Dan Levitt — Founder and CEO of Long Haul Management on $6,000 Salaries, Disney’s Big Miss, and Cracking YouTube SEO

July 22, 2021 by  Chris Erwin

Today we publish our 14th podcast episode.

This interview features Dan Levitt, founder and CEO of Long Haul Management.

I first met Dan on YouTube. Literally. Through a video submission he sent our Big Frame team back in 2012, requesting an interview for our music vertical. Just like Dan, it was wild, wacky, and completely hilarious. But totally on point. Fast forward to today, and Dan is one of my oldest compatriots and true friends in the digital industry…despite that I laid him off at Big Frame!

I’ve been so impressed with all of Dan’s success since our first days of working together, and this interview has been a long time coming. I laughed so much during our recoding, and I’m pumped get to share Dan’s story. And on his birthday to boot 😉

We discuss how Dan paid rent while making only $6,000 a year out of college (many side hustles), beating me in an office rap battle, Disney’s big miss in digital music, executive producing one of YouTube’s premium original series, hiring multiple family members, and what it’s like to represent some of the biggest sports and gamer personalities on the Internet.

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Interview Transcript

The interview was lightly edited for clarity.

 

Chris Erwin:

This week’s episode features Dan Levitt, the founder and CEO of Long Haul Management. Dan grew up in Boston with an early love for music and yet-to-be-discovered bands. So, after wrapping a few acts in high school and interning at Philly radio stations during college, he kicked off his career by moving to LA with absolutely no job prospects.

But after a few A&R gigs at Columbia Records and Disney, Dan was early to see how digital and YouTube were going to transform the music industry. So, he left traditional media and kicked off his digital career, joining one of the early YouTube multichannel networks, company called Big Frame.

We actually worked together there. And in less than nine months, I actually had to lay him off. Dan struck out on his own, positioned himself as the YouTube guy for the music industry and started his own talent shop, Long Haul Management.

Some highlights of our chat include how Dan paid rent while making only $6,000 a year when he first moved to LA … You’ll crack up at some of his many side hustles … when he beat me in an office rap battle, executive producing one of YouTube’s premium original series, and what it’s like to represent some of the biggest sports and gamer personalities on the internet.

All right, let’s get to it. Dan, thanks for being and the podcast.

 

Dan Levitt:

Thanks for having me.

 

Chris Erwin:

Awesome. I believe that you’re a fellow East Coaster like myself. So tell me, where did you grow up?

 

Dan Levitt:

Sure, I’m from a nice suburb of Boston, Newton, Massachusetts. Literally voted safest city in America back when I was younger. So, nice Jewish suburb of Boston.

 

Chris Erwin:

Got it. It’s funny. I went to underground at Tufts in Medford/Somerville. I think, while I was there, it was rated one of the most dangerous mafia-driven neighborhoods in the Northeast, or all of the US. So, quite the opposite of you. What was your household like? What were your family and parents doing?

 

Dan Levitt:

So, one, my parents are both from South Africa. They moved to the US in, I think, ’77. My dad went to school for engineering, and then got a job in Boston, and then eventually started his own software business that really had a bunch of ups and downs. Mostly ups, and then fortunately sold to IBM right before the big bubble burst there. So, the timing was fortunate.

 

Dan Levitt:

And then my mom was artist. So, had all kinds of different things she would do in the art space, be it theater, be it actual prints and displays and stuff.

 

Chris Erwin:

Okay, very cool. It’s funny. I’ve known you for about a decade and I had no idea your parents were from South Africa. Look, you’re an entrepreneur. You’ve built out an incredible talent management firm. We’re going to get to that in a bit. But you have entrepreneurial roots in your family.

 

Dan Levitt:

It’s interesting now. I remember my dad would come back … I think maybe at the height, he had 50, 60 people. Maybe more. I remember growing up, he’d come back from work and we’d be watching a Celtics game. It was the most exciting game ever, especially, they were really good back then.

 

Dan Levitt:

And he would fall asleep, and I’d be like, “How in the world can you possibly fall asleep during this game?” And now, I’m like, “Yep, I get it.” Yeah, I could totally get how you could be so wiped out the day that, no matter what is on TV, you’re just out.

 

Dan Levitt:

I mean, what was really interesting is, my parents went through a kind of messy divorce. We don’t need to get into that but that’s a whole fun story. But what’s interesting is, when they separated, he stayed with a friend for a bit. And he went from sleeping in the basement of a friend’s house to selling his business to IBM in a year.

 

Dan Levitt:

There were a lot of times that people told him, because the business had some challenges over the years, there were a lot of people that told him that he should declare bankruptcy with the business. But he stayed with it. And eventually, it worked out for him. I’m sure, hopefully, some of the resiliency I have, learned from him.

 

Chris Erwin:

Wow. Awesome. I have to ask. Being from Boston, a lot of media professionals from Boston have a pretty strong Boston identity. I think of Dave Portnoy in Barstool Sports, and Bill Simmons from The Ringer. Do you think of yourself like that, or your total West Coast transplant now?

 

Dan Levitt:

It’s not just specific to Boston, but especially in the Northeast, there’s a certain intensity and, I think, an edge that you can have, where in Boston, in traffic, if someone cuts you off, you scream at each other. And that’s just acceptable and that’s how you vent, right?

 

Dan Levitt:

In LA, it’s much different than that. I’m in LA now. On the West Coast, people are more scared of confrontation. If you scream at someone, that’s a really big deal. I think there’s just a certain firm mentality that you have where it’s pretty hard to bother me or get under my skin.

 

Dan Levitt:

I have thick skin. I do think part of that is just growing up in a culture where people are so up front with that. I also think, to a certain extent, growing up in cold climate where the weather is pretty brutal, and you just have to plow through it, does give some sort of mental toughness.

 

Chris Erwin:

I think that’s totally right. I think there’s this saying. I hope I’m not butchering it. But it’s, “In New York, when people are saying, ‘Fuck you,’ they’re saying, ‘Good morning.’ In the West Coast, when they say, ‘Good morning,’ they’re saying, ‘Fuck you.'”

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah. I mean, but it’s more so … I remember in one of my first PA jobs in LA, I had a disagreement with another PA about the way things should be done. And then later on, I was brought into the office by my supervisor and they’re like, “Dan, you were screaming at them. Why?”

 

Dan Levitt:

And I was like, “I wasn’t screaming at them. I was telling them something they didn’t want to hear in a certain tone. If I was screaming at them, they would know. Everybody would know.” So, that was really the first … I just moved to LA and I was like, “Shit, I got to really be cognizant of how I talk to people out here. They’re going to think I’m a fucking lunatic,” which, to a certain extent, is true. But maybe I need to slow play that a bit. Keep my response-

 

Chris Erwin:

It’s part of your je ne sais quoi, as they say. Nothing-

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah. I mean, you know me really well. But for people who just meet me, I can be a lot.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, so let’s actually talk about how you got to where you are today. I think, trying to get a sense of, was there a glimpse in your early days of you entering entertainment, becoming a talent manager? I think about things that you had mentioned that you were looking at unsigned bands in high school in the ’90s. Tell me about that.

 

Dan Levitt:

My skillset is, I’m really good at seeing patterns and seeing where things are going, right? Before they get there. So, I think that’s what I’m best at, be it entertainment or trends. I’ve done okay in the stock market, investing and stuff. So, specific to your question, yeah.

 

Dan Levitt:

My first real strong passion was music. I heard Green Day and it changed my life. And I was like, “This is it.” And then I definitely have the personality type where if I’m into something, I’m all the way fucking in. So, if I like Green Day, okay, I need ever record they’ve ever had.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I started, the mid ’90s or so, music was starting to shift to digital, right? So, you used to discover bands on the radio, and then around that time, there started to be primitive websites. Around when Napster first came out, there started to be people who would put MP3s online, right?

 

Dan Levitt:

So, now here are these blogs that are hosting MP3s. So, they would be posting bands that would be signed to record labels. And I would like these bands. I’d find then, I’d like them, and then they’d get big a year later. It was like, “Oh, I’m pretty good at knowing which bands are going to be big later.”

 

Dan Levitt:

And then, one site in particular started focusing on unsigned bands, and I said, “Oh, these unsigned bands are pretty good. I think they’re going to make it.” And then they would get signed and they would make it. So, I saw, “Hey, I’m pretty good at … ”

 

Dan Levitt:

And I started learning more about the industry. And at that point, originally, my job was to, “Hey, I wanted to work as a music direct on the radio helping find the songs.” And then I realized, “Hey, actually the best way I can help musicians is to work at a record label.” So then, it was my dream to be an A&R guy to sign a band and help them break.

 

Chris Erwin:

And any genre focus? What types of music were you listening to? Was it Green Day punk? Stuff like that?

 

Dan Levitt:

More like the new metal, like the Korn. I know you’re obviously a huge Limp Bizkit fan. That kind of stuff.

 

Chris Erwin:

Three Dollar Bill, Y’all

 

Dan Levitt:

Sure, exactly, right? Around that time was the Linkin Parks of the world and that kind of stuff. That was really the scene that I was into. I still had an appreciation for more pop music and stuff like that. But really, the rock, I would say, is the genre that I was into and certainly having a great moment then.

