GUY RAZ, HOST:
So what happened to the business?
TROY CARTER: It was over. You know, I didn't have the cash flow. And the phone started ringing. And it was the landlord of that building saying, you know what, rent hasn't been paid. You know, all of my vendors, you know, started calling me. My house was under foreclosure. And my wife and my mother-in-law ended up pawning their wedding rings to, you know, to save the house.
CARTER: You know, and with me, you know, I never, you know, considered suicide but I know why people do.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built.
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RAZ: I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show, how Troy Carter went from the rough streets of West Philly to launching the career of one of the biggest pop stars in the world - Lady Gaga.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: So it usually takes a bit of instincts, some failure and a lot of luck to figure out what customers are going to want to buy. Seth Goldman? He figured a lot of people would want a barely sweetened ice tea. And with Honest Tea, he turned out to be right. Herb Kelleher? He thought people wanted cheap flights with no frills and, well, we got Southwest.
But for Troy Carter, it wasn't just that he thought Lady Gaga would be huge. It's that he had no choice because at the time he met her - and this is just 10 years ago - he had lost all of his money. He was totally broke. But somehow over the next few years, Troy essentially built a company. You could call it Lady Gaga Inc, a sprawling empire of writers, dancers, choreographers, costume artists, roadies, musicians, producers, engineers, marketers, publicists, you get the idea.
And Troy built that without any family connections or money or formal training. In fact, much to his mother's disappointment, Troy dropped out of his high school in West Philadelphia in 1990 to pursue a dream. And that dream was to become a rapper.
CARTER: We had this idea that we were going to be this rap group, you know, called 2 Too Many. And it was me and two of my best friends.
CARTER: And we called ourselves 2 Too Many because it was - we only had enough money for one of us, so it was always two too many of us. And my best friends said if we ever meet Will Smith or Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince, they're going to give us a record deal, so that we had this sole focus and sole purpose of meeting Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince.
RAZ: Because those were the guys from Philadelphia.
CARTER: They were the only guys from Philadelphia.
CARTER: They were they were from our neighborhood. They were successful. They were like gods in Philly. And they were the way out. That was plan A, B and C.
RAZ: So did you meet them?
CARTER: Yes. We actually hopped the train. And, you know, we didn't have money so we just would, you know, wait for the train to pull up then jump over the turnstile and take the train down to Delaware Avenue. And we knew Jazzy Jeff had a recording studio there. And we just would wait outside of the recording studio. And I think we did that for almost six months.
And Jeff used to see us outside but would never let us in. I think he thought we were like stalkers or something. And then one day we saw some friends in the studio that let us in. Will Smith and - just happened to be in the studio. And we walked in and we played our demo tape.
RAZ: And he listened to it right in then and there?
CARTER: He listened to it. And we actually went outside. It was snowing. And we said, well, we want you to see us dance, too. So we actually started dancing in the snow. I think we quickly found out we sucked. But, you know, (laughter) Will saw some potential in us.
And he said, look, you know, how are you guys getting home? And we said we don't know. And he drove us home that night and basically told our parents that, you know, he had us covered. We were going to be OK.
RAZ: And what was the track you played for him? Do you remember how it goes?
CARTER: Oh, my God. It was pretty terrible. So I don't (laughter)...
RAZ: You have to give us some of it.
CARTER: It was a song called "Where's The Party?"
RAZ: How'd it go?
CARTER: Oh, I'm not telling you how it goes.
RAZ: You got to tell us how it goes.
CARTER: And actually, I shouldn't have even said the name because you'll go on Google now, so (laughter)...
RAZ: We're going to find it.
CARTER: I know you are.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE'S THE PARTY?")
2 TOO MANY: (Rapping) A disco ball dangling from the rafter trying to catch the hip-hop rapture. Girls to the left of me, girls to the right.
RAZ: It's not so bad.
CARTER: (Laughter) We thought it was really good. Will thought it had some potential. We put it out and it went double wood.
RAZ: So you made no money off that?
CARTER: We made zero, zero money. I probably still owe Will Smith money for that record.
RAZ: But you established a relationship with Will Smith, which was kind of a big deal, I guess?
CARTER: Yes. And, you know what, and Will has a partner still to this very day named James Lassiter. You know, he was in the studio that day we played the demo tape. And he was Jazzy Jeff's and Fresh Prince's manager. He actually got the job as their manager because he was the only guy in our neighborhood with a car.
And James had become this sort of mogul in the industry. And I wanted to be James. So in my soul, I wanted to be less Fresh Prince and more James. So I just kind of put myself under James. And James became my teacher.
