Connect Music aims to put Black artists at the top of playlists

George Monger has never fancied himself a performer in the classic sense.

But even as a teen, when he encouraged rappers to a battle of lyrics or moves in the hallways of Overton High, he had a flair for promotion, an instinct for building an audience.

Today, less than three years after he formed Connect Music, Monger has raised more than $600,000 from local investors, bought a Downtown headquarters, amassed several million in sales, established a $10 million credit line to help independent musicians and, as of this month, acquired his first overseas company, MTX Music.

Monger, CEO of Connect Music, is out to make sure independent Black artists have a path forward, and get every cent they earn. It’s a dilemma peculiar to the streaming age, and the fact that some 3 million tunes are uploaded every month in the United States, many straight from the artist’s phone.

In the rush to the marketplace, collaborators — writers, producers, backups — are often left off the submission list. When the royalties start flowing, they are out in the cold, says Monger, who grew up in South Memphis.

“Apple and YouTube have a responsibility to pay writers and producers if they know who they are. If they don’t know who created the work, it sits in a black box, an uncollected fund of about $1 billion annually,” he said.

The money is eventually distributed, based on market share, but market share has never included unregistered contributors.

Because a third of the streamed music being listened to today is hip hop and R&B, the system disproportionately affects Black creators.

Connect Music, which has licensing agreements with the world’s largest digital streaming services — Apple, Spotify, Amazon, YouTube, Pandora and Boomplay in Africa — is building the platform to represent Black independents and get their work at the top of the playlists.

“Those agreements give us the right to back our truck up to their door with new music and download into their systems,” Monger said.

With the music publishing and distribution business now estimated at $22 billion a year and expected to grow to $92.5 billion by 2030, Monger is betting big on Memphis, buying a 31,000-square-foot headquarters at 158 Vance.

It is a space far bigger than the company’s immediate needs so he can build a place for entertainment executives to brush shoulders with the people making the music, studios where they can work out their ideas and rooms big enough for their announcements, awards and receptions.

“Memphis has to build this infrastructure to be competitive with other cities. If you go to London, if you go to New York, Los Angeles, you have SoHo House, you have work facilities so you that you can have collaboration. In some of these locations, like SoHo, you have rooms you can rent to stay, you have studios, you have access to podcasts.

“Memphis has to have a hub for creatives,” he says.

Former Memphis Grizzlies player Zach Randolph rented the headquarters Thursday, Dec. 15, for a bash he was hosting. Trucks unloading crates and props idled on Vance early in the day.

“This is what I’m talking about,” Monger said, watching the evening’s infrastructure take shape.

Two houses, one roof

Connect Music offers two functions. On the distribution side, it is a boutique firm with several hundred hand-selected clients, about 60% of them based here.

“We hand-select those we are proud to represent to our streaming partners. We have a direct line to the playlist editors, which helps our clients stand out in the crowd,” Monger said.

“We help them cut through the noise of all those other releases. We do that through a set of tools: ‘How do we roll you out on marketing on your social media? How do we do certain ad buys to target your target demographic?’ We provide services, much like a label.

Apple and YouTube have a responsibility to pay writers and producers if they know who they are. If they don’t know who created the work, it sits in a black box, an uncollected fund of about $1 billion annually.

George Monger
Connect Music CEO

“That’s the benefit. But they get to own their copyrights. … They’re in control. They’re in the driver’s seat. That model truly amplifies their voice and ensures that they maintain their independence,” he said.

On the other side is the publishing biz, the back-office-cleanup-and-dispute-management work that helps independent artists get their share of the pie, starting with properly registering their work.

Producer Matthew Applewhite still can hardly believe what Monger represents. Over about a year, Monger helped him access more than $70,000 in royalties for producing the Boosie Badass song, “Nasty Nasty.”

“Since then, everything is a lot better on the business side,” Applewhite said.

Connect Music gets a percentage of what it finds for Applewhite, a former Memphian, and the 60-70 other artists it represents on the publishing side of the house.

“It’s definitely fair because first of all, I didn’t know about the money,” Applewhite said.

To do it, Monger and his team pay attention to analytics the streaming services provide, noticing who’s getting big spikes in listens. If they are independents, the team finds out who contributed to the work.

Applewhite, who was paid $1,000 upfront to produce the song, was hitting a spike of 100-plus million streams.

“I’m watching this record just grow and grow,” Monger said. “So, I go to social media, and I look him up and I send him a social media message, ‘Hey, Man, who does your publishing services for you?’ ”

Applewhite is now a client, with a seat at the market-share table.

“George is knowledgeable, and he doesn’t mind sharing the knowledge,” Applewhite said.