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah, so then there were a few sites. And I remember trying to email people, and bands, and managers, and see what I could do. But I was just a kid in high school. Again, this is, I’m downloading songs over a dial-up modem.

 

Chris Erwin:

DSL.

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah, exactly. This was not how easy it was today. That was the dream. But I didn’t know anyone at entertainment. There was no path to it. I was like, “Could I start my own record label and fund it?” But that seemed so far from being feasible.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, were you reaching out to any of these bands direct, or was it, you’re just thinking about what you want to do after college?

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah, I had a buddy from summer camp who was, at the same time … This is the late ’90s. He started interning at record labels in New York and started getting a bit of traction. So, we were talking about, “Hey, maybe we should start our own label.” And there were one or two bands that we approached. They didn’t really respond. It didn’t go anywhere.

 

Chris Erwin:

Oh, I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall to hear the pitch of you pitching a band in high school to sign with you.

 

Dan Levitt:

I forget what the value proposition was, but that band didn’t really go anywhere. They probably should’ve given us a shot.

 

Chris Erwin:

You’re doing this in high school, and then you end up going to Temple University in Philly. Does the dream start to take form there? What happens?

 

Dan Levitt:

No. I wanted to be a bit more conservative. And I was like, “Hey, I know I want to get into entertainment. I know I want to be on the business side. What’s interesting to me is the intersection of art and commerce. But these jobs are going to be really hard to get. So, as a background, why don’t I get a business degree, just to give me some kind of stability and baseline of knowledge?”

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I went to school at Temple. There’s all kinds of story. My dorm room burnt down freshman year. Just the craziest shit happened.

 

Chris Erwin:

Wait, did you cause that or was it somebody else?

 

Dan Levitt:

No, no. Well, it’s a point of contention. My roommate was lighting candles for some reason at 10:00 in the morning. But the fire marshal said it was electrical outlet. It’s a whole thing. But anyways, went to Temple. Actually, before I left, I interned at a radio station in Boston. Then I interned at radio stations in Philly because that was really the only …

 

Dan Levitt:

There weren’t record labels in Boston, at least that I was aware of, in Philly. So, I just interned at radio in hope that I could make my way up there. But then I saw, man, the radio jobs … I mean, and this was back then. I could only imagine now. Radio’s not glamorous at all. It’s really bare bones. The budgets are next to nothing. No one leaves these jobs. The jobs didn’t pay great.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I realized, “Hey, I thought I wanted to do radio, but this is not for me.” And then that was more like, “Okay, I want to work for a record label.” That was the dream. Be an A&R guy.

 

Chris Erwin:

In graduating Temple, which I think is around 2004, do you go immediately … Do you have a job lined up? Like you’re going to a record label. You’re pumped going to the big city?

 

Dan Levitt:

I don’t know why. I wasn’t really actively hustling for a gig. I guess I assumed, “Oh, the college sets up some interviews and stuff.” Nothing. So, a couple of my buddies went there. Temple has a really good film program, so most of my friends actually weren’t on the business program. They were more on the film side.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, a couple of my buddies were moving out to LA to get started in their careers. So, I knew the music industry at that time was really New York or LA. And the last winter in Boston, the high was like eight degrees. I’m not one to complain about the cold, but I was too fucking cold.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I was like, “Do I move to New York with no gig where it’s crazy expensive and the weather’s brutal, or maybe I should I try LA and see what it’s like over there.” So, I moved here without any job, and hoping that I’d figure it out.

 

Chris Erwin:

So, you’re showing up without a lot of savings. No clear job prospects. Moving with a couple friends but don’t really know anyone on the West Coast. So, there’s a timeline here where it’s like, “Hey, I got to figure something out probably in the next couple months,” right?

 

Dan Levitt:

Totally. Maybe a couple grand. Thankfully, at least rent back then was a lot less than it is now. I think me and my buddies got a house in Glendale … well, maybe Eagle Rock area or Glassell Park for maybe $1,000 between us three. It was pretty inexpensive. I had some cost but I had a little bit of room to work with there.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, so you show up with maybe a couple suitcases. You’re in LA. What’s your mentality? Are you pumped? Are you excited? Are you also scared? And then what do you start doing to sow your roots?

 

Dan Levitt:

Really, it was just like, “Okay, I have a business degree. Surely, I can get an entry-level job somewhere doing marketing.” And just nothing. Barely interviews. Fucking nothing. So, I was just like, “All right, let me just … ” Couple of my buddies started PAing, so I did some PA gigs.

 

Dan Levitt:

But even in those gigs, you really have to hustle. You have to networks. And the gig ends and then you’ve got to get another job. And then that one ends. You got to get another job. I didn’t really want to jump from job to job. There’s late-night shoots. It would mess up my sleep schedule.

 

Dan Levitt:

I was a much different person. I was a lot lazier. I didn’t think things would come to me. I just thought it would be easier.

 

Chris Erwin:

It’s funny to hear you say that, because who you are now, who I have seen you evolve from since the Big Frame days in 2013, right? When you left. You are such a go-getter. Eye on the ball. Laser focus. Massive hustler. So, I guess this was an important experience for you to train that muscle and change your mentality.

 

Dan Levitt:

For some background, I am not a type … Now, I’m probably type A, but I promise you, I was not type A. For context, I don’t know what my GPA was in high school. Maybe a 2.3. It was not good at all. At all. I was a bad student. For context, in second grade, I already wasn’t doing homework just I couldn’t be bothered to do it. I could do it.

 

Dan Levitt:

I could pass everything and do it well. For some reason, it wasn’t interesting to me. Probably wasn’t until after I left Big Frame when I really had to figure stuff out for my own. But I had to really flip that switch and become that person. There’s some people who just born type A. That’s been a constant evolution for me.

 

Chris Erwin:

But your first job, you do get an A&R job at Columbia Records, which is part of Sony Music, I think in March 2005. How did that come to be and what was that experience like?

 

Dan Levitt:

Oh, this is a great story about how this ends. The buddy I mentioned earlier who was interning at record labels, he was able to move up. I think he was actually probably the youngest A&R guy in Sony history, at least at the time. He helped get John Legend signed and Coheed and Cambria. So, after John-

 

Chris Erwin:

Favorite band, Coheed and Cambria. Jersey band in the metalcore punk-ish type scene. Love them.

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah, I think that was one of the first things he got signed. And then after he helped get John Legend signed, who they had passed on maybe five or six times, then they started, “Oh, maybe we should listen to him.” He got promoted. At the time, the music industry was really going through an interesting transition. This is 2005.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, this is after the height of the boy band and rock. CD sales are declining now, relative to all-time highs. What was happening was, you were seeing a lot of executive turnover. So, a lot of execs who got these amazing lucrative deals in the good old days were getting or not renewed. So, there was a lot of turnover.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, what happened was, at that time, most of the A&R people for Columbia Records were in New York. But they needed someone lower level in LA to go see shows for them, especially at that point, the live shows. Especially in rock and other genres is a big part of a band’s success.

 

Dan Levitt:

They didn’t really have anyone lower and my buddy knew that I was still hustling. I’m working retail at that point. I’m working at The Vitamin Shoppe just to pay the bills, right? Because I didn’t want the hustle of the random PA gigs. Keep in mind, I’m still applying for marketing jobs at a Nestle’s and other more consumer products.

 

Dan Levitt:

I’m applying at entertainment too, but everyone is entry … And this is even worse now. An entry-level job, they want you to have experience. I didn’t have any work experience. I had a couple internships. So, I’m just working retail. My buddy is basically able to get me a job working for Columbia Records, but part-time, right?

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I’m basically working at The Vitamin Shoppe during the day, and then at night, going out and doing A&R for Columbia Records, albeit, in a part-time capacity. And I’m just fucking praying that no one I know from the music world comes into the store.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, it’s really a one foot in, one foot out. And I’m basically just trying to do what I can to find the next great act for them to sign. So, that I can get recognized, and that I can do this full-time, and quit the soul-sucking day job.

 

Chris Erwin:

How much were you making as an A&R exec at this point?

 

Dan Levitt:

I might have been making maybe $125 a week. I think it was definitely between six and seven grand a year. So, not by any means enough to pay the bills, but not terrible, especially back then as a side. Keep in mind, if you look at it from an hourly perspective, I’m not really doing much. Maybe I go to one or two shows a night.

 

Dan Levitt:

By the way, I’m on the guest list for shows. I can walk into The Viper Room and the people there know me. I can just go in. So, I’m seeing amazing shows. I’m meeting people in the industry. I’m meeting managers. Meanwhile, anyone I meet, I’m trying to see if I can work with them.

 

Dan Levitt:

I’m applying for job after job. Entry-level manager assistant, $24,000. I’m applying. At that point, I have Columbia Records on my resume, and still barely getting bites. Even then, for whatever reason, I wasn’t getting the gigs. It was a really, really tough time.

