Troy Carter is one of the biggest names in the music biz. He’s perhaps most famous for helping to break Lady Gaga, but he’s also behind the success of Eve, Meghan Trainor and John Legend, just to name a few. He is the founder and CEO of Atom Factory, a full-service talent management agency that has become famous for utilizing technology and social media.
West Philadelphia born and raised
Carter’s childhood was tough. His parents divorced when he was two years old, and he spent his early years living with his mom in a kerosene-heated, two-bedroom apartment that often had no running water. Carter’s mom, Gilda Carter, worked at Children’s Hospital cleaning surgical instruments and when he was seven years old, his father shot and killed his new wife’s brother and spent 12 years in prison. Carter found solace in music, dropping out of high school at 17 to pursue a career in rap music with his group 2 Too Many.
Here’s a music video from the group (Carter is in the red sweatshirt and backwards cap):
I grew up carrying crates of records for Will Smith and those guys. I thought I was going to be a rapper as a kid and used to hop the train down to Jazzy Jeff’s studio for like six months straight waiting outside of the studio for the big break, and one day we got in the studio and played our demo for Will and Jeff and quickly learned that we weren’t that good. But Will and his partner James Lassiter saw some potential in our hustle and kind of took me under their wing.
Carter went to Los Angeles with Smith and Lassiter when “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” went into production. He ended up back on the East Coast and while working as a concert promoter there, he met Sean “P. Diddy/Puff Daddy” Combs.
He was one of the first young entrepreneurs that I met and he was kind of commanding the room and I said, “I want to come work for you.” And he said, “Your first job is to get me that girl from behind the bar.’ I got him the girl behind the bar and I started working for Puff.
While working at Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment, Carter rubbed elbows with Notorious B.I.G., learned how to be a young entrepreneur and met a 19-year-old singer named Eve Jeffers. He launched his own talent management company to market Eve, building her up through a clothing line and a TV deal. Eve and Carter parted ways after several years, and that’s when Carter discovered the artist whose name is now synonymous with his. Her real name is Stefani Germanotta, but she would be introduced to the world as Lady Gaga. Carter bristles, however, at the assertion that he “made” Gaga.
You can’t make an artist like Lady Gaga. You can help support, you can help develop the vision — I think you can add to the vision — but you just can’t make an artist like that. That’s like saying Lebron James’ high school coach made Lebron James. Lebron James made Lebron James from the time he was able to put in at the gym, and I feel the same way about her.
Music manager Troy Carter —founder, chairman and CEO of Atom Factory — speaks during the Digital Life Design conference on January 23, 2012 in Munich, Germany. ( Nadine Rupp/Getty Images)
Carter’s real genius came from how he marketed Lady Gaga. He used social media to build a following and was an early adopter of Spotify for his artists. He says that the music industry has been slow in realizing “music sells everything but music,” and there’s plenty of money to be made out there.
Music as a whole industry is growing exponentially, but in terms of the actual music file when you look at the actual value there to me The Beatles catalog should be worth more than Spotify. So I think the industry has done a very poor job in terms of value capture.
Carter launched a start-up called The Backplane in 2011 that pairs artists with brands for non-traditional endorsements, and around the time he and Lady Gaga parted ways, he got into angel investing. One of his first buy-ins was Uber.
When I first got pitched on Uber I thought it was the dumbest idea ever. I get on the phone with (Uber founder) Travis (Kalanick) and I’m like, you’re going to buy all of these black cars? Where’s the model here? And he’s like, ‘no, you idiot, this is a logistics platform.’ Once he explained it then I got it.
Carter talks about his experiences in the entertainment world, and startup culture:
Carter now has investments in 90 companies including Spotify, Dropbox and Warby Parker. He has also recently launched his own venture capital firm AF Square, but he still doesn’t describe himself as a venture capitalist. That’s because he doesn’t like labels. Carter says one of the biggest dangers in business is “the box.”
People get stuck in a box. For all the negative things people say about Millennials, the one thing I love…. My grandfather worked for Campbell’s Soup Company for 35 years, my mom worked at Children’s Hospital for 30 years, and a lot of employers have this retention problem with Millennials because they say they jump from job to job or whatever, but I do think there’s something in these multiple experiences and not being locked into “this is who you are” and “this is what you are.”