Brae, C. Michael
Brae, C. Michael
Recording company executive
The chief executive officer of San Francisco-based Hitman Records, Michael Brae never planned to start a recording company or even to become involved with the music business. His path to his position came almost by accident, when he partnered with an aspiring church musician and discovered that the business expertise he had acquired on Wall Street could be applied to music as well. Like any good businessperson, Brae has leveraged that expertise into as many new areas as he could: he has been active as an educator and author in addition to directing the activities of a label with an estimated $900,000 in annual revenues. As of 2007, Brae was in the process of implementing an innovative new model for the traditional record label.
Born around 1963 in upstate New York, C. Michael Brae was raised in New York City. "My father was my total inspiration and led by a great example as father, a friend, a minister, and a great role model," Brae told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). A contractor and carpenter, the elder Brae pushed his son toward both higher education and an independent attitude, telling him "Son, you need to have your own business one day, have a trade, and get all the college degrees possible, for this alone will put you further ahead in life, plus you will be able to make a difference in society."
Honed Instincts in Stock Market
Brae took the advice to heart, obtaining degrees in advertising design and advertising from Pacific Union College and the Academy of Art Institute, and then earning a double bachelor's degree in advertising and marketing from University of San Francisco. He later earned a master's degree in marketing from Madison University, where he continued his studies toward a doctorate. Returning to New York, he went to work for the Wall Street stock brokerage Shearson Lehman Brothers. "The stock market is where I got my business savvy and aggressive business tactics," Brae explained to CBB. "I will never forget it, as it became part of my ‘business psyche.’" He also worked in marketing, with high-profile clients that included Delta Airlines.
Nor did Brae forget his father's advice about starting his own business one day. The opportunity to do so came about serendipitously. Brae had enjoyed playing the organ in church and directing church choirs on occasion, and, back in the San Francisco Bay Area, he began playing the organ on Sundays at Oakland's Allen Temple Baptist Church. One Sunday in 1991, the church hosted a gospel performer named Grady Harris Jr.; Harris left a cassette, marked Sounds of Soul Records, on top of Brae's organ, and Brae asked him questions about the enterprise. "He could see that I was intrigued so he invited me over to his apartment, but when I got there he said, ‘this is my label,’" Brae recalled to Wendy Harris of Black Enterprise. "He just had a keyboard and all these 24 tracks. That's it."
Brae suggested a partnership in which he would receive percentages of both recording sales (50 percent) and publishing income (25 percent). With Sounds of Soul still boasting only a single artist, Harris, Brae rented an office in downtown Oakland and installed a basic recording studio there. He quickly became acquainted with the network of small record stores through which gospel music was marketed at the time (and still is to some degree), and, delivering Harris's album himself to stores as far away as Los Angeles, he moved 1,200 copies over the course of a few months.
Formed Hitman Label
It was at that point that Brae was bitten by the music industry bug. He had "never even thought about being in the music industry," he told CBB, and the partnership with Harris was "definitely a spur-of-the-moment thing." But he was quick to see the possibilities. While his business partner, Brae recalled to Black Enterprise, "was leaning more toward the production side and was focusing primarily on gospel music, I was leaning more toward the business, record label, and distribution side and wanted to focus on gospel, hip-hop, R&B, and everything else." Hitman Records was formed in late 1991.
The next challenge was national distribution, a necessity if Brae was going to move beyond the method of delivering product in person. After a discouraging month in Los Angeles approaching major labels such as Sony and Capitol without success, Brae pitched a distribution deal to SOLAR (Sounds of Los Angeles Records), whose successes had included the group Shalimar and its artistic offspring, dance-pop queen Jody Watley. Brae signed a joint venture deal with SOLAR president and general counsel Virgil Roberts that offered Hitman exposure with national retailers such as the Musicland chain in exchange for 40 percent of sales. Brae later made deals with other distributors including Bayside Distribution, Harvest Media Group in Kansas City, and Sumthing Distribution in New York.