 

Dan Levitt:

It’s worth noting, this was before the tech started. This was before SoundCloud. This is before some of the first music startups. So, there really wasn’t much opportunity to get a gig somewhere. I interviewed at some of the music marketing companies like Streetwise.

 

Dan Levitt:

And this is building street teams and digital street teams. I wanted to do all that shit. I had some experience and still couldn’t get in. Columbia Records. So one, it’s kind of laughable now, but I discovered Arctic Monkeys extremely early. They only had three songs online. No one had heard of them in the US. No sales. Nothing.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I have a bunch of buddies that I would send songs to. This is when The Strokes are first hitting, right? I find them on one of the music blogs that I like. These songs are … I’m into them but I don’t love it. I send it to a bunch of buddies and universally, everyone of them were like, “This is the best thing you’ve ever sent.”

 

Dan Levitt:

And I was like, “Really? Wow.” So then, I pitched them to Columbia Records and they’re, “Oh, this is cool. It’s this cool indie rock thing. But it’s three guys in the UK. There’s no sales. There’s no history. It’d be really hard for us to fly them back and forth. But thanks for bringing it up.”

 

Dan Levitt:

I didn’t really know that I had to keep following up. “Hey, there’s starting to be some noise.” I didn’t know. No one taught me how to do A&R or how to pitch, had to follow up. Again, it’s not like I’m going into an office. I’m just remote because I still had the day gig.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, anyways, eventually there were Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen, a few things that I pitched that ended up hitting eventually. And then it got to the point where Sony Music was having a weekend where they were bringing in ever Sony Music employee to New York to do this whole song and dance about their roster.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I basically request vacation time from my dad gig to go to New York. Again, Columbia Records is paying me $125 a week, but they’re flying me to New York and put me up in a fancy hotel.

 

Chris Erwin:

It’s like half your salary.

 

Dan Levitt:

Oh, no, by far, they spent way more on this. I mean, anyways, it was a weekend in Greenwich, Connecticut with the A&R team. So, I get called into the head A&R’s office on the Friday. He’s like, “Hey, Dan, I have some great news for you. Thanks for everything you’ve done. We’re going to make you full-time. We’re just waiting to hear from accounting on how much that’s going to be. We’ll get back to you.”

 

Dan Levitt:

And I’m like, “This is what I’ve been fucking working my whole life for.” And then right afterwards, we get on the bus to go to Greenwich, Connecticut. And Columbia had just brought on Steve Lillywhite, the producer who produced all the big U2 records, Dave Matthews. Albums I fucking grew up on. I’m shooting the shit with him now.

 

Dan Levitt:

We go to the head of the label’s house, and there’s all these Korn, and Rage Against the Machine, and all these albums that were so meaningful to me. All the plaques. It was a weekend where I felt like I was one of them now. My whole life, I’ve been trying to get in, and now I’m finally in. Still today one of the best weekends of my life.

 

Dan Levitt:

And then I fly back and it’s Monday. And I’m back in the day job. And I’m just waiting for the phone call. I’m just waiting for the phone call about how much more money it’s going to be. I’m so fucking ready. I get the call. “Hey, Dan, we have some bad news. We’re not going to have room for you anymore. Sorry, but thanks for everything you’ve done.”

 

Chris Erwin:

Wow. Just fast like that? Almost no emotion? Just, boom.

 

Dan Levitt:

No, no, to his credit, he was really apologetic. But I was fucking shellshocked because the call I got where I thought, “Okay, this is the phone call. I’m about to quit. I’m about to quit day job,” was just the carpet ripped out from under me.

 

Dan Levitt:

I had the day job but at least I was grinding at night, hoping to get somewhere. Now, that was taken from me. And now I’m like, “Fuck, I’m about to be 25 with a business degree, working retail. This is not how I thought shit was going to go.”

 

Dan Levitt:

So, it ends up being revealed later on, it wasn’t clear at that time, but basically, Columbia Records was bringing on Rick Rubin and he wanted his own people. But it was just a gut shot at the time.

 

Chris Erwin:

So, Dan, you get into a few side hustle. And I think one of them culminates in you doing chat room marketing for cream cheese. But tell us a couple highlights here because I think some of these side hustles, like swap meets, is still involved in your life today.

 

Dan Levitt:

It’s always fun for me, trying to figure out new ways to make money. It’s a lot easier now with the internet and stuff. It wasn’t back then. I was a big focus group slut. I would do anything. Promote anything. So, I would get really good at filling out focus group surveys.

 

Dan Levitt:

I knew how they wanted you to answer, and so I would do … For example, I’ve been paid to eat tofu. I’ve been paid to eat gum. I’ve been paid to eat McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches. I got paid to play a Xbox Kinect before it came out. I’ve been paid to look at marketing materials.

 

Dan Levitt:

I’ve been paid to play with phones, and gadgets, and look at Cirque du Soleil. All kinds of stuff. Especially in LA, I’m sure this is the case in maybe a lot of big cities, but there’s a lot of companies that do focus groups both in person. And I was just a maniac.

 

Dan Levitt:

There were a few Twitter accounts that popped up from those. It’s like, “Hey, if you’re this and you’re this, fill it out.” So, I would just … whatever I could to try to get in.

 

Chris Erwin:

And this was paying the bills for you, so this was important.

 

Dan Levitt:

I think one year, I made maybe eight grand doing it. My first couple years in LA, I might have made only $20, $30 grand, so it was pretty significant. There was a store in LA that, on Sundays, would sell clothes, some vintage, some new, for a dollar.

 

Dan Levitt:

I would go and I’d buy most of the men’s stuff. I’d list it on eBay. Basically, anything I sold it for was profit. I ended up getting fired from The Vitamin Shoppe. That’s not really an interesting story. There was a company doing … This would be summer 2008. They were doing experimental digital marketing.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, they were basically going into chat rooms essentially spamming message points. But then also, you had to have one-on-one conversations with people where you’d have to work in talking points, which was really fucking hard. Especially, how do you work cream cheese into a conversation organically? But I got fucking really good at it.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, within two days, I got so good at it that, by the end of the first week, I was promoted to the night shift manager. So, you would drop the campaign talking points into the chat. But really, it was all about these one-on-one conversations because basically, this agency would take those conversations, chop them up, make them clean, and then share it with the brand, and, “Hey, look, we’re doing this subtle marketing for you.”

 

Chris Erwin:

What was one of the lines that was something that you custom crafted that you were known for?

 

Dan Levitt:

This is really interesting psychology. What everyone else would do was, they would try to hit up a million people to try to find one, and try to work it in. They would brute force it. I took the opposite approach. I was like, “I’m going to ask other people online about themselves, and then just as conversations go, they’ll flip it. And they’ll ask me about myself.”

 

Dan Levitt:

And then I’m like, “Oh, yeah.” Put one of the common … “Oh, what do you do for work?” I’m not going to say the brand’s name but it’s a city where I went to school. But it’s like, “Hey,” we couldn’t say, “I work at.” We had to say, “I work with X cream cheese company.” “Oh, really? I love cream cheese. Cool.”

 

Dan Levitt:

And then it’s like, “Oh, what do you use it on?” “Oh, I can use it for cheesecakes or stuff like that.” Or there’s another site that’s harder to use but you could actually see people’s images. Think Myspace era. It wasn’t Myspace but similar.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I would identify people that I thought, based on physical attributes, might be interested in cream cheese. And I’d just message them and chat with them. But man, that was one of the funnest jobs I ever had, more so because, as a guy, it’s not so bad. You’re mostly talking to girls. As a girl on the internet trying to talk to guys about cream cheese, the kind of shit that they would hear was just-

 

Chris Erwin:

Probably a dark rabbit that we will not go down. So, Dan, then you head to A&R at Disney around September 2008. How did that come to be?

 

Dan Levitt:

My roommate used to do HR for Disney, right? So, keep in mind, at that point actually, I’d left the cream cheese job. And I’m working in a movie theater. I’m making $8.50 an hour. I got my side hustles. So, I see a job posting for A&R coordinator.

 

Dan Levitt:

I ping my roommate and I’m like, “Hey, do you know the recruiter for this gig?” And he did. It was someone he used to work closely with. So, I was able to customize my resume and it went directly to the recruiter from a friendly … I remember the weekend I saw the job, I was in Chicago for a wedding.

 

Dan Levitt:

And I remember holding back my friend for an hour, so I could tweak it before we went and got pizza. I applied on a Friday. And then I got back and basically, I think that day, the recruiter called. I had a phone interview. And basically, the next Friday, I had a gig.

 

Chris Erwin:

Wow. That moved very fast in contrast to your other stuff.

 

Dan Levitt:

Unheard of for Disney. And the salary was in the mid-40s. Again, I had a Columbia Records gig, but it paid next to nothing. And now, I have an A&R job at Disney with a real fucking salary and amazing benefits, and it happened so quick. And I had been out here for five years grinding. Just grinding.

 

Chris Erwin:

Did you feel you had made it at that point, like, “I’ve made it. I’m here”?

 

Dan Levitt:

It wasn’t that I made it. It was that I made it out of retail because to this day, I … There’s absolutely nothing wrong with working retail, I did it forever, but I don’t want to do it again. I don’t want to interact with the public. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe how fast it happened. And just like that, my whole world changed.

