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SinceThe80s: Building Brands in the Business of Bars

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
Co-founders Barry “Hefner” Johnson and Zeke Nicholson speak on JID, EARTHGANG, building authentic brands in hip-hop, and the SinceThe80s story so far.

“We’re logical people who love puzzles, so for us, it’s always figuring [something] out. And you know what’s even more fun? No one really has the answers,” Zeke Nicholson told Boardroom on a Zoom call.

Really? No one?

“No matter how much experience one may have, no one has all the answers because music is always changing — and that’s what makes it fun.”

Nicholson is a co-founder of SinceThe80s, a record label, management, and publishing company that manages the likes of rappers on the rise like JID, EARTHGANG, and SoFaygo, and has released music from a growing list of artists including Njomza, Hardo, and Spillage Village.

“I think this is fun. I enjoy doing this,” company co-founder Barry “Hefner” Johnson said. “I love getting up every day because there’s a new challenge every day and it’s an uphill battle every day.”

It’s a nice metaphor, sure. But how is an outfit like SinceThe80s supposed to build momentum going uphill?

As Zeke broke it all down in a 2020 Twitter thread, Johnson “is the $$$ guy, [the] negotiator who works fervently on bringing in deals and expanding the business.” Zeke himself, meanwhile, focuses on working “pretty closely with the admin & creatives… figuring out ways to develop the sound, bring their vision to life and take that vision to create audio and visual pieces to complement that.”

The two are now in the final steps of preparation for JID to go on tour alongside Smino for their Luv is 4ever tour that will begin in Seattle, Washington on Jan. 29.

The tour will encapsulate the biggest year of JID’s career, one that saw his latest album, The Forever Story, peak at No. 12 on the Billboard 200 chart — the best mark of his career to date. Similarly, it’s not difficult to argue that SinceThe80s had its biggest year since the formation of the company in 2017. JID had his highest charting album and song last year. EARTHGANG released their sophomore album Ghetto Gods. SoFaygo, Mike Dimes, Hardo, Metro Marrs, Kwesi Arthur, LanceDa Yungin and NDO Dee (all of whom are signed to the label) released projects last year. The list doesn’t even include Dreamville’s D-Day project released ahead of the second Dreamville Festival.

The President and co-founder of Dreamville, Ibrahim Hamad, credited Johnson for inspiring him to get the album done.

“We are definitely seeing it start to peak in the direction that we want it to be in and we’re thankful for that. But when you’re in this every day, it never feels like it’s ever big enough or crazy enough,” Johnson said, explaining to Boardroom that this conversation is the first time he sat to reflect on the year. He attributed this to never being satisfied and always trying to push the bar higher.

Photo courtesy of SinceThe80s

“It’s about hunger It all goes back to what you want to see for yourself. It’s about proving to yourself and looking at what values you want to bring to the game and what mark you want to leave on it.”

An apt analogy hammered the idea home.

“It’s like we’re sculpting a statue and we keep chiseling away at it until it’s where you want it to be. Now, we’re starting to see the picture of where we want it to be after we’ve been building for eight or nine years, but the complete statue hasn’t been finished yet.”

But why not?

“We want to execute as many ideas as possible,” Nicholson said. “When you’re always challenging yourself in ways of being creative like speaking to a fanbase, building an audience, and then growing it globally, you’ll always have things to do.”

Remember — no one really has the answers.

In the meantime, SinceThe80s and its talent are here trying to pose as many intriguing questions as time will allow.

To Build a Brand

Building up its artists’ individual brands without sacrificing the collective mission of the business has proven to be a SinceThe80s specialty, but to let them tell it, their ability to uplift this growing roster is dependent on full honesty and transparency as to where each member wants to go and how high they’re prepared to reach.

“Our whole thing is anything is attainable if you work at it. We can go find and do any deal if we plan on working for it. If we can prove that we deserve these things we’ll go get ’em,” Johnson said. “The difference between the brand of an artist is about what he or she is willing to put into it and what he or she is not going to do.”

There’s an education to be had as this process plays out, and sometimes, it does not come from Johnson or Nicholson. “A lot comes from entrusting others and instilling value into other people. You have to be selfless and not so egotistical to understand you may not know these things so it’s best to go get people who can not only help me understand but to manage the things you don’t know. We want our artists so involved and to understand things to the point that they hate repeating themselves,” Johnson said.

One of the ways an artist can build their brand? Don’t overthink it — tour across the globe, and then do it again. Apart from fame and industry prestige, touring is quite simply always going to be a primary revenue stream for artists. Although so much is made of streaming numbers and chart positions week to week, artists ultimately don’t see the bulk of their income through album sales. For example, Ditto Music notes that Spotify pays artists $0.003 to $0.005 per stream on average, and an artist may not actually touch that money anyway if their record deal confers residuals on a given song’s publisher or the label itself.

