When New Orleans Hornets guard Roger Mason Jr. first got into the music business in 2009 and started scheduling meetings to sign his first act, urban pop singer Segarra, he didn't want anyone to know he was an NBA player. He took his passion sincerely and was afraid music executives would take him lightly and not give him a fair deal.
"There have been so many times that athletes aren't taken seriously," said Mason, who was a classically trained pianist at 7 years old.
That approach worked through the first few years as he built up his company, Weight Records, and became the first NBA player to sign a joint-venture deal with a major label, Universal Music Group. Now Mason, along with his longtime friend and business partner Omari Ware, has made Weight a successfully independent venture with offices in Miami and Los Angeles, featuring a full-time staff of two reps and two producers. While Ware handles the day-to-day operations, Mason is involved mostly via email during the season and intensifies his involvement during the summer.
So far this year, Mason and Ware have been focused on marketing Segarra's first single, "All the Boyz," off her upcoming EP and preparing its release in June.
Mason is also taking steps to erase the stigma attached to pro athletes who want to break into music. As a player representative for the National Basketball Players Association, he is in the process of working alongside the union to establish a music outreach program for NBA ballers with New York University as well as legendary record producer and J Records founder Clive Davis.
Speaking with ESPN Playbook this week, Mason discussed the development of Weight Records, the life-changing music experiences he had in New York as a member of the Knicks and his initiatives to open doors for players and kids in the industry.
What was your thinking to go independent?
We were doing a lot of the work ourselves, and so we were pretty much doing marketing; we were doing the creative. At that point, it didn't make sense for us to have a situation where Universal would deal with this because we were doing all the work. I've made so many great relationships over the last three, four years doing it, especially when I was in New York, so it's really been good just from a knowledge standpoint getting to know the business.
It was also just timing. They had a lot of other acts that they were working on. Now we'll still be open-minded to it, but we have our freedom right now. We'll see how it goes. Maybe if another opportunity presents itself with another label, we'll certainly listen.
What is the backbone of what you guys do?
Our big thing is we have a production company now, so we have a couple of young producers that are just creating. We have a studio in Miami and one in D.C., and right now they're just creating music. We have a lot of writers that we work with, so we're really just pushing songs and records out. That's where the relationships have been great. Weight Records is more on the production side. One of our guys has that pop, Euro sound and then another guy is actually from D.C., and they're both really talented. Those two producers pretty much work, and they'll send us the music, we'll send that out to writers and then go from there. That's the big aspect of what we're trying to do.
You mentioned before about the music-business knowledge you gained in New York. Obviously there are so many labels there and industry people to meet. Who have been some of your biggest mentors?
One of my best friends is Doug Davis, and he's my attorney. He's obviously Clive Davis' son. He really took me under his wing, and he's been a great friend, personally. Just with this business, he's kind of been a big brother and making sure I'm not taken advantage of, because a lot of athletes try to do music and they end up spending a whole lot of money in wasted places. Doug has been a mentor for me as far as being really smart and really just helping me meet a lot of people in the industry.
How did you meet Doug?
I actually met him before I signed with the Knicks. I met him in L.A., and it just so happened that I was signing with the Knicks, and we just became really, really good friends. He's actually in my wedding.
Based on what you have learned and are currently doing, have there been any instances where athletes have come to you for music advice? As we both know, a lot of them want to get into the industry.
For a long time, to be honest with you, I didn't want to let anybody know that I was doing it. First of all, even when I went and got my deal with Segarra with Universal, we took meetings with six labels. We went and saw everybody, and not once did they even know that I played basketball. And that was really important for me because I didn't want them to judge the music in a negative way. There have been so many times that athletes aren't taken seriously. So with me, honestly, I didn't tell anybody that I was even doing it. I didn't want anybody to take the project any less serious.
So with that being said, a lot of guys in the NBA probably have no idea that I had a major record deal with Universal. I didn't want to take away from Segarra's talents. I felt like the minute that people in the music industry know that an athlete is involved, the price triples. That's one thing. The price triples, and people kind of look at the music sideways. So off the jump, I didn't want to put myself out there. I didn't want to get in the way of the other investors that were involved, because it wasn't just me. I have other partners that live this daily, and I didn't want my basketball to get in the way of that. I have a lot of experience in the music industry now. Now I'm more open to it, and I would certainly talk to guys about it.
