The Akon Empire
When Senegalese singer Akon first emerged on The Billboard Hot 100 three years ago, fresh from a jail sentence for car theft that he documented in the top 10 single "Locked Up," listeners weren't sureWhen Senegalese singer Akon first emerged on The Billboard Hot 100 three years ago, fresh from a jail sentence for car theft that he documented in the top 10 single "Locked Up," listeners weren't sure how to classify his music.
"There was no category for me," he recalls, taking a moment's break from his 2007 world tour. "People didn't know whether I was reggae, R&B, hip-hop, alternative."
So he created his own category, which has now expanded way beyond Akon himself to encompass a stable of promising artists he's developing through his non-label-exclusive production arm, Konvict Muzic, and his Geffen-distributed label imprint Kon Live Records.
"Konvict is the genre," Akon says as he further delineates the difference between Konvict Muzik and Kon Live. "When I first came out, it was all created in jail, so we called it that. It's gimmicky but it reminds me of the path I came from and how it changed my life. But Kon Live is the actual money pot."
Of the record label he says, "This is a great opportunity for me to invest in what I'm good at. I wouldn't want to be an artist forever. I want to graduate altogether and become strictly an executive. So, I'm taking the steps now." Akon knows a little something about developing talent. One of his early sightings was R&B singer T-Pain, who is signed to Jive Records through Konvict Muzic, and who has chalked up two gold-selling albums.
Current release "Epiphany" debuted at No. 1 on The Billboard 200 and stands at 651,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan; his freshman set, "Rappa Ternt Sanga," has sold 594,000. He's also charted 12 singles on the Hot 100 (including five top 10s) and sold 3.6 million ringtones. Other artists under the Konvict Muzic banner are Atlanta rap newcomer Dollar (also through Jive) and TLC co-founding member Chilli, whose debut album will be released through Upfront/Konvict at Universal. Albums from Chilli and Dollar are due next year.
But Kon Live -- on which Akon is nurturing such newcomers as genre-spanning sister act Brick & Lace and R&B singer Ray Lavender (see story, page 23) -- is where the multiplatinum multitasker says he's in it for the long haul.
Following in the footsteps of Motown's Berry Gordy, LaFace co-founder and current Island Def Jam chairman Antonio "L.A." Reid, and Roc-a-Fella principal Jay-Z, Akon is serious about parlaying his success as an artist, songwriter and producer into a long run as a label president.
A MULTITIERED CAREER
As an artist, especially, that success has been considerable. His 2004 debut album, "Trouble," has sold 1.6 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And at 2.6 million units, according to SoundScan, his follow-up, "Konvicted," released last November, is thus far the year's No. 3 best-selling album. It has spun off four top 10 Hot 100 singles: "Smack That" (No. 2), "I Wanna Love You" (No. 1), "Don't Matter" (No. 1) and "Sorry, Blame It on Me" (No. 7). And it's done all that despite a controversy that emerged earlier this year, revolving around footage that showed up online of Akon dancing suggestively onstage with an underage fan in Trinidad. The widely reported incident led Verizon Wireless to back out of Gwen Stefani's Great Escape tour that Akon had joined as a supporting artist.
Meanwhile, in addition to his booming career as a performer and producer, Akon is juggling other balls in the air. Now available at mom-and-pop retailers, his urban street wear line, Konvict Clothing, has since netted an account with Macy's. Keeping it in the family, the fashion line's spokesman is Lavender.
Production is also moving forward on the biographical film "Illegal Alien," which stars Mekhi Phifer as Akon, and the singer bought the rights to another film that's due to start shooting soon, "Cocaine Cowboys." After wrapping his 2007 world tour, Akon plans to go into the studio to collaborate with Whitney Houston for her next album. And as for the follow-up to his sophomore album, "Konvicted," he says the as-yet-untitled set is almost done.
