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It was the summer of 2006, and Nick Gross was prepping for his first year at the University of Southern California, the prestigious private institution in Los Angeles that has historically served as a launching pad for a number of lucrative entertainment careers. But two weeks before his start date, the opportunity of a lifetime came knocking: A record deal with Epic Records.
“[I] took the decision to drop out of USC and pursue my path in music,” says Gross now, sitting on a couch in the Hollywood offices of his uber-ambitious media startup Gross Labs. Though his choice to ditch college came with its fair share of risk (not to mention parental misgivings), it was backed up by over a decade of immersion in music: drum lessons at age six, a rock band at 13, a guest appearance with his pop-punk outfit Open Air Stereo on MTV’s "reality" series Laguna Beach at 16. By the time the Epic deal for the band came around, Gross was more than ready to commit to a less-traditional path.
“I had probably more added pressure back then to go to college,” he continues, “whereas now kids are probably thinking about alternative pathways that are a little more accepted than [they were] 12 years ago.”
Gross's entrepreneurial instincts kicked in at a young age. During Open Air Stereo's early days, he claims to have been the group's driving force. “[I] really took control of that band,” he says. “The life and blood of it and the wheels turning was always me kind of pushing and making sure the pieces were filled and practices were happening and all that type of stuff.”
Though ultimately nothing much came of the Epic deal -- Open Air Stereo hit a "creative blockade" and flamed out before re-forming several years later -- the experience proved invaluable for Gross, launching him onto the unconventional path he’d desired ever since he was, in his words, “a kid with a mohawk in private school with my pants below my ass.” Leveraging his newfound music industry connections, Gross kept his own career momentum going, playing drums and doing session work for various other musical acts and eventually starting the songwriting and production team STRZ with Mike Riley and Anthony Vasquez. In 2009, the trio founded STRZ Enterprises, a 1,500 square foot recording studio and fledgling record label in the heart of Hollywood.
Gross began renting out the studio space to other artists and labels, meeting even more movers and shakers in the industry. “From there, we really started to build [a] community around music and just meeting other people and me understanding more about other labels and publishers and their clients," Gross says. Through his nascent Find Your Grind Foundation, he soon began providing opportunities for disadvantaged young people to visit the recording studio to learn the tricks of the trade from established producers and other industry professionals. Though Gross didn’t know it yet, STRZ Enterprises would in many ways lay the groundwork for what would become Gross Labs.
Launched in 2018, Gross Labs -- which serves as the umbrella company for a range of ventures including music, e-sports, animation and education -- is in many ways the ultimate expression of Gross’s own preoccupations, merging his love of all things music with his empire-building ambitions (notably, he is the son of billionaire investor Bill Gross). Described as a “multi-dimensional entertainment and media company,” Gross Labs aims to succeed partially on the cross-pollination between its various divisions: Big Noise Music Group, a record label, publishing entity, live events team and recording studio; Find Your Grind, an education company; Team Rogue, an e-sports company co-owned with Steve Aoki and Imagine Dragons; Noise Nest Animation, an animation studio; and the Find Your Grind Foundation. Gross, who says he was inspired by skateboarder and entrepreneur Rob Dyrdek’s now-defunct Fantasy Factory (featured on the MTV series of the same name), envisions an operation in which all aspects of the business function as more or less a cohesive whole, each one feeding into the other.
Though Gross Labs is only about a year old, that cross-pollination is already evident. Examples include various crossovers between music and animation -- Noise Nest creates video content for Big Noise artists, who in turn do occasional voiceover work for the studio’s slate of animated series -- and frequent exchanges between Big Noise and Find Your Grind, which leverages the label’s artists for various initiatives while providing performance slots for them at the company’s Find Your Grind University (FYGU) college concert tour.
“If I told you some of the things happening here, it sounds like, ‘Oh my god, there’s so much going on,’” says Gross. “But we’ve found ways for all those things to tie in, to build a bigger ecosystem of opportunity... they’re [all] talking to each other in some type of way. And I feel like everything that is going on here in some way touches music, which is really cool for me.”
Find Your Grind -- which consists of both a foundation and a for-profit division -- perhaps best exemplifies Gross’s guiding ethos of practical experience over traditional schooling. Co-founded by Gross, former pro snowboarder Luke “The Dingo” Trembath, youth motivational speaker Mike Smith and Gross’s wife Natasha Gross, it officially kicked off with a cross-country bus tour to encourage high school students to, in Gross’s words, “Start to think outside of the SAT standardization that’s really demoralizing young people.” The “leave-behind” on the tour was Find Your Grind's first product: A 90-hour curriculum that stresses career and technical education, practical life skills and “social and emotional learning," among other things. The curriculum, which was initially offered for a price before being made entirely free ("It made the conversation way easier," he says) is now being used by 2,500 educators across 48 states representing 25,000 students. (Gross notes that the curriculum will eventually become a paid product again.)