RAZ: So you basically move away from being a performer at that point. And did James give you a job?
CARTER: Yes. James gave me a job. I had a few jobs within the camp but I was James's assistant. I was Jazzy Jeff's assistant. And I ended up moving out to LA and working with James and his production company with Will.
RAZ: How old are you, by the way, at the time?
CARTER: I was in my late teens, early 20s during sort of that transition period.
CARTER: And I was working at Will and James's production company. And I was having the time of my life and very hard headed, thought I knew everything. And I didn't have a car. I thought it was going to be like Philly, where you just can take the train everywhere. And in LA, everything's so separated. And I was taking his car service from the office to visit this girl probably two or three times a week or whatever but I would pay the bill after every two weeks.
So when I got my check, I would pay like the office manager and say, hey, the bill's going to come in, I got you covered or whatever. And one time I think I pissed the office manager off over something and she told James that I had been using his car service to visit this girl. And James came in and fired me and sent me back to Philly.
RAZ: Wow. So on the spot, that was it, you were done?
CARTER: Done. James basically, you know, he saw the route that I was going. And I was taking a lot of shortcuts. And I was kind of living this in LA fast life and...
CARTER: Sort of the stereotypical fake executive thing. You know, I thought I was much bigger than what I was at that particular time. And he kicked me out of LA, like he said you're going back home.
RAZ: So, like, you're in your early 20s, you lose your job and you - what? - you go back to Philly?
CARTER: Yeah, I went back to Philly sort of with my tail in between my legs. And my cousins in Philly had started a small management company and sort of a production company that they asked me to come in and run. And one of the clients was a girl that I met when she was 16, so she and I had known each other. And we started working together. And it was the rapper Eve.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CARTER: But I had absolutely no clue what I was doing.
CARTER: And, you know, it started off, you know, Eve had come to me. And she said look, you know, I need your help in, you know, in figuring this out. And at first, I was kind of helping her find a manager. Finally she said, look, I want you to do it. And, of course, I say yes and jumped at the opportunity. And I think initially the job was protecting my friend.
So instinctively the decisions that I was making was really about how do I protect her and make sure that, you know, she has the best possible chance to make it? And everything else was, you know, learning as I was going along. And, you know, I remember the first tour that we went on was this Cash Money-Ruff Ryders tour.
I got on the bus. And it was this old bus driver and, you know, scruffy beard. And he said, you got the float? I said, I'll be right back. And I, you know, I got off the bus. And I called one of my buddies who had done touring for a long time. And I said, dude, what's float? And he said it's the money that you give the bus driver for gas, tolls, fuel, you know, everything else or whatever.
So I got back on the bus and gave him the money and, you know, I said here's the float. And I sort of floated my way through the rest of - for the next three years, I kind of floated my way through, kind of figuring it out as I was going along.
RAZ: Yeah. I mean, what did you have to do as a manager for Eve, like, book shows? And, like, how did you even know how to do that or how to promote her brand and how to get her out into the world?
CARTER: You know what? The way it works is the manager's sort of, you know, is like the hub of an artist's career. So, you know, I go out and I hired a booking agent who books the shows. I hired a publicist who does interviews and television. I bring in the record label who distributes the music. So it's sort of like, you know, a CEO of Eve Inc, of her business.
RAZ: And that became a pretty big business.
CARTER: Yeah. She actually became one of the biggest female hip-hop stars of all time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO'S THAT GIRL?")
EVE: (Rapping) Who's that girl? Yo. Yo. Come on. Come on. Eve's that girl. Yo.
CARTER: And, you know, I was lucky enough to have the Fresh Prince blueprint, so to kind of understand that a rapper could do TV and a rapper could do, you know, things outside of their core business. And with Eve, we ended up building, you know, a clothing line, a television show.
She had gone on to do, you know, "Barbershop," you know, with Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer. So we ended up building something really special and something unique for a female rapper at that particular time.
RAZ: How did you know what to do? Like, I mean, negotiating is really, really, really, hard work, right? And you were so inexperienced at that time, like, how did you know what to negotiate and how to negotiate?
CARTER: You know what? I think a lot of it is, you know, is West Philly spidey (ph) senses. You know, so when you have to negotiate for survival and you have to know how to read rooms and you have to know who the bad guys in the rooms are, who has the gun in their pocket, who's just going to brandish it and who's going to actually pull the trigger.
So I think that's just a natural instinct that comes with coming from where I come from. So being able to take that tool into negotiations on reading people and reading rooms and reading circumstances I think is very, very important. And then also knowing what's important for that person on the other side of the table and what's important for the client.
