Empire CEO/Founder Ghazi Shami
Photo by Adrian Spinelli
How EMPIRE Became A Music Industry Giant In An Unlikely City
The elevator doors open on the 25th floor into a sleek, glass-walled office. There's a Platinum or Gold record plaque on every wall throughout the space from iconic hip-hop releases like Fat Joe and Remy Ma's "All The Way Up" single, Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 album, as well as new stacks coming in from emerging stars like Rich Brian and Lil Durk. While this would be par for the course in L.A. or New York music industry enclaves, we're in a less likely locale: Downtown San Francisco, where EMPIRE HQ, an independent Bay Area label/distributor, has carved out a unique place in hip-hop and beyond.
Entities like EMPIRE don't typically exist in San Francisco, a place devoid of major music industry label infrastructure these days, aside from digital streaming providers (DSP). But CEO/Founder Ghazi Shami, an S.F. local who came up as an audio engineer and then Director of Urban at UMG-owned distribution firm InGrooves, was committed to building an independent entity in his backyard.
"I'm a product of my environment," says Shami. "This company wouldn't exist if I wasn’t born and bred in the Bay; in S.F. and Silicon Valley. This company is as much a software company as it is a music company. It’d be a disservice to the roots, to the origin, to everything that I stand for, if this company wasnt firmly planted or rooted here."
Since its inception in 2010, EMPIRE has set itself apart from the pack by focusing on digital music platforms first, a stroke of foresight, but also timing, right around when majors still hadn’t accepted that physical sales were going by the wayside. The streaming music focus has rendered EMPIRE as not only a go-to player in hip-hop, but also an organization that facilitates accurate royalty payments to artists, songwriters, producers and labels from all ends of the spectrum. Plus, by staying independent, it affords Shami and EMPIRE unique flexibility to do business differently than a major label.
"I don't have a board of directors. I don't have shareholders," Shami says. "The Bay Area is a tech hub, but it was also the indie music mecca of the U.S. We didn’t crack the mold, we made the mold on independent music. When artists were getting 75 cents as a royalty for an album, there were artists out here like E-40 getting $9 an album on P&D deals."
More Than Hip-Hop?
That Bay Area hustler mentality is indeed strong at EMPIRE, and it’s at the root of what has made the company's ascent look so different. Not only have they built up their marketing, publishing, content and merchandising divisions to the tune of over 60 employees spread across S.F., a London office and an A&R team in New York, they've begun to expand into new verticals outside of hip-hop.
VP of A&R Tina Davis, a Def Jam alum who ran a management firm for over a decade until joining EMPIRE in early 2018, says EMPIRE has had an eye on diverse talent outside of hip-hop long before she arrived.
"It started with hip-hop, that’s the foundation," Davis says. "But prior to me getting here for example, they had successfully set up [chart-topping country singer] Kane Brown. Now we've got DJ Carnage on the EDM side, Robin Thicke has the #1 Adult Contemporary Single for the third week in a row and we have a very strong Latin America division."
Since coming to EMPIRE, Davis says she's actually had to develop a "different side of A&R," namely via analytics and metrics. So while she and her team are rooted in the old school, they have to be forward-thinking when building relationships with streaming services and allowing artists to upload their own releases to DSP’s whenever they want.
"There's transparency," Davis says. "They can put it up themselves and see exactly what their streams are making and how much they’re making. In the old-school way, you’d get bottlenecked because you’re behind the A-List artist and then you finally get a chance to come out and you’re don’t know what to do anymore."
Bay Area R&B singer Rayana Jay, for example, has put out each of her last two releases in a joint venture with EMPIRE, a set-up Shami is keen on and has made it fairly standard in EMPIRE releases. Pull up the label metadata on a streaming service for an artist and you’ll often see both their name or self-owned label along with EMPIRE's. For Jay, there’s a specific element to the JV structure that appeals to her. "Honestly what I have with Empire is brilliant and something I don’t take for granted," she says. "I have ownership of my masters which is rare, and it’s truly a blessing."
EMPIRE's VP of A&R Tina Davis
Growth In Latin Music
Across the sweeping open floor plan of the EMPIRE office, Alán Hensley, Product Manager for EMPIRE Latino (the Latin American division that Davis referenced) is one of the Empire team members who cultivates relationships with streaming services. Hensley got his Masters Degree in Global Entertainment and Music at Berklee College of Music’s Valencia, Spain campus and was working at Square—a payment services tech company co-founded by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and headquartered in S.F.—before jumping on at Empire over two years ago.
In a lot of ways, Hensley’s background in tech and his studies abroad signify the future of the music industry. Now operating in 16 different Spanish-speaking countries, EMPIRE needs people like Hensley to navigate this new landscape.