The Find Your Grind brand was further boosted by last year’s inaugural Find Your Grind University (FYGU) music and tech festival, which hit 10 college campuses across the U.S. and featured artists like BlackBear, Lil Yachty and Duke Dumont; according to Gross, the festival raised $2.5 million in sponsorships from companies including Amazon Prime Student, TikTok and Twitch. Find Your Grind is now planning 16 college stops for the festival in 2020, though unlike last year’s edition -- which was free for students -- this time the event will be ticketed in a relatively affordable range. (Gross estimates the price of admission will fall somewhere between $15 and $20.)
With a company that dips into so many areas, Gross understands the importance of delegating to the "A players" he's brought on to steer its various divisions. “I’m not the expert in any of those roles, I’m really not,” he says. “I’m just the guy who’s coming in to build the platform for these creative people to kind of build their careers.”
The talent Gross has managed to attract is certainly impressive. Big Noise Music Group was co-founded by Vagrant Records founders Jon Cohen and John Feldmann, the latter the lead singer and guitarist in the seminal punk-ska band Goldfinger. Under their guidance, Big Noise has brought on both established acts (The Used, Ashley Tisdale) and emerging artists (Royls, The Wrecks). In an effort to expand its palette, the division also recently acquired Anthony "Ant" Martini and Doug Neumann's hip-hop label Commission Records, which boasts a roster of such promising young artists as Lil Dicky, MadeinTYO and Powers Pleasant. “Commission had major-label offers for much more money, but they wanted to go with Gross Labs because of its independent mindset,” says Gross. “They wanted to keep doing favorable deals for artists, which Gross Labs does.”
But for a company with as many interconnected parts as Gross Labs, what happens if one of the divisions fails?
"If one thing doesn’t work out..." Gross briefly pauses. "...We move on to the next thing and figure it out. It’s that simple. Of course everything has its plan and its model of how it’s going to get there to be successful, completely mapped out and laid out to a T. But if for some reason those things don’t work out, like, on to the next venture, you know? On to the next thing."
Over the next two years, Gross’s goals are nothing if not ambitious. By the end of 2020, he’s aiming for an enterprise value of $10 million; by the end of 2021, he’s aiming for $50 million. On the Big Noise side, this year he’s looking to pump another $2 million into catalog acquisitions and artist signings and potentially even launch more festivals -- they’re currently toying with two ideas, one based around fitness and another around social media influencers -- with the ultimate goal of reaching an annual net publisher's share of $2 million to $3 million from catalog and new music releases and, eventually, selling the division for “at least” $50 million. Additionally, in October the animation division is slated to launch its Noise Nest Network, an app through which the company's slate of quirky animated series -- including Skeleton Steph and Donut Baby -- will be distributed. The eventual goal there, says Gross, is to enter a partnership with a streaming service like Netflix that's in the market for an animation company that can "churn out quick content."
"That story of when we can come out to say, 'Collectively Gross Labs is a $100 million entertainment company with combined assets of this, this, this' -- that’s my goal in the next five years, to get to that place," Gross says of his ambitions, which he terms his "BHAG" [big hairy audacious goals]. "And I definitely think we can get there."
While everything is currently funded at the Gross Labs level via a fund set up through Goldman Sachs’ Ayco Company, Gross’s ultimate goal is to raise a larger round of investment on top of Gross Labs -- similar to Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Ventures -- that can “fuel and support” his entertainment properties. Still, he’s realistic about what it will take to get there. “[That] comes with a few more wins for me,” Gross points out. “We don’t have the Justin Bieber in our world yet.”
With everything he has going on, Gross has been forced to put his own musical ambitions -- including his latest project Half the Animal alongside former Open Air Stereo bandmate Chase Johnson -- more or less on hold, though he still plays drums on occasion, including for Goldfinger and MadeinTYO. In addition to the grueling work of building an empire, his wife gave also birth to his first child just over two months ago. And at least outwardly, there's no sense of regret from Gross that his original dream of being a rock star didn't pan out the way he envisioned. On the contrary, he's cognizant of his own rather charmed trajectory.
"It excites me to be able to provide that platform for other people to do well and have successful careers and ideas and help those things come to life," he says. "Because I know when that came to life for me early on, it was a really amazing thing for me to see that that was possible and to do it. I want more people to be able to feel that way, you know?"
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What I've never understood is why people take such a safe route in life for the most part. I always hated manufactured ways of thinking and linear paths. Life is about risks and standing outside of the bubble. We all should find a way to leave an imprint before we're gone! Go out and change people's lives, have an opinion and do positive things for the world because life is too short!
The easiest thing to do if you don't know where to start or how to get going is to create opportunities for yourself and gain real hands-on experience. You can offer to work for free, you can reach out to people you look up to on social media to find mentors and guidance, you can participate in community at no cost, which opens up doors. Get crafty and creative!
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