 

Dan Levitt:

I was so appreciative and so thankful to have a gig that provided some stability that was in a industry that I wanted. You meet someone, you tell them you work for Disney, it changes the perception of you, right? And certainly for me, who’d been trying to get a real industry gig, it was fun to … I knew that I had the chops, and it was finally someone recognizing it.

 

Chris Erwin:

Hey, listeners, this is Chris Erwin, your host of The Come Up. I have a quick ask for you. If you dig what we’re putting down, if you like the show, if you like our guests, it would really mean a lot if you could give us a rating wherever you listen to our show. It helps other people discover our work and it also really supports what we do here. All right, that’s it, everybody. Let’s get back to the interview.

 

Chris Erwin:

After this, you end up going to, call it, the YouTube revolution of Big Frame. So, I’m just curious, while you’re at Disney, was there anything about emerging media, digitally native artists that you were focused on during those four years? Trying to sense a through line here.

 

Dan Levitt:

After I left the Columbia Records gig or got let go, I saw these people who had these music blogs that were starting to go with their own reputations as tastemakers. So, I thought, “Oh, maybe I should do that for myself. Maybe instead of working for a record label and being a tastemaker, maybe I should do that on my own, with my blog or something.”

 

Dan Levitt:

But I didn’t really have the technical prowess to do the blog stuff. It seems like, “Oh, it should’ve been easy.” Blogs and stuff were not easy back then. So actually, I started doing online video. I bought an HD camera. This must’ve been very early YouTube days.

 

Dan Levitt:

But I actually, with a buddy, recorded some HD music industry podcasts where we talked about music industry news and stuff. But I think I would post it on YouTube, but sadly and stupidly, because YouTube didn’t monetize then, I put it on Revver where they did monetize. R-E-V-V-E-R was sort of a YouTube competitor at the time that did monetize.

 

Dan Levitt:

And I was like, “Oh, I want to make money doing this,” so even though there’s more audience on YouTube, I put it there. And nothing happened that I didn’t … It was hard relying on my buddy, who was great to schedule this. I didn’t stick with it. So, I didn’t stick with it. But I was doing it semi-consistently.

 

Dan Levitt:

But then when I got the Disney job, I asked if I could continue doing it, and they were like, “No, you’re doing A&R for us. You obviously can’t be talking about acts that aren’t signed to Disney.” So, I put that on the side and then I saw the early podcast boom.

 

Dan Levitt:

Again, I’m listening to Bill Simmons. I’m listening to Carolla. Saw the podcast thing happening. So, while I’m at Disney, especially I’m a couple year in, it was a decent job but my department is pretty strict. I wasn’t given the freedom that you would think an A&R guy would have. It was a lot more administrative.

 

Dan Levitt:

It was a glorified assistant, right? It wasn’t an A&R role. They truly did not care about my opinion for acts in my estimation, especially the label side. I worked for the publishing side. I tried to get in with the label guys and it didn’t really work.

 

Dan Levitt:

A couple years in, I’m starting to think, “Okay, I got to get out of here.” This was great, but I’m like, “I’m going to be a 30-year-old A&R guy who’s never got anything signed. And if lose this gig … ” And again, this is the industry especially 2008, 2009, 2010, sales are going way down.

 

Dan Levitt:

This is when streaming is just starting. So, I’m trying to meet whoever I can, right? So actually, this is when SoundCloud first starts. I was up for a gig there. I had some friends record some messages recommending me. I had a great relationship of amazing songwriters and artists that I was an advocate for, that hadn’t really made it or were just starting to.

 

Dan Levitt:

I tried to get at SongKit and all these things that were starting. I actually tried to get a job at Spotify. I’m actually one of the first 500 people in the US to have a Spotify account. I had an account for two years before it launched.

 

Chris Erwin:

I think what I’m hearing is that you’ve also applied to every single music company, I think, in the world by this point.

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah, but especially the good ones, right? I loved what SoundCloud was doing. Really at the time, they were so innovative. And they were solving their big problem, which was hosting audio. The role that I wanted was helping artists get on the platform and figure stuff out.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, around that time, again, I always believed in YouTube. I was doing it for myself. And then obviously Justin Bieber broke. And I’m looking on YouTube and I’m seeing these kids who are doing mid-tempo acoustic ballads, because that’s all they can do, because that’s what you do when you start.

 

Dan Levitt:

But they were doing covers and building an audience. And I was like, “The originals aren’t that good. And I know all these amazing songwriters and producers that right now getting cuts in a major label system, because it’s a fixed game, because the heads of the A&R start separate publishing divisions. And those people get the singles.”

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I was like, “What if I actually brought some artist development into this YouTuber space where these people have done the hardest part. They’ve built an audience,” right? There was one day on Twitter, the YouTube Creators account on Twitter posted that they were having an event at … This is before the YouTube Space … at YouTube’s offices where they were talking about what makes a video successful on YouTube. I said, “That’ll probably be good for me to know.”

 

Dan Levitt:

I went and Sarah from Big Frame, who we both know well, was on the panel. She was talking about how she started a business and she was managing YouTubers. I was surprised that this was a thing, that there was enough of a business for there to be managers.

 

Dan Levitt:

Not only that, really smart … Sarah is really impressive. I was like, “Wow, this is wild. I had no idea this kind of scene was happening.” And then someone else actually asked about music. “What should the labels do?” And she was like, “Oh, the labels have no idea what they’re doing at all.”

 

Dan Levitt:

And then I went up to Sarah afterwards. I was, “Oh, I work for Disney Music.” She’s like, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” I was like, “Oh, no, you have no idea how right you are.” Actually, for an anecdote about how truly out of touch, in my experience, they were …

 

Dan Levitt:

So again, through my relationships, I was one of the first 500 in the US to have Spotify. The Spotify had their agreement. They had a few test accounts for people in the industry to get to try it. I had one. I went to the head … maybe the number two at Disney Music.

 

Dan Levitt:

And I was like, “Hey, I got this cool thing, Spotify. Have you seen it? Have you tried it? Do you want an account?” He was like, “Oh yeah, I’m not worried about that. I don’t need one.” It was so clear to me this was the future and they couldn’t be bothered.

 

Dan Levitt:

Even, again, I’m still kind of green, right? But I saw that, hey, by the way, when they did the Spotify deal, Universal was distributing Disney, right? Universal got equity. Warner got Equity. Sony got equity. Disney didn’t get equity but Universal leveraged the market share for distributing Disney for equity in Spotify. And I asked them, “Why did you do that?” I’m a fucking coordinator and you don’t have-

 

Chris Erwin:

You’re seeing where the industry is headed. And the vision at the top of Disney, or particularly for the Disney Music division, they just don’t get it. So, you’re like, “They’re not going to get it.” At your level, you’re not going to be able to influence them.

 

Chris Erwin:

So, you’re saying, again, “I got to make a move. I got to get out of here. The future is changing and I want to be a part of it.”

 

Dan Levitt:

I think the big thing was, I saw what happened in podcasts. I didn’t have to but I chose the safer Disney route, right? Because I needed a gig. I needed to pay the bills. But I made a promise to myself. Every day, I saw someone else doing what I wanted to do. They were the AbsolutePunks of the world, or there were other people who turned the music blog into an A&R career, or leveraged it in other ways with all these podcasts blowing up. **

 

Dan Levitt:

And I promised myself, I was like, “I’m good at seeing gaps in the marketplace and where could you go in it. I made a promise. The next time I see it, I’m fucking going for it.”

 

Chris Erwin:

I love that.

 

Dan Levitt:

That’s why, when I met Sarah and I saw … I was like, “This YouTube thing is fucking next. No one in the music industry realizes it. Let me get in. At worst … ” After that conversation with Sarah … The follow-up week, we had lunch somewhere.

 

Dan Levitt:

And after that conversation, I was like, “Sarah, hire me.” She was like, “I can’t now but we’re doing raise soon. Let’s stay in touch.” Then afterwards, I was like, “This is fucking it. I fucking know it. I need to get in here no matter what.” So, I started being very aggressive.

 

Chris Erwin:

This is probably, thinking in a Big Frame timeline, the company was founded in, I think, the second half of 2011. And they officially raised funding from the Google Original Channels program and a seed round, I think, in early 2012. And you come in the second half of 2012. But yeah, Sarah’s talking about they had to get funding lined up. I jointed Big Frame, I think, in July of 2012.

 

Dan Levitt:

But at this point, after I had lunch with Sarah, I’m like, “Okay, this is it. I need to get into this space,” right? So, at the time, there were three companies, right? There was Maker, there was Big Frame, and Full Swing. Those were the three big ones, right?

 

Dan Levitt:

When I stepped back, I looked. At the time, Maker was far bigger and the hot company at that point, right? The one that had the most buzz. The one that had the most resources and stuff. So, I decide that I want to … Sarah’s great but let me see if I could get a job at Maker.

