re doing. Management involves a lot of luck, and good management is really about what you do when that luck finally hits.

If you have acts that are popping off but then they’re mismanaged, a week later, nobody’s talking about your act again. So have a strategy to build, for the next six months at least. ‘Cause it’s not easy when something big happens. And that fact gets forgotten.

Anything else?

Ultimately, just believe in yourself. You’re gonna be your own worst enemy if you don’t. I really believe that the fear of losing stops us from achieving so much. People are so scared of failing, but in reality that shit only ever makes you stronger. It’s an opportunity for you to realize where you made mistakes, go back and redo it.

If I could give you a magic wand and you could change one thing about the global music industry, what would it be?

No more lying. You all have to be honest from now on! There’s a lot of funny monkey business in this industry, and a lot of fakeness. I’m not blameless – the same guys that weren’t answering my phone calls three years ago, now I’m not answering their phone calls [laughs].

What type of character were you in school, and how, if anything, has that evolved into adulthood?

I’m still the same person. One second, I’m tying things up, working hard, but the next I’m joking and talking shit to the team here. Success and money – in the end, you lose when you allow that shit to change you. This could all be gone tomorrow, you know? If you burn everybody on the way up, the way down is gonna be fucking terrible for you.

“Success and money – in the end, you lose when you allow that shit to change you.”

I meet people, especially in L.A, that are like, ‘Do you know who I am?’. And I’m like, no – I really, really don’t care. You’re no different than anybody else.

You could be the President of whoever and whatever. It honestly doesn’t matter. We all bleed the same blood.

Centtrip Music already works with many of the world’s largest artists and is recognised as a leading provider of FX support and banking solutions to the music industry. The Centtrip Music account specialises in providing transparent foreign exchange (FX) rates, payments and expense management to global artists, managers, labels, promoters, collection societies and music industry accountants. It comes with a Centtrip-prepaid Mastercard which holds 14 currencies simultaneously and is accepted worldwide.Music Business Worldwide

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