Do you sense, though, that the respect and awareness levels are improving when it comes to off-the-court branding for pro athletes? You see, for example, guys like Steve Nash launching an ad agency and LeBron James becoming a partner with different lifestyle brands, and they get rave reviews.
I am noticing that in a lot of those other fields, but I still think that -- I have a lot of friends in music now -- unfortunately a lot of athletes are not looked upon seriously when it comes to music. That's just my opinion.
For you, has the reception been better?
I think you're right. I think now, in 2013, with branding and where people are more open-minded, I think people are opening up to the idea. With me, it's interesting because I'm not the talent. I'm on the business side, and I'm developing relationships to kind of bridge the gap between music and sports. But even with the guys, [San Antonio Spurs forward] Stephen Jackson is one guy that knows the success that I've had in music. He's having success himself. He's talented. Same thing with Durant. And it's been done before. Shaq and Kobe both did well with their albums, but there's been way more athletes that have failed with music. So my thing is, I take it serious. It's not just a hobby.
Speaking of the evolution of athlete branding beyond the game, the way music is consumed is so different nowadays, especially through digital and social media. As CEO, do you have any ideas that you want to bring to the table?
Absolutely. That's the thing that fights me the most. It's a new world that we live in, obviously, with singles and digital downloads and digital marketing and new creative ways to get music out there. And I think thinking outside of the box, and really having an interesting perspective with sports and fans and interaction, there's a lot of new ways to get music out there. I think that now and moving forward the sky's the limit really to what can be done.
Is the NBA involved to help you push your music platform forward?
I did mention to Mr. [David] Stern that I got that deal with Universal, and he was proud. But right now, I still keep it secret because the biggest thing with me is what I do on the court. The one thing that I have talked to the players' association about is working with Clive Davis and NYU and doing a program for the guys. I've been working on it for the last year and a half. It's a program with NYU and the Clive Davis [Institute of Recorded Music], where [a player can] get a mentor and they're able to actually find out about the business of music. And it's really cool. It's something I've brought to the union since there are so many guys that are interested in music and doing stuff. They would actually get real, solid information on the business, how it works and what the publishing means and all the little nuances that a lot of guys don't know. I've been working with Mr. Davis and his team to try to put something together for the players' association.
When are you looking to launch it?
We have a lot of things going on with the union. We're still in the process of finding out which players would be interested in doing it and where the interest lies with that. But the NFL did the program, and it was a huge success. I mean, it's really a comprehensive program. I want to say it's a four-week program, and then each [player] gets a very high-qualified mentor that follows them for a year to kind of go through what it is they're trying to do. We talked about having some high-level executives that have been in the business for over 20 years to fill that position.
They would lead a few days of seminars on publishing; there would be a few days of seminars on marketing and doing an album and recording -- all these different parts of the music business. And then, once the program is over, it doesn't just stop with the program. The whole thing is, if you're that serious about the music industry and this is what you want to do, then they give you a mentor for a year to kind of pick his brain, and he's available to you to ask him anything about the business and what it is you're trying to do. So I'm looking forward to talking more to guys about it to see if it's something that they want to do.
It sounds like a great life-building opportunity for the players to learn much more about one of their favorite interests.
Right, and that's what the players' association is all about. For example, they have a program at Syracuse University on broadcasting. They've been doing that for about the last six, seven years. I think they have an 80 percent rate of the guys that do the broadcasting, and then those guys go on to work. Shaq did it going to work at ESPN, and now he's at TNT. They've got a coaching program that they do, and that coaching program is the [NBPA] Top 100 [High School Basketball] Camp. A lot of guys have gone to become coaches from that program. They have a GM program. The players' association has many programs for guys that do things that they might want to do when they're not playing ball.
Anything you're doing in New Orleans as far as music outreach?
We're doing something in performing arts with the local Boys & Girls Club. It's just something that I enjoy. I feel like kids who aren't fortunate enough to have a chance to play an instrument or learn the piano, we're working on a program for kids after school to allow them to get those things. I'm working with the Boys & Girls Club now in New Orleans and my foundation to put something like that together.