Strange Music Inc.’s move into pop music
Any tour of the Strange Music compound requires a pair of comfortable walking shoes and some kind of vehicle.
The label that launched the career of rapper Tech N9ne, Kansas City’s most successful music artist, moved to a business park in Lee’s Summit nearly nine years ago. Since then it has expanded from one large building to three. A fourth building is under construction, and plans are to break ground on a fifth — a palatial, $7 million, 60,000-square-foot headquarters — in April 2019.
For now, Strange Music’s headquarters are in a glitzy 18,000-square-foot building just southwest of of N.E. Douglas Street and Interstate 470. On a recent blustery spring afternoon, Travis O’Guin, who started the label with Tech N9ne in 1999, gave two visitors a tour that lasted roughly 90 minutes and included lots of gawking at the spoils of ambition and success.
But this year, the company’s growth won’t be in just brick and mortar.
An exclusively hip-hop label for nearly 18 years, Strange Music is about to launch its pop music division. The label will release albums by three pop artists, and one of them, it turns out, has been right under O’Guin’s nose for nearly all of those 18 years.
The first three
Though she has released only two singles, Strange Music’s first pop artist has already sold a hefty cache of merchandise ($5,000 worth after performing at the Red, White and Boom festival in Independence last summer) and attracted millions of YouTube viewers.
Mackenzie Nicole, 17 and about to graduate from St. Teresa’s Academy, is O’Guin’s younger daughter.
“The last thing in the world I wanted my daughter to be in is the music business,” O’Guin said. “But she’s been singing since she was 6. Her choice. She’s classically trained in opera. And she really likes music.”
And since she was 9 years old, she has been contributing vocals to Tech N9ne tracks. She first appeared on the title track to his “K.O.D.” album, released in 2009.
“There have been a ton of those,” O’Guin said. “Then she started recording her own songs. And they’re really good. She has an interest, and at this point I’d be the biggest jerk on the planet if I didn’t support her.”
O’Guin had been thinking about starting a pop division for nearly eight years, since Strange Music producer Michael “Seven” Summers came to him and said he wanted to be more than just a hip-hop producer.
“We very consciously decided to try to discover different pop acts we could bring into the fold here,” O’Guin said. “Seven took a bunch of trips to discover talent.”
Eventually, they signed a Chicago band, Above Waves, whose lineup includes drummer Lance Bennett, a native Kansas Citian.
Mackenzie was supposed to contribute to a Tech N9ne/Strange Music collaborations album, one of a series called Collabos that features guest appearances. But her vocal “feature” fell through, fortuitously.
“Tech never got her a record to do,” O’Guin said. “So we said, ‘Don’t be disappointed. You and Seven will go into the studio and you’ll record a song and we’ll send it to Tech and he’ll feature on it.’ ”
The song, “Actin’ Like You Know,” was included on “Strangeulation Vol. II,” released in late 2015.
“It became the best-selling song on the album,” O’Guin said. “So we were, ‘What the hell just happened?’ ”
Tech N9ne — who dropped the new Collabos album, “Dominion,” on April 7 — said Mackenzie’s rise came as no surprise.
“Watching her get older and grow into this superstar is beautiful,” he wrote via email. “I’m so proud of her. I’ve been searching for our first female artist for years, and she’s been right under my nose the whole time. Mackenzie is the first lady of Strange Music, which is crazy to me. I always thought it would be a rapper.”
O’Guin said after “Actin’ ” sold as well as it did, he had to make another move.
“I had no intention of doing a video for that song,” he said. “But when all these things started happening organically, I had to do a video.”
That video, posted in June 2016, now has more than 2.3 million views.
In February, Mackenzie released her second single, “Deleted,” which she co-wrote with labelmate Krizz Kaliko. It deals with an issue close to her: internet bullying.
“I told him I’d stopped reading the comments on my video or anything involving me because at some point I stopped feeling validated by the positivity and started feeling degraded by the negativity,” she said. “No matter how many I got, every single positive comment was water off my wings. It did not resonate. But the negative comments would have a profound effect. And I thought that’s not healthy. That’s stupid. I’m not going to subject myself to this.”