 

Dan Levitt:

I have a meeting with whoever’s running their music dept. And this guy, he was cool. He was okay but did not have the level of sophistication or music knowledge that I had, right? And I think, especially, it’s worth considering, at this point, the space is so new, there’s no one with Sony and Disney A&R. The level of traditional level of music in the space at all. But I decide I’m going to go for it.

 

Dan Levitt:

I meet with him. It’s a decent interview. And then I decide I really want to go out of my way to show them that I want this, right? So, at the time, Maker had 100 employees. So, the next day, I send over 100 Krispy Kreme doughnuts to the Maker office with a note, “Let’s make sweet music together.”

 

Chris Erwin:

How did that touch work out for you?

 

Dan Levitt:

I got a second interview. Literally, people in Maker are Tweeting about it, right? And I thought, “Look, at worst, it’ll be memorable and maybe they’ll think about me in the future. And at best, if I get the gig, everyone’s going to like me from day one, because I’m the doughnut guy.”

 

Dan Levitt:

Again, I’m real fucking desperate to get out of Disney at this point. I see the writing on the way, especially, one thing to mention is that at this time, we’re talking 2012, the publishing division had merged with the record labels. And essentially, the head of one of the record labels was now the new music group boss.

 

Dan Levitt:

I was at Sony after the Sony BMG merger and I saw people getting picked off one by one. And I saw the same thing happening at publishing. I said, “This was a merger, the record side won, and the publishing people are going to go one by one.” As soon as I saw the first domino fall, I was fucking on it. So, I definitely feel like there’s an ax going over my head slowly descending.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, so the timeline is compressing. You got to make moves. Okay, so after Disney, do you then apply to Big Frame? What happens next?

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah, eventually, I end up … I apply to Big Frame. I meet you.

 

Chris Erwin:

You said that you sent a video as part of your application, right?

 

Dan Levitt:

Right. Right. There was a job. I think, after Google acquired Next New NOW, they had a strategist role that I applied for that I didn’t get. But I knew that, if you looked at my resume, you would see traditional media. I really wanted them to understand that I got digital culture.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I made a video in addition to my resume, a fun video that played on the memes or the trends on YouTube at the time. The video was like, “Hey, I’m a big fan of YouTube. It’s not just people doing the cinnamon challenge,” and then it cut to me doing that, “or getting hurt,” Then to me getting hit by 20 dodge balls from different angles.

 

Chris Erwin:

I actually think I vaguely start to remember this now.

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah.

 

Chris Erwin:

Oh my God.

 

Dan Levitt:

I just knew that, especially having applied for so many gigs at traditional companies and not getting my resume seen, I wanted to make sure that in the future when I applied for a job, I was being extra. I was really going out of my way to show that I was serious about it. And also, especially with digital, that I got it the culture. That I got the space.

 

Dan Levitt:

That I’m not some stuffy guy. I really wanted to show that I was a believer in the space and to differentiate myself. Sarah actually told me after I was hired that the video did ease some of her concerns that it was going to be a more stealthy music guy, because especially at that time, the music industry and the MCNs, it was really contentious, right?

 

Dan Levitt:

It was Sony and some of the publishers having seen Myspace grow, and build, and get a huge valuation. It was very much a new emerging trend the music industry sees as a threat. And that dates back to sheet music but that’s a separate tangent.

 

Chris Erwin:

Well, and to be clear, at least from my vantage point, I don’t think there was any worry that you were going to be a traditional stuffy music guy, because I remember, I think, this is me and Jason Ziemianski were working on building out the different content verticals for Big Frame.

 

Dan Levitt:

Which was so smart to do.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah, so smart. So, we had Wonderly. We had Forefront. We also had a music vertical. We had an LGBTQ vertical and maybe one or two more. So yeah, we’re thinking about music. I remember I’m in the back room. This is when we were on the Sunset Boulevard office, the old National Lampoon building.

 

Chris Erwin:

I mean, you come in for an interview and there was a window between the back room and the front. Jason pointing at you and he’s like, “That’s who you’re going to interview. That’s Dan.” I remember looking at you and I had never seen anyone that looked like you. You were in a shiny silver suit. So, one thing that I thought-

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah, the shiny suits. The famous shiny suit.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. One, I thought it was weird because I was like, “Okay, this is digital video. People were a bit more casual. Jeans and T-shirts. He’s in a suit. That’s kind of weird. But then second, it wasn’t just a normal suit. It was just something I’d never seen before.”

 

Chris Erwin:

And I was like, “All right, this guy’s a character.” And from where I came from, I was just like … I’m from traditional East Coast finance. So, I was started to discount you in my head, but also realizing I’m biased. I’m like, “Maybe this is the people that we want. I’ve never encountered someone like this but maybe this is the thinking and the pedigree that we want.”

 

Chris Erwin:

So, then I remember sitting with you on the couches in the front. And you’re mile-a-minute telling me your story and I’m drinking from a fire hose. I remember peppering you with questions. I don’t even know what they were. But fast forward, we end up liking you and we hire you.

 

Chris Erwin:

All right, we hire you at Big Frame and this is in October 2012. What do you remember from those early days? What are you working on?

 

Dan Levitt:

I just remember being so excited, man. Sarah and you guys believing in me especially. Again, I’m pretty good at knowing where things were going. And just you guys just, “Hey, great. Music is the big thing on YouTube. Dan, figure it out. Figure out the opportunity.”

 

Dan Levitt:

The belief in me was so amazing. Also, I’m coming from working at four years at Disney where, at least with my direct supervisors, I didn’t feel like I was being treated as an adult. Everything was micromanaged. I was essentially chained to my desk.

 

Dan Levitt:

And moving into a role where it just felt like anything was possible. I remember getting there and there was really next to no musicians signed at all, right? I think you guys hadn’t signed them because you didn’t know what to do with them. There were a handful.

 

Dan Levitt:

And then I was like, “Hey, I have this idea for a music show.” I knew that I would need to get a good song out of each of the talent that we’d had. So, I was like, “Hey, I know all these amazing songwriters and producers who know YouTube is next or I’m telling them. They’re excited that I’m making this leap.”

 

Dan Levitt:

And they’re like, “Hey, YouTube’s a thing. What should we do?” So, I just remember Sarah and I and you talking about this show idea. And then a week later, we had money from YouTube to do it. So, it was the biggest mind fuck because my entire career, I heard, “No.” Literally, my 20s was hearing the word no.

 

Dan Levitt:

And literally, I can honestly say in the first month at Big Frame, I did more than in my 10 years at traditional. It was that quick. And I’ve really only heard, for the most part, heard, “Yes,” ever since. But you can do so much more in the space. There aren’t the same gatekeepers at Disney. If you try something new and it doesn’t work, you lose your job.

 

Chris Erwin:

This flip a switch where you’re like, “Okay, within the first month at Big Frame, I’m hearing, ‘Yes,’ and money is behind it”? So, do you start thinking, “Oh, if I’m a go-getter, there’s a lot more I can do here”?

 

Dan Levitt:

I don’t know that it was even that cognizant. It was more that I didn’t really know which direction to go in. So, I was like, “Okay, there’s a lack of artist development.” One, that show ended up taking a lot more time.

 

Chris Erwin:

And you did that with Dave Days, right?

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah.

 

Chris Erwin:

Called, the Writing Room.

 

Dan Levitt:

It’s still up on YouTube, I think. It was great and we were all really happy with the songs and the shows, and got into artist development. And then while I was there, I realized, “Hey, before I go out and start signing people, I need to understand how YouTube works, especially in music where SEO is so important,” because at the time, it was very much cover songs.

 

Dan Levitt:

And some of the biggest creators on the platform were doing cover songs, right? So, I needed to know how SEO worked. There was someone who was working at YouTube who reverse engineered the algorithm, and had done all this A/B testing to figure out how to grow channels.

 

Dan Levitt:

It was on the audience-development side, and that was MatPat. He had his channel, which maybe, I think, was a couple hundred thousand subscribers. But I didn’t care. No one really cared much or paid much mind about his own channel.

 

Dan Levitt:

But he and I very quickly hit it off, because at that time, a lot of the managers, more so than other MCNs … And the reason why I went with Big Frame, because I did get offers from all three, was, you guys wanted to be more high touch with a smaller roster, right?

 

Dan Levitt:

So, at that time, you guys actually were having some of the top talent on the platform sit down with MatPat, or just Mat at that time, who would basically tell them, “Hey, here’s what you should be doing,” and they wouldn’t listen to him. But he was doing those one by one.

 

Chris Erwin:

And just to be clear, Matthew Patrick, who’s now a huge YouTuber that Dan manages, he was an employee at Big Frame early days.

 

Dan Levitt:

He was a co-worker. Now he has maybe just under or close to 30 million across 4 channels, and is just one of the top channels on the platform, especially who’s been able to do it for a decade. And has, probably, one of the most challenging formats where every video takes at least 100 or 200 hours in terms of scripting and post.

 

Dan Levitt:

It shouldn’t work, but through pure determination and really thoughtful approach, it has worked. Anyways, he’s working there. And quickly, we hit it off because, instead of just dropping the talent and him saying the same things over to talent that don’t listen, I was like, “Hey, tell me. Do a knowledge transfer to me. I want to know this stuff, so that I can tell all my clients and be respectful of his time, and also learn.

