If it wasn’t for his height, NBA player Kevon Looney could go unnoticed in the Warner Music Group offices in Downtown Los Angeles. The star center for the Golden State Warriors arrived on the first day (Aug. 23) of his apprenticeship at the label dressed in head-to-toe linen, reading glasses and ready to take notes.
Last month, ESPN reported that Looney had signed an eight-figure contract to continue playing with the Warriors for at least three more years, but looking ahead he has set out to broaden his career opportunities. Sometime before that contract is up, Looney tells Billboard he plans to open his own record label and Warner felt like a good place to learn.
“I always wanted to start a label or have some type of job in music. I didn’t know what lane would be good for me,” says Looney from Warner’s new offices in a renovated Ford Motor Company building. “I don’t know who’s the mover and the shakers – who does what. Kinda don’t understand unless you experience it firsthand.”
Warner was happy to provide what svp of media and strategic development Aishah White called a “crash course” in how a label works. For a little over a week, Looney is shadowing employees through Warner Records as they hold meetings on A&R, marketing and promotion, as well as listening sessions and one-on-one meetings with label executives. The NBA champion’s apprenticeship comes to a close Wednesday (Aug. 31).
Looney “sat in on our full team meeting, which we do every week and was a chance for him to get a little deeper insight into the overall roster and the kind of conversations that A&R teams have, ranging from discussions about artists who are on the roster to things that we’re looking to sign,” says Warner Records CEO and co-chairman Aaron Bay-Schuck.
According to Bay-Schuck, Looney listened intently and took notes on his phone until the end of the meeting.
“His first question when we finished was, ‘What happens when you don’t like something,’ which is a really good question,” Bay-Schuck tells Billboard. Because streaming has turned the music industry into a volume game, Bay-Schuck explains that it’s really hard to predict what is going to work.
“I’m not in the business of telling artists they can’t put something out that they are excited about. If we don’t agree on a song, let’s at least figure out if we can agree on the plan behind that song.”
After a quick lunch, Looney sat in on an artist visit and playback with Nigerian star Pheelz, who showcased several titles from his upcoming EP. The Lagos-born artist – who stands only a few inches shorter than the 6’9” Looney — joked, “I bet I’m the tallest artist you’ve met.”
Looney’s opinions on the afrobeat demos: “I f— with it.”
As White and svp of marketing Shawna Corbett-Rice dug into how to promote Pheelz’s work, the similarities between Looney’s position as a professional basketball player and artists quickly became clear. The executives inquired with Pheelz about the stories behind the music and how his interests outside of making music could align with marketing and promotion.
“They always say rappers want to be athletes and athletes want to be rappers, so to see that we have those same kinds of conversations is really interesting,” Looney jokes, adding he has no interest in making music but that he’s had the same conversations with the Warriors’ marketing department. “Sometimes you think, ‘do we really need to do this,’ but marketing is really important to promoting both sports and music.”
“As a proud UCLA alumni, I was personally thrilled that Kevon wanted to join us for an apprenticeship at Warner Records,” says Warner Records co-chairman and COO Tom Corson. Looney played for the University of California, Los Angeles Bruins before heading to the NBA. “Music and sports have always been dynamically intertwined and after his first week in the office it’s clear we continue to have so much we can learn from each other to further that synergy.”
This apprenticeship, Looney believes, is a strong first step in figuring out how to create a record label – mainly for hip-hop artists out of his hometown of Milwaukee – and discover where his strengths could best be utilized at that future label. He’s already got an ear for good music (he’s the Warriors’ designated DJ) and he’s eager to learn every aspect of the business, from letting artists down easy to getting music synchs in gaming and more.
Looney’s plan is to play in the NBA for as long as he can, but says, “I want to have an exit plan and find something that I actually love. That’s why I want to gain all the knowledge I can, so when I do do it, I do it the right way.”