When Roy LaManna founded Vydia in 2013, he had a simple elevator pitch: like TuneCore, but for video.
Seven years on, and Vydia’s model has shifted considerably. These days, it’s an independent audio plus video distribution and services platform that chooses to work exclusively with handpicked VIP artists. And we mean VIP.
Kanye West chose Vydia to distribute his Jesus Is Born LP on Christmas Day last year, while the likes of Akon, Mr Eazi and Latin megastar Anuel AA (with over 7bn YouTube views to date) also work closely with LaManna’s service.
Most recently, Vydia has worked with rapper Lil Pump on his independent return, spearheaded by single ILLUMINATI (feat Anuel AA) which has racked up over 30m views on YouTube in less than three months.
In April, Dooney Battle – co-founder of Tha Lights Global and Lil Pump’s manager – told MBW that Pump (who’d previously signed a two-album, $8m deal with Warner Records) had recently turned down $5m-plus offers from major labels to release his new material, via Vydia, as an independent artist.
“Vydia’s the new way,” said Battle. “The thing about Vydia that’s different from the other distribution companies is that Roy and his team pick up the phone, they call, and they understand the culture. They ain’t just out here culture-vulturing.
“They understand stuff popping on TikTok, and they understand artists that are huge with big bases, like Lil Pump. That’s why you’ve got artists like Kanye West putting out albums through them.”
Battle’s line about LaManna and his team “pick[ing] up the phone” reflects an important facet of Vydia’s modern business model.
At one time in its history, Vydia was a true TuneCore-style DIY/self-upload platform, which explains why the company still has over 170,000 artists and creators going through its service.
But last year, in a similar pivot to rival Stem, Vydia decided to close off its platform to self-uploading, and instead hand-pick major-league artists with whom it could have a closer, more engaged relationship. (Unlike Stem, Vydia continues to allow those DIY artists who previously used its service to continue their relationship with the company.)
In addition to a reputation for uncommonly swift upload times across streaming platforms (including Spotify, Apple Music, TikTok and YouTube), Vydia offers these artists additional services including supply chain and rights management, social media marketing and, where applicable, a source of capital too.
“The DIY [distribution] space is a race to the bottom,” says LaManna of Vydia’s decision to exit the self-upload market. “It’s ended up being a price war, which is one of the reasons we decided not to focus on that market, because that’s a losing battle.”
In LaManna’s mind, the winners in independent music distribution’s future will be twofold: Big, global distribution giants, and then smaller entities focusing on specific genres and/or geographies – often working with artists who might not earn Ariana or Justin money, but are still, relatively speaking, living the good life from their music.
“We see a thriving middle-market of artists growing right now,” says LaManna. “Artists are exiting these [major label] deals with an infrastructure around them and a significant fanbase; Vydia can really help to make their business more scalable.”
Here, New Jersey-based LaManna tells MBW how he sees the future of the music business playing out, the role he believes Tencent will play in that evolution, and how the growing power of the independent artist sector will increasingly challenge Universal, Sony and Warner in the years ahead…
What differentiates Vydia from other distributors in the music space today?
We don’t look for music talent to work with; we look for business talent. That’s why we focus on working with people like Dooney [Battle], who obviously brought us Lil Pump, but has also brought several other big artists to Vydia. We worked with Post Malone [before he signed to Republic], and still work with [Post’s manager] Dre London; we worked with DaBaby [before he signed to Interscope] which gave us a business relationship with [King] Carter.
Working with guys like that speaks to our focus on working with the future Scooter Brauns and, as a result, working with the future Justin Biebers.
“We don’t look for music talent to work with; we look for business talent.”
As a result, we fashion our tools more as business tools than artist tools. We’re a back-end partner, and very happy with that role.
You won’t hear us in the music [trade media] saying, ‘Look – we broke this artist!’ To me, it’s the Jobs-Wozniak kind of partnership. We provide the technology and infrastructure needed to help a manager build their artist’s business into something scalable.
Let’s talk about Lil Pump for a second. He was being offered $5m-plus checks to sign with majors, according to Dooney Battle. Why do you think he, and other artists, are choosing to go independent?
Because it says something for the artist’s overall value if they have optionality.
Pump his bedroom, in conjunction with Tha Lights Global, made him a superstar in the first place, to the level he signed a multi-million-dollar deal [with Warner], right? So imagine what it does for your negotiating power, moving forward, to then prove you have options [outside of the major world].
