Ray Daniels has become one of the more popular music executives of the last few years, in no small part because of his viral podcast clips and growing online presence. But prior to the Internet fame, he made a name for himself at labels like Epic and Warner, working alongside LA Reid and representing producers like Rock City. I had a chance to speak with him about his journey thus far, how he’s turning himself into a brand and what the music industry of today has become.

– Hi Ray. Pleasure to be speaking with you. You’re based in Atlanta, but I believe you’re originally from New York. What caused your family to move from the Bronx in the 90s?

My uncle was hustling in the streets and it brought the wrong kind of attention to my family. Back in the 80s, when your home had a floor-model TV, certain people tend to notice. Someone tried to break into the house one night when I was ten years old and my mother ran out with a knife and a bat to confront them. She told me to watch the house, so I locked the doors and stayed up as long as I could. When I woke up, all eighteen family members were sitting in the room, looking worried. Since my uncle had made enough money, he decided to move his family out of the Bronx, so fourteen of us were put on an Amtrak train to Atlanta in 1991.

– How have you found living in Atlanta since the 90s?

It’s been great. Atlanta was the first place where I saw affluent black people, from the mayor all the way to my teachers. It’s a place where you can achieve your dreams by working hard, and even if people don’t always answer your calls, they’re at least open to sharing their number, which is the opposite of New York where people say “Sorry, I don’t have time, and why would I give you my number? “. In Atlanta, if you’re polite and keep texting people, you eventually end up in the right rooms where they tend to accept you, so it’s the best place to build your dream as an African American.

– What’s the story behind you getting employed at the Atlanta airport as a teenager?

I got fired from McDonalds when I was sixteen and needed a new job. My mother was a night manager for Chick-fil-A at the airport and she suggested I apply for a job there, so I ended up working the evening shift whilst she worked the night shift. When I was eighteen, my mom left Chick-fil-A to work for Argenbright Security as a night shift supervisor, so she got me hired there as a wheelchair pusher.

Delta Airlines was at the top of our social hierarchy and you didn’t really get acknowledged by the airport staff unless you worked there, so I didn’t get much attention from my peers or the girls, but having made a good impression at Argenbright, I was eventually recruited to work at Delta for $8.25 an hour. My family was so proud that I finally had a 401K, but I remember thinking, “$8.25 an hour? Is that it? “. That’s when I actively started considering another path in life, and I’d eventually get involved in the music business at twenty-two.

– You’ve said in past interviews that 22 – 25 were very formative years for you. Why was that?

Because I was a late bloomer in the music industry and those were the years when I got involved. The airline industry shut down after September 11th, so Delta told their employees, “Don’t come back to work. You can take a one-year, three-year or five-year leave “. I took a one-year leave, but Delta called four months later because the airlines had already reopened. I used my dad’s sickness as an excuse and said I was taking care of him, but when he passed away in March 2002, Delta said “We’re sorry your father passed, but you need to come back to work now “. So I returned to the airport, and I’ll never forget thinking, “My mom said this is what I should do, but if Bill Cosby was my dad, people would be asking why I’m working in a place like this “. That’s when I realized that the bar was set low for me because of who my parents were, so I went to my supervisor and quit on the spot. He told me, “Follow your dreams. You’re 22 and most of your co-workers will still be here when you’re 27, so you can always come back if things don’t work out “. I’ve always been grateful to him for encouraging me to move on. Most people get into this business as teenagers, whereas I didn’t even try until I was 22, but I earned more in March of 2024 than if I’d stayed at Delta this whole time, so I’m always reminded that I made the right choice.

– Is it true that your entry point into the music business was a middle-school friend who asked you to work with him?

