Keatly Haldeman, Riptide Music Group 11th May 2021

Keatly Haldeman x Andre Benz: The past, present and future of Trap Nation

With 30 million subscribers and more than 12 billion views, Trap Nation is one of the most successful music curation channels on YouTube. Today, it is the flagship of a genre-spanning group of channels called The Nations. Founder Andre Benz spoke with Riptide CEO Keatly Haldeman about his journey so far, his take on the music biz as an outsider, and his ambitions for the future.

The world of music curation has exploded since the dawn of streaming. Just as artists are able to produce, promote and distribute their music with little more than a laptop in 2021, music fans can create tastemaker brands with more clout than most mainstream media from their bedroom.

In fact, that’s exactly what Andre Benz did when he was 15 years old.

Disillusioned with high school, and dreading the rest of the well-trodden academic path that still lay before him, Benz made sure that any free time he did have was spent doing things he was passionate about – namely, programming, web design and trap music.

He created the Trap Nation YouTube channel in 2012. Back then, it was called All Trap Nation and Benz’ idea was no more complicated than to find unheard trap songs he liked on Soundcloud or YouTube and share them with the world.

Today, Trap Nation has 30 million subscribers and more than 12 billion views. It’s the flagship channel of a network known as The Nations – the largest independent music-curation network on YouTube, which includes similar channels for Latin, bass, house, indie, R&B, rap and chill music, as well as a label called Lowly.

According to Benz, The Nations channels have had a hand in breaking artists like Marshmello, The Chainsmokers, Diplo, Blackbear, Lauv, and many more.

I recently sat down with Benz for my Happy Hour YouTube series of music business interviews…

KH: Did you have a plan? Were you just a fan of trap music and wanted to share your tastes with people or was there a goal of building a business?

AB: No goal. It was just one of those things where I was in the right place, at the right time, I guess. But I also had a strong passion for doing anything outside of school. I remember sitting in English class in 9th grade, going over Shakespeare and I had no idea what it was about. I was sitting there thinking, ‘I’ve got to find something to do because I’ve got three years left sitting in this school. If I go to college, I’ve got four years left.’ I couldn’t fathom how long that was in my mind as a 15-year-old, so I was just really passionate about doing other things outside of school.

Me and my friends would share music. I wasn’t into classic rock, alternative rock or any of the genres that have been around for a long time, I was a hardcore EDM fan. The first artist I ever listened to, when I was nine, was Daft Punk, so it comes from a really young age. My parents listen to that kind of music as well.

Andre Benz (Founder, The Nations, Lowly) | Happy Hour With Keatly Haldeman

KH: How did start getting an audience? Was it all organic or did you start doing some advertising or networking with other channels?

AB: It was all organic. I didn’t really understand the concept of networking at that age. There were a lot of channels that I made friends with. My friend Andrei who runs Elysian Records, he was running a channel back then called SuperBeats; my friend Stan, who now runs a label called Tribal Trap, was still running his channel back then.

KH: From what I can see, Trap Nation is the top English language, multi-artist channel on YouTube. There are individual artist channels that have more subscribers, but I don’t see any other music channel that releases various artists that are bigger than you. It’s really amazing. And it’s more amazing that it’s trap music – a micro sub-genre of EDM, not even EDM as a whole. Why do you think that very specific genre has been able to get the level of success and popularity that it has?

AB: The easy answer is that it’s just melded into pop over time. A lot of large pop songs, like Katy Perry’s Dark Horse, or a lot of Iggy Azaela’s songs are trap songs. Trap comes from the 1980s, from different areas of the United States, but it’s more hip hop orientated. It’s been around. I think it just took some time for it to become involved in the pop/electronic sphere.

The smarter answer is EDM just does better on digital platforms like YouTube and Twitch compared to genres like rock. I’m sure hip hop does better on YouTube but, during that time of 2012 – 2014, I think the culture on YouTube was different. It was more orientated to the gaming culture. Because the channel was uploading electronic music, which is more closely correlated to gaming culture than any other music genre, it prospered.

KH: EDM trap has changed over time. It used to be more aggressive, ‘beast mode’ and hip hop orientated. It’s become more melodic and pop orientated. Do you feel like you’ve helped to move trap music along?

AB: I think we were definitely at the forefront of bringing exposure to the genre, which is always great. Most hardcore trap fans hate people like myself because we ‘made it mainstream’, which is complete bullshit, in my opinion. I think trap music is at a point where it went through its super spike, hit a plateau, went down and now the die-hard, core fans that have been there since the start are creating strong micro communities. There’s still great trap music coming out and it’s got a hardcore fanbase, it’s just that it’s gone through that big wave and now it’s at this standstill. It’s probably growing again but it’s definitely not the same as what it used to be.

"The goal of the business was making sure that we always kill the game when it comes to YouTube. That’s our core following."

KH: You mentioned Twitch, and there are lots of other platforms out there now such as TikTok and Triller. Does The Nations have profiles there or is it all about growing and maintaining on YouTube?