In the past, whenever we bid for a project between us and a major, we often heard the argument of: ‘But they’re gonna put it through the major label system.’ I think we’re now putting that idea to the test.
For specific genres, including hip-hop, Latin, trap, some of the afro-pop stuff, artists are realizing that their songs can be just as big independent – maybe even bigger – than going through the major system.
“The [major label] system is not, I don’t think, as efficient as companies like ours on the technology side.”
Also, to be long term in this market, you have to consistently remain relevant. You can’t just go away; if you’re not putting stuff out at the frequency you need to be, you could fade to the background.
One of the things artists find important about remaining independent is the frequency with which they can release content, and the creative control they have in the process. The [major label] system is not, I don’t think, as efficient as companies like ours on the technology side.
Our big thing is speed to market; if someone wants to release a track today and get it live within hours, we can support that.
What do you think are going to be the defining changes in the record business over the next five years?
I don’t think that there’s gonna be three companies sitting on top of the global music industry, and that they’re just gonna suck up everything. I actually think we’re gonna see a lot of these management companies and these labels going small; I think it’s gonna be a million little pieces.
Artists, as a whole, want to be part of the community. Whether that’s Lookout Records and Green Day, or Nirvana and Sub Pop, or the rise of hip hop and Def Jam, there’s always these independent labels that come alongside those communities. I think that that’s going to happen [again] now, but at a much bigger scale.
Ultimately artists just want to be part of their communities and not part of the big machines.
What about the future of independent distribution?
Quite honestly, I think a lot of companies who consider themselves ‘tech companies’ – the “we’re gonna raise $100 million and win the space” companies – have this wrong. I don’t think [the indie distribution market] is a zero sum game like that.
Ultimately, these [distribution] companies need to seek some sort of path to profitability. Artists should be very concerned about anyone that has that [raise lots of money and dominate] model, because we’re going to see a wave of these tech companies essentially going bankrupt when they can’t sustain operations, because their overheads are so high.
“We’re going to see a wave of these tech companies essentially going bankrupt when they can’t sustain operations, because their overheads are so high.”
Also I’m not convinced that artists using a DIY platform also then want to sign to that platform [to further their career]. From a branding perspective, there’s a reason why there’s Toyota and there’s Lexus.
Artists want to feel like that they’re part of a more of an exclusive club than part of an everyday platform. You’ve got to remember that, at the end of the day, this is still the entertainment business. There’s still a glam aspect to it.
Do you therefore see the next wave of independent labels you talk about actually being management companies?
I have this conversation with managers all the time. They think of themselves as a management company and I say, ‘You’re a label!’
If you’re doing A&R, developing the artist, making the record, making the video… that’s what you are. When managers shy away from being a label, they think like: ‘Well, I don’t want to do royalty payments, accounting, clearances, distribution, DSP deals etc.’ And I tell them: ‘That’s fine – that’s what we do!’
“When a manager shies away from being a label, they’re often really shying away from the prospect of doing the boring jobs, not the exciting jobs.”
We’ve built our own proprietary royalty and rights management system. We do all that back end accounting, all the supply chain.
When a manager shies away from being a label, they’re often really shying away from the prospect of doing the boring jobs, not the exciting jobs. So when they find out that we’ll take over the boring part, it makes for a good partnership.
To pick up on one of the names you mention, what is it about Post Malone’s manager Dre London that makes him an individual you want to stay in business with?
I’ve had this conversation with Dre before. It’s because this new generation of [managers] don’t know the rules, and therefore don’t abide by the rules. And they have something in their brain that can never be replaced by technology: a winning combination of business smarts and street smarts.
I mean, Dre could talk to a billion dollar CEO, and a guy on the street, and do business with both of them on the same day. That’s never getting replaced by an algorithm.
“Dre could talk to a billion dollar CEO, and a guy on the street, and do business with both of them on the same day.”
Like I said, I don’t want to compete with these guys for walking into the red carpet, or taking credit for breaking their artists – that’s not our thing. We’re actually very adamant about saying that we don’t break artists. We support people who do break artists.
You know that phrase: ‘The coach outlasts the player’? We focus on the coaches – and we let them find the players.
Is there an education process that modern day managers need to go through? Specifically about the nature of big money advances?
Yes. We think that there’s an education needed not only for young managers, but for young artists too.
I mean, we’ve done seven figures advances before. In all cases, those artists retain ownership of their content, but it’s not uncommon for me to also sit with them and help them think about their future – how they should have fun with a bit of that [money], but also invest some for the future.