As Brae signed such artists as Samuelle (vocalist for R&B group Club Nouveau) and Mac Dash Mone (of Digital Underground), Hitman's sales grew. He investigated the artists he signed by going to their concerts, trying to gauge local enthusiasm for their music. "Make sure the artist has a fan base or the potential to develop a fan base," Brae advised would-be entrepreneurs in his interview with Black Enterprise. "This will go a long way when trying to persuade a distributor to carry your music." By 2005 Brae had moved Hitman Records to an office on the 41st floor of a building in San Francisco's financial district, had nine employees on the payroll, and was racking up sales of about $900,000 a year. Part of that total came from deals he signed with about 30 still smaller labels, agreeing to distribute their product in turn, in exchange for a percentage of sales. Throughout his career, Brae's success has been due in part to his ability to identify possibilities for vertical integration of his music business activities.
Courses Featured Hands-On Experience
By the early 2000s Brae was a go-to figure for Bay Area journalists looking for comments on emerging artists in the area. He also began to share his expertise by becoming an educator, teaching classes in the music business at such schools as San Francisco State University, the University of California at Los Angeles, and Dominican University. Not relying on textbook instruction, Brae gave his students hands-on experience: students at San Francisco State, under Brae's direction, started their own label, 19th and Holloway (named for the location of the school's campus) and issued a compilation of tracks by local artists entitled This Is Your Brain on Hip-Hop. A similar project arose in Brae's Marketing for the Music Industry class at Dominican University. At California State East Bay University at Hayward, he founded a continuing education program in music recording industry studies.
At a Glance …
Born 1963(?) in upstate New York; raised in New York City; father a carpenter-contractor and minister. Education: Pacific Union College, AS, advertising design; Academy of Art College, BFA, advertising; University of San Francisco, BA, advertising and marketing; Madison University, distance learning, MA, marketing; Madison University, Ph.D. candidate.
Shearson Lehman Brothers, New York, employed 1980s; also worked in marketing; (with Grady Harris Jr.) formed partnership, Sounds of Soul Records, 1991; Hitman Records, founder and chief executive officer, 1991-; SOLAR label, joint venture, 1995; San Francisco State University, the University of California at Los Angeles, Dominican University; (with Dameon V. Russell), California State East Bay University, University of the Pacific, Global Recording Institute, instructor of classes in music recording business, 1990s-; author, 2002-.
Office—Hitman Records, One Embarcadero Center, Suite 4100, San Francisco, CA 94111.
Individual students executed the tasks they would have to perform at an actual, for-profit label, such as executive operations, artist-and-repertoire relationships, sales, and publicity. "We hope other music-biz educators will pay some attention to what Brae and his students are pulling off in San Francisco," noted industry publication Billboard. "All too often, aspiring young entrepreneurs come to this business with a headful of dreams and little hard knowledge of the way things work or the way they can go wrong." Brae offered his expertise to a broader audience in 2002, when he and Hitman Vice President Dameon V. Russell published Music Distribution: Selling Music in the New Entertainment Marketplace.
The contraction in music-industry profits that accompanied the shift from compact discs to legal and illicit downloading of music affected Hitman as well as other music labels in the mid-2000s. As Brae put it to CBB, "there are several other formats to hear music, instead of the norm of radio, and the norm of going to the traditional retail store to buy music…we had to adjust and format our business model to fit the current demand." Brae's solution was to market a new proprietary media player with an associated catalog of online downloads, named the MP4player and MP4tunes. The player, making use of the emerging .mp4 audio compression standard, included such novelties as a built-in FM transmitter for in-car or home stereo listening, a digital voice recorder, an electronic book reader, a line-in jack, and file storage among other features. By early 2007, Brae had signed agreements with recording companies to provide in excess of one million songs for the MP4tunes online catalog, and he was seeking agreements with retailers and music product providers up and down the distribution chain.
(With Dameon V. Russell) Music Distribution: Selling Music in the New Entertainment Marketplace, Booksurge, 2002.
Brae, C. Michael, and Dameon V. Russell, Music Distribution: Selling Music in the New Entertainment Marketplace, Booksurge, 2002.
Billboard, April 26, 2003, p. 42.
Black Enterprise, November 2005, p. 104, 114.
"Business Students Create Record Label," Dominican University, www.dominican.edu/domicannews/business-students-create-record-label/index.html (April 27, 2007).
Hitman Records, www.hitmanrecords.com (April 27, 2007).
Additional information for this profile was gathered from personal e-mail communications with C. Michael Brae, April 2007.
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