AB: When I was growing it, the goal of the business was making sure that, no matter what we do, we always kill the game when it comes to YouTube because that’s our core following. I didn’t want to expand the business too quickly and then all of a sudden find we’re not even focusing on our main platform. That scared me because I’ve seen other companies do it. I didn’t want to be like that. YouTube is always our main focus, and then we branch off onto other platforms depending on how much value we can bring to them or they can bring to us.

We were actually very early adopters on TikTok, when it was Our philosophy was if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Our channel was growing very fast on YouTube so we thought, ‘Why don’t we just take the same model?’ It was a music-based platform so we thought it was a no-brainer. We were the first curation brand on there to break a million followers within a few months. We grew so quickly, mostly because those followers are very similar to the YouTube followers, I believe.

KH: Did you do any cross-marketing on that?

AB: No. We don’t usually market other platforms. We believe that if we provide a really high-quality product on another platform people will follow us.

We stopped because died for a minute, then it got bought and became TikTok. Now there are people actually making a living off this app so we’re revisiting, a bit late, and trying to find a proprietary method of uploading content or creating some sort of product offering within TikTok that’s unique – rather than just uploading our videos or curating songs. We want to make it more engaging. I won’t go into detail because we haven’t started that yet – we have a full team ready to go and we’re developing content.

In terms of other platforms, I try to value the time of our company as much as I can. I don’t want to develop our brand on another platform that may not bring value. With Triller, their demographic is similar to ours but it’s mostly hip hop based. I don’t understand the hip hop culture that well. I’m sure if I spent a year on it and tried to dive into it I could, but it’s not my main focus. We know Triller’s team really well, and they’re really great people, we just don’t see a true partnership that makes sense for both of our brands. Maybe it makes more sense for them because they want to take our demographic and build it on their app, but we’d rather do that with an app that makes more sense.

KH: Doesn’t it make sense to just pull over Rap Nation?

AB: It does, and that’s what we’re trying to do now, but we’re about to revamp Rap Nation to be a different kind of brand within The Nations, because I think it was undervalued for a while – and I take full responsibility for that. In the last few months, we’ve tried to find a team that understands the hip hop culture and the fans behind it, that can build that brand for us. I think once it starts getting up to speed, curating quality content for the hip hop culture, we’ll start doing stuff with Triller or whatever makes sense for that specific channel.

KH: You mentioned the connection with the gaming community. Twitch is very focused on that so I guess that’s a natural expansion…

AB: Twitch is one of those things where we want to be able to provide something that other channels can’t, and sometimes it doesn’t come easy for us. Because Twitch is a streaming platform, our first thought is, ‘What if we do a 24/7 livestream?’ which is what we’re doing now. It doesn’t seem like people really care for it, and I think that’s because the main demographic [on Twitch] is people going to watch content from streamers and content creators – not really to listen to music. If they want to listen to music, they’ll go to Spotify or YouTube.

People have asked me why we don’t have a Twitch account millions of times. On paper, it sounds great to have something on every different social media platform, but you have to remember how much time it would take to actually develop a plan. Is that plan A+ or is it C-? If it’s C-, do you want to associate you’re A+ brand with a C- on another platform?

I’m not a huge believer in ‘being first’. I believe it’s valuable but I don’t believe it’s as important as providing the best possible product out there compared to any other competition. I think that’s been proven time after time.

"A lot of content creators don’t understand proper music licensing. It’s not their fault. To be fair, 80% of the music industry doesn’t understand music licensing."

KH: How have you been able to connect with the gaming community?

AB: I come from playing video games, so it’s very easy for me to talk to streamers and other content creators. It wasn’t about pitching them the product of Trap Nation because, back then, I didn’t really look at it as a product – now I do because I’m trying to scale it that way. Back then, I would go to gamers and say, ‘I’d like to help you out with music licensing.’ Just things that I know people in different businesses don’t understand that well. Still today, a lot of content creators and gamers don’t understand proper music licensing. It’s not their fault. To be fair, 80% of the music industry doesn’t understand music licensing.

Especially in 2014/2015, YouTube was in a weird place where it didn’t have the best relationships with the major labels yet, DMCA strikes were flying left and right. For people like us coming into that sphere and somehow managing relationships with Warner, Sony and Universal was crazy. Why would some video game streamer like Dr Disrespect go and manage a relationship with, say, John Jannick at Interscope? For someone to be able to come in and try and be a middle man in that definitely helped some of those people. I’m a firm believer that if you can add value to someone’s life, that relationship will just develop.

Now we make gaming mixes, we provide royalty-free music for content creators to use… We’re getting to a point where we want to create some sort of platform that makes music licensing seamless, affordable and transparent to understand. [When it comes to] a lot of the websites that content creators and gamers do get their music from, they still don’t know how licensing works because it’s complicated. I think if we were able to create a platform under the banner of The Nations, and we have a label as well so we can put that catalogue into that platform, it would do pretty well and a lot of gamers and content creators would find value in that.

