In Miami, summers unofficially kick off with Irie Weekend, one of the most star-studded events to hit the city each year. DJ Irie (born Ian Grocher) is the host and mastermind behind the four-day spectacle that started on June 29 with a fundraiser gala that auctioned items and experiences, like a one-on-one yacht sail with Shark Tank judge Daymond John that alone raised $20,000. This year, ticket sales and sponsorship dollars from Irie Weekend raised $500,000 for music education programs for inner-city youth. The itinerary continued with celebrity golf tournaments, celebrity-filled pool parties, DJ performances and concerts featuring rap artists like Nellie, T.I. and Future. This year, the sold out eventattracted 8,000 attendees to nightclubs, venues and hotels throughout the city, including Eden Roc, E11even and Fontainebleau. The grand finale concluded with Kevin Hart’s birthday brunch at Miami River Yacht Club. While Irie Weekend wrapped up in early July, DJ Irie is now planning to host the first Irie Weekend in Jamaica this December and Las Vegas next Spring. Irie says he’s able to produce and scale a multi-day luxe event by relying on his own collection of enterprises that specialize in talent booking (ArtistRelated), sponsorship marketing (Irie Music, Corp) and event production (Irie Weekend Management). While a single DJ performance can earn Irie four to five figures in one night, his boutique agencies together employ ten full-time staff and earned about $7 million in revenue in 2016. In the following interview which has been edited and condensed, Irie explains how he went from being a DJ to building a business.
Tanya Klich: Which do you enjoy more – being a DJ or running a business?
DJ Irie: The most accurate answer to this question would be that I enjoy running a DJ/Music based business. It’s one thing to run a business but another thing to operate a business in a field that you’re extremely passionate about and engaged in.
Klich: How did you become a celebrity DJ?
Irie: I went from playing at a local skating rink to playing at every major nightclub in Miami. In 1999, marketing executives from the Miami Heat asked me to become the first official team DJ. I’m tasked with bringing South Beach party vibes to home games at the American Airlines Arena. I then became the choice DJ for NBA All-Star games and personal events for ball players and Miami-based celebrities. Now, clients from around the world hire me for private events.
Klich: When did you launch your first company?
Irie: When I was DJing nightclubs throughout the late 90s and early 2000s, “street-team marketing” was big in hip-hop capitols like New York City and Los Angeles. I realized this had no presence in Florida or the South. I also realized my equipment crew of four to six men had nothing to do in between the set up and break down of my turntables, so why not capitalize on their downtime and train them as street-team marketers. In 1997 I created Urban Music Group and partnered with major record labels like Chris Lighty’s Violator to promote artists like Q-Tip and Missy Elliott in my region. We had dozens of promoters in Miami and Atlanta who worked part-time. At its peak, UMG was earning $400,000 in annual revenue.
Klich: What happened?
Irie: As mp3 downloads began to rise that decade, record labels began to cut their budgets and street teams were the first to go. I had to fold the company in 2002. As street marketing declined, I had to figure out how else I could incorporate marketing into my DJ career. In 2005, I created Irie Music Corp.
Klich: What does Irie Music do?
Irie: It secures brand ambassadorships for myself and locks in sponsorship opportunities for Irie Weekend events.
Klich: What are brand ambassadorships?
Irie: Some deals are simple as displaying my name on a bottle of Beck’s beer to be served at an event. Some ambassadorships are year-round deals involving contracts that can be valued for $75,000. For example, I once had a deal with Heineken where I display their logo on my turntables and electronic monitors in the club. I offered nightclubs a discount on my booking fee if they agreed to position Heineken bottles prominently on their bar shelves if I perform. We also have partnerships with Target, Toyota and Budweiser. In 2016, we booked $3.5 million in annual revenue.
Klich: You employ a full-time legal staffer. Why?
Irie: One year, one snafu proved to be quite costly for us. Private travel for our A-List participants is one of our single largest expense items. It’s imperative for us to have a private jet company partnership to help underwrite this cost which we were all but certain we had in place until the talks deteriorated in the final hours. We put too much good faith in their word based off a previous working relationship but the lesson here is to always keep our options open and maintain dialogue until the contract is signed and sealed, regardless of precedent.
Klich: Why did you start a talent management agency, ArtistRelated?
Irie: Early in my career, I found it more efficient to build an organization to self-manage my career than hire a manager. I started to book more upscale venues on my own so I took on a booking agent and had to hire one administrative assistant to handle my schedule and the submission of invoices. Along the way, I met a lot of talented DJs who had trouble promoting themselves. Since I couldn’t say yes to every booking request, I referred clients to these DJs and that’s how ArtistRelated was born in 2005. Today, we have two full-time employees who manage my DJ bookings, a dozen other DJs and a larger roster of talent.
Klich: What challenges have you faced as a talent agency?
Irie: Because most of my DJs were new to the scene, we can only demand so much in terms of fees; our commission was not significant at 10 to 15%. We needed to do so much in volume to break even. We earned very little the first few years and I nearly folded the company.
Klich: What did you do?
Irie: By 2010, as I met promoters across the country, they’d always mention how they had trouble booking celebrity appearances, many of whom I had relationships with through the Heat — but most of whom I just met through networking and cold calls.
Klich: Wouldn’t a celebrity already have people to handle nightclub appearances?
Irie: Not all agents specialize in nightclub performances and appearances. And you’d be surprised how even the biggest hotels and nightclubs need access to A-list talent to attract party-goers. When booking an artist like Usher or P. Diddy, you would think the William Morris Agency or Creative Artists Agency owns this realm and that there’s no space for an indie or startup shop; but it was jaw dropping how many clients had to lean on us for musical talent. You never know the true scale of the opportunity until you dive in and let the market know you’re offering this service. We are now a full-service, national booking agency for stars from the film, music and sports industries including Shaquille O’Neal, Drake, Austin Mahone and more.
Klich: Did expanding to celebrities change how you operated?
Irie: We can charge venues more for celebrities. The booking and promoting of local DJs and big-name stars require the same amount of work: e-mail campaigns, social media alerts, glossy fliers and samples of their music. While it’s the same process, celebrity talent delivers greater returns. In 2016, we had annual revenues of $3 million.
Klich: What else have you learned about running a business?
Irie: For the first few years, Irie Weekend was a free, invite-only event that relied on sponsorships. I was booking talent for free based on personal relationships but it was impossible to get stars to commit weeks or months in advance. We got by for the first few years but you can only ask artists for so many favors. So, in 2008 we changed our model to rely more on ticket sales. Through ArtistRelated, we directly book and secure celebrity appearances with legally binding contracts. ArtistRelated collaborates with Irie Music to understand who our sponsors are and how we can ask performers to participate in their marketing campaigns, sweetening the deal for brand partners.