Every independent artist — at least those who want to make a living at music — must climb a mountain that seems insurmountable at best as they figure out on their own how to produce, protect and monetize their art in an industry that grows more complicated all the time. But they don’t have to do it alone, says Byron Booker, founder of Recording Artists Guild, a Las Vegas-based nonprofit formed to help independent artists navigate the music industry while remaining independent.
Booker, a music and tech entrepreneur, started RAG in 2009. After a 2012 partnership with video e-commerce firm Cinsay Partners soured, he has spent the last two years re-establishing the organization and refocusing on helping independent artists gain traction and income with their music.
Last month, RAG opened a Dallas office, headquarters for the nonprofit’s Southwest Region. Southwest Region director Lyndol Woodruff, a Dallas native, is on a mission to extend RAG’s reach far and wide, providing independent musicians who are RAG members with the kinds of music production, management, publicity, growth and videography resources that previously were accessible only with a major-label contract, Woodruff tells the Observer.
“RAG is uniquely poised to help independent artists succeed without having to sell out or sacrifice any of their artistry,” Woodruff says. “We are providing members not only with incredible resources and a knowledge base for every step of creating, producing, protecting, marketing and distributing their music, but also with networking and performance opportunities at events like our annual Recording Artists Guild Expo, monthly mixers, and other events we manage talent for in Texas and elsewhere.”
Woodruff says RAG members also have access to a 30-day music business course and monthly master classes in topics like scheduling new releases, merchandise development and branding, how to successfully get positive press from top music critics and bloggers, effective press kits, how to make the most of the royalty system, best practices of mastering music and more. RAG also is working closely with Dallas’ Media Tech Institute to expand the music business training and production services available to members.
To join RAG and access its resources, artists must belong to a Performing Rights Organization such as BMI, ASCAP or SESAC, and must have at least one “radio ready” song. Membership dues are $15 a month, with no contract. Booker, who got his start as a singer, dancer and stand-up comic and toured as a stage performer with Jagged Edge, ran the Ultrax Records label in the early 2000s. Working closely with his mentor, Vanilla Ice manager Tommy Quon, Booker helped Ultrax artists — including international pop star Marcos Hernandez — find their groove on global radio charts before the label’s parent company, TVT Records, went out of business in 2008. Booker also managed artists for the label, including Rob Allen, aka “Rob A!,” who was named an “Urban Songwriter to Watch” by Billboard in 2008. Allen is credited with writing numerous Top 10 hits for Rihanna, Chris Brown, Brandy and others.
Meanwhile, Booker had been taking some minor acting roles on the side and was a member of the Screen Actors Guild. So in 2009, while mulling his next career move, Booker says he had an epiphany.
“By this point, I had experience being an artist, a label owner, a manager and a music publisher,” he says. “I wanted to start another company, but I didn’t want to start a label or management company; I wanted to do something different. So I started researching resources out there for independent musicians and realized there weren’t that many. I discovered that the industry needed an organization like SAG for musicians."
Within three years RAG grew to more than 10,000 members. But a 2012 deal to partner with media-tech startup Cinsay Partners ended bitterly and unexpectedly in 2013, Booker says, noting that he’s since learned some tough lessons about putting all his eggs in one basket, particular in a basket largely controlled by a business partner with deep pockets and no regard for the RAG mission. (Cinsay Partners went belly up a few years later.)
For the last several years, Booker has worked to retool RAG, build a network of music professionals seeking new, unsigned talent, launch a new website with resources for indie artists, as well as a RAG app for musicians wanting to share music and ideas with their peers, find gigs and network.
One RAG member familiar to Dallas music fans, Rickey Smiley Morning Show and Dish Nation co-host, producer and rapper Headkrack, says Booker and the guild have helped him grow his career since he joined in 2013.
“The Recording Artists Guild gives you a lot of access to resources you probably wouldn’t have by yourself,” Headkrack says. “They give you the tools and help to manage the administrative stuff that artists usually don’t know how to handle. A lot of times, creative types are not the most business-astute people and we find the paperwork and business end of things complicated, but RAG can help with that, so you don’t have to focus on trivial stuff and you can focus on your artistry.”
Headkrack credits Booker and his organization with helping him and his hip-hop group Bodega Brovas gain international exposure at a SXSW showcase hosted by RAG in 2013.
“It began a great relationship between myself, Byron and the Recording Artists Guild,” he says, noting that he's been spending a lot more time on his music in the past year. Headkrack has recently released several videos for singles off his new upcoming album Aktion Park, named after an infamous New Jersey amusement park that was dangerous in addition to fun, much like life, Headkrack explains.
“So RAG coming to Dallas and opening a home base here and me realigning with them as I work on my new music project couldn’t be better timing,” he says.
Headkrack and the rest of Bodega Brovas — Travii and Keynote, a Dallas native and longtime radio personality — performed at RAG’s Dallas grand opening party last month. The event marked the organization’s national relaunch, and RAG is accepting new members. Membership includes unlimited access to updated directories of artist managers, booking agents, music publishers, film and TV music supervisors, college and indie radio stations, promoters, publicists, merch providers, CD and vinyl makers, online retailers, licensing firms, video production studios, recording studios, gig-finder networks and more. The members-only RAG website also includes free legal contract templates covering anything a musician would ever need, plus a songwriter split sheet generator and tutorial that include the proper documentation to protect an artist’s original compositions.
Each month, in addition to the master class webinar, members receive a new contact list for 25 of the top music bloggers and reviewers and 25 of the top Spotify playlist curators, as well as recording freeware that is RAG-tested and approved. RAG members also have access to discounts on medical and dental services and assistance with collecting royalties, distributing their music to digital sites worldwide and mastering up to three songs per month.
RAG members in the Dallas area have an added benefit: the media production expertise and studios of Thought Culture, a 2-year-old turnkey digital media firm whose studios are just north of the Design District. Woodruff, who also serves as a vice president for Thought Culture, has built a unique partnership to provide RAG members with discounted media services from Thought Culture, he says.
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Booker and Woodruff are ramping up plans for their first Recording Artists Guild Expo, a multi-venue music business conference and festival scheduled for Oct. 11-13 in Las Vegas. Following workshops and networking events each day, evening activities will feature live music by selected RAG member artists as well as the announcement of annual RAG Award winners. That lineup has not yet been finished, Woodruff says; previous RAG events have included performances by Skylar Grey, Warren G, Brandy and Grammy nominee Ray J, who is also a RAG ambassador.
“We have learned that there still are motivated people out there who genuinely look out for artists … and about the many opportunities that young artists have in today’s music model,” says Ray J in his endorsement statement. “I can honestly say that working with the RAG team has been a game changer for me. They worked with me on the Raydemption Visual Album series, which I consider my best work as a recording artist.”
Headkrack says he hopes the thousands of talented independent musicians in Texas take advantage of the opportunities and resources offered by the guild.
“RAG gives independent artists a more structured way to monetize their artistry; it’s not all about getting rich, but if you want to make any money in the music business, you have to connect with people who know the business, at some point,” he advises. “RAG is great for all of those needs; they offer so many benefits at no charge for members, and the monthly dues couldn’t be more manageable.”