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EXECUTIVES & ENTREPRENEURS

How Steve Stoute Built a Culture Coalition

“When you come up with an idea that’s truly something new and innovative, most people aren’t going to see it,” Stoute tells Boardroom. “Your job is to stay the course regardless.”

The story of Steve Stoute cannot be written without venturing deep into the worlds of artist empowerment and the advancement of African-American culture.

He began his career in the 90s working within the music industry for different labels and managing artists like Nas and Mary J. Blige. Stoute’s management of superstar talents could still be considered small beginnings, however –years later, he’s the CEO of two different companies, UnitedMasters and Translation.

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UnitedMasters, a music distribution platform, launched in 2016 and raised $70 million from an impressive list of backers including Google parent company Alphabet, venture firm Andreesen Horowitz, Floodgate, and 20th Century Fox. Today, UnitedMasters is home to 1.3 million independent artists, and with revenue from indie labels and artists growing 27% last year according to Midia Research, UnitedMasters has grown along with them.

Stoute’s music distribution platform reached a $550 million valuation through its latest Series C funding round led by Andreesen Horowitz.

UntiedMasters aims to bypass traditional music distributors like large record labels and give that ability to the artists. “Coming up in the music business in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s was more of an artist finding a record company and the record company helps you find an audience,” said Stoute told Boardroom a phone interview. “The record business changed to artists finding an audience first and then finding a record company. And my point of view is that if you are an artist and you have already found an audience, then why do you have to sign those valuable rights away to a record company?”

Artists who are on UnitedMasters’ platform still have their music distributed to Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, and many other streaming services. Outside of distribution, Stoute and his team have struck innovative deals with Twitch, TikTok, the NBA, and ESPN. 

UnitedMasters’ latest pact is with Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange. The deal will allow artists to be paid in cryptocurrency through the exchange’s new payroll feature.

“We’re spending a lot of time trying to provide different ways that artists can make money on our platform,” said Sally Shin, chief strategy officer at UnitedMasters. “This is giving our artists another option to be paid in crypto. We all know that streaming alone can’t be your only source of income. We see a lot of opportunity in the space, and Coinbase has been an incredible partner.

UnitedMasters’ plans for the world of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology extend beyond simply Coinbase, however.

“The record business changed… my point of view is that if you are an artist and you have already found an audience, then why do you have to sign those valuable rights away to a record company?”

Steve Stoute

“There’s a lot more coming for us in the crypto space and this is just chapter one. We have access to brands. Some of the top brands in the world work with us and more and more they want to tap into our artist base,” Shin said. “We want to be the marketplace where we are matching the best up and coming independent artists with the best brands in the world.”

No matter the direction in which they extend, each UnitedMasters partnership has the same goal: empowering their artists by enhancing their reach.

Where the Coinbase partnership allows artists to be paid in cryptocurrency, the partnership with Twitch is set to launch a program called “The Collective” that will give select UnitedMasters artists educational tools and support on how to build an audience and interactive communities to grow their fanbases. And the deal with TikTok allows brands and users of the short-form video app to use an artist’s music in the platform’s commercial music library which will give businesses access to a larger catalog of new sounds. 

The goal is to give independent artists as many opportunities and tools to succeed as they can. But over 10 years before the conception of UnitedMasters, Stoute was already thinking of new ways to help brands reach a broader, more multicultural range of consumers — and that’s where Translation emerged, an advertising and marketing agency with the goal of helping brands reach more multicultural consumers.

Translation is responsible for notable infusion of culture into national advertisement campaigns, from rapper Pusha T writing the “I’m Lovin’ It” McDonald’s jingle in 2004 to an Emmy-nominated commercial for Beats by Dre entitled “You Love Me” in 2020. 

Translation’s latest offering to the world was the “Welcome to NBA Lane” TV ad celebrating the league’s 75th season. The advertisement takes viewers on a school bus trip around a neighborhood surrounded by NBA stars of the past, present, and young players who are up and coming. The ad was loved by players and fans alike, but Translation’s Jason Campbell, the agency’s executive creative director has hinted that this is just the beginning. 

“There is more content in the can. At specific times of the year, we’ll be releasing more things like this. This is going to be one long celebration,” Campbell said. “This was meant to be layered with so many easter eggs that you have to watch it a couple times. This is what Translation does. We are a creative strategic entity that is responsible for helping brands use culture in a respectful way.”

 The NBA commercial exemplifies everything that Stoute and Translation have to offer.

“This is the kind of work that we make and the responsibility that we have to move culture forward, this is what I want. The reaction has been out of control, people love it. It’s an outcome of diverse minds thinking on ideas.” he said.

The team Stoute has built at Translation is reflective of what he’s trying to represent.

“Diversity of thought, people, and culture is not only where you get the best ideas from but it is also the fabric of the world. You need diversity of thinking especially if you’re an advertising business serving a diverse group of people and diverse brands,” he said.

Reflecting on what he’s seen change, Stoute notes that brands were not always using culture in a respectful manner. “I saw different artists and brands doing advertisements that weren’t truly capturing the power of the culture at all; it was more of a mockery of the culture because there weren’t people inside these companies that understood how to best partner with the culture to make something great,” he said. 

At its conception, this was a wrong that Stoute’s entrepreneurship sought to right. Now, UnitedMasters and Translation are doing much more than zigging while the rest of the industry zags; rather, they’re demonstrating that there was a better way forward all along.

“This has been a long journey. I tell a lot of entrepreneurs [that] usually when you come up with an idea, if it’s truly something that is new and innovative, most people aren’t going to agree with you. They are not going to see it,” said Stoute. “The difficulty is to remain focused on that dream despite going through a series of people that are very close to that just can’t see it. It’s not their dream and there’s nothing wrong with that, but your job is to stay the course regardless.”

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