“Labels can only live off legacy artists for so long,” Xtina Prince told me. It was late fall in New Jersey, and even over Zoom; I could see the gray sky beyond her living room window. She’s passionate about artist development, having been a key player in the early careers of artists across genres, including Tennis, Duckwrth, and SZA.
“Energy has been focused mostly on commerce and less on music development,” she said about the music industry. Recent statistics back her up. Old songs make up 70 percent of the US music market – and the new music market is getting smaller. It’s not sustainable. “Labels need another Nicki. They need another Drake. They need another one to keep the lights on. The matrix is dismantling. We thought it dismantled when people were able to upload their music direct to the DSPs. I don’t think that scratched the surface of the dismantling that’s going to happen.”
Xtina has seen how this is happening from all angles. She has been an artist, worked at major and independent labels, and reimagined how traditional artist/label relationships can work at her own company, the Blind Youth, and at Issa Rae’s Raedio. “My gift and my curse,” she said, “is that I am attracted to anything that is not normal, anything that is not standard.”
In order for the industry to build the legacy artists of tomorrow, they’ll have to dismantle the standard practices that have backed us into this corner, where so much revenue relies on music from the previous century. As we talked over Zoom, Xtina explained what her unorthodox career trajectory has taught her about artist development – how managers can foster talent, how the industry needs to change, and what labels can do to give the next generation’s legacy artists a fighting chance.
Don’t Let Genre Limit Artist Growth
When Xtina works with artists, she encourages them to ignore the industry’s genre boundaries. Duckwrth, an artist who has been working with her since 2014, had released music labeled hip hop and R&B for his entire career. But when he sent the DSPs his Stem-distributed 2022 release “Chrome Bull,” she made sure they knew that it best fit in the dance category. The result? The best first-day streams of any album in his career, landing at the #4 spot on Apple Music’s Top Dance Albums.
“For Stem to allow us to put dance as a genre for Duckwrth, without any argument, I appreciate them for that.” – Xtina Prince, The Blind Youth
She also tries to think beyond genre when she’s building audiences for her artists. When she worked with SZA, she didn’t only bring her music to the usual round-up of R&B tastemakers at places like Complex and Fader. She also introduced her to venues like Gorilla vs. Bear, a blog that had traditionally focused on indie rock.
For some artists, explicitly challenging genre starts on day one. When her friend first played her LATENIGHTJIGGY’s Latin-inspired music, she asked “Wait, is he Spanish?” Her friend told her that LATENIGHTJIGGY was Trinidadian, but learned to speak Spanish from his community. “That sounded just like something I would like to work with,” she said. “I love the hardest thing.”
“I brought LATENIGHTJIGGY onto Stem because I wanted to go where they weren’t going to have expectations for what he should be doing. Some people, the challenge is too great for them. Vivian and the Stem team, they were like, ‘Cool. Bring him here. We’ll figure it out.’” – Xtina Prince
Too often, the industry tries to box in developing artists. “I think when you’re an artist of color,” she said, “you automatically get put into the hip hop and R&B box,” she said. The only way to escape the classification is “to be very straightforward, no arguments whatsoever, another genre. If you’re country, you’ve got to be country in the traditional sense of the word.”
One of the reasons that narrow mindset feels so irrational to Xtina is because of the radio she listened to when she was young. One of her favorite stations was 88.1 “You would dial all the way to the end and have to get it exactly right,” she said. At night, she would tune the radio, put a tape in, hit record, and go to bed. The next morning, she listened to the eclectic blend of genres they had played while the city was sleeping.
To this day, she carries that flame of late-night genre-less exploration forward. It’s core to the spirit of her career.
Reinvent Traditional Artist Relationships
The music industry is infamous for predatory relationships. Every new generation starts their careers thinking that they’ll be the ones who put an end to the bad old days – then end up doing the same thing they wanted to stop.
The fact this cycle has repeated for decades is strong evidence that the people aren’t the problem – the businesses are structured in a way that encourages people to engage in bad behavior. On one side of the equation are the artists, who get forced into unfair long-term deals early in their careers. On the other side are the managers who want to do the right thing but make huge sacrifices on risky bets.
When Xtina lost an artist she had spent well over a year developing, the hurt was personal. “I spent my time developing something, building something. I canceled dinners with my husband. I was up at one, two o’clock in the morning. I was investing my own money. At one point I borrowed from my 401k. It was that deep. When you spend that much time and you sacrifice that much, then you lose it, it was really hard for my family. It was really hard for me.”
At that point, she realized that being in the business wasn’t worth it if it meant she had to either passionately stand up for her artists or treat her artists unfairly. But traditional artist/manager partnerships forced her into choosing one or the other. That’s why she founded the Blind Youth.
The Blind Youth is an artist partnership company, partly inspired by the structure of startups. Both Xtina and the artists she signs have equity in their careers, with the artist getting the lion’s share of the profits, Xtina getting commission, and the remaining balance going into the company they’re both working on. “We build an ecosystem so it’s our company together,” she said. “We both have just as much risk and reward. It allows me to throw my all into it.”
