First of all, thank you so much for taking out the time to do this interview! For someone who has no idea who you are or what you do, how would you describe yourself?
I’m a merchandising lifer. I’ve been working with bands, and now esports projects, on merchandise projects for over 25 years. At Manhead and We Are Nations, our services include the design of merchandise (t-shirts, hats, and hoodies, but also any item you can think of that can be branded) and the distribution of that merchandise online, at events, and through retailers. We do this around the world and our clients are paid a royalty on everything we sell for them.
Can you describe the role you’ve played in both Manhead and Nations a little bit?
I’ve known Chris Cornell (founder of Manhead – music merchandising) for almost 20 years and then joined him at Manhead in 2014. My role there has always been supporting the growth of the business. So that’s been everything from signing bands to creating our European subsidiary to doing royalties and accounting. What’s been great in the last 3 years (especially since we started Nations) is that we can see we built a pretty good foundation because we have hired team members to fill these specialist roles and they have been both successful themselves and key to making things even better.
Chris and I started Nations (esports merchandising) in 2016. We borrowed a lot of the corporate philosophy from Manhead. Most of it worked, but of course, not every day is an “easy day” at a startup. That said, I feel like both companies are running very well right now, even in the face of COVID-19. And that is both a testament to the work we put in setting things up and more importantly bringing in the right people to keep building things.
These days, I spend most of my time doing business development for both companies and working with the senior teams on strategy.
We think that the story of how you got into the merchandise game in ‘93 is great! Would you mind sharing this story with our readers?
Sure. I was on tour with my band Alloy. We stopped at a Krispy Kreme in Little Rock, AR and for some reason, I decided to take an inventory of our two boxes of t-shirts. It turns out that half were missing. We then found out that our merch guy (i.e. friend that wanted to hang out on tour) had left them by accident in St Louis or something like that like a week earlier and wasn’t going to tell us. To be honest, there was nearly a fistfight inside the Krispy Kreme over it.
Anyway, when we got back home, I took a screen cleaning job at the screen printer in order to pay off the money we owed. And then I never really “left”, at least in spirit.
How long after you started washing screens and sweeping floors did you realize that you wanted to full-on go into this industry?
Well, it took about an hour to realize that I didn’t want to clean screens very long. But when we started working with bands like Mighty Bosstones and then Oasis, I figured I was on to something interesting. That took a year or two.
What were your goals when you realized that this is what you want to do, and how do they differ from your goals now?
Great question. My goals have never really changed in that I’ve always wanted to write my own ticket, do things my own way, and be a little left of center and disruptive. Now, of course, the scope and context of my goals have changed over time, including how we try to achieve them. But that’s just life – getting older, (hopefully) wiser, and learning from your mistakes.
Was there ever a moment where you thought “How the hell did I pull that off?” If so, what was that moment?
Sure. There have been days when we’ve signed a big band or done amazing business at an event. And those days are great. But really, I’m asking myself that question every day. Chris Cornell is a fantastic partner. And we’ve built an organization that I am very proud of that is filled with smart, capable people. We have an established music merchandising company built on strong business fundamentals and then we have the Nations companies – merchandising, brand developing, and venture capital that allows us to create and be disruptive in an emerging industry.
Everyone has a unique set of strengths and abilities that make them who they are, as an absolute legend in the merchandise industry, what aspects of your personality do you think have enabled you to do what you do as well as you do?
I’ve evolved. In the early days, I had to do everything and embraced that. I remember certain days very well where I was setting up hundreds of item codes in Quickbooks or doing hours of invoicing for Coachella. While at Blue Grape together in 2001 or 2002, Chris Cornell and I built spreadsheets to settle shows and track inventory that was used by many for years until AtVenu came along. But I’ve changed. To be honest, the ability to concentrate on operations is harder for me now, and we’ve got people who are way better at it than I am anyway. That’s why I’ve settled into that business development role. I’m pretty lucky to be enjoying this as much as I did 20 years ago.
I’ve heard you talk quite a bit about how streaming disrupted the music industry, and similarly how Esports are disrupting the sports industry, have you got any predictions on future disruptions like this?
The Coronavirus pandemic is going to be a change agent everywhere. Disruption won’t just be technology-based over the next decade. This is a hard, awful time for the world. But we will come out stronger and with new opportunities.
Going from music merchandise into Esports seems like two entirely different worlds! Could you explain what made you want to get into that industry as well as some of the similarities between the two?
If you were to make a Venn diagram there is a huge intersectional relationship between esports fans and music fans. Esports is now part of the broader culture. And I think that our companies are independently servicing the same fans. But the single most important moment for me was going to a Call of Duty open bracket tournament and watching 100’s of amateur teams compete against each other. That felt very DIY to me. And very punk rock.
I find your view on Esports being a lifestyle thing similar to skateboarding or surfing very interesting. Do you think the recent success of Esports is an indicator of people in general caring more about things they feel they can be a part of, as opposed to glorifying the mighty few that are on an unreachable level like in more traditional sports?
Yes. This. I could not answer it better.
I’ve heard you use one of my favourite phrases quite often, which is “Better to ask forgiveness than permission”, this is one of those philosophies that can only really be learned from experience I feel. Do you have a story you’d like to share of how you learned this?
Ha! There was an old school NYC music business lawyer named Jules Kurz who I worked with back in the Roadrunner Records/Blue Grape days. He did all our contract and transactional work. Anyway, over the course of working with him he said three things that have always stuck with me:
“Better to ask for forgiveness for permission…”
“You should sue someone every couple of years, so people know you aren’t messing around…”
“Owning a minority stake in a small business is one level above whale poop on the bottom of the ocean…”
Needless to say, I’ve only taken the first quote to heart.
I’ve heard you use the term ‘Merchandise Switzerland’ and I find it a super interesting concept, would you mind elaborating a little bit on what that means?
Sure. I probably said it in the context of We Are Nations, and what it means that in the esports ecosystem, which from a merchandising standpoint isn’t that different from traditional sports, there’s a lot of players involved doing specific products and licenses. We understand that Nike, Adidas, Puma, and others are coming into the business, so we are working on products and services that we can offer that fit within this reality. For example, we work with a Team called Cloud 9. They have a long term deal with Puma, but we provide local distribution for them in Europe, which has been quite successful.