A Long and Shady Business Story, Part 1

The Coachella music festival starts tomorrow in Indio, Calif. I’m excited to go for the third year in a row. At the same time, I’m dreading it a little, because I know I will be spending about 10 hours standing in the sun, cheek-by-jowl with kids as young as 13, in order to secure a prime viewing position for headliners Beyoncé and Eminem. It’s the standing that’s brutal, by the way. The teenagers are generally okay, though when I hear them talking about middle-school sexcapades and rolling on Molly, I always want to call their parents and say, “Come get this child!”

Coachella 2017. Click for original post.

Another Coachella moment that I’m dreading is my review of the merchandise selection. Before I plant myself in front of the main stage, I’ve got to scan Eminem’s merch for these dog tags, which were sold on his website for a few days starting Dec. 8, 2017.

Click to see a screen shot of the original page on Eminem.com.

It’s going to harsh my music buzz if those tags are there because I wasn’t the one who made them — even though I spent three years working with Eminem’s outside merchandising team on a silver capsule collection that included an “autographed” Slim Shady dog tag.

My Eminem dog tag.

A lot of people think manufacturing jewelry (or anything, really) is about an idea and a sketch. But creating a product entails much more work than meets the eye. As the emails embedded in this post prove, I’d provided Eminem’s merchandising team with creative concepts and design direction for necklaces, earrings, and rings; determined pricing of the designs in various materials and quantities; produced physical sterling-silver samples; and made modifications and new designs as requested. I’d researched the use of black metal instead of silver at the request of the team just months before the other vendor’s dog tags appeared online.

A few of the Shady prototypes.

As of the day I saw the tags, I’d yet to be paid a cent for my work. I hadn’t even received the bare minimum of $2,833 I was owed after spending my own money to manufacture prototypes, let alone anything for my labor.

After another company finished the project, my chances of being compensated seemed, um, slim, especially when my right-hand woman Eryn called our main merch contact to say, “We saw the dog tag on the website …” and he shot back, “AND…?!?”

So I did the only thing I could do at the moment.

I tweeted!

I truly thought I was going to do this project, especially after they inquired about using a black metal this September. My factory still has one of my quality samples, ready to match it in production. pic.twitter.com/J5UmlCahxI

— Wendy Brandes (@WendyBrandes) December 9, 2017

Shining a light is sometimes the only recourse a small company has. In 2012, for instance, Topshop pulled its too-close-for-comfort version of my famous swear rings from its website because of tweets from my customers and blog readers.

Click for the whole Topshop story.

This time, my original tweet and follow-ups caught the eye of a freelance reporter who writes for national publications. Her curiosity was piqued as to how a small artist’s interaction with a world-renowned artist’s merchandise department went awry.

When she reached out to me, I told her upfront that I wasn’t claiming any violation of intellectual property rights. I don’t own the concept of dog tags, Eminem’s “Slim Shady” signature, or any combination thereof. But the signed dog-tag design that appeared on Eminem’s website was undeniably similar to the concept that I had worked on for so long, with direction from the merchandising team and the expectation of compensation. You don’t need perfect vision to see that.

I also made it clear that I never interacted with Eminem himself in any way about this project and I don’t hold him responsible for any of this. From what I can see, Eminem is an artist who is passionate about his craft. He has generously supported up-and-coming artists in his field, stuck by the performers who knew him before he was a star, and gone out of his way to draw attention to his hip-hop heroes. He doesn’t appear to be money-hungry, and he gives back to the community: His philanthropic efforts include a program to foster literacy via songwriting. I have no reason to think he knew this project was in the works or that he would condone the outcome. Seriously, Eminem would have to physically stand in front of me and say, “Yes, Wendy Brandes, I enjoy scamming other artists, plus I desperately needed you to float me $2,833 for three years,” for me to believe that such behavior was even a possibility. (And Em, if you needed a loan that bad, you could’ve just asked!)

