An interview with Jay Brown, CEO and Cofounder of Roc Nation.
His name may not be as well known as that of his partner and Cofounder of Roc Nation, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, but Jay Brown is a mogul in the music industry, and the kind of artists who so serendipitously find him, as he claims, come with names like Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Jaden Smith, and Shakira, to name a few.
Since its founding in 2008, Roc Nation has become one of the most successful entertainment companies in the industry. They represent hundreds of artists, producers, songwriters, and athletes. Listening to Jay talk about it, though, you’d think it was anything but. The casual nonchalance he embodies as he discusses music superstars belies the incredible influence he’s had on music culture.
What strikes you first about Jay is his utter authenticity. He’s not boastful about his position, and lets the magic happen as organically as possible. “Normally I try to stay in the background,” he says of working with the artists. “I don’t want to be an artist. I want to be a businessman. I want them to be an artist and let them have the exposure they’re looking for and want. But I don’t want to get it confused, the business and the artist, because that’s not the lifestyle I want.”
In fact, the way Jay talks about his incredible career falls somewhere between the fairytale story of a small child with big dreams, and the grit of a man who’s worked every single day for the position he’s now in. “I’m very lucky to be where I am,” he says.
It’s a nuance embraced by Roc Nation as a whole. Where you’d expect a certain level of ego is a company whose logo is a simple paper airplane.
“I was always a dreamer,” he says. “Our logo is an airplane, because as kids, we all used to make paper airplanes and throw them, and we used to just dream. You didn’t know where you’d go, but you had a vision and you had an idea. You didn’t know if you were going to fly anywhere or ever even be on a plane. Our logo reminds us to always keep dreaming, because dreams do come true.”
But it wasn’t dreaming alone that got him here. He began his career under the tutelage of the legendary producer, and whopping 28-time Grammy award winner, Quincy Jones. “He mentored me and taught me the business. He made sure if I was going to be in the business, I was going to learn every part of the business.”
He credits this early education and dedication to every aspect of the music industry with the trajectory of his career. “It lead me into working into other labels and figuring out how to work with artists, to figure out what they wanted to achieve with labels, and where they want to go with their career.”
“I think the artists find us and we find them. It’s kind of divine.”
The makings of an artist.
Today, Roc Nation represents some of the biggest names in music—massive names, in fact—with one of the biggest of them all, Jay-Z, at the helm. To say they’ve been successful at creating incredibly impactful artists would be an understatement. The music coming out of Roc Nation’s artists have molded the musical landscape. All of this in a world where most artists out there, at best, can claim the one-hit-wonder status.
For Jay Brown and Roc Nation, maintaining an artist’s relatability is crucial to keep them relevant in the music scene. “As a company, you want to make sure you don’t take an artist out of who they are,” he explains. “The fans will know it. They know when something’s real and something’s fake. They know if they’re doing it for the money or if they’re doing it for the brand.”
A lot of this ideology comes from Jay’s cofounder, Jay-Z’s, own career. “It was interesting,” Jay Brown remembers, “because Jay never made records to say ‘I’m going to make a hit.’ He made records to articulate what was going on where he was from. What he did. Where he was planning on going.”
Letting an artist be an artist, while pushing them forward and keeping them relevant, has become the golden equation at Roc Nation. He uses Rihanna as an example. “When I first met Rihanna, I knew that she was special. She was still a teenager—16. But she was poised. You just knew it. You just knew that she was there, she had everything there.
“We didn’t want her to be seen as a novelty. So as we put the first record out, we started on the second one. It was Jay-Z’s idea originally. ‘I think we should start making the first album, and we shouldn’t stop,’ he said. We wanted people to know she’s here to stay—she’s not going anywhere. And here we are, eight albums later.”
And of his cofounder, Jay-Z’s, success, he says “He’s always been true to his story, and because it was so real. People knew that it was part of him because it was part of them. It felt like it was part of their DNA. Jay-Z always made a body of work, so when he put out Reasonable Doubt, every song on there was big because it was basically the bible to the neighborhood. It spoke to everything that was going on. It gave people a moment, it gave them a voice.”
Jay recounts the early days of Jay-Z’s, career, who put out his first album at 26 and continued to put out new albums every nine months. “To make up for the time he’d missed when he was younger,” Jay explains. But he believes the near constant release of new music is part of what made Jay-Z one of the most successful rap artists of all time. “People deserve content,” he says.
The force of the fans.
That relationship between the artist and their fans is more than radio plays and downloads. Jay believes that the fans drive the art because they live the art.
“By the time you’re done with an album,” Jay describes, “you know what the first record’s going to be. Then you actually have it lined up in your mind how your singles are going to fall. But as you put out an album, the fans dictate what the next single is. They’ll start playing it. And not just the fans. The media will start to play it because there’s just something about that song within that time and that moment that just resonates with people, and they start playing that record.”
And in his signature way, Jay lets it all happen organically. “You don’t run from it, you embrace it,” he says. “You have to be prepared to evolve when you’re dropping albums. You have to be prepared for change.”
That change, he explains, is deeply rooted in every aspect of music. “As Jay-Z started learning more and started doing certain things and started traveling, he would bring you on his journey. He’d say, ‘I’m over here,’ and he was talking about being in St. Tropez and he was basically painting the picture for you so you could see it because you couldn’t be there. Somewhat like we were talking about before. You live in an area, and you don’t know if you’re ever going to leave.”
To Jay, the message of music is “a blueprint for the future. A blueprint that lets you know, ‘I’m one of you. I was dreaming and I’m still dreaming, but I’m actually living out my dreams. You can live out your dreams, too.’”
Thriving in the shadows.
Jay has a unique outlook for someone in the entertainment industry, one that’s made Roc Nation the powerhouse that it is. “Fame isn’t in my DNA,” he says. His approach, in contrast, is one that lets the artists be who they are and turn—seemingly effortlessly—into the kind of stars who have come out of Roc Nation.
“I don’t walk in their shoes. I don’t become them. I don’t live their life. All I can do is help out and add to their music and where they’re going and try to lead them in the right direction.”
The mentorship Jay has had throughout his career, from Quincey Jones to Jay-Z, has shaped the businessman that he is. A businessman who sees his own success solely through the success of the artists he represents.
“I think the legacy you build,” he explains, “is built on the people you help. It’s not in how much money you make or what you buy or anything like that. It’s about how many people you touch It’s in how many jobs you help people get and how many dreams you help them achieve.”
“All I can do is help out and add to their music and where they’re going and try to lead them in the right direction.”