Throw Out the Old Budget Playbook
One thing that frustrates Xtina is sticking to game plans that have stopped working. “I don’t understand why we still spend $500,000 on recording,” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.” Instead, she thinks that cost should be split between recording and other expenses like marketing, advertising, and more.
This aggressive approach to managing money helped her build Duckwrth’s career when both of them were at Republic. Instead of accepting the strategy she was given, she negotiated. “I would say, ‘Give me $5,000 and I’ll hire outside resources.” She also made the decision to take the balance of the recording fund and redirect it toward third-party marketing and advertising, even investing in the largest North American billboard near Downtown LA.
Spending less on studio sessions and more on audience-building put years on Duckwrth’s career that other artists didn’t get. “Artists similar to him walked away from label situations and didn’t have anything to show for it,” she said. “He walked away and he has everything to show for it.”
Labels Need to Invest in Artist Development Teams
Long careers need to be nurtured. Duckwrth’s success had to grow outside of the major label system because that system has always resisted investing in artists who follow unusual paths. “When you’re an artist as unique as him,” Xtina said, “and you have limited resources, it could have taken you ten more projects to get where he is now. But I’ve felt good about not pushing him to be something other than who he is and giving him space to grow and evolve and develop as a creative. It has changed his life.”
When an established star’s record is released, there’s a game plan that everyone knows how to follow. For artists who are still growing, that’s not the case. Xtina thinks labels need to realize this and invest accordingly. “To get someone who is 25% into their success to a point of 75%, you need a targeted team.”
In her experience, too many people at major record labels have a lot of passion but are stuck in a rut. “They want to pull their fucking hair out because they don’t have anything that they’re excited about. Identify those people, assign them to what they feel close to, and challenge their creative vision.”
It’s a model that might look more like X, Alphabet’s Moonshot company, than what record execs are used to. “Create a team of 25 people whose job is to develop artists, sit in a boardroom, and throw shit at the wall,” she said. More than most businesses, music needs risk to flourish. If majors aren’t willing to take a risk on the artists of the future, business will wither.
Take Personal Risks with Artists
Xtina’s approach to artist development isn’t just about taking professional and financial risks. She risks the personal.
There’s no better example than the fact that, for two years, her roommate was one of her artists. When she asked Duckwrth to leave his home on the West Coast, upend his life, and commit to building his career in New York, the plan hadn’t been for him to move in with her. But after a month of apartment-hunting, it became clear that was the best way to get him the space he needed.
At the moment when they finally had everything set up and ready to go, their lives took a dramatic turn. “My mom passed away,” Xtina said.
“I very quickly had to ask myself, ‘What are you going to do? You had this kid fly all the way to the other side of the country, promising that you’re going to give him the world. How do you compartmentalize that?’”
Duckwrth was also on edge. Right after he had moved, intense protests broke out in response to the killing of Eric Garner. “He was dealing with walking the streets and the boycotts and everything happening in New York. I was worried about him being out there.” In the middle of intense sadness and uncertainty, they had to make a choice.
“I remember sitting in my bedroom and telling Duckwrth, ‘Okay, this is it.’ My mom was gone. He had a girlfriend, a really significant relationship in his life. She was gone. I said, ‘We have to make a pact right here, right now. We will not let anything get between us. Not anything. Not your breakup. Not my grief. Nothing.”
And nothing did. “In 2022, we’re still holding strong,” said Xtina. “That’s my best friend. My absolute, absolute best friend.”
While very few managers will ever go through that experience with their artists, Xtina and Duckwrth’s story contains lessons that can be more generally applied to artist development. The most important is the simplest – when you’re developing an artist, you’ll need to work hard and make sacrifices to take them to the next level. You can’t just believe in their music – you have to believe in them as a person. “Don’t work with a person you don’t like,” said Xtina. “Have that time to know what it feels like to be in each other’s space. I know what it feels like to be mad when Duckwrth doesn’t wash the dishes.” They’ve seen each other at their worst and at their best. “That’s what keeps the partnership strong.”
Investing in People
Throughout our conversation, one theme kept recurring. No matter what point she was at in her career, no matter what goal she wanted to accomplish, Xtina always focused on working with the right people.
“I need to be surrounded by people that are passionate and willing to explore different things. Not just be like, ‘Oh well, this isn’t working, so move right along.’ I don’t operate like that. The people that work with me have to move with the same level of passion.”
That’s what initially drew her to Stem. “I developed a distribution company with Universal. I distributed music with TuneCore. What won me over to Stem was the energy.”
“I need to be around people who have the same level of work ethic and blatant, unapologetic honesty. I felt that when I met Vivian at Stem. If she says she’s going to talk to Spotify, she’s going to talk to Spotify. If she says that she’s going to yell to the top of the mountains how incredible something is, she’s going to do that. I can call her at nine o’clock and she answers the phone. I’m so grateful. That means a lot. The power of a distribution company, in my opinion, are the people. That’s why I came to Stem.” – Xtina Prince
In order to develop artists, Xtina has become an expert at developing relationships. At Stem, we believe that the music industry can only thrive if its relationships are built on clarity and honesty. It’s why we’re thrilled to partner with Xtina and teams building the next generation of legacy artists.