Ghazi believes some stories are “better told in rewind than forward.” How EMPIRE — the independent label, distributor and publisher that he established in 2010 — acquired Dirtybird is one of them.
Under the agreement, EMPIRE obtains ownership of Dirtybird’s back catalog and all future releases, for which EMPIRE will now handle distribution and publishing. The deal — representing EMPIRE’s first stride into the dance/electronic space — includes Dirtybird’s clothing and Web3 assets, excluding only Dirtybird’s live events and festival brands. These rights are retained by Dirtybird CEO VonStroke, known by his given name Barclay Crenshaw, who will also continue to A&R Dirtybird and direct creative for its apparel line. (The rights to Dirtybird’s live events and festival brands were not a part of the negotiations. “I told Barclay early on, ‘We’re not an events company at this time — I think [the events are] better served to stay under your umbrella than under ours,’” Ghazi tells Billboard.)
Though negotiations between Ghazi and Crenshaw’s respective San Francisco-based multihyphenates started in October of 2021, Dirtybird’s appeal was apparent much earlier, according to Moody Jones, EMPIRE’s Senior Vice President of Digital & Creative, who will lead its dance/electronic department.
As the story goes, well before he accepted a role as EMPIRE’s Digital Marketing Director in 2018 — a move that propelled him from Canada to California’s Bay Area — Jones began producing his own music. In 2007, he went to a Toronto event where Crenshaw played an opening set as Barclay Crenshaw, his hip-hop-centric artist project that predated his launch of the Claude VonStroke moniker in 2006. There, Jones first met Crenshaw. Five years later in Montreal, Jones played the first-ever Dirtybird BBQ.
Over the years, one slot at a Dirtybird event begat another for Jones, who along the way formed a professional relationship with Crenshaw, his wife Aundy Caldwell Crenshaw (who serves as Dirtybird’s Chief Operating Officer) and the sprawling Dirtybird collective at large. A friend of the brand with an ear for Dirtybird’s idiosyncratic sound and an eye for business solutions, Jones assisted the Crenshaws with advising, consulting, marketing and artist promotion. Their early collaboration — coupled with Jones’ newfound proximity to Dirtybird HQ and his continued closeness with the Dirtybird crew — organically created the circumstances that would underscore the now-17-year-old brand as a complementary fit for EMPIRE and later aid its acquisition.
“I was very interested in their business model,” says Jones. “When we were out, I’d always ask questions and they’d always ask me for advice on how things are done on our end. The conversation started shifting from being about marketing to being about operating and scaling. I’d learned so much from being around Ghazi that a lot of the things I started saying [about EMPIRE] seemed like competitive advantages to Dirtybird. We [the Crenshaws] began talking about Dirtybird and what it would take to scale it.”
Thus, when Ghazi expressed interest in expanding EMPIRE’s hip-hop-concentrated scope to include dance/electronic, Dirtybird emerged as a natural fit.
Jones highlighted the similarities of the cultures within Dirtybird and EMPIRE, Ghazi’s own homegrown business — which has been responsible for several Billboard Hot 100 hits and key releases that have raised the profiles of hip-hop mainstays like Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak. Armed with proprietary software that enables EMPIRE to distribute its music to digital streaming platforms, the hip-hop stronghold has increasingly expanded its sonic purview, venturing into Afropop and Afrobeats, country, Latin, R&B, and now, dance/electronic.
“He [Jones] jumped into my office and he said, ‘Hey, what do you think about buying Dirtybird?’ And I basically responded, ‘Why not? That would be a great acquisition for us, a San Francisco company,’” says Ghazi. “And he proceeded to tell me that there might be a synergy and a possibility for us to make the acquisition.”
“Aundy and I spoke to several companies in this process,” Crenshaw tells Billboard of the deal. “EMPIRE was always the best fit, simply because Ghazi understands the value of our brand name. We kept every single employee from top to bottom, and I still run the label with Deron Delgado and our killer team. I have also been friends with Moody Jones for years and years, so it was very reassuring that he was spearheading the dance division.”
“Tons of buyers just wanted to analyze the catalog and look at pure math,” Crenshaw continues. “I’ve never been a math guy; I’m a vibes guy. Dirtybird means something special to its fans, and that is why it’s one of maybe one or two U.S.A. house brands that everyone recognizes by name. Ghazi and Moody understand that, and I think we are going to have even more fun in our new home.”
Ghazi and Jones declined to disclose financial details of the acquisition to Billboard, but expounded on their motivations for bringing Dirtybird to roost at EMPIRE.
There are a number of independent dance labels that EMPIRE might have considered acquiring. Beyond the personal association, why Dirtybird?
Jones: I don’t know if Ghazi would’ve even considered Dirtybird [if not for my suggestion]. I was at Dirtybird Campout West Coast 2021 with Nima [Etminan, also of EMPIRE], and we saw the culture, the fanbase, the loyalty, the energy, and we knew it had a synergy. I saw them being hands-on with everything.