 

Dan Levitt:

“I’m curious for myself. I want to know, how does SEO work and what are things I can do to grow my clients, so that we’re providing value. And then once I know that, cool, let me go out and let me try sign some of the best and brightest.”

 

Dan Levitt:

I thought that it would take me a while before I permeated, at least the music scene, on YouTube. By two or three months, based off of the work I was doing with one or two artists, I guess I should’ve went, “They all know each other. They would all collab. They all talk to each other.”

 

Dan Levitt:

So, in a very short amount of time, I created a great name for myself as someone who’s … especially at that time, with the exception of Big Frame, it was scale, scale, scale. Just sign channels, get them into CMS, Comscore, Comscore. That was not Big Frame’s approach.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, Big Frame really had a great reputation and I wanted to help further perpetuate that. So, not only was I helping people grow their channels, but I was setting them up with songwriters and producers, helping them figure out the different revenue streams.

 

Dan Levitt:

One of the challenges at that time was, the contracts that we had were more, at that time, standard MCN deals that only participated in ad revenue. And for most creators, that’s fine, right? Because the ancillary revenues, the merch touring, and brand deals, and stuff were’t there, or they were just starting.

 

Dan Levitt:

On the music side, especially then when it was confrontational with the publishers, the ad revenue is shared. So, the CPMs and the ad revenue was a lot lower take-home for the artist, and in turn, Big Frame. However, they were making significantly more and a lot more on downloads and streaming.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I noticed, “Hey, I’m giving you advice and I’m helping you grow your channel. But we’re only participating in, essentially, the least profitable revenue stream.” So, I recognized, “Hey, at least in music, if we’re going to be … ” And probably more broadly because we saw at time peak, and some other platforms come up that weren’t YouTube.

 

Dan Levitt:

Some of the talent was trying to do stuff on their own and sort of getting exploited. And I realized, and I went to Sarah and you and said, “Hey, we might want to think about having our contracts be more robust and 360 if we’re going to have this more boutique roster.”

 

Chris Erwin:

Oh, I remember those conversations where we had, I think, a very short, minimal contract. Only participated in AdSense off of YouTube. Then a lot of push from the team saying, “Hey, we’re doing all this work. We’re impacting the 360 business of this talent. One, the company needs to get paid for it.”

 

Chris Erwin:

And also, because you guys were thinking about, as talent managers, “How do you participate? What’s your incentive?” Look, contracts is a whole separate thing, because I remember then the contract became like 12 pages. And then people were saying, “This is crazy. You got to make it simpler. No one’s going to sign.” But that’s another tangent.

 

Chris Erwin:

Anyway, okay, you identify this. We start to rejigger the business. And yeah, you start building out our music vertical.

 

Dan Levitt:

It was going really well. I mean, we were getting the best talent. We just weren’t monetizing the way that we wanted yet. And I was waiting on these management contracts to come in, so that we could get that … Again, that process took longer. We were basically building …

 

Dan Levitt:

We would’ve had all the best ones, right? Some of them had deals that they signed before that were, “Hey, as soon as this term ends, I’m going to join.”

 

Chris Erwin:

So, I think this speaks to some mutual challenges, right? And frustration where we’re trying to sort out the contracts. We’re trying to sort out the business model. We’re realizing at Big Frame, the music vertical is not directly making a lot of money relative to the cost that we’re putting into it.

 

Chris Erwin:

Also, this is a point where I think there is some headwinds facing the MCN industry. We were having some challenges raising the needed capital and floating working capital. So, we had to make some changes. There was a discussion around, “Okay, probably going to have to shut down the music vertical, and we’re going to have to let Dan go.”

 

Chris Erwin:

This is something you and I talk about for the past 10 years. I remember being in the room when that conversation happens, because it was between me, and you, and Jason, I believe.

 

Dan Levitt:

I was really the first person let go. It was a growth stage. And then I was probably the first casualty, right? And to your credit, I was not surprised, because maybe a month or so before, you were like, “Hey, Dan, have you actually looked at some of the numbers in terms of what we’re paying you and what you’re bringing in?”

 

Dan Levitt:

Again, that seems blatantly obvious that I should’ve been but I wasn’t. I came from a role that was very administrative and I kept doing what I knew. It wasn’t clear to me that, “Oh, I’m actually responsible for … I should be … for my own P&L within this larger entity.”

 

Chris Erwin:

In reflecting on that moment, and I don’t actually think I’ve ever shared this before, but I think there’s some realizations where, one, I think I was learning a lot about the digital entertainment industry, right? I had a very traditional background MBA. And there was a lot that I …

 

Chris Erwin:

I knew about business and I knew that revenue had to be more than cost to get the profit. But I think I didn’t understand the nuances of how this industry worked, of how you recruit talent, how you invest in a team, and figuring out the right business model. And I think listening to our talent managers, like yourself, could’ve been something I did with more focus and intent.

 

Chris Erwin:

But I think it was a mutual value exchange. We’re all learning and I think this helped set up a lot of talent managers for success of thinking about running a sustainable business. Thinking about top line versus bottom line. And I know that there was some conversations where, yeah, I was giving clinics to you and some of the other members of the team like, “Let’s sketch out some numbers and see what works here.

 

Chris Erwin:

“And it’s not working. How do we get there?” And I feel that you’ve taken that to your new business, which has obviously been paid off in spades for you.

 

Dan Levitt:

I think me and the other talent managers there, we kind of went in wide-eyed where we knew the opportunity, and we knew where we saw things were going. But I don’t think any of us had run this kind of a business like that or thought through that kind of stuff.

 

Dan Levitt:

It’s just like you’re trying to build the plane while you fly it. The other thing is, you obviously know this and you hear some of the stories from me and other, it’s really hard dealing with talent. It’s really hard dealing with talent. Especially then, one thing that I don’t hear discussed as much, and I think for someone like me, who worked with traditional talent for a while, the digital talent’s different, right?

 

Dan Levitt:

So, for me, working in music as an A&R guy, if I meet an artist or a musician, at least back then, they’ve heard, “No,” a million times, right? And they understand the value of a team. On the YouTuber side, especially back then, especially early on, but it’s still the same now, especially with the new breed of creators who are really fucking savvy, a lot of them don’t understand the value of a team.

 

Dan Levitt:

They’ve hit a time when everyone’s catering to them, especially the OG YouTubers who got in when you could just have deceptive thumbnails and stuff. They were not as receptive to advice that, potentially, they should’ve been. So, in addition to figure out how to make a business model of this thing as it’s emerging, and especially, music is a lot harder in brand deals than beauty and other verticals, it was challenging.

 

Dan Levitt:

And it’s compounded by, the job in working with talent is essentially to keep the unaccountable accountable.

 

Chris Erwin:

Look, I feel for you guys because I think you’re working really hard dating over the past decade to figure out the business models that work for this new talent. And I think that’s still happening together. And different from traditional managers, this feeling of you’re always on.

 

Chris Erwin:

So, the internet doesn’t shut off. It’s 24/7. And you could be dealing with a brand deal that goes awry on a different timezone. And you’re getting up at 4:00 AM. Or there’s a YouTube channel take down that’s impacting a brand deal, or a video that’s meaningful to talent. And that happens at midnight, you got to be on it with a plan, a solution, and a call into the platform. That’s unique.

 

Chris Erwin:

And look, that’s a separate podcast to talk about all those stories. I think the collective Big Frame managers will write a book. But I will the challenge that you guys face in managing digital talent. For me, having run the talent organization and overseeing the talent managers, that’s also hard because at the top, we tried to bear the burden of that stress, and give you guys the tools, and empower you.

 

Chris Erwin:

You guys demanded a lot because your talent demanded a lot. And it was admittedly hard. But I think it was a beautiful journey to go through together and we learned a lot.

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah, I can’t believe it was only eight months. I was only there eight months, which is surprising. But man, in that eight months, the professional development that I had was so far beyond. I remember saying to Steve Raymond, who was the CEO of Big Frame at the time, I remember telling him, “I’ll never work for a big company again if I can avoid it.”

 

Dan Levitt:

I like the startup culture. I like the fact that we’re making it up, and we get to try new things, and make mistakes and do stuff. So far, I haven’t had to.

 

Chris Erwin:

Before we go on and we talk about your transition to Long Haul, I think we’d be remiss if we just didn’t tell one story about the upstairs rap battle. This still gets me to this day because you ended up as the winner. It pains me to this day. So, tell the listeners a quick context for our rap battle.

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah, I don’t know the origin of it. I think there might have been two. I don’t know. I don’t remember how it started but I think we were just … We throw friendly jabs back and forth. And somehow, it cultivated in, “Hey, we’re going to do a rap battle.”

 

Dan Levitt:

I remember spending half the day writing out my stuff. I just remember the whole team was there and they were filming it. We got to find a video of it somewhere. But yeah, there was a rap battle and I was victorious. I know I went at you for …

 

Dan Levitt:

I remember one line. You had a Ford that was giving you a bunch of challenges because all you could afford is a piece-of-shit Ford. That line really, while not being the most creative, really hit with the audience.

