Apple Veteran Larry Jackson Launches Gamma, Bringing ‘Unprecedented’ Private Equity to Frontline Music Business
With major backing, Jackson acquired the distributor Vydia and signed stars like Usher and Snoop Dogg to the "best capitalized music company" going head-to-head with the world's big three.
Six years ago, Drake delivered a message to Apple Music’s then-global creative director Larry Jackson that would change his life.
“Someone get Larry Jackson on the phone,” Drake rapped on the first verse of Lil Wayne’s “Family Feud,” a track that Jackson heard for the first time while he was vacationing in the Maldives. “I need some ownership if we pressin’ go.”
“I really sat down and started to reflect on my life,” Jackson recalled recently during one of a series of interviews, the last from one of his regular tables on the patio at The Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo Lounge, where the 42-year-old often spends mornings hobnobbing with music business power brokers and fielding a steady stream of calls from A-list artists seeking his counsel on everything from creative projects to sponsorship deals. Drake’s verse shook him from a “slumber” he says had been induced by his corporate, “hamster wheel” routine, and made him think: “What if there was another level to the video game?”
Jackson says that wakeup call inspired him to revisit an idea for his own venture that he’s now launching as gamma, a one-stop-shop media company that creates, distributes, and markets content, from music to podcasts to films, offering resources and guidance to artists who want to build their brands and expand beyond music. Backed by investors that include Apple and Todd Boehly’s Eldridge (which also owns a stake in Billboard’s parent company) gamma — registered with a lowercase “g” — debuts as the “best capitalized music company competing with the major labels and signing superstars,” says Raine Group partner Fred Davis, who advised Jackson through his fundraising process, though neither he nor Jackson would disclose the amount raised to date. Bloomberg reported that gamma has about $1 billion available in equity and debt.
“There’s a lot of private equity acquiring catalogs,” Davis tells Billboard, “but this is unprecedented.”
Jackson acquired the distribution platform Vydia in December, subsuming its 76 mostly New Jersey-based employees, and has struck deals with about a dozen of the world’s most influential creators, from Usher to Rick Ross to Naomi Campbell to Angelica Nwandu, founder of The Shade Room, one of Instagram’s most popular news channels.
In December, gamma also quietly acquired a stake in the Death Row Records catalog from Snoop Dogg, who had purchased the catalog last year and pulled it from streaming services. Jackson wouldn’t disclose the terms of his deal with Snoop Dogg, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, but said that it’s a long-term partnership that includes two future albums and allows rights to revert back to Broadus after “we work together to enrich the value of the IP.” Jackson released the catalog exclusively on TikTok last month without disclosing his participation, allowing fans to create their own videos using clips from classic albums like Doggystyle, and to transform themselves into various breeds of dogs using TikTok’s “What Dogg Are You?” AR filter, an effort to drive buzz and engagement for the music before it returns to streaming platforms.
Jackson is betting that with his own distribution pipeline, a bevy of big-name acts, an array of culture-driving shows and an alliance with indie film and TV studio A24 (in which Boehly is also an investor), gamma could give TikTok a run for its money and “become the new radio, where you could actually break records,” plus sell an array of other goods from concert tickets to beauty products.
“Having the whole thing A to Z creates kind of a farm-to-table situation,” Jackson says. “Everything can’t be about one place where you break music – I’m not going to say what that one place is, but you know what I’m talking about. For us, as a company, I’m looking to decrease our dependence on outside sources. I don’t see that being done anywhere.”
He’s also hoping that as a Black founder and CEO, his leadership will drive more diversity, inclusion and equity at the top of the music business. He wants to run gamma with a closer focus on — and more sensitivity to — Black culture than the major labels, while structuring deals that help artists retain ownership of their work and build generational wealth.
To build intrigue, Jackson has been mysteriously teasing his new company as he might a new album, drawing on his many years working in the record business. After the Grammys in February, for instance, he hosted a party at Mr. Brainwash Art Museum in Los Angeles, inviting a mix of bankers and stars such as Lil Wayne, Leonardo DiCaprio and Madonna, making guests say “gamma” as the password for entry. This month, he put up billboards on Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard and in New York’s Times Square, featuring cymbal-banging monkeys and the new company logo.
Jackson’s core team includes his co-founder and COO Ike Youssef, with whom he worked at Universal Music’s Interscope Records, where Youssef was CFO. It also includes Ben Cook, who left his post as president of Atlantic Records UK in 2019 amid controversy over an old photo in which he was dressed up as a member of Run-DMC; Cook apologized in a statement at the time, saying he realized his appearance was “offensive” and that he’d only been trying to honor his musical hero.
“I believe in redemption,” says Jackson, noting that he was grateful to get a second chance himself after being fired for cause from Sony’s RCA Records in 2010. (He had offered to personally pay Alicia Keys a sum that exceeded the amount the label had approved for the rights to have Jennifer Hudson record one of Keys’ songs, in an effort to expedite the release of Hudson’s second album.) “In retrospect, I can see how that could be perceived as disrespectful and insubordinate – but I was doing it more with a magnanimous spirit of making sure that the album came out, which would have ensured that the company made its numbers and that all 170 employees got their bonuses. I was trying to honor the artist and honor my colleagues.”
Jimmy Iovine gave Jackson another shot, hiring him almost immediately at Interscope, and it was there during a white-board brainstorming session that same year that Youssef says they came up with the initial notion for a company like gamma.
Jackson then worked closely with Iovine and Dr. Dre to launch Beats, their headphones and streaming service company, becoming Apple Music’s global creative director when Apple acquired Beats in 2014. Youssef, meanwhile, went on to work at Yeezy, the Kanye West-Adidas venture, as CFO from 2017 to 2018, and in 2019, Jackson and Youssef started raising capital for gamma and shopping for assets.
Jackson is “really resourceful about creating events that distinguish artists in the marketplace. There are, what, 100,000 songs uploaded to Spotify every day? You need to have someone like Larry to get people to pay attention. He is second to none in that,” Youssef says. He “knows how to cut through the clutter.”
Jackson says he learned his tricks from Iovine, who “used Best Buy to market Beats” and “partnered with artists to market the headphones.” He just plans to expand on Iovine’s ideas, using fashion and film as vehicles for exposure, keeping Iovine close as his “chief consiglieri,” and heeding his advice like “don’t get caught speeding,” “don’t spend foolishly” and “always stay at the table.”
Among gamma’s first musical releases will be a new album by Usher, through a new joint venture between Usher and veteran music executive L.A. Reid that gamma will distribute. (Jackson says he’s known both Usher and Reid since he was 17, so he’s been “much more involved” than a typical distributor.) He’s also developing new podcasts with Naomi Campbell, and says he’s been in close touch with Frank Ocean throughout the launch of gamma, seeking the artist’s feedback on details like the name of the company, but wouldn’t comment on any projects they might have in the works together.
Gamma has been shopping for catalogs besides Death Row, too, bidding for instance on some of Dr. Dre’s music assets – passive income streams including his artist and producer royalties from his solo albums — that were recently on the market, though Dr. Dre ultimately sold them to Universal and Shamrock. Jackson says catalogs “were never was a part of the business plan,” and that he’s only interested in acquiring them “on terms favorable to the original creator.”
“I only make offers,” Jackson says, “on things I feel that we can enhance.”