When Brent Hoffman started the music label North Coast Entertainment 10 years ago, hip-hop's East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry was still fresh in the public's mind. Two leaders of the feud, Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., had died of gunshot wounds just a few years earlier.
Despite these tragic events, Hoffman knew the violence wasn't due to hip-hop itself, but to some individuals' bad choices. It was an ideal time to highlight a new hip-hop scene, one with both talent and few ties to the feud. That scene was on a new "coast," the North Coast, otherwise known as Madison.
Hoffman, fresh out of Edgewood College, was working a retail job when he came across a co-worker who was constantly rapping. This rapper was Kalo, a veteran MC who has opened for Snoop Dogg and released well-received albums, including North Coast's 2007 Brew World Order.
"I'd listen to him rap and ask him what he thought about different business ideas," Hoffman recalls. "Pretty soon, I realized there was a real need for artists to improve the business side of what they do."
Hoffman, who studied business, formed the North Coast label with the consulting help of local recording impresario Greg Doby and public relations expert Kristie Moe. The three also bring talent-management services to a larger set of musicians.
While North Coast is definitely interested in major-label-style practices like connecting musicians to lucrative merchandising opportunities, TV appearances and movie contracts, Hoffman's convinced that, if anything, artists at the big record labels are heading in a more DIY direction. Accordingly, his team emphasizes grassroots promotion tools like blogs and MySpace to introduce people to their artists.
"Beyoncé even booked her own studio time for B'Day, which used to be unheard of," Moe says. "It used to be that when you got signed by a big label, you'd sit back and let them run your career, but things are becoming much more proactive. And part of what we do is help artists learn how to do a lot of this [promotion] themselves."
Hoffman and Moe point to one of their recent management recruits, acoustic-pop artist Danielle Brittany, as an example of how local shows, web marketing and some coaching in self-promotion can launch a musician's career.
Before signing on with the management team, Brittany was performing for a small group of fans in local bars. Now she's expanding her fan base exponentially, and she is in the running for a slew of 2009 Madison Area Music Awards.
Plus, Hoffman and Moe are chronicling her story in a book that shows musicians how to make money and market themselves.
"It's not just a theory but a blueprint based on what we've learned in practice: how to use social networking, what a contract looks like and how to book studio time, right down to everything [Brittany] does on a daily basis," says Hoffman. "We really believe that people can make money doing what they love - in this case, music - and this shows them how."
The book doesn't have a publication date yet, but Hoffman's confident that it's a tool all sorts of creative people can use whether it's published three months or three years from now.
Hoffman says North Coast's success stems from its commitment to letting artists be who they want to be, even if that someone is a tough urban rapper.
"We want to make sure we have a product to sell, but above all we encourage our [artists] to be themselves, whether they're someone like Kalo, who's a hard-edged kind of street rapper who grew up in Compton [Calif.] and moved to Milwaukee, or someone like DLO, who's using socially conscious messages to really unify people," he says. Last year North Coast released Madison rapper DLO's fourth CD, Customer Service.
And while the label has worked with artists from around the U.S., the focus remains Madison, Hoffman insists: "We're contacted by artists from all over the country every day, but I'm convinced that we've got some of the best talent there is right here in town."