Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey, what’s up, folks? My name is Justin May and I’m the founder of Uptown Access Creative Group. We are a digital marketing agency dedicated to helping music artists connect with their audience. We work both directly with artists, as well as record labels and management groups.
Our passions are equally music, analytics, and storytelling; a unique combination that has led us to our flagship service of custom digital marketing campaigns. We love learning about artists beyond the music, taking their stories, and crafting a one-of-one digital campaign for the release of each project.
Since our launch in February 2019; our clientele and industry presence has grown year after year, with current revenue of $5k monthly.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Since I can remember, I’ve always had a passion for music. Every family gathering or event growing up was accompanied by music. From the Blues to Hip-Hop and R&B, music was a daily part of my life. During my freshman year of high school, I began burning and selling CDs at school for extra money. I was a pretty introverted kid, but I can sell you on a CD in a heartbeat. This also led to writing album reviews for the school paper. I knew I loved music, but I had no clue I could make a career of it without being an artist myself.
I had no experience in music; just a belief in my ability to work harder than everyone else.
I’ve also always loved marketing, even when I didn’t realize it. I would look forward to the album advertisements in hip-hop magazines just as much as the CDs themselves. I followed my favorite artists closely, and would always be intrigued by how they decided to release their music, as well as engage with us as fans. Growing up in Los Angeles, California I was also able to see some of the magic up close, with many friends and family having worked in music at some point.
After graduating from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas I decided to pursue a career in copywriting and digital marketing. My journey in marketing led me to Atlanta where I worked for The Home Depot’s marketing department as well as a small B2B agency. These were polar opposite companies. A Fortune 100 vs. a company with 3 full-time employees. I enjoyed each experience just as much as the other. The Home Depot taught me the importance of structure and company culture, while the smaller agency showed me you can start a business and succeed with the right team around you and a dedication to working with quality clients.
Eventually, I landed back in Los Angeles, managing the social media department for JumpStart Games, a subsidiary of DreamWorks. It was here that I discovered the connection between entertainment and marketing. Although we marketed video games, there was a great deal of overlap with DreamWork's other properties and entertainment assets. I quickly saw how the work I did at JumpStart, releasing games, could translate into artists releasing music.
I decided to officially pursue a career in music marketing in August 2019, doing plenty of research on how record labels handled their marketing department. Additionally, I reached out to friends who had record deals and inquired about their labels' marketing services. Many of them had no clue what the labels marketing team did. I saw the lack of understanding around digital marketing in music as an opportunity to educate independent artists and offer those same services those on major record labels were receiving.
In October 2019, I left JumpStart Games with the intention of starting my music marketing agency. I had no experience in music; just a belief in my ability to work harder than everyone else, and a corporate skillset. It was a huge adjustment from working a 9 to 5 every day to starting from scratch, but my biggest motivation came after I announced the company.
To my surprise, many of my friends reached out and said they already assumed I worked in music because of my love for it. This gave me the push I needed to go full-fledged, as it was clear this was something I was destined to pursue. Though my network within the actual industry was small, I had a lot of people willing to help connect me to those within the business due to those same memories they held of me selling CDs and writing album reviews 10 years earlier.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first services.
Our main goal when creating our campaign packages was to keep things as customizable as possible. When doing our due diligence on competitors we noticed most agencies took a one size fits all approach to their clients. While some digital marketing campaigns do contain a lot of the same elements, everything is not for everyone, particularly in music.
We use the term “a la carte” frequently when describing our approach to our services. A campaign for one artist may involve social media content, playlist placement, and digital ads. Another artist may ONLY require playlist placement as they handle their social media. We focus on letting artists customize their campaigns by picking the services they need, with no set campaign fee. Once everything is packaged together we price out the campaign based on the scale of the artists’ needs. To date, no two clients have received the same proposal or marketing campaign.
