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Sharing The Wealth: How A Passion For Reggae Sparked A Business That Benefits Musicians And Promoters Alike

Thursday, May 7, 2020, Rootfire will host Thomas Cussins, President of Ineffable Music Group, for a Music Business Club live Q&A on RootfireTV. SET A REMINDER

This article is an excerpt of an interview Jonathan Rabinovitz conducted with Thomas Cussins in December 2019.

When it comes to putting on live events, Thomas Cussins tends to obsess over every detail of the fan experience. This past July, as 30,000 people were about to arrive at the Levitate Music Festival, Cussins was busy helping to set up the fencing that would direct attendees into the event. Cussins’ main job was to book the festival’s 20 folk rock, roots, reggae, hip-hop and funk acts, including headliners Trey Anastasio of Phish, The Head and the Heart, and Stick Figure. But Cussins has built his career by knowing there’s more to a successful event than just the music. So there he was, lending a hand to ensure nothing was out of place.

Levitate, which is held each summer in Marshfield, MA, fuses music from different genres to create a wholesome vibe perfect for a summer party near the beaches of Cape Cod. Along with the music, Cussins had also arranged for family activities like a kids’ drumming circle, giant chalkboards for drawing and a germination station where children plant tomatoes. Free sunscreen for all was included. And with three-day passes costing just $129 (and $30 for kids), Levitate was accessible to a broader audience than similar events like Coachella ($429) or Bonnaroo ($385).

“You’re going to wind up feeling a community,” Robbie Wulfsohn, lead singer of the band Ripe, says of the event. “You’re going to wind up feeling the world enveloping you.”

Cussins, who is president of Oakland, California-based Ineffable Music Group, a multi-faceted modern music company that includes a management company, festivals, music venues, and a record label, has made a name for himself managing artists who are successful in genres often not considered commercially viable. Live events that are distinct in style and form from the industry’s typical offerings are core to Ineffable’s business. And as part of his formula, Ineffable’s musicians record and own their own music rather than signing their rights away to one of the major record labels. In turn, Ineffable works with its artists to create new ways to foster the connection between musician and fan.

Ineffable makes its money from the events that draw these fans. It specializes in shows where prices are reasonable, fans have a great experience, and everyone leaves feeling like they’re part of a community. Often, Cussins experiments with non-traditional venues and comes up with creative events to put on—like a free event for volunteers of a soup kitchen he recently organized for one of his artists.

There’s an underlying philosophy behind the events, Cussins says: “Let’s create an experience that resonates beyond just this one day so that not only do you want to come back, but just about everything else in your life is happier and better.”

Thursday, May 7, 2020, Rootfire will host Thomas Cussins, President of Ineffable Music Group, for a Music Business Club live Q&A on RootfireTV. SET A REMINDER

Cussins co-founded Ineffable Music in 2006 with his college roommate, Igor Katz. Since then, the company has grown to manage 15 major reggae and hip-hop artists such as Stick Figure, Collie Buddz, The Movement and Trevor Hall. It also owns or helps to run five clubs in Northern California, has its own label and recording studios, and books talent and sells tickets for events worldwide. In 2019, Ineffable and its partners promoted and sold tickets for more than 2,000 concerts, ranging from events for 30 people in a basement to the Cali Roots Festival in Monterey, which drew thousands of fans who camped out for up to three days.

As an undergraduate, Cussins’s life took a sharp turn when an acquaintance who was a rapper complained about not being able to get a show anywhere. Cussins and his roommate figured that putting on a show would be an easy way to make a quick buck. They organized their first show — and all of their friends came.

Cussins followed up with a second show, which was more sparsely attended. He put on a third — and this time no one showed up. Still, Cussins loved the rush of bringing people together to hear live music, and he knew he had found his calling. He also learned an important music business lesson. “We realized we needed to book bands that have their own fans,” he says.

Instead of going to work for a talent agency in New York or Los Angeles, Cussins saw an alternative path emerging in the music industry. Streaming services and social media were making it possible for musicians to have direct relationships with fans, which made them less dependent on big labels for promotional support. Cussins realized that the new essential skill would be to cultivate relationships with followers. Revenue would come from live-event tickets and merchandise, not album sales.

The opportunity to act on his insight came in a serendipitous meeting in 2008 when Cussins booked a show with Bermudian reggae star Collie Buddz at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz, a club where Cussins was working. (It would later become an Ineffable-booked venue.) Buddz had just been dropped by Sony, and over a post-performance beer he confided to Cussins that he wasn’t sure he could afford to keep playing music without the support of a major label. Almost immediately Cussins made Buddz an offer he couldn’t refuse: In exchange for a month of his time to tour, Cussins would guarantee Buddz $100,000.