So they wrote about it, and the process included reading a lot of those hateful comments.
“I’m sitting across the table from someone I work with reading mean things about me out loud and laughing about it or making fun of it,” she said. “And I realized: My God, that’s what the song is about. It’s about discounting negativity and hate.”
After graduation, Mackenzie will spend some time this summer working with songwriters and industry professionals in Los Angeles. She will also have to weigh her ambitions.
“There is no blueprint or model for me to look at with regard to … starting a career without completely neglecting academics,” she said. “School and a degree are very important to me. I can only stay in the industry as an artist as long as it will have me. I want to have other options.”
Sometime later this year she will release a full-length album. So will Above Waves, who have released two singles, “Fugitives” and “Simple Things.”
The label’s third pop project is Darrein Safron, a St. Louis native.
“Darrein is more R&B,” O’Guin said. “So we’ll break him in urban (radio) and hopefully have the chance to cross him over into Top 40 and pop.”
O’Guin has enlisted help to get his pop division off the ground: Brian Hudgens, widely known in Kansas City radio as Ponch, former program director and morning-show host at 93.3 FM (“The Mix”). O’Guin hired Hudgens as his executive director of pop music in November.
The two have known each other for a while and had discussions over the last three years about starting a pop division at Strange. Hudgens said the label’s philosophy is to nurture and support each artist.
“Strange Music is a unique place,” Hudgens said. “It’s not a giant conglomerate, so the artists aren’t faceless. We’re very hands-on. At some large labels, you can be very hot for a second, then forgotten about. Or the label can change direction and your music isn’t even released. That won’t happen here.
“I work on a daily basis with Above Waves and with Mackenzie and somewhat with Darrein. We’re releasing 13 albums this year. Our goal is to fulfill our goals with each of those artists first, before signing anyone new.”
O’Guin is counting on Strange Music’s foothold as a hip-hop label to provide some equity to his new pop division.
“The idea was almost to start a sub-label. But then Strange Music became so big that people told me not to segregate it, that Strange Music is big enough and powerful enough to put this out from a separate division with no problem,” he said. “They said, ‘It will benefit you because of your business reputation: You’ve sold millions of records.’ And our reputation in retail is stellar. We ship more physical goods to Best Buy than any other label in the independent realm.”
The first thing you notice about every building and room in a Strange Music building is how spotlessly clean everything is. You could easily expand the 5-second rule to 10 or 15 seconds. Everything is also impeccably organized — even the warehouses that store tons of merchandise, which constitutes much of the lifeblood of Strange Music.
“I’m not Howie Mandel when it comes to being a germaphobe,” O’Guin said, “but I’m getting there. I’m particular to a point where it’s probably not healthy.”
O’Guin is an unassuming, soft-spoken guy who chooses his words carefully. He is also a savvy businessman with a very healthy appetite for buying things and profiting off them, like the car wash not far from the Strange Music headquarters.
“I didn’t like the way the guy was managing it,” he said. “It wasn’t clean. So I bought it, went in and cleaned it up, installed two (brushless) bays at $250,000 each.”
It’s a public car wash that he uses to service the large fleet of Strange Music vehicles. O’Guin also acquired the city of Lee’s Summit’s car-washing account, which “pays all the bills alone, so everything else is gravy.”
16 Artists on the Strange Music roster
1999Year Strange Music was founded
3 Buildings in Lee’s Summit (with fourth under construction and fifth to begin in spring 2019)
1.26 million Label’s subscribers on YouTube
2.36 million Views of Mackenzie Nicole’s “Actin Like You Know (Feat. Tech N9ne)” YouTube video
The headquarters is a haven of offices, including O’Guin’s. It houses the tour and street-team directors, the social media team, the website team, the promotion teams and the person in charge of proofreading liner notes and typing out the (often explicit) lyrics.
The walls are decorated with trophies and other signs of success, like the 24 karat gold-plated plaque YouTube sent the label when its station broke 1 million subscribers.