This marketing approach has allowed us to execute some truly unique campaigns. We’ve done everything from organizing a scavenger hunt for superfans around the city to SMS campaigns that culminated in fans receiving exclusive unreleased music. If we took the standard approach to market packages, these campaigns would have been much more vanilla and not as effective.
The main costs associated with our services are general marketing software, such as HubSpot, Canva, and our web domain.
You can start a business and succeed with the right team around you and a dedication to working with quality clients.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I took a 4-month approach to launch the business. I began developing the concept in early October 2018, with a launch date of February 22, 2019.
We first focused on developing a business plan, including our mission statement:
“At Uptown Access, our mission is to curate personalized, authentic marketing experiences primarily focused on brand development, growth, and reach.”
Once that was established we began work on our website and social media channels.
The biggest thing for us was defining our value prop. What could we offer that separated us from other music marketing agencies?
We noticed agencies typically fall into two categories: PR companies and analytic companies.
It was rare for an agency to offer an actual creative strategy while implementing digital tactics and tracking success with analytics. Most would focus on getting an artist's release onto a blog or driving up streams through fake playlists.
We used this to our advantage by having real conversations with artists about their goals and current marketing efforts, then explaining what they could be doing better, before offering examples of our previous campaigns, even if they were not specified in the music industry.
Our personal touch combined with professional experience separated us and made launching the company much easier.
I realized a lot of people ARE looking for help, they just don’t know where to look or who to trust.
As a service business, we did not have much need for startup capital or loans. We bootstrapped the software we needed to execute our campaigns and relied on sweat equity for the rest. Our website was created in-house, as well as the majority of our social media content.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Although we’re a digital-centric agency, we always valued the importance of real-world connections when finding new leads. The first thing we did to create brand awareness and gain clients was make our presence known at music events. Our team attended live shows, festivals, conferences, and studio sessions weekly. Our big breakthrough came during the Revolt Summit in August 2019, a 3-days music industry conference featuring panels, events, and showcases. We hit the floor with our interns during this event and made our way around for 3 days, resulting in several clients, as well as numerous personal connections with leads that would pay off in other ways.
Surprisingly, cold calling has been a huge success for us. Most marketing agencies tend to have a low success rate with cold calling, but the music business offers a unique opportunity. Artists, label execs, and managers are constantly checking their direct messages across social media platforms.
We used this to our advantage by following artists and managers we identified as qualified leads, then messaging them cold with a personalized message centered around their music. Artists are used to receiving spam DM’s from promo companies daily. They rarely open a DM to find the company has listened to their music and acknowledged specific aspects they like upon the initial message.
Our inbound marketing is also a large part of business development. We post to our social media channels consistently throughout the week to keep our followers engaged. Our approach to inbound marketing goes hand in hand with our cold calling strategy as we want our social media pages to look fresh and consistent when leads receive our DM’s, and inevitably head over to our profile and check out the rest of our content.
One of our most successful pieces of content has been a free budget tool for artists releasing singles or projects. The tool is an excel doc that calculates the budget behind the most needed items for a release. Leads must first sign up via email to download the tool. We’ve been able to generate several leads with a strong free content offering.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today the company is profitable and growing! We began in 2019 with 1 full-time employee (myself) and 1 part-time employee. During the fall of that same year, we implemented an internship program. The program has brought growth to the business as well as further developed our network in the industry as our interns have gone on to do great things.
Because we don’t rely on paid ads or promo for leads, our customer acquisition cost is extremely low and allows us to focus more on reinvesting profit in other ways such as opening an office. Though most agencies are moving away from a physical office, we work in a unique industry in which in-person meetings can occur 24/7. We realized how important it was for us to be able to meet with high-profile clients discreetly, in an environment where they can also play their music. Our office has been a breath of fresh air, and also adds value to the client.
