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Leveling Up Your Music Brand

The CAB Portal blog provides articles on tricks of the trade and best practices, as well as news, interviews, artist showcases and recommended products/services, that emerging artists can utilize to take their music brand to the next level of success.

Interview: When the Going Gets Tough, Get Like Rookz

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Many people know that it takes hard work and dedication to become a success in the music industry. We all hear stories of overcoming struggle, but they are almost always from an artist's point of view. I spoke to Rookz who is the owner of Sandbox Studios in Toronto, a youth mentor, a bit of an LGBTQ activist, and a public speaker amongst many other things. This was definitely a story of overcoming obstacles that is not typically told but needed to be made known.

From simultaneously managing a community centre, an artist, a studio and a small business while also dealing with personal stress, Rookz never let go of her dream to provide a positive and helpful creative space for artists to flourish. Being momentarily blacklisted from the city and having negative rumours being spread about her didn’t stop her from continuing her path of truth and carving a space of her own right at the top. Her studio, Sandbox Studios has hosted big acts like Cardi B, but it still a safe and accessible place for any artist who wants to hone their craft. It took some time, but It’s this kind of dedication that will get you where you want to be. I visited Sandbox Studios to talk to Rookz about her past and find out how she got through it all.

What made you want to open a studio? From what I know, you don’t sing and dance, so what inspired you? 

I never wanted to open a studio, I was managing an artist. My good friend KR had a studio and he had shut it down because it was getting too hard to control the space. One day 10 people rolled up to his spot, and the landlord pulled up around the same time. Even though people weren’t smoking weed, the studio had smelt like it. A week later, the landlord evicted KR, the landlord was looking for every reason and finally found it. I was managing that artist while we worked together out of that space. We decided to still work with her even though the studio had shut down, the artist was doing well. After less than a year of managing her, her career really took; Drake and others wanted to work with her. I was running a laser cutting company at the time, so I had some extra money. We couldn’t get Good Wood Jesus pieces in Canada and to order them was expensive. I saw someone with a detailed cut, found out they went to OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design), where they had a laser cutter, so I decided to make a business called, Chips. In less than 3 months we had $10,000 in sales, we were doing pieces for Supra, and New Era and custom wood trinkets. Chips was doing well, the artist was doing well, so we decided to really go for it. We did a show that sold out in 48 hrs, we sold 200 tickets when she never even released an EP.

Chips was doing so well that I got a $10,000 grant to participate in a business incubator program sponsored by the city. At the same time, the artist was doing so well that I couldn’t make it to any of the classes; we got invited to go on tour with Raekwan! I decided to focus on the artist, took the money and invested into her, of course the city was pissed off. I spent all the money to build the studio for her and her success, but she decided to fire me because she thought I was taking her money and I was immediately blacklisted from city funding programs.

I realized that there were so few voices making all the decisions in the city. I became obsessed with trying to figure out how no one else would go through what I went through, how to make the space more inclusive. I was blacklisted for 3 years not only from the city, but from the industry as everyone believed the lies my former artist was spreading about me. All this time I was sad, upset - I was at the studio when my dad got sick. I gave so much of myself to the beef that I had to win. I felt like letting Sandbox die was letting me die. When people don’t fuck with you, you gotta find new people. I don’t care if I find the next Drake. I just don’t want a kid who is talented to stop because of being in a small space.

What key lessons did you learn in having to build all of this by yourself?

I learned that a lot of people don’t intentionally mean to disappoint you. I think that rigor is a practice that you learn. Even where I aright now, I’m incredibly anal about how Sandbox is run. I learned a lot of my success through struggle. You need to be around people who are willing to be broke with you, fail with you. Understand that everyone has different responsibilities. You need to be around people who have the same responsibilities as you. Don’t take things personally, don’t let what people’s personal view of you effect yourself. People only feel a way about you based on the access they have to you. I wasn’t going to invest energy into making people like me. People won’t like you when you try to do what they do. “Who do you think you are?” become very comfortable with that feeling. It’s your thing, you will have to work 17 times harder than everyone else. I remember crying, painting the studio by myself, everyone said they were gonna help paint, but they left. Everyone won’t have the same level of commitment, and that’s okay. When they’re able to support you let them do it in the way that they can. You have to be supportive to get support.

