It’s 10:40 a.m. in Manhattan, N.Y., and I have already taken 4,000 of the recommended 10,000 steps per day. After emerging from the F Train, I unknowingly walked for 28 minutes, with luggage, in the opposite direction of my destination on Bleecker Street.
I’m running late to a casual coffee meeting with Chris Zarou, the founder and president of Visionary Music Group, and the man responsible for guiding the careers of Maryland rapper Logic, and budding pop star Jon Bellion.
Sweating, I reach the designated coffee shop minutes before my counterpart does and gulp down a cup of lemonade as I wait. After finding a power outlet, I check my email and thumb through Google to find the simplest way to get to Newark Liberty Airport.
Because of my time spent dealing with bolstered egos in the music business, I half-expect that I’ll be meeting with someone with an undeniable aura that matches his accomplishments. Instead, while in my technological trance, I hear an amiable inquiry, “Excuse me, are you Ogden? Great to meet you, man. I’m Chris.”
For six years Zarou, 26, committed himself to growing an independent record label rooted in his affable nature. His staff is lean, only employing one other member, Harry Remler. He has no office, opting to work mobile with his laptop and iPhone. His roster, equally as slim as his staff, boasts an emcee who co-headlined a show with G-Eazy at the 18,000-capacity Barclays Center, and a singer-songwriter who has written Billboard-topping singles such as Eminem and Rihanna's "The Monster."
In 2010, following a stint as a soccer player at Canisius College and Adelphi University, Zarou found an interest in the music industry. Lacking vocal and instrumental talent, he attempted to get internships with major record companies but was denied due to his lack of experience. Tenacious, he decided to make a part-time job out of combing the internet to find an artist to manage and sign to his new upstart label, Visionary Music Group. After weeks spent looking for talent to no avail, he found a minute and a half rap freestyle on YouTube of a 20-year-old Sir Robert Bryson Hall II who labeled himself as Logic. Due to the rapper’s lack of social media presence at the time, Zarou scoured the web for any type of contact info, ultimately finding the emcee’s personal Facebook page.
After frequent Facebook messages and visits to Logic’s home in Maryland, Zarou convinced the rapper to let him take the reigns of his career and soon signed him to Visionary. With no prior experience in the music industry, the young executive-in-the-making knew that finding the right artist was the first hurdle; keeping the artist, however, would require him to produce quantifiable results quickly.
“My biggest advantage was my inexperience,” Zarou said. “I didn’t have anybody who taught me the old model of the music industry. I came in at a point when the music industry was drastically changing.”
With no contacts to help the duo get much-needed blog features or tour slots, Zarou “decided that we had to build a following that would force people to come to us.” He allowed Logic creative freedom and took on the responsibility of maximizing his exposure on the internet.
In 2011, Logic released his first mixtape, Young Sinatra, for free download, and recording contract offers began to surface. Though the proposals were signs of progress, the terms were less than stellar.
“Turning down those deals was really hard to do at the time,” Zarou admitted. “We didn’t know when the next deal would come through, or if one would even come.”
Nonetheless, in 2012 Zarou, along with a booking agent, routed a 27-date Visionary Music Group Tour as a way to test their markets and give essential face-to-face contact with fans. Months before the crew was to embark on the tour, they reached a distribution agreement with Def Jam. Rather than announce the signing immediately, the team held onto the news. The thought-through strategy was a tactic to build a loyal base without any misgivings from fans that the rapper had compromised his creativity.
“We used the advance from the record deal to fund the tour," Zarou recalled. "We rented a mini-van and a Nissan Altima and sold merch out of garbage bags.”
During Logic’s latest 61-date tour, The Incredible World Tour, he averaged $10-12 per head in merchandise sales in 2,000 to 3,000 capacity venues. Add that to his Forbes-estimated show rate of upwards of $55,000 per night, and the loads of garbage bags and cramped car rides are fond memories rather than upstart realities.
Throughout Logic’s rise, Zarou was frequently tapped by up-and-coming artists in need of management, and singer-songwriter Jon Bellion was no different. Though a talented songwriter and producer, Zarou declined to work with Bellion due to his increasing schedule with his flagship artist. Relentless as his sought-after manager, Bellion was determined to have the young executive guide his career rather than the industry veterans who had been trying to recruit him. After some forethought on Zarou’s end, he agreed to take the vocalist on as a client.
Beginning in 2013, Zarou applied the same blueprint of touring, grassroots marketing and free content to Bellion’s career in the pop genre. “It’s something that’s never been done before,” Zarou said. In Bellion’s case, his career as an artist is aided by his ability to write crossover hits for others, from the Grammy Award-winning collaboration with Eminem and Rihanna to writing and producing Jason Derulo’s Billboard-charting single “Trumpets.”
In 2016, Visionary released Bellion's debut album, The Human Condition, with distribution from Capitol Records, and moved an equivalent of 40,000 units in its first week. Though the album only sold half of the units compared to his label mate’s debut, a core fan base was established with the three free mixtapes and two nationwide headlining tours that took place prior to his first commercial release.
In six years, Zarou has taken his flagship artist from an unknown wordsmith to a 2016 Forbes Hip-Hop Cash Prince and created a loyal foundation for his budding pop star. “[Zarou] and [Remler] are two of the illest execs. Visionary built one hell of a movement,” Genius’ manager of artist relations and former MTV News editor, Rob Markman, once tweeted.“One thing I’ve learned now is that you can’t ride the highs or the lows,” Zarou said. “You have to stay somewhere in the middle because this business can be a rollercoaster [...] But now, I’m more focused than I’ve never been.”