Independent Study: Strange Music

Strange Music co-founders Tech N9ne, left, and Travis O'Guin at Strangeland Studios. (Ryan Nicholson)

Strange Merch: Strange Music's warehouse contains more than 128,000 pieces of merch representing over 500 SKUs. Merch sales account for nearly $7 million in revenue annually.(Ryan Nicholson)

Label: Strange Music
Founded: 1999
Location: Kansas City, Missouri
Number of Employees: 37
Number of Active Artists: 12
Biggest Release: Tech N9ne, "Absolute Power" (SoundScan 360,000)
Latest Release: Tech N9ne, "Therapy" (Nov. 5)
Distributor: INgrooves/Fontana
Twitter:@strangemusicinc
Website: strangemusicinc.net

Inside Strange’s main building in Lee’s Summit, a suburb about 30 minutes southeast of Kansas City, a pair of order fillers in black T-shirts bearing the Strange Music logo—a snake and a bat forming an “S” and an “M”—diligently hand-pack 3,000 pre-orders of Tech’s latest EP, Therapy(Nov. 5), a collaboration with producer Ross Robinson, known for his work with Korn and Slipknot. Each order includes a pair of Strange dog tags, a poster and a sampler of music by other Strange artists, including R&B singer/rapper Krizz Kaliko, rap groups ¡Mayday! and Ces Cru, and rapper Stevie Stone.

Portraits of Strange artists past and present line the halls of the tan, voluminous building, which looks like it could have been a Costco in a past life. Strange moved here in 2009, after outgrowing its space in O’Guin’s old furniture warehouse.

“You know what you need?” Tech asks, sporting his signature bushy goatee, a black Strange Music football jersey draped loosely over his compact frame and Chuck Taylor sneakers. “A scarf. We’ve got one that would go perfectly with what you have on right now. Korey! Get this man a scarf!”

Most of the building is reserved for the brightly lit warehouse, which houses more than 128,000 pieces of merch representing 500-plus SKUs. Scarves, ties, cutting boards, cocktail shakers, blankets, pillow cases (“I want Strange Music to be the last thing you think about before you go to sleep,” O’Guin says)—it’s all here in boxes and on shelves stacked up to the ceiling. Strange makes just shy of $7 million per year in sales of merch sourced from places as far as China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, $4.5 million of which goes through its online store. The rest is sold out on the road.

Upstairs, an in-house social media team tends to Strange Music’s Facebook and Twitter accounts (2 million and 400,000 followers, respectively), as well as its flourishing YouTube channel. The label, which has received more than 110 million views on the site, recently added a nine-person video production department and partnered with multichannel network Fullscreen to monetize its videos at a CPM (cost per thousand views) of $8. Including satellite employees in Los Angeles, Strange has a full-time staff of 37.

 

Around 3 p.m., Tech climbs into the back seat of a black, 12-passenger touring van with his face emblazoned on the side (one in a fleet of 23). O’Guin takes the wheel while longtime label publicist Richie Abbot straps in on the passenger side. Touring is Strange’s second of three main revenue streams—smaller than music sales but bigger than merch—all of which hover consistently within five and seven percentage points of one another, according to O’Guin. Additionally, Strange has its own publishing companies with ASCAP (Snake and Bat Music) and BMI (Songs of Snake and Bat). All told, the label has cleared more than $20 million in revenue for each of the past three years.

The touring van takes a short ride to Strange’s new building, a $4 million, 18,000-square-foot facility that houses two state-of-the-art recording studios, additional warehouse space and seven video editing bays. On the way over, O’Guin and Abbot work out the logistics of picking up TV personality Nick Cannon, former rapper and current husband to Mariah Carey, who is flying in to see tonight’s show with a 12-person entourage. Abbot suggests O’Guin and Tech meet with Cannon, who wants to interview the pair for a new video series he’s producing, backstage before the show. But O’Guin wants to be sure to give Cannon the full Strange experience.

“I need him to see this,” he says, gesturing toward the new building as the van pulls into the driveway.

Slightly more remote than Strange’s main building, Strangeland Studios is buttressed by stunning magenta, gold and green fall foliage—one of the many perks of Lee’s Summit’s relatively sparse commercial development.

“This is what John Cougar Mellencamp was writing all of those songs about,” Abbot says.

The interior of the building, which used to be a vinyl manufacturing plant, was thoroughly gutted by O’Guin, who used his furniture connections to furnish it with custom, locally milled wood. No expense was spared, from ubiquitous Brazilian granite countertops to a $17,000 Raven multitouch console in studio A. Inside both studios—each equipped with its own kitchen, bathroom and lounge—a $40,000 diamond pendant in the shape of the Strange Music logo is sealed in impenetrable glass.

O’Guin plans to lease the studios to other artists either staying in or passing through the Kansas City area. He rattles off a short list of superstars whom he would consider letting record free of charge. Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Snoop Dogg and sentimental favorite Alanis Morissette all make the cut. Not on the list, though, is Maybach Music Group rapper Wale, who got on O’Guin’s bad side during a recent trip to the studio by reportedly being discourteous to staff and blowing off an invoice.

“We built a beautiful place and we want artists that are going to respect that,” O’Guin says.

Strangeland Studios' Studio A, featuring a $17,000 multi-touch console. The 18,000 sq ft, $4 million facility was completed this summer.(Ryan Nicholson)

After the tour, everyone piles back into the van and heads to the Midland Theatre downtown, where Tech is due to sign autographs for a couple of hours before the show starts. He does signings every day before a performance, which is a lot, considering he’s logged more than 200 shows per year for the past six years in a row.

It’s the day before Halloween and a handful of the 200 or so fans wrapped around the venue for the signing are already in costume. There’s a devil and an angel, a pirate and a jester, but most people are simply wearing Strange gear in the label’s signature white, black and red colorways. The crowd is largely working class and notably diverse—whites, blacks, moms, daughters and scores of college-age guys in baggy jeans and uneven facial hair.

A slender brunette toward the front of the line gets things under way by approaching Tech, pulling down her skinny jeans and presenting her rear end. She says she wants a tattoo of his signature on her right buttock, and Tech agrees to provide the template.

“That’s going to hurt!” she says with a laugh afterward, and gives the rapper a hug.