This story spotlights the executives of the year of Billboard’s 2021 R&B/Hip-Hop Power Players list. Read the list in full here.
In late June, as the temperature warmed and COVID-19 vaccination rates rose, a sense of normalcy started to return to the world. Restaurant patios overflowed; nightclub lines wrapped around the block; festival and tour announcements flooded social media. And yet still, the pandemic’s top virtual entertainment series made headlines when, on June 26, Soulja Boy and Bow Wow went head-to-head in a Verzuz battle.
Over 3 million viewers tuned in across Instagram, Fite TV and Triller to watch the two face off in front of a live audience — the latest sign that as fans return to in-person concerts, Verzuz isn’t going anywhere. Since its inception in March 2020, the battle series created by multihyphenates Swizz Beatz and Timbaland has become a cultural staple, highlighting the impact of Black artists. It also has become a thriving business, attracting brand sponsorships, including a multimillion-dollar deal with Diageo, parent company of Cîroc. Swizz says that allows Verzuz to pay artists “at least” what they would make from doing a traditional show — and in the process help redefine how legacy acts can build wealth. In March, Verzuz was acquired by the Triller Network for an undisclosed sum, and Triller co-owner Bobby Sarnevesht confirms that come the fourth quarter, it plans to take the company public. “Verzuz is not just for the pandemic,” says Swizz. “It’s for the culture.”
Speaking today from their respective home bases — Swizz in San Diego, Tim across the country in Miami — the two founders look more like the behind-the-scenes creatives they started out as than high-powered media executives. Before becoming business partners, they were friends and competitors; Verzuz was born out of their own good-natured onstage battles. Today, Tim has his phone propped up in a recording studio, and Swizz wears a simple T-shirt and hat. “Daddy daycare Mondays,” jokes the father of five.
“We’ve only seen each other [four] times since Verzuz started,” says Swizz. But as is usually the case for the two these days, those were largely business meetings: signing their contract with Triller; a Peloton-Verzuz commercial shoot; their own Verzuz rematch (their first battle kicked off the entire series) — and, naturally, a boat hangout with Busta Rhymes and Pharrell Williams.
Reflecting on their wins as executives, the pair repeatedly return to one lasting achievement: the career boosts artists experience following their Verzuz appearances, known as “the Verzuz effect.” Take last August’s face-off between Brandy and Monica, who gracefully delivered some of the most notable songs from their catalogs 23 years after their chart-topping duet, “The Boy Is Mine.” The episode attracted 1.2 million viewers on Instagram Live alone — the equivalent of filling Madison Square Garden 57 times — making it the second most-streamed IG Live event of 2020. Within 72 hours, the two scored a combined 21.9 million U.S. on-demand catalog streams, according to MRC Data, a 248% gain from the three days leading up to the stream.
They aren’t alone. Verzuz has become a crucial platform for legacy acts, ensuring they get their flowers — both financial and cultural — while they’re still active. “Verzuz is a platform of celebration and love, and it makes people remember,” says Tim. “It allows these legacy artists to do other things.” Since their April appearance with soul legends Earth, Wind & Fire, The Isley Brothers have gone on to tour, explore NFTs and a “docu-concert,” and release a single with Snoop Dogg. In the week following their Verzuz appearance, R&B artists Keyshia Cole and Ashanti scored more sales, downloads and over 23 million combined streams.
“The Verzuz effect was a great promotion tool for them to take things to the next level,” says Swizz. “What we do is put you right in front of everybody.” And the Verzuz founders have done that for their artists in another monumental way: They’ve given all 46 artists who participated (preceding the Triller deal) a portion of their equity stake. “Me and Tim wanted to give the artists a little piece of the pie,” says Swizz. “Was it the biggest piece? No, but it was a little piece when all these other companies ain’t giving no pieces.”
Iranian American entrepreneur Sarnevesht clearly recalls his first hangouts with Swizz at the height of last year’s nationwide racial justice protests. The two men would look down at the marches 40 floors below Sarnevesht’s Beverly Hills, Calif., apartment, thinking about how “we have these platforms and we could probably tell some [positive] stories,” says Sarnevesht. “Because granted, everything is bad. But there’s a lot of beauty out there too, that we always forget.”
At the time, Verzuz had entered partnerships with Apple, Instagram and Twitter without intent to sell. Soon, though, prospective buyers began making offers, from companies including Apple and, ultimately, Triller. (Swizz and Tim decline to quantify them, but Triller won out, with a bid reportedly higher than Apple’s.) Sarnevesht’s pitch was, as he recalls, simple: “We’re cool with all those people [at the major platforms], but Apple is Apple and Facebook is Facebook. Not going to do anything for you guys, not going to do anything for us. Let’s do our own thing.”
Swizz and Tim’s arrangement with Triller also allowed them one key freedom other companies had not offered: bringing their first 46 Verzuz acts into the deal. As Sarnevesht says, that now makes the majority of Triller investors Black — a point Swizz and Tim also emphasize to any critics who say they’ve sold out. “Black-owned don’t mean ‘own 100% of nothing.’ Black-owned means that you can do business,” says Swizz. “We have ownership in [Triller], which makes that company Black-owned, and the people we brought in make that company majority Black.”
The deal also allows Swizz and Tim to maintain creative control. “One thing we put in the contract was to protect the brand, protect the artists, protect ourselves and protect the integrity,” says Swizz. “Even though we did the deal with Triller, we still run Verzuz. We can’t feel the transition, and the people can’t feel a transition. All they can feel is the quality going up.”
Going forward, he and Tim plan to expand beyond the mainly hip-hop and R&B artists with whom Verzuz built its reputation, with Bollywood and Latin battles in the works, as well as one featuring Nigerian artists. Sarnevesht sees Verzuz becoming more of a full-scale production (with DJ hosts, amateur openers and a recurring weekly time slot) and, already, a showdown between New York hip-hop mainstays The Lox and Dipset is planned at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater on Aug. 3 — preceded by a 10-round heavyweight boxing match.
“These guys work at night because music production is a late-night business. When they wake up in the morning, they’re executives,” Sarnevesht says of Tim and Swizz. “These aren’t bulls–t job titles. I thought they were just going to chill and get involved every once in a while, and I was very, very wrong.”
Tim and Swizz know that work won’t end anytime soon — and they wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s going to take the artists to save the artists, it’s going to take the artists to celebrate the artists, it’s going to take the artists to change what we don’t like as artists,” says Swizz. “The executive side is what really makes the creative fly.”
“All my career has built me up for this moment,” says Timbaland. “We were built for this.”