As to the politics of the business, J. Cole offered some advice to younger rappers on his track “1985.” Once again, the name of the game was quite simple:

“I got some good advice, never quit tourin’ / ‘Cause that’ the way we eat here in this rap game.”

“A lot of artists’ revenue comes from touring and merchandise. If you can show an artist the importance of what that looks like, especially in terms of their ecosystem, in terms of their branding, you get a lot further when you’re trying to teach them,” Nicholson said.

“Watching them perform is also a good measuring stick to see what level an artist is at when it comes to their thinking process of making music. They have to realize what it’s like to record music, but then to entertain and perform music. If you really want to be in the entertainment business you have to learn how to entertain, and I think the best way of sharpening your skills is being on-stage.”

Stage time is especially critical because so many of the artists SinceThe80s has signed are newcomers who have not yet been afforded the chance to tour on the level of JID or EARTHGANG; since the release of the former’s The Never Story in 2017 and the latter’s Rags, Robots, and Royalty EP trio, the Atlanta natives have combined to put on over 250 shows. The consistency has allowed both JID and EARTHGANG to grow gradually and sustainably, no cheap stunts or one-off viral gimmicks required.

Now, they’re booking larger and larger venues to account for burgeoning audience demand.

“Touring is not about hype. It’s about consistency, it’s about community-building, it’s about giving people a reason to spend their hard-earned money to pay to see you entertain.”

There’s a visual component here that’s not to be underestimated, too. When artists perform live, they are able to see what their fan looks like — yes, newsflash — but additionally what they gravitate toward and how they respond to certain songs. Seeing all of this directly affects brand and business trajectories in the big picture, whether related to creating merchandise that resonates with superfans or making the kind of music most likely to capture the broadest audience’s attention on stage or in their headphones.

JID raps about precisely on his song “Better Days”:

“To make it to forever took a very long time / I took every wrong turn, packed a long line / Just for rapping long words / Fuck a net worth, I made a million off of merch.”

While SinceThe80s’ artists are admittedly a long way from Travis Scott’s Nike deal or Chance the Rapper’s iconic”3″ hat, Johnson is bullish about the rewards that come from an artist’s relentless daily focus on the craft.

“At the end of the day, everyone has a gift. Some people are working hard on sharpening their skills to grow and others are not. That’s the difference. All of these things are pieces to your story that adds on to who you are, what you are, and what you will become one day,” he said.

Awards & Acclaim

For some artists, selling out an arena is its own reward. For plenty of others, the enjoyment that comes with critical acclaim or praise from peers for chart-topping tracks is the gold standard. Award shows, meanwhile, have a complicated relationship with artists — specifically rappers.

In part, the history of hip-hop is a history of artists feeling snubbed or altogether ignored by the music industry establishment. Naturally, this runs the risk of creating deep-rooted disdain.

Drake, who won Best Rap Song at the Grammys in 2019 and Billboard’s Artist of the Decade award in 2021, shunned the value of these trinkets at the ceremony for the former: “You’ve already won if you have people singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your hometown. Look, if there’s people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows. You don’t need this right here. I promise you, you already won.”

And this is Aubrey Graham we’re talking about, one of the single most famous, most successful artists on the planet. How does it all feel, then, for the rap game’s underclass and upwardly mobile middle?

Right on cue, despite critical acclaim for both of their releases, both JID and EARTHGANG were denied nominations for the 2023 Grammys.

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“I think for any artist for any artist, management team, or label that puts out great art, you want recognition. It’s no different than winning the championship and getting a trophy. There are people that say they don’t care about it, but they don’t care about it because they didn’t receive one,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t kill our mood when we’re not receiving awards.”

Added Nicholson: “I think the impact it has on an artist is probably a personal thought. it’s about what you put value in. It’s hard to get mad at something when you know how it is and when you know what it takes.”

Ultimately, it’s clear that the two feel conflicted about trophies. Sure, awards snubs haven’t hurt their confidence, their artists are still selling out tours, and the merchandise game is growing — but at the same time, they also believe SinceThe80s is releasing music that deserves greater consideration from the mainstream of the industry.

Every now and then, that needs to mean a big nomination or two.

That gets Johnson thinking back to the 2020 Grammy nomination for Best Rap Album garnered by the 2019 Dreamville compilation Revenge of the Dreamers III, which included contributions from multiple SinceThe80s artists.

As a member of the Grammy Awards’ ambassador program, Johnson’s view of the awards has gotten more nuanced. “There’s a lot of politics that go on behind the scenes; I’ve never felt greater in this business aspiring to do something than in 2019 to be nominated with the people that we started with. For all of us to dress up and go lose, that was frustrating,” he said. “But the preparation, the outfits, us talking about it, we crushed the 2019 Grammys. Even though we lost, that shit was fun. Obviously, I’m a sore loser. I wanna win. Who doesn’t want to win?”

“We came into working in music saying we wanted to win a Grammy, so it’s going to mean something to us,” Nicholson said, “but our value and what we create and how we feel about what we do isn’t defined by whether we win or lose.”