Nor did I have much direct interaction with Eminem’s personal record label, Shady Records, despite the fact that this whole experience began with an inexpensive gift sent to Shady’s office in 2014. That year, my silver middle finger emoji stud earring was my best-selling style.

I still sell these! Click to see on my website.

Emoji users had been begging Emoji HQ — official name: the Unicode Consortium — for a middle finger emoji to use on their keyboards, and I’d beaten HQ to it. (My earring came out in 2013, and the real emoji wasn’t released until 2015.) Accordingly, the stud was very popular, and it occurred to me that there had to be someone at Shady who would get a kick out of the earrings, seeing as Em’s the longtime king of flipping the bird.

As a bonus, I had an earring version of the “sign of the horns” gesture — first made famous by Ronnie James Dio — that was featured in one of Em’s 2013 promotional photos.

Click to see on my website.

I was sure that if the folks at Shady saw these, they’d love them so much that they’d want a few more for their friends and family. And maybe one of Eminem’s artists would eventually spring for a bigger nameplate necklace like the ones I’ve done for my rapper friends Gangsta Boo and Hi-Rez.

Click for a post about Hi-Rez.

But those possibilities were far down the road, because a gift is a gift. There can be no strings attached, particularly when it comes to celebrities. I’d actually sworn off doing celebrity gifting because it is often ineffective from a business standpoint. Consider one of my celebrity “success” stories: I was thrilled when Rihanna wore a gifted 18K gold Mud Flap Jill necklace in 2012, about 18 months after I sent it to her team. It was exciting to see the photos. But the briefly worn gift didn’t generate sales, and bragging rights don’t pay the bills.

Embed from Getty Images

However, I was willing to make an exception for Eminem — or, at least, his people — because (a) I knew my design was a perfect fit, image-wise and (b) I figured the people working for a male performer known for his casual wear wouldn’t already be drowning in lucrative jewelry deals from the likes of Chopard.

It turned out to be a challenge to touch base with Shady Records. Eryn had to go into full Sherlock Holmes mode to make a personal contact. The company has to fend off a lot of people trying to wangle something out of Eminem — money, record deals, and who knows what else. Eryn’s leery contact wanted to know what we were really asking for. Eryn was like, “We. Are. Asking. You. To. Take. This. Free. Gift.”

Eryn’s June 2014 email to me about the gifting challenge. Click to enlarge.

Nevertheless, we persisted, and Eryn finally made the delivery personally on July 11, 2014. She had a good time, chatting with her new friend-on-the-inside, while he fended off a call from a would-be rap star determined to audition over the phone. There was also an unexpected compliment: Her contact said the jewelry would make “cool merch” after all! Eryn — never one to turn down an opportunity — said we’d be happy to do that.

When Eryn told me about the merch remark, I was like, “Uh-oh” because I had recently decided to concentrate my resources on my ultra-high-end gold designs. The silver emoji studs were great for buzz, and I loved seeing people who don’t have unlimited budgets have access to a Wendy Brandes design. I’m adding to my silver line to this day because of that. But, as I’ve discussed before, it’s difficult to make money if most of your sales are to individuals buying small, made-in-the-U.S. silver pieces. Gold makes more sense financially: I can sell one gold design and make $1,500, or I can sell 100 silver designs to make the same profit. On the other hand, any Eminem merchandise would be a quantity wholesale order that could be made affordably overseas and delivered in one easy shipment — rather than 100 shipments — so I justified the strategic detour as a project that would be a connection with a big name and pay off financially.

Besides, I was suddenly bubbling over with Slim Shady-related design ideas. On Twitter, I’d sometimes see Em’s female stans saying that the apparel offerings on Eminem.com were too masculine-looking, or unisex at best, with a lot of boxy t-shirts, sweatshirts, and baseball caps. And it just so happens that one of my specialties is turning bad-ass concepts into jewelry that ladies love.

LL Cool J … Ladies Love Cool Jewelry! Click to see on my website.