KH: Of course there’s the gaming side, but then there are also other YouTube creators that have the same issue. We got a song on Dude Perfect recently. They don’t pay a license fee for that but you can see the metrics. There’s a massive spike and an audience for the song that spills into the rest of the catalogue. That’s really interesting, to be able to get into that space, so if there’s a way to broker that, it’s good for the community as a whole…

AB: The value that some of these content creators bring to artists, songs and the life of songs is exponential. No shade to Jai Wolf, but he has a touring career off of Indian Summer. He became who he is based on that one single. It was used everywhere – GoPro, Apple – it’s known as the go-to song for anything summer/action/sport related now.

KH: When did you realise that this was a business for you?

I didn’t come from a wealthy background. I never saw money first hand but my parents taught me how to manage it well. When I was 15 or 16, money was always in the back of my head. I was thinking about what college path was going to give me the best career. When the channel started earning money, when I was 16 or 17, it was only a few hundred dollars a month. My standpoint was, ‘Is this something that could remove the next four years of college for me? Can I make a good living off this?’ If you’re earning around $70,000, I think you can live pretty comfortably. That was my mindset.

Later down the line, the channel started to pick up speed pretty quickly. $100 went to $1,000, then to $10,000. With my parents coming from a blue-collar background, their 17-year-old son making $10,000 a month was fucking insane!

In the last year of high school, I was earning enough to hire one or two people. I saved a lot of money and thought that, if it kept scaling, it made no sense for me to go to college. So I devoted the last year of high school to growing this channel and brand as much as possible – by that time it was four or five channels, it wasn’t just Trap Nation. Each of the different channels was earning money too, so it was scaling well.

By the end of senior year, I was making enough to think I definitely shouldn’t go to college, I should pursue this.

I used to wake up at 4am every morning before school just to work on my channel. I’d go to school at 9am, sleep in most of my classes, come home and work on it again. Then, without that six-hour time period of schooling taken out of my life, I had an extra six hours to grow the business.

I moved to Los Angeles at 19 and that’s when I really started to take it seriously. I looked into getting all the people on my team that I needed to make a success of it. I’m 23 now.

"I don’t want people to remember Lowly as just an EDM label. I think in five or ten years we’ll be seen as a multi-genre label."

KH: Talk to me about the label, Lowly Palace. How did that happen and where’s it going?

AB: We started Lowly Palace about four years ago – it’s now just called Lowly. When Trap Nation was growing, I wanted to create a business that had IP – because, from a business standpoint, I think it’s really important that you own something, otherwise it can just vanish over time. I also wanted to create a new business and put my taste and creative behind it.

Once a business has built a fanbase, there’s only so much that you can do to alter that brand. When Trap Nation started to do well, I couldn’t do as much as I wanted with the brand anymore, and obviously as you get older your tastes mature. I was left feeling… not unaccomplished, but that I wanted to do more. I wanted to build something that had branding or music taste outside of Trap Nation. That was my take on Lowly Palace. I wanted to create a label that I could build a different sound behind but also use The Nation’s network to build.

I watched a lot of artists grow and get a good kick off [Trap Nation], like Illenium or Marshmello, and I didn’t have a stake in their careers. Not to say I should have had a stake in them, but I think if I at least had an opportunity to [have a stake in artists’ careers] maybe we could have built a much bigger or better business.

We wanted to create a label that offered 50/50, artist-friendly deals, short license periods… something that offered services for the electronic genre. Now it’s every genre but, in the beginning, it was mostly EDM. There are a lot of young kids in EDM that don’t understand the label business. I wanted to create something that could assist people in that world and sign people that I truly felt had potential.

Now my taste isn’t just EDM. We’re signing a lot of rock artists, indie, great veteran pop artists… We’re substantially growing the catalogue outside of EDM because I don’t want to be pigeon-holed and I certainly don’t want people to remember Lowly as just an EDM label. Obviously it still is [an EDM label] because we’re associated with The Nations, but I think in five or ten years we’ll be seen as a multi-genre label.

KH: But if you’re doing those kinds of deals, then you’re not actually building IP that you own…

AB: Correct, it’s short-term IP that [we] own. My thought process with that was, if I can get a 10-year license on some of these songs, their lifespan is probably only two or three years anyway in terms of the records that we’re signing. In 10 years, if your business isn’t successful off of all those songs that you’ve signed and you’re leveraging income from over that time, you’re doing something wrong.

So we’re going to use those songs to build the business, but we’re not going to own them forever. Then, later down the line, when those licenses expire, hopefully we’ll have a large catalogue that is expiring over time. In 15 years, I’ll be 38 and we’ll probably have 10,0000 more songs that have another 10 or 15 year license.

Riptide Music Group

Founded in 2000 as a sync-focused independent publisher, Riptide has become a leader in 21st century rights management. Through our proactive creative efforts, we have generated over $50 million in fees for our clients. With our partner, Sentric, we collect royalties worldwide efficiently, quickly, and transparently.