When Republic Records co-founders Monte and Avery Lipman reached out to Glenn Mendlinger with an idea, and eventual job offer, in 2019, Mendlinger describes what followed as a “sudden whirlwind.”
“They wanted to have an independent distribution system within Republic to be competitive,” says Mendlinger, a former Astralwerks GM between 2006-2018. “The business was moving in that direction for certain artists and they didn’t really have an infrastructure for it. They needed to have a footprint in this space.”
By the end of the year, he joined what would ultimately become Imperial, an independent distribution arm under the umbrella of Republic. The company officially launched in September 2021 with Mendlinger as president. He jokingly remembers pushing back against the Lipmans’ speculation that it’d take two years to get Imperial fully up and running as a well-oiled machine, to which he countered, “We’re going to do it quicker than that.” Just one year later, Imperial’s growing roster has accomplished a long list of wins — and 10 billion streams to date.
Bo Burnham’s Inside reached No. 6 on the Billboard 200 last year and has logged 60 weeks and counting at No. 1 on Billboard’s Comedy Albums chart. And since last June, Imperial has had five different K-pop acts debut in the top 10 on the all-genre albums chart: Tomorrow x Together, ITZY, TWICE, Nayeon and a No. 1 entry with Stray Kids’ Oddinary this spring.
Beyond distribution, Imperial provides marketing and execution support, A&R, sync and funding services. It also partners with Ingrooves, leaning on its pipeline to digital service providers and expertise in physical distribution. While Mendlinger, who also serves as an executive vp at Republic, refers to Imperial as a “fully separate-running engine” from its parent company, there is some overlap with the major label’s A&R team. Mendlinger attends all of Republic’s A&R meetings, where the two companies will occasionally discuss in the early stages of pursuing an artist whether they’re better-suited for the major label or the indie route, due to factors such as resources desired or turnaround times.
The best example is also perhaps Imperial’s greatest success story to date: Burnham’s Grammy-winning comedy album Inside, tied to its Netflix special of the same name. “[Republic A&R] Tyler Arnold initially reached out to Bo, who wanted flexibility [and] was looking for a distribution deal,” Mendlinger remembers. “In the spirit of being independent and nimble, we went from our first phone call and subsequent deal discussion to a release date seven days later.”
Earlier key releases include now-viral stars’ Yung Gravy and bbno$’s Baby Gravy 2 in February 2020, as well as music from developing artists like Brye and Jelani Aryeh. Mendlinger is open about Imperial picking up records from TikTok, which he still holds as “the number one source of music discovery.”
He emphasizes that with such a genre-spanning roster of releases, Imperial stays away from a one-size-fits-all campaign plan. “I want there to be a real feedback loop so that everybody knows what’s working and what’s not,” he says. “With us, there are campaigns where publicity may make no sense or all the sense in the world. We might run an influencer campaign for 60% of our artists, and the other 40% might need awareness campaigns, which are very different. Every campaign that we’re running — whether it’s an artist that we picked up because something was active on TikTok, or it’s an artist that we’re doing large-scale, long-term developments on — should be bespoke. The last thing I want to be is a pipeline from A to B, which I feel most distribution companies are.”
That has meant both adhering to already-existing data — take, for example, having K-pop acts pre-release music on social media platforms to build anticipation — and adjusting to it in real-time, as Imperial did with grassroots marketing for Inside. After rush-releasing the vinyl for Inside into the marketplace last December, a Billboard report from last month shows that album alone is essentially why physical album sales in the comedy genre have doubled mid-year over mid-year (a deluxe box set is set to ship in December). Mendlinger also projects that Imperial will move at least a million physical units of K-pop before year’s end, and notes that there are cargo planes filled with K-pop records being chartered to America.
As Imperial continues to promote the latest releases from its roster of artists, the company aims to grow in both size and scale. Mendlinger says it hopes to expand its A&R and digital marketing teams, and plans to lean more on the company’s partnership with °1824, UMG’s internal creative solutions team of more than 90 college students that functions as a street team at local campuses and online. Three members of the team are specifically dedicated to sourcing potential artists for Imperial.
“Distribution is sometimes an ugly word because it just sounds like you’re moving from one place to the other,” Mendlinger says. “That’s not interesting to me. It’s about partnership. It’s about getting granular. I think that’s the secret sauce.”