Our short-term goals are to continue with our inbound marketing already in motion, while our long-term goal correlates directly with our new product. As the company has grown, we’ve slowly transitioned into picking up high ticket clients such as record labels and management groups. However, instead of abandoning ship on the individual artists we work with on a smaller scale, we are developing an affordable monthly retainer package in which artists can subscribe, and receive one to one marketing support in the form of marketing tactics, industry news, social media audits, and consultations.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Starting this business made me realize the importance of networking. Before starting Uptown Access, I did a decent amount of networking, but I left a lot of opportunities on the table. I had to step outside of my comfort zone to change that. The music business, like most industries, is about who you know. I quickly learned the importance of not just meeting people but respectfully making it clear the value you have to offer. It seemed a little contrived at first, but I realized a lot of people ARE looking for help, they just don’t know where to look or who to trust. By mentioning the work you do when the conversation calls for it, you open the door to not only professional opportunities, but personal connections. I’ve made genuine friendships through networking in this business, which only adds to my passion for it.
With networking, however, comes the importance of operating with integrity. At this point, I can’t count the number of opportunities we’ve received simply by being honest and treating others with respect. We remain honest by always setting realistic expectations with clients while respecting all of their work. Before the meeting, we listen to all potential clients' music, check their socials, and give real feedback. I encourage clients to do their due diligence before working with us because I’m THAT confident in our services. The largest accounts we’ve closed have come from clients who spent weeks or even months vetting, before deciding to work with us because of the understanding we have of their art.
I’ve also learned a great deal about setting expectations and boundaries for myself. When I began the journey I spent nearly every second of the day thinking about or working on my company. While I still believe this level of passion and dedication is necessary, it also requires breaks both mentally and physically. I was getting things done, but I was also losing sleep, skipping meals, and generally not taking care of myself. Eventually, you hit a wall and have to take a break. I still work just as hard, but now I make sure to find time for rest, the gym, and video games to unwind. The better my mental and physical health is, the more productive I am and the better the company does.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
For business operations and email campaigns we use HubSpot CRM.
We utilize Asana for all project management needs.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
When I decided to get into the music business I found as many podcasts and YouTube videos as possible to consume.
2 podcasts specifically helped shape my understanding of the industry.
The Music Entrepreneur Club Podcast is an amazing resource for artists, managers, and marketers alike. The podcast is hosted by Dame Ritter, former CEO of Funk Volume Records, and DJ Pain 1, a well-respected producer within the space. The name alone attracted me as it fits perfectly with my situation. I appreciate the raw honesty and insight the two provided into the business.
Also, A Waste of Time with ItsTheReal helped me tremendously. The podcast is hosted by two hip-hop artists/comedians, Eric and Jeff Rosenthal. Their network of connections in the industry has allowed them to interview every type of professional in the industry. From platinum-selling artists to up-and-coming managers. Each episode allowed the guest to tell their unique story, which helped keep me motivated. Some guests were born into the music business, while others entered without a network just like me. I was able to learn from others' mistakes solely through this podcast.
Lastly, the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell helped shape how I view success in general. Gladwell explains it much better than I can, but the main takeaway for me was being able to identify the advantages I had in life and how those could assist me in my goals. I was able to understand my limitations as well, and how I could either let them hold me back or hurdle those barriers altogether.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The first thing I would tell an aspiring entrepreneur to do is to adjust their mindset. Everyone's experience is different, but the one common trait I’ve found amongst entrepreneurs is constant optimism. The belief that every problem can be solved. Things will go wrong. It’s about how you respond to those issues that will define your success. I’ve seen so many people make huge progress only to give up at the first sign of trouble. I learned from watching others quit how important mental fortitude is in business.
Another aspect you can control over anything else is how you dedicate your time. Being an expert in your industry will always increase your chances of success, and that requires a commitment to learning. I believe real-world experience is the best way to learn and grow, but the time you spend away from the actual grind is just as important.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re currently looking for marketing interns for Spring ‘22.
Interns can work both in-office or remotely, though they must be located in the Greater Los Angeles area.
The position is unpaid with lots of commission opportunities.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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