But he's still managing to find plenty of time to run Kon Live. "When an artist establishes a label, people discount his ability to be a built-in CEO," Geffen chairman Ron Fair says. "But that's who Akon is. He's a 360-degree visionary: a superb music composer who's crazy passionate about all kinds of music and has a strong marketing sense that lets him know how to reach people." Given today's cost-conscious industry climate, joint venture deals aren't as plentiful as they once were. But such deals do remain a bargaining lure for top-selling artists. However, the life span of most vanity labels tends to run shorter than the typical two- to three-year break between the said artist-cum-CEO's own album projects. Factor in artists' other outside ventures -- writing/producing other acts, film and TV projects, clothing, shoe and fragrance lines -- and something's usually got to give.
Two recent cases come to mind. Kanye West's Getting Out Our Dreams (aka G.O.O.D.) joint venture with Sony Music Label Group ended in 2006 after two years in business. And Usher's much-publicized US Records, distributed through J Records, quietly dissolved after four years.
But with Kon Live, Akon is determined to buck the odds. And he's got a plan to do just that.
THE STRATEGY AND THE STABLE
In terms of selecting acts for Kon Live, Akon places a premium on work ethic in addition to talent. "You can get someone fairly talented," he says. "But if they're lazy and don't want to really work, you can't sell that."
So at the center of Kon Live's strategy is what label VP DeVyne Stephens -- who also heads Konvict -- refers to as "a page out of Berry Gordy's book." All Kon Live artists are expected to go through the artist development center that's housed at the label's Atlanta headquarters: what Stephens calls "the complex." Artists are put through a 30-day training/evaluation process encompassing media training, vocal fitness and stage presence.
In talking with several of the acts signed to Kon Live, two recurring threads emerge. One concerns artistic freedom. The other is that Akon didn't forget to reach back when his own career took off.
Ray Lavender's association with Akon dates back to the late '90s. A mutual friend introduced the financially challenged Lavender to Akon when the former was trying to log some studio time in Atlanta. Although the two clicked musically, their collaboration was curtailed by Akon's jail sentence.
"I've been on the bench for a minute," Lavender says with his Southern-drawl laugh. "And I've got a million splinters in my butt to prove it. But when Akon got out, he said, 'Ray, I still got you. I want to get myself out as an artist first and then I'll have this label.' He did 'Locked Up' and then it started." Canadian rapper Kardinal Offishall and Virgin Islands R&B/hip-hop duo Rock City point out that being on Kon Live doesn't mean simply being an Akon clone. "He lets you do you, and then he sweetens it up," Rock City's Theron says.
Former MCA artist Offishall, who collaborated on the European B-side to Akon's "Lonely" single, concurs. "We're both producers and captains of our own ships. He realizes the work ethic and hustle I have," he says. "I'm making the music I want to make without all the label pressure. If you're able to make music how and with whom you want, you come up with good music." Female R&B duo Brick & Lace was sent Akon's way by Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine. "When we met with Geffen, we knew they were who we wanted to work with," group member Nailah Thorbourne says. "Iovine said we should link with Akon to work on two tracks, but we immediately clicked, and [Akon] said he really wanted to be a part of [it]. So he made us a part of the Kon Live family." To date, Kon Live has released singles from Brick & Lace ("Never Never") and Lavender ("My Girl's Gotta Girlfriend"). In the wake of "Never Never" not catching fire with the U.S. audience, promotion for Brick & Lace's follow-up single, "Love Is Wicked," was launched in the ladies' native Jamaica. A more extensively promoted single for Lavender was still being determined at press time.
"It's too hard to sell albums these days, so you have to do it right," Akon says. "My plan is to put two good looks out before these albums and the other Kon Live projects are released. I'm giving them the same blueprint I had. And it worked for me." After focusing initially on the urban side ("where I have the most power at the moment"), Akon intends to release pop and rock projects as well.
As he takes the next year to focus on Kon Live, it's too early to predict what success Akon will experience from the executive side of the desk. But if that doesn't happen, it won't be for lack of trying.
"Anyone can go and work with a seasoned act," he says. "But it's hard to break a brand-new act with new music. That's my challenge -- and fun -- right
Additional reporting by Mariel Concepcion.