On your Instagram I saw that you took a stand against, or more made a suggestion to someone who had violent lyrics, why was that important to you?

When I got kicked out of my house at 14 I always joked and said I was a young Jewelz Santana. 50 cent’s Get Rich or Die Trying movie came out, all my friends started selling and trying to be a part of that life, but not out of necessity. Being in that life was so accessible because we were all trying to live it. The artists who wrote those lyrics were 2 white boys in elementary school. We blame the influence of artists, not the music. The challenge in the Black community is that we’ll always talk about the fact that there aren’t enough Black professionals. We always want representation because its important, but why won’t we discuss what it does to the psyche to see the negative representation - you want more than you earn, it’s problematic.  Music isn’t true to the reality of the people talking about it, when I was a kid, I was willing to live that life because It was Black identity at the time. I like clean versions of music, not because I don’t like swearing, but I’m just so cognizant of what goes into my mind. The things that you watch and listen to form what you become. I can’t be here on Saturday talking to kids about their potential, but then promoting negativity on the weekdays. I’ve been poor, and I’ve been rich in a lot of ways, I also compromised a lot of things to do that. We don’t talk about the psyche of getting rich in negative ways. Are we making sure that the young women twerking are being taken care of? If a person is robbing and stealing to build schools or eat… cool… if its’ just to go to Holt Renfrew, moral dilemma. Most crimes these days are not based on survival

When did you start public speaking? What has been your favourite gig?

I started public speaking to get into back to school. Dave and Mary Thomson C.I. wouldn’t let me back in unless I joined, Respecting Schools Everywhere – I was 18.  I started doing that, had to go to middle schools and talk to kids about respect, violence, consent. Really quickly, people started to say that I was a good public speaker. I got to speak on behalf of program and interview on Global News. In that moment, something shifted. My school was mad homophobic, I was gay but cool, I had all the Jordan’s, crazy clothes, pulled up in different cars - all the hard guys were not as cool as me, I realized that any influence changes your life and other peoples’ lives. You have to be aware of the space you’re taking up. I watched my school become less homophobic, it started with 3 white kids who were gay, then 30 kids, then a GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) started. You can be so powerful when you exist in your truth. I won most memorable valedictorian at Centennial College’s HYPE (Helping Youth Pursue Education) program. I spoke a narrative and a story that was different than most Black kids hear about themselves. I stopped caring about a lot of things in that space. If you’re fucking up, look in the mirror. This contributed to how I would see myself in the world, be in the world later on. No excuses. 

As someone who has watched and helped many artists develop, what are the key things/characteristics an artist needs to have in their toolkit?

Ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. Making music is so general, so accepting failure is a lot easier because it’s so general. Be specific, do you want to make a song for Madonna? work with Bruno Mars, Timbaland? It’s hard to answer the questions, because they haven’t done the research. You can make as much music as you want, but it won’t make you money. Making a conscious plan of how you are going to move through the music industry will. Artists should have business plans in their kits.

How can an artist begin to expand their brand?

Every question an artist asks me is in their business plan. Who is your market, who’s the leader in the demographic, who is engaging them, how can you engage them? You could have figured it out yourself. When I was managing, shout out Jean Carlo (1985 and DVSN manager) he said to me… find 3 artists that she’s like and study them… how did they get there? And very quickly I learned Erykah Badu’s mom was a classical opera singer, Badu went to theatre school, Jill Scott went on tour with the Roots from winning contests, the Roots wore Jill Scott T-shirts to support her. Chrisette Michelle, also went to art school… they all went to art school. At 23, my artist at the time didn’t have that. We see Black people all the time and think that we’re the same. It takes time and takes work. I don’t think artists realize it’s hard work. You can’t build your brand if you don’t know your brand. I don’t care about Yo Gotti coming here, I care about the kid in bedroom who’s never been here before. That’s their market, I can’t compete with Cherry Beach Studios and I’m not trying to - dollar store cookies don’t compete with Mrs. Fields. There are so many ways and variations in which you can exist. Your job is to know your job. Artists don’t know that they are an entrepreneur. If you don’t know your business, you fail.