 

Chris Erwin:

Yeah. I think, in rap battles, you just get a sense, because like you said, everyone was watching. They were filming. Crowd’s reacting. And if you track the energy, you just know who’s winning. And I remember at the end with that line, the crowd just was like …

 

Chris Erwin:

It just felt like, “All right, Dan has one this.” I think we were kind of even throughout throwing these different jabs. I remember working on my script for a couple weeks. I was frustrated because I was like, “That line is … That’s not a special one. He just said Ford and afford in the same sentence.” But it didn’t matter. It was over. So, look, massive credit for you.

 

Dan Levitt:

You’re going against a music industry professional. There were no ghostwriters but it’s to be expected. So, if Chaz or anybody else wants to come for the throne, they know where I’m at.

 

Chris Erwin:

So, Dan, okay, after this let-go moment, what are you thinking about? What’s next for you?

 

Dan Levitt:

When I took the gig, I knew it was going to be a roller coaster. I knew it was riskier, right? But again, I felt, “At worse, if it doesn’t work out, at least I will presumably have positioned myself in the music industry as the YouTube guy. And because I know YouTube is going to be a big thing, I should be okay. I’ll figure something out.”

 

Dan Levitt:

And that’s exactly what happened where, as soon as I let go, I hit up all my people. In that eight months, people did start to notice. Some people. I was very fortunate that, within the first month, I got two gigs doing consulting for two different startups that wanted to work with digital creators, particularly musicians, that actually paid more for a lot less work. So, I sailed up for the first time.

 

Dan Levitt:

Now, it’s like, “Okay. Now, I’m actually making more money than I was at Big Frame and I have way more free time. So, what could I be doing?” And then around that time is when MatPat crossed a million subscribers. We hadn’t talked in a while but there was that mutual respect, right? He’s noticed that I was doing more for talent and being thoughtful.

 

Chris Erwin:

You weren’t working with MatPat right after Big Frame. It took a bit.

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah, yeah, it took a bit. I had the other gigs, and then he hit me up. It was like, “Hey, can you help me do my first MCN deal?” And I said, “Sure,” and I helped him negotiate one. And I said, “Hey, is anyone bringing you brand deals? Your channel is pretty big at this point.”

 

Dan Levitt:

He’s like, “No.” I was like, “I’ve never really sold any.” I think we did a handful at Big Frame, but again, in music, it was really tough. And I was like, “Well, let me try.” One of the companies I was consulting for had an office in WeWork. So, despite all the WeWork craziness, I’ll always indebted to them.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, at that WeWork office, I met someone who worked for an agency that got their start in radio buys, and then were doing podcasts, and was just starting to do YouTube. So, I gave them advice. I was like, “Hey, don’t look at subscriber number. Look at average video views.” So, there was some trust built.

 

Dan Levitt:

And I said, “Hey, my buddy has a channel. Let’s do a test with him.” So, I negotiated a rate that I thought was fair, that Mat and I were really happy with. That video went up on a Thursday night, and Friday morning, I get a call from that person. “Hey, Dan, we have three brands that want to book three videos each with Mat.” And I was like, “Great.”

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I negotiated the percentage with Mat. And then it was like, “Whoa, I just booked basically 10 videos for him. I’m making a pretty nice commission going back and forth.” I was like, “This is great but it’s weird. Why are these only direct response companies? Why aren’t the video game publishers sponsoring him?”

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I went to Mat and I said, “Hey, let’s make this official. I think there’s something here. Let me start reaching out to video game publishers and trying to build those relationships.” So, he’s like, “Cool, let’s do it.” Again, the money that I had just booked him in a very short amount of time was extremely meaningful because he was just getting ad revenue.

 

Dan Levitt:

But the amounts we were bringing from these brand deals were a multiple of that, based on a per-video basis.

 

Chris Erwin:

And you’re seeing that the commissions that you’re earning are probably multiples of what you were getting Big Frame salary.

 

Dan Levitt:

Oh yeah, so then I started doing cold outreach to video game publishers. And I start building deeper relationships at YouTube. There was a deal for Mat and I to go to Texas, and ride around in real Wold War II tanks because they were recording the sound of the tanks for the game.

 

Dan Levitt:

I looked at the deals and I was like, “The video game publishers are sponsoring these really flashy … ” Like DevinSuperTramp is a YouTuber who’s doing parkour and very cinematic stuff. He was getting all the video game deals and he didn’t necessarily have a gaming audience.

 

Dan Levitt:

But his content looked amazing. It still looks amazing. It was very flashy. He would do Assassin’s Creed doing parkour. So, I went to Mat and I said, “Your content’s amazing. Your content’s really smart and clever. We need a cool-shit format.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, while we were in Texas, we basically filmed a teaser for, essentially, a Myth Busters for gaming, right? Where, “Hey, you’ve played the game but what would it be like in real life?” Which is on brand for Mat. So, we filmed it. We filmed this teaser for it.

 

Dan Levitt:

We took that teaser, and I started sending it out to publishers and anyone that I knew. Actually, at Playlist, I met a guy who had the biggest agency for being brand deals at the time, probably still. And I was like, “Hey, I rep this great channel. You’ve never worked with them. Let’s fix that. What do you have coming up?”

 

Dan Levitt:

He’s like, “Oh, I have this new game coming out but we just committed all our budget to it.” So, I went to Mat and I said, “Hey, you’re going to cover this game anyways, right?” He’s like, “Yeah.” I said, “How about this, let’s do this video for free for them. You’re going to do it anyways. I want them to see how much better your stuff performs than all the stuff they’re paying for.

 

Dan Levitt:

“And then they’ll come back and they’ll be in the regular. You’ll be in the rotation for them.” So, we did exactly that. We gave them a free video. It got over two million views. I’ve probably done, with zero exaggeration, at least 500 deals with that agency across my roster. Probably more. And certainly, for Mat, we’re super close with those guys and we’ve done a ton of deals with them.

 

Chris Erwin:

Speaks to the long game, right? Do right by people. You’re not looking at, “Oh, I’m forgoing revenue for this one deal that we’re going to create a video for free.” You’re thinking about the next 5 to 10 years, and all the other talent that you want to sign, and you want to service. And it pays off in spades.

 

Dan Levitt:

I should’ve probably been thinking about all the other talent that I wanted to sign. But it was more so, at the moment, I was like, “Hey, Mat’s amazing. This is going well. Let’s see how far we can take this, right?” So, that same company actually was the one who convinced Ubisoft to have us do our first pilot of that format where Mat trained with real LA SWAT on how to do a hostage rescue.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, we made our normal margin and got to do this amazing Myth Buster-style video. And it was a departure for that. Because his content’s more voiceover, I recognized, “Hey, you need to be on camera. You need to be more of a face. There’d be a lot more opportunities if you’re more visually there.” So, we ended up doing that.

 

Dan Levitt:

It was hugely successful. It put him eyes of personality more so than just a voiceover. And we used that one and another pilot we did through a different Google initiative to sell that as a series to Google. So now, again, I’m still kind of green in my business. I’ve been doing it.

 

Dan Levitt:

It’s just me. Again, I was never more than a PA and now, I basically am an EP of a series for YouTube with my biggest client. And I basically have to make sure we’re executing his creative vision properly because this is a huge opportunity for him. He has to still run his channel as normal.

 

Chris Erwin:

Dan, before we get into the rapid fire to wrap this up, tell us, who is Long Haul Management today and where are you guys headed future vision?

 

Dan Levitt:

At this point, we represent a lot of the top creators at the intersection of gaming, and sports, and lifestyle, sneaker culture, streetwear, right? These are guys who are playing NBA 2K, playing Madden, and then Fortnite, and whatever the hot game is of the day. But they’re also doing IRL basketball, or sports, or challenges.

 

Dan Levitt:

And interested in commerce, be it sneaker culture, streetwear. Our job is to help people who’ve built a big following turn it into a diversified media business. So, obviously they’re making ad revenue, but what else? So, a lot of our time is spent doing transactional one-off brand deals more and more.

 

Dan Levitt:

We try to make those more longer more meaningful partnerships. That’s been something we’ve had a lot of success with recently. Getting hosting opportunities for our clients, voiceover work, helping them build out merch and product lines, and figuring out ways for … The ad revenue and the brand deals are great, but what else?

 

Dan Levitt:

And figuring out which ones. There’s a lot of people who go and they just launch things. We try to be really specific about, “Hey … ” Every question starts with, what’s the value proposition for the audience, right? So, if we don’t have that figured out, we don’t do it.

 

Chris Erwin:

All right, and just one final question before getting into the rapid fire. You brought this up when we were prepping for the interview. But I think this is a good learning of the audience of doing things on your own terms. Give that quick spiel.

 

Dan Levitt:

I went off on my own. I’ve had my own management company since 2013. It’s not the biggest. We haven’t scaled. Still a really small team that does just a ton of volume. And especially this past year, I’m one of the handful of few independent gaming managers.