Revealing the Truth, Uplifting the Youth

One of the most distinctive aspects of SinceThe80s’ founding duo is undoubtedly their tweets. Johnson is one of the most outspoken music managers on Twitter, and Nicholson is frequently ready with a ringing endorsement. And when Johnson isn’t tweeting about sports, he’s spinning tips and advice on the music business.

This makes him an anomaly; most music managers don’t speak about their approach, strategies, or evaluation of trends openly and free of charge.

“I don’t need to hide information like I’m a gatekeeper. I don’t give a fuck about that. I honestly would love for everybody to know more about this shit so we could stop having stupid conversations,” he said. “I hate dumb-ass conversations.”

As he continues, his passion builds.

“I hate going to artists and they’ll say ‘how did so-and-so get this or get that?’ And I’m like, by fucking working! It didn’t just pop out. What’s funny is I don’t do it based off of conversations I have with my artists but sometimes they need to hear it, too. Sometimes, artists in general just don’t really understand it until they see a bunch of other artists or people that they respect in the comments agreeing with me.”

A couple of moments later, the true purpose behind all this is revealed.

“It allows healthy conversations surrounding subjects. We don’t have to beat people down in the process of trying to learn. Sometimes, I have people hit me in my DMs or they’ll text me and say, ‘I can’t say this, but you were right.’ And I think it goes to show we are not having open and honest conversations about this business. And his business thrives off people being stupid, ignorant, and uneducated. All of it just gives me a headache, so I would rather just tell you the truth.”

To be clear, the co-founders’ ongoing educational outreach goes further than tweeting about their artists and others’, however. The two take pride in taking young people under their wing and helping them grow to become future managers, A&Rs, label executives, and beyond. “People don’t really talk about how you work in entertainment,” Nicholson said,” and so we spend a lot of time trying to break myths and show the real process, the real story of what it looks like to work in this industry.

Nicholson additionally told Boardroom that every one of the company’s former interns has eventually gone on to work at a major label. “I think that’s a token to them having an experience with us and realizing they really want to do this. I think it’s about leadership and how you choose to lead and how you choose to help others grow,” he said.

Over time, that becomes a two-way street.

“As we grew further apart from things we always knew, they would know things we didn’t know,” Hefner added. “It might be tough to accept at first, but once you start looking at things and saying something has to be a certain way, that’s when you lose sight of the actual growth or opportunities you may be missing.”

Photo courtesy of SinceThe80s

A major growth opportunity for young artists, producers, and managers took place at the end of 2022 during SinceThe80s Recording Camp. From Dec. 5-9, all of the company’s artists gathered in Atlanta to create new tunes with outside talents who RSVP’d for the event.

The music that was generated during those sessions could release later this year. But no matter what happens, Johnson considered it a unique and valuable approach to the business of music — and not just for the artists alone.

“It’s education. I think the key to a lot of things is not only uplifting the artist community, but the executive community, too,” he said. “A lot of people put their time into helping these artists get millions and millions of dollars to take care of their families and help them reach the highest point of their careers, and I think the people in the back deserve the same amount of love.”

They also teased that they are working on an apprenticeship program.

“We want it to be a non-traditional pathway into the entertainment business, because as we know, the entertainment business is not a traditional career,” Nicholson said. “There’s always this kind of aura working in entertainment because people don’t really talk about how you actually work in entertainment. This will help with that.”

The love these two have for their jobs exudes through the way they speak; what was once intended to be a 30-minute conversation, is now over 50. But despite all the talk about laying groundwork for a rising generation and making it easier for them to crash the gates of the industry, both men laughed at the thought of retirement being anywhere close.

“There are so many things that we’re trying to do. It’s more about building legacy and infrastructure to educate the artists and young executives that want to work in music, so when I look at it from that perspective, as long as it’s fun, enjoyable and we love it, we’ll do it,” Nicholson said.

“Barry and I are open-book people. The more information you can share, the more knowledgeable people are. We spend a lot of time trying to break myths and show the real process, the real story of what it looks like to work in this industry.”

But this is not just any industry — it’s one in which Zeke Nicholson readily admits no one really has the answers.

Six years into existence, that hasn’t put a single solitary dent into SinceThe80s’ worldview as their stable gets bigger and bigger.


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About The Author
Randall Williams
Randall Williams
Randall Williams is a former Staff Writer at Boardroom specializing in sports business and music. He previously worked for Sportico, Andscape and Bloomberg. His byline has also been syndicated in the Boston Globe and Time Magazine. Williams' notable profile features include NFL Executive VP Troy Vincent, Dreamville co-founder Ibrahim Hamad, BMX biker Nigel Sylvester, and both Shedeur and Shilo Sanders. Randall, a graduate of "The Real HU" -- Hampton University — is most proud of scooping Howard University joining Jordan Brand nearly three months before the official announcement.