I noticed an interesting pattern this year. Each time I ran into Thirty Tigers head honcho David Macias at an industry function, he couldn't wait to play me some new track on his phone or share a newsy tidbit about a deal he had going, and there was no telling what kind of music had kindled his excitement — it might be a dancehall reggae clip, or an amped-up country rap, or mournful Haitian folk. Or maybe he'd recently purchased a minority stake in Brooklyn's Afro Punk festival. Well outside the box for a former Arista Nashville country marketing exec whose current company is recognized for the nimbleness of its business model — offering distribution, marketing, management, publicity and, soon, publishing services without owning shares in an artist's music — and its highly respectable track record across the trad-to-indie spectrum of the roots realm. Macias was already recognized as a brilliant business mind, not to mention a well-informed talking head on new-tech topics, but it occurred to me that he's also just about the only one in town casting this big of a musical net.
I don't know if people have a sense of how broad your musical tastes really are. How does the scope of what you're interested in line up with what you're known for? I'm definitely a proponent of the Duke Ellington school of music being in two camps: good and not. I'm interested in a lot of different types of music. As long as we can do a good job for the artist, and as long as we don't try to fool ourselves in thinking that we can bring utility to an artist when we really can't, then why shouldn't we try to bring them into the Thirty Tigers family? I mean, there's certain types of music that we understand better. We understand how the Americana world works. ... But I don't want to limit us to any particular type of music.
When you talk about what you're working on, it seems like you get off on variety and the unexpected. Well, I will admit that I do take a perverse pleasure in the breadth of things that we're able to do. ... We're gonna be working with Stephen Marley in the new year. ...
If you have an idea that something is gonna be worthwhile, you don't let it go, and you keep showing up. That's kinda the thing with [The] Afro Punk [Festival]. ... I'd heard of it, but the first time that I knew what it was other than just hearing the name, it was when we were closing out our deal with [African-American R&B artist] Alice Smith. ... So I go to the festival, and it was just a complete and utter revelation. I mean, it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. It was in a park in Brooklyn, 60,000 people, Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu playing, plus all kinds of other acts — Alice, Reggie Watts.
Smart, idiosyncratic, cutting-edge stuff. I think the Afro Punk tagline is something like "the other black experience." Yeah. So I said, "I've gotta know these people." ... The head of urban at RED [Music] put me together with [festival co-owner] Jocelyn [Cooper]. ... I had a specific idea of how I thought I could be helpful to them, by helping them perhaps get a station at Sirius/XM, because they have alternative music [stations] for every other thing. ... I wasn't asking anything of them. I was just like, "I think what you're doing is cool as shit. Let me be of service."
Eventually, this year I got the opportunity to purchase a very small piece of [the festival]. ...You know, I'm a hairy old white guy. You don't look at me and think, "He's going to be able to be of service to the black music community." Being able to build those relationships and have these people that can vouch for me [helps].
I like that you think that way — that becoming invested in one genre of music doesn't have to mean ignoring others. The other thing too, in terms of how I approach things — whether it's about the artist, which is really important, or whether it's about the company — I'm very conscious all the time about the sense of narrative. ...We're all telling stories to one another all the time. I'm telling you a story right now about Thirty Tigers. ... I mean, my staff is probably just utterly sick of the word "narrative" coming out of my mouth, but I talk about it all the time, because I think it's so important. ... A lot of times when we turn down acts, especially developing acts, it's because I don't sense that there's any sort of compelling narrative there.
I read that Thirty Tigers had a hand in releasing something like 45 projects this year, Jason Isbell's and Tristen's included. What's the most unexpected partnership? Honestly, if people know us, probably the one that's gonna surprise them the most is Chase Rice, who is about to be — I think — a big, big deal. We traditionally don't work with music that is largely driven by commercial radio. But that guy is just a hit-songwriting genius. Chase is also a very, very smart guy in terms of running his business. In the first meeting we ever had, he was like, "I want to be the Macklemore of country music." He had a clear vision for what he wanted to do.
You finished your degree at TSU after you'd started Thirty Tigers. I definitely went [to TSU] to immerse myself in an Afrocentric education. That was why I was there. So I took Africana studies. ... There was a lot of discussion about white appropriation of black culture. You know, I grew up in Florida, where Stephen Foster had written the state song, and we'd learned about Stephen Foster when I was a child. Then at a certain point, Stephen Foster just kind of disappeared from the national mindset. ... So this arc of Stephen Foster appropriating his understanding of what black culture was, becoming arguably one of the five most important people in American musical history, and then with the advent of the civil rights movement, basically getting consigned to the backburner of public consciousness, that was a very American story that was completely wrapped up in race.
Had I not been at TSU, had I not been in Africana studies, I'm not sure that that idea [for the album Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster] would have come. ... You would not expect me to be in Africana studies at TSU, but [look] what that yielded in terms of my taking this thread of thought, and where I grew up with Stephen Foster, and loving music enough that I love the history of music. ... When you can organize the approach to getting narrative out into the world, then you can do good work. I don't always reach that, and we as a company don't always reach that ideal, but that's very much what we're trying to do.
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