When the pandemic hit, talent manager Monique Blake first thought working from home would be a “nice and quiet” change of pace after 15 years spent crisscrossing the globe. Then her biggest client, producer Swizz Beatz, teamed up with Timbaland to launch Verzuz, which quickly became the most influential livestream in music, and “literally everybody” — broadcasters, streaming services, even gaming platforms — wanted to get in on the action. “Our audience was so locked into Instagram,” where the series had started, Blake recalled recently from her home in Brooklyn, and she knew they had to keep their Instagram presence, even though most of their suitors were not “really into that.”
But Blake and her team eventually made a deal with Apple Music global creative director Larry Jackson that would let Verzuz live on both platforms, and Jackson then integrated the show with Twitter to get more exposure.
The deal was one of the many Blake has helped make since she started working with Swizz Beatz 15 years ago. She began as his assistant, and then — six years in — worked to close a branding deal with Reebok that shifted his business from one built on recorded music to one driven more by partnerships. Realizing that Blake was “doing more than assistant work,” she says, he made her his manager and business partner.
Born in Toronto and raised in Brooklyn, Blake studied finance and computer science at Pace University, worked as a receptionist at Soundtrack Studios and interned at Elektra Records and J Records, where Swizz Beatz had an imprint. Now, in addition to her work for him, she manages two other artists — British singer Cosima and Queens-based singer-songwriter Jhanya — while parenting her 11-year-old daughter, often stopping to work on her laptop from the front seat of her Mercedes-Benz G-Class SUV as she shuttles between meetings and school pickups. In her free time, Blake has been shopping for castles, looking at historic properties in Ireland, England and Italy, with the idea of renovating the interior and keeping the structure intact. “I intend to own a castle somewhere in the world,” she says, and someday “I’d love to run a label.”
What does Swizz Beatz Productions look like?
We have four producers in-house, a legal team, accountant, A&R for film and TV projects, and a team focused on our art initiative. Travel is our No. 1 expense.
How has the industry changed for producers?
Technology allows more people interested in producing to get in the game — you can literally make tracks from your computer — and social media is giving people more ways to connect. Before, you were kind of just going through A&R at a label, but now you can reach out to an artist directly. So now the game is wide open.
Rodney Jerkins sold his catalog to Hipgnosis in July, and Timbaland, Swizz Beatz’s partner in Verzuz, sold the income stream from his royalties as a producer to Hipgnosis in 2019. Do you and Swizz think about selling his rights?
Maybe, for the right price. But that’s his equity for his children — so it would have to be a really, really, really good price for him to consider it. That’s the gems right there.
Do you see the trend in catalog sales continuing?
It’s going to happen more now. Some of the [producers] who used to be consistently getting called might not get called as much. So if you’re sitting on a catalog, you could liquidate it and think about other businesses to invest in.
The economics of the industry have changed so much since you started working for Swizz. How has he adapted?
He’s forever thinking about what’s next. Music is still his baby, but he spends a lot of time lending his creative and his [intellectual property] to brands. We’ve been doing a lot of brand business, from our partnerships with Bacardi and Amex and Reebok to Aston Martin. Lots of brands see value in what he thinks and how he moves the needle. That’s kind of how we’ve been driving our business.
But his catalog is so deep that I’m also constantly licensing and approving licenses for records to be used in film and TV — it’s an income stream we don’t even have to think about. With so much content being requested now and everyone at home, I’m licensing, to be honest, twice as much as I did before, just from people looking for new music for different programming.
Which song do you get the most requests for?
The song that I refer to as “the gift that keeps on giving” is “Party Up (Up in Here)” by DMX. That record, and the way it gets licensed, is unbelievable. I get licensing requests for that record two to three times a week, minimum. It’s insane.
Is radio airplay still a steady revenue stream for Swizz?
Very much so. DMX’s catalog is probably one of the strongest within our catalog — and those are records that will never go away. With us having a lot of those popular records and — especially with Verzuz and Swizz’s records showing up on a lot of those battles — we’re also seeing an increase in his catalog, because he’s the producer or sometimes the featured artist. The songs [played on Verzuz] go up [in streams] 200 to 300% in the weeks following the battles as well as leading up to the battle. So it has been really good for him.
Before Apple started simulcasting the Verzuz battles, how were you clearing the rights to the music that artists performed? Did you run into any licensing issues?
We had full support from labels and publishers. This has been a really great catalog boost for what was kind of just sitting there, and not necessarily a focus at streaming or any radio format. We’ve been getting a lot of love from labels and publishers on each and every one of these [battles] as they happen. Now licensing goes through our Apple deal.
Which artists — alive or dead — would you most like to see battle on Verzuz?
I’m a Caribbean girl, so Beres Hammond and Sanchez. My mom’s always giving me [suggestions] — I’m like, “Mom!” She’s so cute: She wants to see Yolanda Adams and CeCe Winans. I would love to see Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin. Janet vs. Mariah. And even some of the writers. I think a lot of people don’t know how many female writers contribute to music, and I’d love to see more of them be involved.
Swizz has become known as an art collector. What do you think about the state of the art market right now?
It’s so unfortunate it’s just quiet. With our art initiative, The Dean Collection, we were doing a lot of experiential events, but we haven’t been able to activate that this year. What we’ve always tried to do with The Dean Collection is open it up so that everyone can experience it, and not make it about price. That’s one of the biggest things we think about when we do our fairs — we can have pieces hanging that cost a quarter of a million dollars, but let’s make some things attainable for people who might be walking in with $100.
Do you still see art as a good investment?
I do. Art is one of the few purchases that when you take it out of the gallery, the value goes up. When you drive a car off the lot, the value goes down. There are pieces I’ve seen Swizz purchase that start at one price, and two to three years later you’re seeing the same artist at auction at seven or eight times the value he purchased his piece for. [Sometimes] our accountant will go, “Oh, you had a good time at the art fair, didn’t you?” We see Swizz walk into shows, fall in love with the artist as a person, walk out and go, “I’m going to buy the whole show.” He really does connect with artists on a different level, and however he can support, he does.
Do you collect art yourself?
Not as much as I probably should. Swizz bought me my first piece — a Bertho. But I’m going to get more into it.
Why do you like to work from your car?
When I drop my daughter off at school in the mornings, I have that eight-hour window, so I turn on my hotspot and get on my laptop. You get so easily distracted with your phone. Then I might do a lunch or shoot to the next meeting. It allows me to be mobile.
Your mother is from Guyana and your father is from Jamaica. What advice do you give to other women of color in the music business?
Don’t quit. Anything is possible. Just trust that where you are is where you are supposed to be. Don’t talk yourself out of where you worked so hard to get.