Jason Mageau, Blaze James & Andrew Jarrin lead Roc Nation’s rock department. (Photo by Alex Bemis)
Roc Nation is a titan in entertainment, from live music to the highest level of film and sports, from curating the Super Bowl halftime show to representing Hollywood superstars in all forms of media. While Roc Nation founder and chairman Jay-Z may have had humble beginnings before forming an entertainment empire, it’s still difficult to picture a scrappy DIY side of the operation.
Enter Roc Nation’s rock department, which was formed following a meeting in 2015 between Roc Nation co-founder Jay Brown and veteran artist manager Blaze James, most often associated with prog cult favorites Coheed and Cambria.
“I didn’t know if Roc Nation was the right label for Coheed, but why would I turn down a chance to meet Jay Brown?” James tells Pollstar. Brown, who oversees the artist management side of Roc Nation on the West Coast, was interested in more than a label deal. “He said, ‘I love Coheed and if you want to sign them here I’m totally down, but what I really want to do is have you come over and do what you do here.’” Eager to see the company’s music management division to branch into the rock realm specifically, Brown had found a match.
James saw the opportunity as one to not only become part of something bigger but to take his clients to greater heights.
“The rock companies that I had been at, I didn’t feel like I was learning anything,” James said. “I felt like I had as much knowledge as I was going to gain — I knew all the people they knew, and knew how to do what they did. And I’m like, I know I haven’t learned everything. Well, here’s an opportunity to learn from people who don’t do it the same way that everybody in my circles does. I’m going to learn something over here, so I came, and to this day feel like I’m learning on a daily basis.”
James brought on fellow managers Jason Mageau and Andrew Jarrin in 2020, both with experience in the DIY rock and metal sector. The trio have solidified what they jokingly refer to as “Roc(k) Nation” into a small but focused force, with an emphasis on organic growth and a clear vision for each artist.
Being part of Roc Nation has brought new perspective to a scene that can sometimes find itself in a rut with seemingly endless album and tour cycles that never break into the next level.
“I can’t spend my time coming up with a vision for an artist,” says Mageau, who has seen client Spiritbox blow up during the pandemic to the point of headlining large clubs and theaters on its first full tour.
“They have to know who they are, what they want to be, and I can put a plan together with them and we can go execute. You can get stuck in this rut of, ‘This is just what I do — band goes on tour, band makes a record.’ It’s just not enough anymore. When I was coming up and trying to figure out who I was as a manager, I thought, in order to survive, I needed more artists, but that in itself was the problem. I couldn’t focus on everyone individually. It’s not like some revolutionary idea, but once it finally clicked, I was like, oh, I really should just hyperfocus on a few artists.” Mageau’s clients include Spiritbox, recent signing Code Orange, Brand Of Sacrifice, Loathe, Jose Mangin and Caity Babs.
Being under the Roc Nation roof has also brought new resources in tangible ways, with dedicated digital, branding and sponsorship departments to collaborate with in-house – on top of the formidable label and publishing departments.
“We never had that at any of the companies prior,” adds Jarrin, whose clients include the Free Nationals, Animals As Leaders, After The Burial, Fever 333, We Came As Romans and Senses Fail.
The company’s digital department helps work out partnership deals with DSPs and social media platforms, while the marketing department brings different activations and further ideas.
“Before Roc Nation, we were doing it all ourselves and we have that DIY mentality,” said Jarrin, who says the approach makes the other departments’ jobs easier. “We work really well with the digital, branding and marketing departments because we’re never going to be 100% reliant on them to do everything. We’re coming to them already with fully fleshed out plans or a very deep idea, making things easier for them. It’s a very narrowed and direct approach.”
Mageau says the DIY ethos comes from both sides, and inspires creativity as well as makes it possible.
“The DIY mentality still lives here,” Mageau says. “As successful as the company is, it’s still very much, ‘We gotta hustle, we can’t be comfortable.’ If we’re told ‘no’ with any of the partnerships that we have or that something can’t be done, that’s like a challenge here. Departments have been created because a label partner may not have been offering that support for the artist. So the mentality is if it can’t be done under this roof, then it must not be able to be done at all. It’s never been a ‘no.’”
Mageau mentions one idea that ultimately didn’t pan out but showed the potential of creative thinking, with the concept of having Spiritbox’s Eternal Blue album title recognized as an official Pantone color. “It’s just nice having people outside of rock – ‘I worked on Lil Uzi’s campaign and how can we apply that here?’ Or, ‘We did do this on so-and-so’s campaign and we’d like to apply that here.’”
While serving as the company’s dedicated rock music management department, James is quick to note that the concept is to work with artists whose vision the managers understand and believe in, which in this case happens to mostly be rock-based, thanks to decades of experience.
“To me, it’s about the song and the music and, ultimately, if you can see a vision for an artist and get it,” said James, his first management client being At The Drive-In, whose first album he “quote-unquote produced,” he says, jokingly. “It’s when I talk to band, can see they have a vision and I can see it, and it excites me. It doesn’t have to be aggressive, doesn’t have to be a certain genre. If I can’t see that vision, I shouldn’t be working with that artist.” James’ clients include Coheed and Cambria, Touché Amoré, Militarie Gun, Soul Glo and High-Vis.
A good example of not just Roc(k) includes Jarrin’s client, the Free Nationals, otherwise known as Anderson .Paak’s backing band, which recently led the late-night PoWow! all star jam at Okeechobee Festival in Florida, which this year featured Big Boi, members of Earth, Wind and Fire and a set-closing appearance from Anderson .Paak himself.
“My goal for them is to be like the next Roots, collaborating with all sorts of other musicians,” Jarrin said.
With Spiritbox’s tour kicking off Stateside in early April and each show seemingly becoming the band’s biggest headline sellout yet, Coheed and Cambria further solidifying its place as a cult favorite akin to prog legends like Rush and Yes, and metalcore band We Came As Romans having its biggest tour since forming in 2005, rock as well as roc(k) are definitely having a moment.
“It’s been crazy because it hasn’t just been North America,” Mageau says of Spritbox, whose recent U.S. sellouts include at the Wiltern in Los Angeles. Rather than just trying to make gas money overseas and on support runs, Spiritbox saw $20,000 in merchandise sold per night at support gigs, giving more proof that the headline run would be a hit. “Last summer we did some headline shows in Europe in between festivals, which sold out mostly 1,000-caps. You normally wouldn’t put a lot of attention into some of these (festival) side shows because your expectation is already low. But that we were still selling out shows in one of the busiest time frames was just exciting. We’d never been to Luxembourg and we sold out a show. We’ve never been to places in the Netherlands and we’re selling out a 1,000-cap room.”
On a more macro level, Roc(k) Nation says the genre has always ebbed and flowed in mainstream popularity, but there appears to be another generational swing in a positive direction.
“There’s a notable shift now,” James says, noting buzzing abrasive bands like Turnstile and Show Me The Body having their own moments. “Whether that’s because people started picking up guitars over COVID, or there’s pop girls playing guitar right now, it’s hard to say. But there’s a noticeable turn happening. There’s a lot starting to happen in the punk and general rock community. I have to think younger people are starting to get into it as well. But I fall short of saying it’s back 100%. I think there’s still a lot of work to do, but it feels like an exciting time. There’s a little bit of that, ‘Oh, this is kind of what it felt like back then.’”