In 2022, Preserver Partners, run by Memphian Floyd Tyler, set the company up with $10 million credit line, which it uses to cover the marketing and development costs for launches.

“It gives us the ability for us to say, ‘We believe in your music. We have some analytics and data modeling that says how much we should invest in your deal.’ ”

In exchange, Connect Music will take a slightly higher distribution rate.

“Based on our risk, we’ll work with you on what the marketing plan and rollout looks like. Once the record comes out, and money comes in, we’ll pay that loan that we took on your behalf, and we’ll split the proceeds with you at the end of the term,” Monger said. “And you own the rights forever.”

It’s definitely fair, because first of all, I didn’t know about the money.

Matthew Applewhite
producer

Connect Music started out in the incubator run by Epicenter, the 501(c)(3) that exists to help businesses particularly suited to thrive in Memphis, according to Jessica Taveau, president and CEO.

“Because Connect Music is a disruptive technology in the music industry, they were really an ideal startup to be a member here.”

Disruptors are tech businesses that create new products or services or new efficiencies in an existing industry.

“In the tech space, we are always really focused on sectors where Memphis has a competitive advantage,” Taveau said.

Everyone knows music is one of the sectors.

“It’s really rethinking the way things are done within an existing industry through technology,” she said.

Not-so-noble past

History is littered with contracts that favored the record labels and made their executives rich and famous. In the end, the artists didn’t own their music. Some, many of them Black, died penniless.

That history is Monger’s guide now and, really, his nemesis.

“They got to keep your copyright for the rest of your life plus 70 years after death,” he said. “That’s an expensive loan.”

Monger graduated from Overton Park High in 2007. By that fall, he had convinced Sony to give him a music distribution contract based on a letter he wrote promising to get notable artists to download their work to iTunes and other big names. Within eight months, the deal was dead because Monger, 19, had no idea how to execute on what he’d promised.

It wasn’t lost time. It forced him to pay attention when the whole music distribution system was changing.

“We could see the deal that Sony was doing with YouTube. Then YouTube gets acquired by Google. More and more record stores were under pressure and going away.

“My brother is a classical opera singer, so I’m really interested in music,” Monger says.

But the only thing he could feel in his soul was that his brother was growing creatively and that a fifth-grade teacher had told him that kids interested in hip-hop could expect to end up at Third and Vance.

“She didn’t mean owning the building,” Monger said with a smile.

It’s really rethinking the way things are done within an existing industry through technology.

Jessica Taveau
Epicenter CEO

Those formative years helped him see the anxiety creators had about the business side of the trade. They knew the horror stories because many Black artists were left with nothing.

“Music and business are the antithesis of each other,” says Monger, who has tailored his approach to vanish the inequity.

“I don’t need to talk about the prospective basis of recruitment. I need to make it plain. I need to bring down barriers to entry so that you’re working with the same knowledge I’m working with, so you can be disarmed in our engagement.”

As a teen, Monger acted as the agent for his brother, Kendrick Jacocks. In 2012, he was David Porter’s hand-picked executive director of the Consortium MMT. For a short time, Monger was Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s chief operating officer and then, in 2017, he got a gig directing Made in Memphis Entertainment.

All that experience, he says, kept him close to Memphis and music.

With Black music, story is similar everywhere

In December, Connect Music announced to the music press around the world its purchase of London-based MTX Music.

The company works in largely the same space for a variety of genres, including jazz.

Monger and co-founder Askia Fountain see London as the UK entry point for thousands of immigrants, many of them Black.

“Seeing it as a breeding ground for hip-hop music, R&B, Afro beats, it was a no-brainer opportunity,” Monger said.

“It is an opportunity for us to partner with creators that saw some of the same challenges we see in the U.S. around hip-hop music.”

MTX, which has 295 artists, will be run day to day by Fountain, who draws on years of experience managing artists and repertoire, including Nipsey Hussle, the West Coast rapper who died in 2019 of gunshot wounds.

Memphis built, including financing

Connect Music raised its startup capital here in 2021.

Eleven Memphis investors — “guys with publicly traded companies and CEOs” — contributed more than $600,000, Monger says.

Most of them are white, the “go-to guys in the city,” he says, in the way people talk about benefactors without naming the names.

Monger does not find it exactly hard to believe that the power brokers in Memphis are interested in the success of Black musicians and writers, and the equity they will likely have in the firm.

“Our investors know that Memphis has a special creative class. That class, in a majority minority city, is the majority minority creators.”

In 2023, Connect Music will launch its second round of fund-raising. SEC regulations limit what Monger can so and when he will say it.

“I think it is safe to say that as we prepare for our next round, it will be it will be in the millions of dollars.”

This was originally published on “dailymemphian.com”

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