It also contains a distribution center, which is busy this afternoon. Tech N9ne is six shows into a 66-show, 72-day tour, and a small crew is stuffing packages with merchandise for fans who bought a VIP package. For $175, each gets $300 worth of merch — including an embossed book, a coffee mug, DVDs, socks, a T-shirt, a soccer scarf — plus a ticket to a show and access to a one-hour meet-and-greet.
O’Guin said they capped the packages at 10,000 units and expect to sell more than 9,000.
“That’s pretty good math,” he said of the $1.6 million payoff. “We’ve sold out those packages at several shows.”
He takes his visitors to a display that showcases the breadth of Strange Music merch: CDs, DVDs, house shoes, gloves, shot glasses, coasters, martini shakers, sunglasses, scarves, skull caps, bandanas, license-plate frames, car decals, neckties, playing cards, light-switch covers, iPhone cases, flags, photo frames, beach balls, belts, posters. There’s even a baby onesie.
“We sell a ton of physical goods,” O’Guin said. Especially on tour. For Tech N9ne’s current run, Strange sent out three tour buses and several merch-laden vehicles, including a semi-trailer. The label also employed three people to sell CDs “hand-to-hand” each night of the tour.
“Each of them will sell north of 100 CDs each night,” O’Guin said, which amounts to almost 20,000 over the tour.
The headquarters tour continues on to the two other buildings: Strange Land Studios and Strange World Merchandise, which are a short drive from the headquarters.
The studio building houses another array of well-appointed offices, a full kitchen, space for video production and two multimillion-dollar, state-of-the art recording studios that, O’Guin said, are booked beyond September, 10 hours a day, every day. Another studio is in the works.
O’Guin bought the 18,000-square-foot building, gutted it and rebuilt it from scratch, sparing little expense. As he walks through the building pointing out various offices, including Tech N9ne’s, he throws around terms like “Brazilian granite” and “hammered-copper sinks.”
The Strange Music logo, a combination of a snake and bat wings, appears everywhere: etched into floor tiles, emblazoned on desk fronts and other facades.
He added a 9,000-square-foot room onto the building to house a spectacular, uber-high-tech, world-class production center with its own soundstage, soon to have a full stage with lights and sound for rehearsals and live-music video shoots.
Wendy’s and Sprint have reserved the room for commercial shoots. This week, the Kansas City design and filmmaking collective MK12 filmed a commercial there.
“We were shooting talent with dialogue,” said Timmy Fisher of MK12. “We have a stage/screen but we can’t shoot sound. So from time to time, we seek out other stages to rent. Strange Music has great facilities and … is gigantic and we are very much jealous of Tech N9ne’s empire and success.”
O’Guin built the merchandise center from the ground up. It houses countless racks of merchandise, none of which stays around too long. It’s also where Strange Music prints all of its merchandise.
O’Guin bought what he called the “most advanced” machine that can produce 1,900 shirts in an hour. For now, Strange produces only its own merchandise, but there are plans to bring in outside business “once we perfect the process,” O’Guin said.
Behind the merchandise center, workers are gutting the label’s fourth and newest building, which will house its construction company.
“We do all of our own building and construction,” he said. “Right now, all the construction stuff is spread among three facilities. We’re gonna move it into that building, and it’ll be right next to our biggest project yet.”
That project is the new headquarters, the $7 million building that will fill an enormous lot that is now empty, save for the large sign with a Strange Music logo planted in its midst. The new headquarters will include an enormous kitchen where a chef and assistant will prepare breakfast and lunch for employees every day. It will also have a gym with locker rooms, and extra space to accommodate a staff that O’Guin expects to keep growing — stimulated by his new pop division.
He already has plans for the current headquarters building once it’s empty. It will be a distillery, another business under the Strange Music flag.
“I’m crazy weird about the vertical integration thing,” O’Guin said. “I like to control almost everything and cut out the middle man wherever I can.”
On the ride back to his headquarters, O’Guin talks about the music business. He said he expects music to become profitable in three to seven years but has no regrets about pursuing it so doggedly.
“I own 11 companies,” he said. “And 90 percent of my time is spent on music — and it needs more than that. It sure doesn’t reflect 90 percent of my income. But it’s who I am. It’s what I love to do.”