Yes, that’s right. My friend tracked me down whilst I was working at Delta and invited me to his home studio. I was blown away by his talent, especially since he’d always been quiet at school. He said to me, “I don’t talk much, but you’ve known how to talk ever since we were kids. Why don’t you talk about my music work so we can make some money together? “. I agreed to work with him, but he made it clear that I wasn’t his manager and I only worked in the sales department of his company. Unfortunately, that led me to quit after a year because I got tired of being treated so poorly. I went to work for another music company where a similar problem occurred – I’d eventually realize what my value was but would get fired when I finally asked for what I deserved. My middle-school friend said I wasn’t a manager and could only do sales, so the next company said I wouldn’t be confined to sales and could be a partner, but it hardly made a difference since I still worked under the two CEOs. Part of my job was to hand out CDs at the clubs, but the CEO’s name was on the disc instead of mine even though he was at home doing nothing. I did that for a year, and when I finally asked to put my name on the CD, they scoffed at the request and fired me. Funnily enough, all the contacts I’d made at the clubs were like, “You’re not with those guys anymore? Thank god! Now we can finally work with you – we hated those guys” (laughs).

– What exactly made the second company difficult to work with?

The CEOs were hung up on fulfilling their dreams of being successful music executives. For example, I set up three major meetings for them with big companies, but they showed up in their traditional African garb that they I’d never seen them wear, and the meetings would always go left. A lot of people don’t make it in the music business because they’re trying to satisfy a dream they have in their head. Someone might have a dream of being a rapper, but what if he could make $3 million without rapping? Some people can’t envision that, whereas I was open to anything because I just wanted to succeed. I was the only one who had that mindset, and as a result, I’m the only one from that group who made it.

Rock City are a successful production duo consisting of Theron and Timothy Thomas. How did you end up managing them?

In 2003, I interned for a guy who worked at Interscope. He had his own artist that he was trying to break, but the label job took up most of his time, so working with his artist fell to me. But that artist had his own act that he was pushing, whose name was Theron Thomas. One day, I was asked to pick up Theron and take him to a session. The session went so well that we were asked to come back the next day, so Taron offered to let me stay at his house to save us time and gas money. That’s how we formed a relationship.

By 2006, I was working with Deric Angelettie, aka The Mad Rapper. His artist, Noah, had a drug problem and wasn’t showing up to the studio, but I noticed that Theron was always there, recording and teaching himself how to use the equipment. A friend of mine was in the studio with us one day and asked, “Why don’t you guys let Ray manage you? “. Theron was like, “Would you do that? “, and I said “Sure “. To be honest, I was initially trying to convince Deric to sign Theron, but he passed on it, and then my best friend, Slow, said, “You don’t need Deric. You could just manage Theron yourself “. So I decided to do it after those two conversations. Eighteen years later and countless records sold, we accomplished everything we dreamed of.

– It was around this time that you set up your company, Raydar. What led to that?

We were finally getting Noah a record deal, but his mom didn’t want to pay my percentage of the $50,000 advance. She was like, “Why are you getting 20%? You didn’t do anything and you’re not even a real manager. Plus my son was in the music business before ever meeting you “. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, so I said, “Noah’s been living with me for three years. How do you think we got this far? “. But she felt that Noah had put me on and didn’t owe me anything. I called Deric about it and he said, “Don’t they know everything you’ve done for them? Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of you.” That’s why I love that guy – I was about to lose my life’s work but he gave me half of his $75,000 cut. He told me, “I’ll write a cheque to your company “, but I said, “I don’t have a company”. He said, “Then you need to make one because I’m not writing it to you personally. I’ll write it to Raydar – make a company called that “. That was in December of 2004, but it took a month to open my business account, so I got paid in January 2005.

– You helped secure Rock City a major publishing deal in 2007. Tell me about that experience.

I made $37,500 from a previous deal in 2005, but the money was getting low by 2006 and I’d met a girl that I wanted to marry. I didn’t want to propose whilst living at my old place, but I knew that if Rock City got a deal for $350,000, my 20% management fee would be $70,000, which was enough to buy a house – that was my initial goal. We met with Universal Publishing, and our lawyer, Donald Woodard, said they liked me as much as Theron and Timothy, which was rare. Feeling encouraged, I told him to get us half a million, but when we met downstairs, he said, “I asked for $1.5 million “. I was like “Why the hell did you do that? What if we lose the deal? “. But Universal said yes, so it all worked out (laughs).