 

Dan Levitt:

For years, I’ve had a diverse roster of creators. So, the past year, I’ve had at least a dozen or so companies want to acquire or hire me. And I’ve run it really conservatively. In my experience, most partnerships that I’ve done on the business side, if you get a quarter of what’s promised, that’s a win.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, I’m always really skeptical of any partnership. And also, I’ve done things a bit untraditionally. My first hire is my wife now. We were dating before. I needed someone. She wanted to move in. And my sister works for me. People joke about the meme of a family business but for me it is.

 

Dan Levitt:

And it’s been great. It’s not without its challenges. But I want to work with people that I really like and trust. Now, there’s people that we’ve hired on that aren’t directly connected to me that way. But I’ve seen a lot of people get into partnerships that they weren’t happy with. And it’s really hard to get out of.

 

Dan Levitt:

So, for me personally, I work a lot, I work hard, but I make a fantastic living doing what I want on my own terms. If I have a talent that’s being really problematic, I can drop them and I don’t have to answer to anyone. I have the scale. Also, I’ve been doing this so fucking long, you’re not going to surprise me, hopefully, right?

 

Dan Levitt:

I came from the music business, right? I’ve seen some shady shit. So, there’s all kinds of times where, “Hey, this company wants to get into partnership with me.” I tell my clients, “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to come in. I’m going to push back on these things. This company’s probably going to go to you and say that I’m blowing the deal for you and say that I’m mismanaging you.”

 

Dan Levitt:

And when they do, they show their cards that they’re untrustworthy and that you probably shouldn’t be doing business with them. That shit happened two weeks ago. Hopefully, I have enough experience where you’re not going to slip one past me. But more so, I make enough money now. I want to work with people that I fuck with that are cool.

 

Dan Levitt:

We talk about a P&L. My business is really profitable and really lean. I don’t have to stress about it. I don’t do projections. I don’t have a number that I have to hit. I probably should’ve scaled this, especially for our five years ago when gaming wasn’t as competitive.

 

Dan Levitt:

But I’ve done it on my own speed and it’s worked for me. When COVID hit and everything paused, I was fine. I wasn’t worried. We’ve gone through similar stuff with the apocalypse and stuff. Things will dry up for a little bit but we’ll be fine. I didn’t cut anyone’s salary. We were good. I don’t need to be a billionaire to be happy.

 

Chris Erwin:

You have what you want and you have what you need.

 

Dan Levitt:

Yeah. I mean, I need a couple more bodies to handle the grind. The other thing, I have my first kid in a couple months. I want to be able to step back a little bit. So, I need a bigger team for that. I don’t want to be executing brand deal when I’m 70, right?

 

Dan Levitt:

But I’ve never raised any money. The whole company is me. I’ve been fortunate that there’s a few things I did in the past that have really been lucrative for me, and have enabled me to use that money to fuel the staffing and the growth. But it’s a lean profitable shop and that’s fine.

 

Dan Levitt:

I don’t need to make $20 million a year. But if someone wants to pay me that, to be explicitly clear, I will sell for that amount.

 

Chris Erwin:

Based on how your business is growing, maybe it will get there. All right, I’m going to close it out with this. I want to give you some kudo, Dan, because I remember when Jason and I were making the decision that we were going to part ways with you back at Big Frame, right?

 

Chris Erwin:

This is May 2013. I remember just we were asking ourselves, “God, he’s got this fire, this energy, this love for the music industry and music creators. But these things that are fundamentals of the business, they just seem to not be clicking.” And we kept thinking, “Is he going to get there? Is he not going to get there?”

 

Chris Erwin:

I think, at the moment, it was like, “Okay, we just have to part ways.” Watching you over the past decade, Dan, the business owner and the operator that you have become, how much trust that you have created with doing incredible deals for your brand partners, recruiting talent to your roster, putting a lot of money in their pocket, as well as into your pocket as well, it’s been a beautiful thing to observe.

 

Chris Erwin:

And I’ve learned an incredible amount from you. It’s very touching because we were in the early days of this whole digital video game. And it was very unclear where we were going to come out. And I think that you’ve come out totally on top. It’s beautiful. You inspire me. So, I give you so many accolades and kudos. Job well done.

 

Dan Levitt:

Thanks, man. I appreciate that. I do. But also, even though I’ve had a fair amount of success, there’s times where I doubt myself too, like, “Fuck, I was one of the first managers in gaming. If I would’ve dialed this thing up to 11, years ago, I would’ve had … ”

 

Dan Levitt:

I saw the twist thing happening and I chose, “Hey, I’m going to stay in my YouTube lane.” I could have chosen to be like, “Hey, this is an opportunity. I need to play in that space. Let me grow. Let me maybe not be so conservative and be a bit more aggressive.”

 

Dan Levitt:

Even though I’ve had success, there’s still times where I’m like, “Hey, I could’ve done more.” But I found, at least in my career, there’s always going to someone who has a bigger business especially in this space. There’s always going to someone who has the hot talent of the day and that’s fine.

 

Dan Levitt:

I don’t need to rep everyone. And I’m happy just having my own shop. There’s a lot of other managers in the press, beating their chest every time they do a brand deal. That’s not me. I’m old school. The talent should get the glory. But I obviously appreciate the kudos from you.

 

Dan Levitt:

But I think, for people out there who have a business or are thinking of doing it. You don’t need to have the biggest business to be happy. Honestly, the people that I know that are that insanely driven are not happy people. But I think there’s a lot to be said about …

 

Dan Levitt:

Look, I work really hard. I fight like a motherfucker for my talent. But at the end of the day, I still see my family and I’m able to help run the business for our future and our clients’ future.

 

Chris Erwin:

So, Dan, rapid fire. Here are the rules. I’m going to ask you six questions. These are short answers. No more than a sentence. Even a couple words is great. Do you understand the rules?

 

Dan Levitt:

Yes.

 

Chris Erwin:

Great. So, let’s power through these. Proudest life moment?

 

Dan Levitt:

That would probably be the Game Lab premier with MatPat.

 

Chris Erwin:

Awesome. What do you want to do less of for the rest of 2021?

 

Dan Levitt:

Review contracts.

 

Chris Erwin:

Okay. What do you want to do more of?

 

Dan Levitt:

See my friends. Play basketball.

 

Chris Erwin:

Got it. What one to two things, think of descriptor words, drive your success?

 

Dan Levitt:

Tenacity. Never working for retail again.

 

Chris Erwin:

Got it. Last three. Key advice for media execs going into the new year?

 

Dan Levitt:

Follow through is everything. A lot of people take meetings. It’s fun to take meetings. What’s not fun is actually doing the next steps and the follow-up emails. That’s part of why I’ve done well is I do those.

 

Chris Erwin:

I like that. Well said. Any future startup ambitions?

 

Dan Levitt:

There’s stuff I want to do.

 

Chris Erwin:

Can you tease an idea?

 

Dan Levitt:

No.

 

Chris Erwin:

Okay. We’ll save that for the next podcast. Dan, here’s an easy one. How can people get in contact with you?

 

Dan Levitt:

I’m on the Twitter @danlevitt or they can hit me up on LinkedIn. If they email me, I might not get to it for a bit. But business@LongHaulmgmt.com. If you make through the filter, I will read it.

 

Chris Erwin:

Awesome. Dan, this was a real delight. Definitely blast from the past. Thanks for being on the show.

 

Dan Levitt:

Chris, I listen to every one of these. I’m so excited. I mean, I’m a bit hurt that Chaz was asked first, but I’m happy that we got to do this.

 

Chris Erwin:

Well, you know what? Look at Chaz as, I wanted to warm up before the real big gun came in, which was you.

 

Dan Levitt:

Exactly. Yeah, he’s the opener for sure.

 

Chris Erwin:

All right, til next time.

 

Dan Levitt:

Thanks, buddy. Later.

 

Chris Erwin:

The interview was just so much fun. Dan was one of the first people I ever met in digital. And it was just such a delight to go down memory lane with him. The memories of interviewing him, his shiny suits, all of our office shenanigans. And just seeing his digital career blossom, it really puts a big smile on my face.

 

Chris Erwin:

All right, lastly, we have a new podcast. It’s called the RockWater Roundup. We break down industry news in under 15 minutes. So, me and my colleague, Andrew Cohen, we talk about many topics, like the explosion in kids’ screen time, and new kids’ business models, the rise of the audio wars, creator competitions, like the Paul, Mayweather fight, and so much more. Go check it out at rounduppodcast.com. All right, that’s it, everybody. Thanks for listening.

 

Chris Erwin:

The Come Up is written and hosted by me, Chris Erwin, and is a production of RockWater Industries. Please rate and review this show on Apple Podcasts. And remember to subscribe wherever you listen to our show. And if you really dig us, feel free to forward The Come Up to a friend.

You can sign up for our company newsletter at wearerockwater.com/newsletter. And you could follow us on Twitter @TCUpod. The Come Up is engineered by Daniel Tureck. Music is by Devon Bryant. Logo and branding is by Kevin Zazzali. Special thanks to Andrew Cohen and Mike Booth from the RockWater team.

 

Ping us anytime at hello@wearerockwater.com. We love to hear from our readers.

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