The King of the DJ World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the man who helped make DJing a mainstream thing is a biz mind to pay attention to.
By April Joyner
When Rob Principe was a kid, he met Run-DMC’s Jam Master Jay on a flight to San Diego. Little did Principe know that they’d one day start a company together.
That company, Scratch Music Group, has started to capture a good share of the fast-growing market for DJs by training aspiring stars — the next Aviciis — and helping them land gigs. Its DJ academies — in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Atlanta — train some 50,000 students a year in beat-matching, mixing and (of course) scratching. As a result, it’s spreading the art of DJing, once relegated to the underground, to a wide array of music fans. In turn, it’s made Principe a go-to authority on DJ culture, tapped by brands such as Nike and Gap when they need music cred.
In the pre-YouTube age, Principe had no obvious DIY path to becoming a DJ. So he set out to forge it himself.
Like Airbnb for guest beds and Luxottica (owner of Ray-Ban and LensCrafters) for eyewear, Scratch is consolidating a market once fragmented among mom-and-pop shops. In recent years, the DJ-driven genre of electronic dance music, or EDM, has exploded in popularity. According to Massive Advisors, a music-industry consultancy, it’s become a $15 billion industry. In the years since Scratch launched, other DJ academies, such as Dubspot, have opened. And last October, SFX Entertainment, which owns the Tomorrowland festival and other EDM-related businesses, went public.
Principe, a lifelong hip-hop head, first got interested in DJing after attending a Kid Capri concert in the late 1990s. Then working for a dot-com company, Principe “had one of those religious musical experiences,” he says. But in the pre-YouTube age, he had no obvious DIY path to becoming a DJ. So he set out to forge it himself.
Principe, little more than an enthusiast, needed a partner with credibility and experience. He’d idolized Jam Master Jay ever since that San Diego flight and, through friends, he got the contact information for Jay’s manager. After Principe hadn’t heard back for months, she called one afternoon, asking him to come meet with Jay in 20 minutes. Principe raced home to grab a photo he’d taken with Run-DMC on that fateful flight and flew to the green room of the Letterman Show, where the group was performing, and made his two-minute pitch. The legendary DJ quickly bought in. As Principe tells it, “He said, ‘I want my children to work here, so let’s get started.’”
The Scratch DJ Academy opened in 2002 in New York City’s East Village. Principe used a $1,000 birthday check — intended to be $100, but his grandfather had mistakenly added an extra zero — to launch the business. With Jam Master Jay’s backing, the academy attracted hip-hop legends such as Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc as guest instructors, and it turned a profit immediately. But the partnership didn’t last long. In October of that year, Jay was killed in a shooting at his recording studio in Queens. For a time, Principe, still a newbie to DJ culture, felt disoriented. “It was a lot of me finding my way on my own,” he says.
Principe’s knack for finding new markets has turned what might have been a modest business into a company that has tripled its sales over the past three years.
Fortunately, word-of-mouth continued to build around the academy. Prominent DJs including A-Trak and DJ Premier, of the hip-hop group Gang Starr*, taught courses. Scratch gave them a way to pass down a craft that previously could only be picked up by knowing a DJ. “We were passing on knowledge, and nobody had ever done that before in this art form,” Principe says. “So they loved that, they embraced that, and they delivered such a great experience.”
Correction: We originally stated that DJ Premier was a member of the hip-hop group Guru. The group is Gang Starr; Guru was one of its members.Then Principe seized on an even bigger opportunity. Many of Scratch’s former students were landing gigs as DJs and, at the same time, more companies and organizations were starting to use live music to promote their brands. Connecting those companies with Scratch’s growing network of alums, Principe thought, could be lucrative. So in 2004, he launched a new division, Scratch Events.
Since then, the company has worked with Pepsi, Volkswagen, Bloomingdale’s and others. Today, Scratch Events books DJs for some 11,000 corporate events each year and brings in nearly half of the company’s revenue. Scratch also works festivals such as Coachella and Bonnaroo, and it even has partnerships at sea: With Royal Caribbean, it hosts mini-DJ academy sessions for cruise guests. In 2010, Principe launched Scratch Weddings to bring the company’s services to the bridal market.
Principe’s knack for finding new markets has turned what might have been a modest lifestyle business into a fast-growing company that has tripled its sales over the past three years. That savvy caught the attention of venture capitalists, including Harry Weller of NEA, which invested in the company last year. “Live music is changing from being band-oriented to DJ-oriented,” Weller says. “Scratch is putting together the means to create the talent for that industry and place that talent. That creates its own gravitational pull.”
Indeed, Principe envisions more lines of business under the Scratch brand. The academies now offer certification in music production, but he wants to provide even more services for alumni who take up DJing full-time — turning Scratch into an agency of sorts. “I believe our academy can be a feeder system for the next superstars,” he says. He also plans to develop after-school classes in DJing, akin to traditional piano lessons, for younger students.
I believe our academy can be a feeder system for the next superstars.
– Rob Principe
Scratch has a strong foothold in the DJ market, but it’s far from dominating it. To do so, it will have to fend off behemoths such as SFX and the talent agency CAA, in addition to a slew of startups. Also, though Scratch bills itself as genre-agnostic, it’s closely tied to hip-hop. That’s been an advantage in the past, but it may not speak as strongly to younger music fans that identify with Deadmau5 more than Jazzy Jeff. “Some people tend to pigeonhole us as old-school, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says DJ Hapa, Scratch’s national brand director.
What may give Scratch a leg up is the ability to spot DJ talent early in its academies. “By its nature, EDM is very entrepreneurial,” says Neil Ackland, CEO of Sound Alliance, which publishes the EDM news site inthemix. “The management tends to come up with the talent, hand in hand.”
Sounding like the kid who made sure he met Jam Master Jay, Principe isn’t intimidated. “A DJ academy never existed before I built Scratch,” he says. “I think of myself as being in the Amazon with a machete, blazing my own trail.”
*This article originally stated that DJ Premier was a member of the hip-hop group Guru. The group is Gang Starr; Guru was one of its members.