It was a bold gamble. Cussins didn’t have the money, so failure was not an option. “That was the time that it changed to be a real career and not just something I was doing for fun,” he says.

Buddz agreed, and Ineffable booked Buddz at a network of small independent clubs. Buddz traveled from Bellingham, Washington, to San Diego, doing 29 shows in 31 days. (“I didn’t yet know that artists needed days off,” Cussins says.)

Buddz got the money he was promised, and hired Ineffable to be his management firm. He now produces and owns his music and is able to support himself from the following he has built from touring.

While certainly not the only one to have seen that the music business model was changing, Cussins was at the forefront of understanding how new technologies offered a way for artists to be more independent while still earning a living. First there was Napster and Myspace, which made it possible for artists like Buddz to get their music to the public without any cost. Then there was the next iteration of streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, which allowed artists to make money from having the audiences they had bonded with stream their catalogs.

Cussins welcomed the change as much for principle as for profit. He wanted a business that promoted artist ownership because he felt it was the right thing to do. It led to more creativity and better shows. “We helped [Buddz] and since then have helped many other artists,” he says. “They now are able to make a good living off of their music because they own it.”

Thursday, May 7, 2020, Rootfire will host Thomas Cussins, President of Ineffable Music Group, for a Music Business Club live Q&A on RootfireTV. SET A REMINDER

“Ineffable” means too great or intense to be expressed in language. Cussins knows it’s an imperfect name for a business—it’s hard to pronounce, he says, and many people don’t know the word—but it perfectly describes how music makes him feel.

That passion is a big part of how Cussins makes business decisions. About seven years ago, he was at a small festival in New Mexico where he met Scott Woodruff, the frontman and producer for Southern California reggae band Stick Figure, selling merchandise to support the band’s music. Later, when he listened to Stick Figure’s CD, Cussins says it was so good he played it 86 times in a row.

“I called all my friends in the industry, and almost nobody knew who he was, yet he had already sold 50,000 copies of the albums of his catalog by himself,” Cussins says. The people who knew him loved him, and there was a large potential audience who had never heard of him. Cussins saw huge upside: There were dozens of events to be booked, and thousands of tickets to be sold.

“I called him, ‘You have to come to Oakland, I have to meet with you,” Cussins says.

Stick Figure took off beyond Cussins’ wildest dreams. The artist has amassed over a billion streams on Spotify and other services. Stick Figure became a staple at the Levitate Festival, which is right next to the town where he grew up, and played the Cali Roots Festival that Ineffable organizes. He sold out—in 60 hours—a headline show for June 2020 at the legendary Colorado outdoor amphitheater Red Rocks. His most recent album was Billboard’s No. 1 reggae album of 2019, and it also debuted as the No. 1 Billboard independent album and at No. 34 on the Billboard 200. His most recent album reached number one on the Billboard Reggae Chart.

Stick Figure even partnered with Ineffable to buy Ineffable’s current building in Oakland, which includes the studio that used to be owned by Green Day and before that was where Iggy Pop and other Bay Area punk luminaries cut their albums.

Today, artists record at Ineffable’s studios—Cussins created a non-profit that provides interest-free loans to artists to record their albums—and the company makes sure that its releases get the best possible placement on Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and other streaming services by cutting out the middleman and developing direct relationships with curators at the outlets. Ineffable also launched its own weekly radio show, “Cali Roots Radio,” on SiriusXM The Joint, curating eight full hours of content weekly. In perfect synchronicity, Cussins books Ineffable’s talent to headline the festivals it organizes, and its artists perform at the clubs it owns and manages. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” Cussins says.

Cussins likes to break from work by going back from his office to the studios to listen to artists’ records. He has employees who can manage the logistics of the festivals and events, but he attends the gigs anyway. He’ll take tickets at the gate. He’ll make sure that people know where to park. He’ll hang out backstage. He says that when he’s no longer willing to hand out fliers—he estimates that he’s personally distributed more than a half-million—people should tell him to retire.

“I want us to be able to keep doing this every day for the rest of our lives,” he says. “It’s the American dream.”

Thursday, May 7, 2020, Rootfire will host Thomas Cussins, President of Ineffable Music Group, for a Music Business Club live Q&A on RootfireTV. SET A REMINDER

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