"One of the most important parts of what we do, is trying to develop a relationship with the DSP’s; the editors and curators of the playlist,” Hensley says. “The new age of music isn’t just about working the album, but working songs into playlists.”
LatAm music has grown exponentially over the past five years; three of the top four most-viewed YouTube videos in 2019 are from Spanish-speaking artists. And EMPIRE is making inroads working with artists like GRAMMY Award-winning Nicaraguan salsa singer Luis Enrique and Puerto Rican reggaeton artist Darkiel. But Hensley explains that the tide is turning for Latina musicians.
"It wasn’t until recently [that] we're seeing [Latina musicians] taking control of their narrative," Hensley says. "And now, as LatAm countries and cultures progress more, that narrative is being talked about so openly from the female perspective. But as I look at the charts, as I look at everything on Spotify, it almost seems illogical that there’s so few females out there, but I don’t think it’s for a lack of talent. So I specifically try to find females that are really dope who have something to offer just as much as their male counterparts do... And in general as Latin music is getting more popular in the U.S. and starting to push societal norms and topics within these LatAm countries forward, it’s a reason why EMPIRE has been able to quickly make moves in the market."
EMPIRE VP, Nima Etminan, with newly arrived plaques for releases from Lil Durk and Rich Brian
Not Without Challenges
From both a label and a distribution perspective, EMPIRE has no shortage of marquee artists on their roster. The success of Anderson .Paak’s album Malibu, D.R.A.M.'s ubiquitous "Broccoli" have both been defining releases. And most recently, Iggy Azalea's latest album, In My Defense and Snoop Dogg’s upcoming album, I WANNA THANK ME, are both released as joint ventures with EMPIRE.
But perhaps their biggest success story has been in distributing and releasing the work of embattled rapper XXXTENTACION, both before and after his life was cut short in 2018. The Florida rapper's career has been celebrated for both the popularity of his emotional, post-Soundcloud rap that refused to adhere to stylistic singularity and the accompanying gaudy streaming numbers ("Sad" has over one billion Spotify streams and it's hard to find any song not in nine-figure streams). Over his legacy, however, hangs a cloud from multiple domestic abuse allegations and a slew of other legal issues that followed him through a rough upbringing. The push/pull nature of his music and personal life are an understandable line in the sand for a lot of listeners.
"I knew him as a person and what he was going through," Shami says. "If I ride with you, I'm with you till the stick shift breaks. From the beginning, I told him 'I'm with you good or bad.' He was making some amazing progress in his personal life and it's a shame that it got cut so short. He's definitely an artist that defined a segment of the legacy of this company for sure. We've had quite a few and he definitely has a gigantic chapter that’s still being written."
That future chapter is the release of Bad Vibes Forever, a joint venture between EMPIRE and XXXTENTACION's estate. Presiding over an artist's posthumous discography is no easy task—especially this particular artist, whose life was much maligned—but Shami feels confident that this project will honor his artistic legacy.
"It’s hard, gut-wrenching," Shami says of releasing this music. "You spend a lot of time that you feel will honor the legacy of how you’d want it to be. I did. With his Mom, [XXXTENTACION's manager] Solomon, producers and engineers. They’ve dug through his scrapbooks and voice notes to weave a narrative that’s as true to form as what we would have wanted."
Shami looks out his office window.
A Chance At Success
When I came into the EMPIRE office on a Tuesday afternoon, Shami handed me a water in an Aluminum bottle. I remarked how I’d seen this water before and liked that it wasn’t in plastic. He told me he was actually an investor in the brand; a group of young upstarts approached him with the opportunity, saying they came up similarly to him and that he could stand to make a lot of money.
"I looked at them and said that I don't care about making a lot of money," he says. "But I'd invest on one condition: 'When you’re successful and you get on, the next kid that comes from what we came from or had the same challenges of the same things we went through, when they come looking for an opportunity, make sure they get a chance the way I gave you a chance."
It’s the Bay Area pay-it-forward hustle personified. It’s how Shami’s 2008 summer intern at InGrooves, Nima Etminan, is now his second-in-command as EMPIRE's VP. "I'm like Robin to his Batman," Etminan jokes.
With EMPIRE approaching 10 years in business, the pair reflects on what they’ve built together. "We fall somewhere into that middle space," Etminan says. "A lot of resources and infrastructure that typically only come with a major [label], but transparency and flexibility and lack of politics that usually comes with an indie."
"We’re very fluid," Shami adds. "I can build infrastructure very quickly and if something doesn’t work, I can tear it down and rebuild it and shift directions. It’s like King Kong vs Bruce Lee: do you want size and strength or speed and ingenuity?"
Shami then turns around in his chair, looks out the window and points just beyond San Francisco's Financial District towards Chinatown.
"Bruce Lee was born a block from over there."
All photos by Adrian Spinelli