To be honest, I never thought I’d make another dollar after that. I was like “We’ve never made this kind of money before, so how will we do it again? “, but we recouped the full amount in two and a half years.

– Some years after that, you ended up working with LA Reid. Can you tell me how you met him?

Sure. I wasn’t around during the LaFace era in the 90s, but I’d met the team behind the label: Devyne Stephens, Shakir Stewart, Kawan Prather and Shanti Das. Once I started working with them, they kept referencing LA like he was some kind of oracle, so I put it on my bucket list to work with him. In 2012, I was about to do a deal with Peter Edge from RCA Records, but right before the papers were signed, a guy who worked for Peter took me to see LA. When we finally met, he said, “I hear you’re doing a deal with RCA. Have they cut you a cheque? “. I said, “Not yet “, and he asked to meet the artist I was representing. After speaking with them for a while, he said, “I’ll offer you a deal right now “, and even the guy who brought me to the meeting was like, “Trust me, go with LA. RCA will eventually do you dirty anyway “. So I did the deal with him, and that was the start of our relationship.

I remember thinking, “I made it; I’m finally working with LA“, but things didn’t start out the way I imagined. Every time LA saw me, he’d run the other way (laughs). Years later he told me, “You were too thirsty and wanted to be successful so bad. I have to be careful with guys like that “. But when he learned that I had a personality and knew my stuff, he was like, “We’re gonna make a great team “. It was the best thing that happened to me because I was able to learn from the Wizard of Oz himself. We would even argue about artists and I’d challenge his opinions. I remember wanting to sign a girl group, and LA said, “Those girls can’t sing…“, and I said, “So? Neither could TLC! “. The whole room went quiet and LA looked at me for a few seconds before asking, “Have you ever heard someone sing like T-Boz? “, and I responded, “No…“. He said, “That’s why TLC works – the girls you want to sign don’t have that kind of unique singer in their group “. He would drop gems like that all the time.

– You later went to work for LA as an A&R when he was at Epic. How did you transition from your initial deal with him to being an A&R?

Someone came to me and said, “LA’s considering signing one of our artists “, so I said, “Let me work on the records. I’ll do it for free if you take me to play them for LA when we’re done “. Once we played him the records, LA passed on the artist and I was told afterwards, “He didn’t like the artist but he loved the music “. So I went back to LA and said, “I worked on those records “, and he said, “Really? That’s interesting “. Later that day, I was riding a bike at 6:20pm when he called and said, “Meet me at Nobu at 7pm for dinner “. So I turned around, biked home as fast as I could, took a shower and made it to dinner in time. He offered me the Epic job and I said “yes” before he could even get the words out (laughs).

– LA Reid has a reputation as a storied executive who was responsible for numerous artist careers. As someone who worked closely with him, what do you think made him special?

That’s a great question. I’d attribute 90% of a record’s success to LA’s involvement, not only because he was the head of the label, but he also taught those under him how to close deals. So even if I accomplished something, I did it using his teachings. Also, he was an executive who empowered his staff – he might not have signed OutKast because he believed they’d be big, but he was smart enough to say, “My team believes they’ll be big, so I’ll believe in the team“, which made his staff work harder for him.

Another thing that made LA special was that he gave the same energy to everybody. He treated everyone like they were special, and the ones who actually believed it ended up becoming special. Even if he disliked your music, he’d offer words of encouragement, and that meant a lot to his artists. John Janick, the CEO of Interscope, is a great businessman, but LA and Jimmy Iovine are the greatest A&Rs I’ve ever seen.

– LA had a lot of success with his 90s label, LaFace, and eventually sold it to BMG. If his skills were so exceptional, why didn’t he create another successful indie label instead of becoming a boss at the majors? And why did he sell LaFace in the first place?

To answer your first question, when the majors want to buy a successful indie label, they incentivise you to sell. So the incentive for LA to sell LaFace was when they said, “You can have Clive Davis’ job at Arista “. But as he later realized, Sony could fire him whenever they wanted, which was something he hadn’t thought of during the sale.