Our company is very culture-driven. Having an impact on culture is one of the pillars for us, and being a Bay Area company meant so much to us. We wanted to move into dancefloors a little bit stronger, and I can’t think of another company that would’ve complemented us the way Dirtybird does. There’s no other company that crossed every one of those boxes for us.
And when Ghazi sat down with Barclay and Aundy and got to meet her, knowing the people behind the company and how hard they work, it [was clear that it] really was their blood, sweat, and tears that put Dirtybird together. That meant a lot to us. Family is a big thing for us, and Dirtybird is literally their family business. Luckily, we [Barclay and Aundy] had built a relationship a long time ago — and honestly, life just came full circle.
Ghazi: It was a perfect fit. Our core DNA has always been hip-hop, and Barclay had a really strong affinity for hip-hop, so there were a lot of synergies between what Dirtybird was doing primarily as a dance company, and what we have historically done as a hip-hop company that’s moved into all these other verticals — like Afrobeat, Latin, R&B, and things of that nature.
I saw that there would be this holistic approach to music. You could just see it all blend together, merge into one, and be really impactful, because it makes all the sense in the world to have a dance department or a dance arm in a company like ours. We have tons of hit records that deserve to have dance remixes and dance mixes in general, and that goes beyond even just the core of what Dirtybird has already accomplished on their own.
So, for me, the initial thought process in the very beginning was like, “Oh cool, we could have a remix arm.” And then I got to spend time with Barclay and see the festivals, the culture, and everything else, and I was like, “Yo, this is a no-brainer. These guys, through and through, mean to the dance world what I think EMPIRE means to the hip-hop space.”
Naturally, it sounds like there will be an increase in the amount of hip-hop sound on Dirtybird given EMPIRE’s strength in this domain.
Jones: If you look at the sound that Dirtybird has embodied over the last three years, you’ll notice that it’s changed so much compared to the Dirtybird sound that we had early on. They’re moving into drum ‘n’ bass, they’re doing a lot more garage, and they’re doing a lot more experimental. And Barclay Crenshaw [the artist project] is more hip-hop-leaning than electronic, so I think Dirtybird will continue to be experimental. We’re going to continue to push the boundaries of electronic music, but I think now, we’re going to be able to equip Dirtybird with the ability to work with more hip-hop artists and work in different territories to push the sound to even more regions.
Outside of hip-hop, are there any other genres that you’d like to see Dirtybird work with to a greater degree?
Ghazi: Definitely a lot of the African music [Afropop/Afrobeats] that we’re doing at EMPIRE, 100%.
Given that Barclay will continue to A&R Dirtybird, you’ll be working together to advance these sounds. What do you hope this relationship will look like?
Ghazi: We’re hoping to continue letting Dirtybird do what they do best, but on top of that, increasing the volume and variety of releases that they’re doing, and giving them the tools and resources that they need to go even further. In the past, they did a few albums per year. We want to increase that number significantly, and we want to be able to give them more music videos — whatever types of tools and resources other genres have been accustomed to. We want to bring those to dance to give dance the same spotlight other genres have.
Looking ahead, what is the value of the Dirtybird catalog going forward?
Ghazi: Definitely in syncs, stems, derivative works, physical like vinyls and merch, and emerging territories where the music might not have even touched yet. I don’t know the whereabouts of the previous distributor’s reach, but we have a very far reach, so we’ll make sure that the music is in every nook and cranny in every part of the world.
Jones: It’s also in the re-releasing of a lot of products. I think a lot of the Dirtybird sound was ahead of its time, and I think a lot of these albums and singles can resurface again and be repackaged and delivered to an audience that is ready for it today that might not necessarily have been ready for it back then. Plus, there are a lot of [digital-only] releases that might have [worked well on] vinyl.
EMPIRE is a strong proponent of artist empowerment. What are some of the resources at EMPIRE that will help empower Dirtybird artists in ways that might not have been previously possible?
Ghazi: We have a huge facility in San Francisco where we do a lot of creative work. We just did a writing camp there a few months back for an African album we’re about to release. I would love to be able to do writing camps in the dance space, and I would love to increase the output of music videos with both our in-house video staff and the resources and the relationships that we have across the video sphere in the marketplace.
Additionally, more strategic marketing, more digital marketing, and greater transparency on analytics — because we are a supply chain distribution company by design, so I think empowering the artists with analytics and information is going to give them greater insight into how to market their music. We’re a very powerful marketing company, and there could be a momentous shift onward and upward for the Dirtybird side of the company and for dance as a whole for EMPIRE.
Jones: One of the last things we’re working on — and I don’t want to give away too much too soon — [is changing the nature of label deals in dance music]. One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of genres [have changed] in terms of the deals that labels have with artists, and I feel dance is one of the very last ones to make that change and have more transparency in deals and give better splits.
With the aid of EMPIRE, I think we can help revolutionize the whole dance scene — not just Dirtybird — by bringing this sound onto all the digital streaming platforms, and giving artists more favorable deals. I think [the deals] are a reason why, in the past, a lot of artists haven’t been loyal to their labels. You know, when every release is with a different label. But I think we can help revolutionize that and build a proper dance culture with the artists as well.