With visions of adorable chainsaw designs dancing in my head, I did a few gift necklaces based on the logo for that year’s Shady XV compilation album, just to show off my workmanship.

I’m my own best model, showing off the sample necklaces and then some!

We heard back that Eminem’s longtime manager, Paul Rosenberg, liked the designs! And Eryn’s contact introduced us by email to the merchandising team at an outside agency called Fame House, which did merch for a number of A-list artists.

Click to enlarge.

The merch team set up our first conference call for Oct. 28, 2014. One member of the team said they did a lot of work with small vendors and they wanted to be sure we made money on this deal too, so I felt good about the relationship. To get a feel for costs, we were asked to price an order of 1,000 earrings and 1,000 necklaces. I priced everything in silver-plated brass, gold-plated brass, sterling silver, and gold-plated sterling silver with a factory in Thailand, where such a large order can easily be produced. Then we found out that Shady wasn’t going to continue using the SHADY XV font, so Eryn and I put together a presentation of 10 other designs suitable for a small collection, minus the logo necklaces.

Click to enlarge. You can see how much effort was going into this!

Only with 20/20 hindsight can I say this is the moment I should have also put together a contract. Back then, I was proceeding as a jewelry designer, where we often do a lot of concept work before we can agree upon exactly what it is we’re going to make. Then we sign a contract. As InStore Magazine said in this February’s issue:

Operating under that premise, I got silver samples of eight styles underway in New York so that the merch team could make an informed final decision. While those were still in production in December 2014, I went to a concert to see Royce da 5’9” — a Shady artist — perform as part of the Prhyme duo. After the show, I spotted Paul Rosenberg. I introduced myself and he was so cool! He said his wife loved the SHADY XV necklaces, and that I should come by the office and have some Champagne to celebrate our collaboration. I happily emailed Eryn on my way home …

Click to enlarge.

… then I pushed my manufacturer to get the New York samples finished for Shady by Christmas. It’s a tough time of year to get work done because everyone’s finishing up holiday orders placed months earlier, but I convinced my guy that this was life or death. I wanted to be prepared to turn the project around first thing in the new year. We did it, and in January 2015, the merch team made some modification requests and approved next steps, including sending New York-made samples to be priced by the factory in Thailand. I got a quote from the factory in mid-January 2015 and was approved to move forward with five of the designs on Feb. 4, 2015.

Click to enlarge.

The crossed-chainsaw necklace was always my favorite. When I wore the sample out to gauge reaction, women who didn’t know it had anything to do with Eminem would ask to buy it. I’m telling you … tiny chainsaws for the win!

So cute, right?

As you can see, we took the merch team’s requests to heart, putting serious thought into elements like the chains.

Click to enlarge.

Fame House set up another conference call and it looked like smooth sailing.

Click to enlarge.

Then, two months later — while the Thailand samples were being finished — Eryn broke my heart a little by deciding to try out a design job in the apparel industry. Alas! But we agreed that she would keep handling the Shady account and she sent a note to assure the merch team that she’d still be their contact.

Click to enlarge.

As promised, Eryn let the merch team know when the Thai samples were on their way …

Click to enlarge.

… responded to the team’s approval on May 13, 2015 …

… got the okay on a down payment the following day …

Click to enlarge.

… and sent the invoice for 30% down (with a courtesy discount on the New York samples!) on May 20, 2015.

Click to enlarge.

Then all activity came to an abrupt halt.

We’d been discussing costs from Day One, but now Eryn and I wondered if Fame House had gotten sticker shock over a bill for $9,000. It’s not as if Eminem is an indie artist, or Shady an indie label. Shady Records is owned by Interscope and Interscope, in turn, is owned by Universal Music Group, which reported $6.8 billion in revenue for 2017 alone. Universal Music Group is one of the big subsidiaries of the French mass-media giant called Vivendi,
Source: FS – Jewelry Sites
A Long and Shady Business Story, Part 1