Successful indie labels typically end up selling because it’s hard to scale a business whilst you’re still bootstrapping it. Sure, LA was the boss of LaFace, but he was on a salary since most of the revenue was going back into the company. So in order to make the real money, you have to cash out and sell the label. It’s different now because banks have gotten involved, so if LaFace was around today, LA could’ve leveraged the label, gotten $300 million in loans and still owned his company. I know for a fact that if he could still own LaFace, he would.

– Let’s stay on the topic of major labels. What was it like working with them? Did you learn anything unexpected?

I took jobs at the major labels to learn how they operate, but what I actually learned was that labels didn’t know anything and never looked under the hood of their own operations to see why certain records worked. If we put out ten records in a month and only one of them did well, I’d ask, “Why did that one work?“, but no-one had an answer. I realized they were just throwing things at the wall to see what stuck, so I started paying more attention to things, and the first artist I saw break was Meghan Trainor. She was signed to Epic, the video for “All About That Bass” was shot and she’d been given a radio impact date, but she still didn’t have a manager, which was insane. She’d generated all that buzz without one, and her A&R, Paul Pontius, was looking for Jay Brown at Roc Nation to manage her. I ran into Paul and said, “I just left a meeting with Troy Carter and J Erving. They might be interested in managing her “, so she went with them.

– You’ve said in past interviews that you made Warner Music a lot of money during your time with them. Was that because you signed NLE Choppa?

Yes. I signed him and worked with a number of other artists, but the thing is, major labels never tell you how much money you actually made them. I read a Billboard article that said NLE Choppa made $22.5 million for his label in recent months, but Warner wants me to think he’s still in the red. His manager called me and said they’d recouped his advance, and I was like “How? We signed the biggest deal in history! “. That’s when I understood the power of streaming and how much money it generates.

I also worked on Saweetie’s biggest records, “Best Friend ” and “Tap In “, so when you calculate how much money they’re making years after I’m gone, it’s in the millions. Meanwhile, I got a royalty check the other day for $70,000 from work I did over a fifteen year period with them. So I essentially get nothing from Warner after giving them all my energy and not dedicating enough time to my own projects.

– One would think major labels should easily be breaking stars and releasing quality music, but this hasn’t been the case recently. Why do you think the majors no longer have the competence they once had in releasing great music?

It’s partially because of the success of indie labels. Universal used to have the biggest market share, but indie labels have overtaken them, meaning the independent sector is now bigger than Universal. So if the most successful indie CEOs earn more than all major label CEOs combined, why would any of them work for a major? We’re at an impasse where those good enough to run the major labels don’t want to do it because they’d rather build their own businesses. To be honest, if you offered me a major label gig today, I’d turn it down. I might consult for a major label, but I won’t be their employee because I don’t want to be owned. My freedom is worth more than whatever salary they’d pay. You might earn $1.5 million a year as President of a major, but the company owns 90% of your life. I’d rather earn $300,000 and only give up 20% of my life. And it’s not like major labels need you 90% of the time, but they demand it because they’re paying you and feel like you should be there. I’d rather not have that pressure.

– Staying on this topic, one of the criticisms of major labels is that they’re flooding the market with marginally talented acts. Why do you think this trend is increasing, rather than putting effort into finding the next great act, like a new D’Angelo?

Imagine you get sent to fight in Afghanistan. Once you arrive, do you care what it was like in Vietnam 50 years ago? Nope. You only care about fighting your current war. So no-one at the major labels cares about the old days – they’re only focused on their current battles. 90% of people who work there are unhappy because they’re auditioning for their job everyday, and it’s hard to tell someone what to do when their response is, “Sorry, I’m hustling right now. Do you wanna help me hustle, and then we can build whatever you’re talking about afterwards? Cus I have 50 artists on my roster that want to be the next big thing and I need to work with them before addressing anything else “. When someone is stuck in that situation, I can’t really blame them for having a one-track mind.