That’s not me being the greatest guy on the planet, it’s good business sense because, and I’m just going to say it, you’re seeing kids in hip-hop signing deals, getting a crazy amount of money, and then ending up either dead or in jail. And that’s not good, right?
“I consider myself a pretty responsible adult… But if you gave me a million dollars at 18 years old? I’d get in a lot of fucking trouble.”
I consider myself a pretty responsible adult who runs a business. But if you gave me a million dollars at 18 years old? I’d get in a lot of fucking trouble. I didn’t see more than $10,000 in any one place until I was 30 and I’m glad, because I wasn’t mature enough to deal with that at the time.
I was irresponsible at that age – most of us are. So I’m definitely not saying that these kids are more or less responsible than anyone else, but you go from zero money to a lot of money overnight, it can be a recipe for disaster.
That’s one key thing: we sit down with artists and sometimes say, perhaps you’re better off getting this money as an annuity, on a monthly basis. Or help them make other good financial decisions.
We’re not a financial advisor, and we don’t pretend to be, but from a mentoring standpoint, from one business person to another, it’s not uncommon for us to have those conversations.
Speaking of being a business person, I had looked on Crunchbase and you’ve raised about $8 million or so to date. How are you balancing your desire to be a profitable entity with the need for growth capital?
My goal is not to raise any more capital; it’s to be self-sufficient. We’ve heavily invested in technology, and that’s important; one of the things many people don’t realize is that [distributors] out there are putting sales ahead of infrastructure. And that’s because infrastructure is very expensive, and it’s a long term investment.
We were very bullish on streaming after we got into the game [in 2013], which was a contrarian view at the time. Because of that investment in tech, we are now one of the few companies that do not rely on any third party for our technology.
“There’s no secret partner at Vydia, hidden behind the door, getting a 10% cut [of artist income], like there is in a lot of these other companies.”
We don’t go through FUGA for our supply chain; we’re not partnered with Sony/ATV for publishing – we’re able to do everything entirely on our own. There’s no secret partner here, hidden behind the door, that’s also getting a 10% cut [of artist income], like there is in a lot of these other companies.
That came at a significant cost and, thank goodness, most of that cost is behind us.
I’ve quoted you before talking about TENCENT AND EPIC GAMES, maker of Fortnite, and that connection affecting the music industry. Where do you think that’s all going?
I think [the industry’s] moving towards replacing the artist, to be honest with you.
Between them, Tencent and Epic Games are investing in 3D scanning companies, which can scan artists, and put those artists into [virtual environments, as well as] actually creating content without human artists’ involvement at a very low cost.
That’s a scary idea, but the reason it’s even feasible is because a big problem in the music business right now is understanding the difference between the artist and the song.
“I think [the industry’s] moving towards replacing the artist, to be honest with you… I hate to say it, but with a lot of those TikTok hits, I mean, the artists could be an avatar – it wouldn’t matter.”
I know Steve [Stoute] mentioned this a little bit with MBW [on our Podcast recently], that the major labels are buying lottery tickets on songs a lot of times; when the artist is almost an irrelevance. And I hate to say it, but a lot of these TikTok hits, I mean, the artists could be an avatar – it wouldn’t matter.
That’s why Vydia is so focused on building the careers of real artists, in lockstep with their forward-thinking managers. That’s a different market to the ‘lottery’, which is vulnerable to technology.
Where I disagree with Steve is his certainty that, with the way the future’s going, the artist will have all the power. I don’t know; I come from a production background. You could create, essentially, a virtual artist today. And I don’t think a lot of the kids would care, to be honest with you.
Think about it: the virtual likeness of an artist; it doesn’t get old, it doesn’t get angry, it doesn’t argue with you.
You look at Scooter Braun and Taylor Swift bringing that [personal fallout] to the surface; if Taylor wasn’t doing that, no-one would know about that situation and no-one would care. So what if Taylor wasn’t an artist, but an avatar? Basically a corporately-owned video game character.
“what if Taylor Swift wasn’t an artist, but an avatar?”
That’s why I believe when you start connecting things like Tencent, Epic, Fortnite and those gaming moves, in five years time, we could be having a real conversation about this.
Don’t forget that in the gaming world, they’re selling [virtual] merchandise at a 100% profit margin; that’s got to make some managers and labels think, ‘Holy shit!’ Tencent already has that figured out.Music Business Worldwide