I may be biased, but I think this is one of the better, if not the best studio in the city, so I’m not surprised that Cardi B came to record here, but how did that happen?

Music business and being active, the day Cardi B came here, it was a civic holiday. I had this intern over the summer who wasn’t good at anything I needed him to be good at. He just had such a good effort. I need people around me who remind me that we have value. His one job was to respond to email. I talked to him the day before, I told him to make sure to respond to emails over the long weekend. He gets an email from someone saying they’re looking for an artist to record, please let us know, please get back to us from “Atlantic Records”. He called me to let me know, I said let’s follow up immediately. Whenever the labels call… Labels control everything. It was actually them and they said, “You’re the only people on top of this, you’re the only people who answered”. I didn’t know Cardi B at the time, had already been exhausted from a 2 hr drive but I still came in. I want Sandbox to be the place that labels can trust. I’d rather work business to business than business to client. I was impressed that she didn’t care that it wasn’t a million-dollar studio, the PR person, Queen P, gave a lot of advice. “Listen, where you start and where you finish shouldn’t even be in the same conversation. Focus on where you are going.” Sometimes we are so insecure about ourselves that we don’t chase certain things. The label loved us. Music execs empowered me to know that I could do the things I wanted to do. It was a transitional moment, sometimes a person’s acknowledgement motivates you to believe in yourself. Professional goes a much longer way than how talented you are. I want my clients to know what a professional experience is.

I really like that Sandbox also provides opportunities to youth in the community, how did that start and why’s that important for Sandbox?

That started because I dropped out of high school and no one would hire me at all. In 2013, I had Sandbox, won a number of awards, did so many things but couldn’t get a job. I applied to Walmart, Wendy’s, Canadian Tire. I felt worthless, I wanted to teach young people to have skills. Having rigor is more important than anything else. A lot of people pretend to be there, act like they want it, I wanted it for real.

Toronto has definitely become a hot spot or music in the last few years but most of the people blowing up are affiliated with Drake, what’s your take on that?

OVO has sustainable market share, no one else can get on because they are not in the business. Drake by himself wouldn’t be who he is just by himself, stylist, PR, social media manager, brand manager, A&R… It doesn’t flourish for everyone because Drake did not just invest in his music, he invested in the business. Jessie Reyez invests in the business, so does Daniel Caesar. There’s a model of success in the music industry, it’s expensive. Artists can be manufactured, artists have thought that to be a negative term, if they have the talent right now. We all like mangoes, mangoes are manufactured. It’s how to get it to the consumer in the easiest way, like laptops, cell phones, clothes. Toronto has completely disempowered the music people. You can make good music, but if you don’t have good music business it doesn’t matter as much. You can have a shit artist who doesn’t make good music but understands the music industry, but they’ll go farther than someone who is good because they understand the music industry.

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The best thing about Rookz is even though she is extremely busy with the studio and other high-profile projects, she will always make time to help out the little guy! Rookz is someone who is for the people and makes the crazy monster that is the music industry seem tangible and obtainable, with her candid story telling and way with words - basically she tells it how it is. What we can learn from the struggle of Rookz is to keep trying and to believe in yourself, especially when things get tough. Rookz had faith in herself and kept on pushing even through moments of huge pushback towards her, I encourage all of you to do the same. Things may not always be pretty, but when you stay on task and dedicate the time anything can happen! 

Connect with Rookz: Instagram | Sandbox Studios

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