The major labels are like Amazon and Walmart – they sell whatever the market demands, whereas indies sell to a niche audience. So expecting the majors to produce the next D’Angelo is like asking Target to produce candles instead of buying them from a candle vendor. Major labels are just marketplaces – they don’t care about finding the best music as long as the public buys whatever they’re selling. Besides, fantasizing about the next D’Angelo means you’re projecting what you want the future to be instead of helping current artists build their careers. Also, if the “next D’Angelo” has the work ethic of the current D’Angelo, he won’t ever become the next D’Angelo. So I’d rather do what LA did: give out the relevant information for free and whoever shows up is the one I build with.

– As someone with in-depth knowledge of the majors, can you explain the main difference between them and the indie labels?

The main difference between the indies and the majors is that in order to release a record, an indie has to hire an external team of digital marketers, PR and project managers to work on the release. But the downside is that those people usually won’t work together, so each one can blame the other when something goes wrong. The marketing person can say, “I did my part but your PR person sucks “. The majors don’t work like that – they line up their in-house teams and make all the pieces move together cohesively.

Another difference is that the majors have in-house promo staff that give them access to radio. But that’s becoming increasingly obsolete, which is why the majors are downsizing. They typically take three or four songs to radio every week, but Def Jam only took eight songs to radio in 2023, so why would they need a radio staff? It’s a sign that they’re deprioritizing radio, partly because radio promotion costs money and streaming doesn’t, so they’re shifting focus to that.

– If the indie labels collectively have a larger marketshare than any major label, why aren’t the bigger indies spinning off to become new majors?

Because the majors have a huge back-catalog and you can’t beat that. I haven’t gone by Warner’s offices since January 2022, but the records I left there are still earning them millions because it’s part of their catalog. If Warner made $100 million this year, $75 million of that was likely from their catalog, so if you’re an indie, you have to build up a catalog whereas the majors already own one; that’s why I’m building my own catalog now. Last year, I made $108,000 from one of my catalogs, and this year I’ve already made $70,000 from the same one, so the value is going up. Had I sold it, I might have made $1- $2 million, but the royalties would be going to someone else.

– Speaking of indie labels competing with the majors, what are your thoughts on Gamma?

I think Larry Jackson is brilliant; he raised $2 billion and secured a catalog by acquiring Vydia, so he makes money every month from that. Sexyy Red is distributed through Vydia, so he even got a piece of her music from that purchase.

– You’ve spoken highly of executives like Jimmy Iovine and LA Reid, two executives who are no longer at the forefront of the business. If the major labels were more respected when those guys were around, why has their relevance been allowed to diminish?

Those kinds of executives became less relevant because the lames took over the music business after all the cool guys left. I don’t know Lucian Grainge’s story, but he didn’t build Universal – he took it over. Jimmy Iovine built Interscope with Ted Field, and the first artist he signed was Gerardo. The second one was 2pac, and he was even smart enough to get Death Row. He later signed Eminem, and instead of keeping it to himself, he shared it with Dr Dre. He also had Pharrell, Timbaland, Will.i.am, etc. That was how impressive Jimmy Iovine was – if he believed in a producer, he’d say, “Come do a deal with me. You don’t have any artists? Don’t worry, we’ll find you some “. In contrast, these new execs don’t even want to give anyone a deal. That’s why we don’t have any new stars and everyone’s getting fired from labels – it’s because we don’t have anyone in power who understands why they’re there; we just have people trying to keep their jobs, and I don’t want to be a part of that.

– What would you say is the most important factor for determining the success of a music executive?

A music executive needs a successful artist to be valuable in this business, but breaking artists is the hardest thing a manager can do because our job is just to manage – we manage the relationships, projects and people, but we can’t will an artist to the top. In order to overcome that problem, I started teaching artists how to will themselves to the top, but they looked at me like I was crazy. So I started doing it for myself – I set up a camera and had someone ask me questions. Then I’d upload the answers and watch as my followers went from 18,000 to 145,000 in eighteen months. It was all organic, and it came from just wanting to teach artists, but I ended up getting more followers than them, and some of my artists even got mad because media outlets wanted to book me instead of them, but I told them to do the same thing and they wouldn’t listen. So I apply the same principles I teach, and I know my theories work, but it’s hard to get others to apply them because they need the motivation whether there’s money involved or not, and it’s hard to find those qualities in an artist.

– What’s the hardest part about working with artists?

The hardest part is that you don’t know who anyone is until you give them a cheque. Rock City got a cheque and said, “That’s cool, but let’s go accomplish even more “. The artist I had before them got a cheque and said, “Let’s go have fun“. Twenty years later, one is still successful and the other one isn’t, which means you need a work ethic that transcends your accomplishments in order to stay on the right path.

– In recent times, you’ve created an agency called LYI, “Leverage Your Influence”. What’s the purpose behind that?

My executive role at Warner lasted three years. I was allowed to sign one artist every six months during that time, but I had ten deals landing in my lap everyday, meaning I had to pass over thousands of artists since I could only sign two per year. So I started wondering why artists even brought their influence to the label. They’d come to me and I’d say, “You have a million followers but the company you’re doing a deal with only has 300,000. You have more influence than them, so why are you giving them everything? “, and they’d say, “I never looked at it like that…“. So I decided to show people how to leverage their influence by using myself as the first example. I leveraged the little bit of influence I had as a music executive, and now I’ve become a personality that people want to talk to. That success is what birthed LYI.

– You also started a coaching community where you do video chats with people, correct?

That’s right. The group is called The Dreamer’s Community, and I go live twice a week to do music reviews and coaching. A lot of people want to work with me, but I didn’t want to be for sale or have people thinking they could buy me, so I stopped doing one-on-one consulting. Giving away information that could change someone’s life for a few hundred dollars didn’t make much sense, but a community is different because you get people to help each other. For example, a guy in the group played a song that I thought could be improved, so when another guy played his track, I realized they could collaborate, which ended up happening. So even though it costs $100 a month, one day in the community could be worth $10,000 depending on what your needs are.

– It sounds like you’ve become less involved in the music business than you were in the 2000s and 2010s. Is that accurate?

In a sense. I’ve stopped promoting my music projects publicly, the point where people started asking, “Is Ray still in the music business? “. But the truth is that the music business lost interest in me, so I had to build myself into a brand through my podcast, The GAUD Show. Now they’re interested in me again, but I’m not interested in them because I remember how they treated me when they thought I had no value. I no longer care about the business or what the major labels are doing because the people in charge aren’t even the ones to be concerned about. It’s like worrying about how girls in high school feel about you when the best way to catch a girl’s attention is just to be good at something because girls like success. So I stopped trying to impress the girl and started building my own stuff, and when the girls finally came around, I didn’t care because now I know they’re mostly a distraction.

– Wrapping up, let me ask about your music work. How many tracks does your team put out each year, and can you name one successful producer that you’ve signed?

I’ve signed multiple producers and songwriters, and in a good year we release 50 – 100 records. I have a producer called Digital Nas who did four tracks on “Donda“, as well as ten tracks on Kanye’s “Vultures” album, including “Carnival“, which went #1.

– In an interview from last year, you said that you wanted to transition from the “music business” to the “exit business” where you buy and sell companies. How is that going for you?

You’ve done your research (laughs). I’m actually in the middle of selling something for eight figures, so things are going well. I’ve realized that I’m not trying to retire – I’m already retired. I’m just enjoying my life and working because I want to. Jimmy Iovine is “retired” but I’m sure he’s still involved in stuff. LA Reid is 67 and is still building, so I’ll be doing more of that for myself.

– Thanks for talking to me Ray. It’s been a great conversation. What’s your goal for the rest of 2024?

My focus is on taking my podcast and other media ventures to new levels. I think it’s weird how the music industry doesn’t consider itself a media business when the definition of media is “mass communication”. Music talks to the masses, but the music business chooses to be linear with its approach when the future is about building communities and finding unique ways to connect with fans. For example, every artist I signed would ask if I knew Gary Vee and could introduce them to him. What the heck does Gary Vee have to do with the music business? Well, he shows people that he cares about their problems and he’s built his brand on that. So I’m going to double down on my media ventures and see how far I can go with them.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here