CARTER: And a lot of times it's not conflicting, so both sides can kind of get what they want out of it.
RAZ: So, I mean, presumably at this point in your life, you're still a really young guy. Like, you're thinking, I'm set. I am - this is all, like, this is all unfolding exactly as I had hoped.
CARTER: Yeah. You know, I was on cloud nine because, you know, this is everything that I've ever dreamed. That's all I ever wanted to do in my life was music. And because I was a failed artist, I was actually able to help somebody accomplish their dream was, you know, definitely fulfilling. And then the trappings that came along with it as a young guy, I was loving it.
RAZ: Yeah. Were you making money at the time?
CARTER: I was making hood money. (Laughter) So I was like - I was ghetto rich at that particular time. So if you had, you know, the nicer house out of the 40 row homes on that side of the street, you were doing OK but by no means was I rich. You know, my goal was to make a thousand dollars a week. If I can make a thousand dollars a week, that was it for me. I was set. That was my goal.
RAZ: Yeah. What was the name of your company, by the way?
CARTER: It was called Erving Wonder.
RAZ: Erving Wonder, OK.
CARTER: And I did it out of Philly for five years. And then I sold that company in 2004.
RAZ: You sold it to another management company?
CARTER: Yeah. It was a big company in the U.K. called the Sanctuary Group. And so I sold it to the Sanctuary Group and then moved to LA to help them open up their LA offices.
RAZ: Why did you sell your management company that you built?
CARTER: The real reason was at that particular time it was the largest liquidity event that I would have experienced because...
RAZ: It was a lot of money basically.
CARTER: Yeah. I was hustling.
CARTER: You know, I was living check to check, you know, walking around venues with, you know, a backpack full of cash from venue to venue. So, you know, it was a complete lack of sophistication in the way we operated the business. And then the guys from Sanctuary, you know, they were managing Guns N' Roses and, you know, a bunch of huge rock acts. And they had just done a deal with Matthew Knowles, who was - who's Beyonce's dad and bought his company.
And he approached me and said look, this company can help you scale your business. They can help you grow your business, you know, in a way that you can't grow it internationally. And, you know, you don't have to live check to check. You have a young family. And he said look, this is going to take you to the next level. And I ended up doing it.
RAZ: What did they pay you?
CARTER: I can't tell you what they paid me.
RAZ: You can't, really? That NDA is long expired.
CARTER: They paid me more than I ever made, you know? But, you know, I'll tell you. It was a $2 million check.
CARTER: It was 2 - actually, the actual number was 2,275,000 was the actual number because I remember when the wire went through and I called and checked the automated bank machine about 10 times to make sure that the money was still there because I never had a million dollars in my bank account before.
I never had even close to it and, you know, in the bank at one time. And here it was. Now it's like OK, you know what, it's - this is very real. And I just - yeah, it was very real.
RAZ: So what was it like working for Sanctuary?
CARTER: I hated it.
CARTER: I hated it.
RAZ: What happened?
CARTER: You know, it was fantastic at first. And because, you know, I was so excited to, you know, to get the check, I completely overlooked all of the red flags.
RAZ: What were they?
CARTER: You know what? It just was certain things and certain behaviors that showed up during that period that I chose to ignore because I said I'm just going to take the check and I'll deal with that. And maybe he isn't such a bad guy. And maybe those - maybe they are ethical underneath some of the things that was happening during the negotiation. So coming in, I just didn't do the diligence on them that they were doing on me.
RAZ: So how long did you last there?
CARTER: You know what? Probably - I remember waking up and talking to my wife a couple times about buying the company back because I'm talking about, you know, me growing up loving music, worshipping, you know, Berry Gordys and all of these guys. And, like, this is my dream. And I didn't have a plan B. And this is all I wanted to do. And I was dreading getting up in the morning going to the office.
Like, I had knots in my stomach going in. And I would go into the office and I would pull my shades down. We had glass offices. And I would pull my shades down because I didn't want to work with people there. And about two years in - a year and a half in, it was over.
RAZ: And you were managing - you were still managing Eve at that point?
CARTER: Yes, I was managing Eve.
RAZ: Now when you left Sanctuary, you were still pretty much financially secure at that point, right?
CARTER: Yeah, I thought I was. I invested a lot of money back into the business - into this new business.
RAZ: The new business that you started after you left Sanctuary?
CARTER: After I left Sanctuary. So one of the things I realized was $2 million isn't actually two $2 million, you know?
RAZ: You got to pay taxes. And you got to - yeah.
CARTER: Exactly. You buy a house, you pay, you know, you pay taxes. You buy a couple new cars...
RAZ: And it's gone.
CARTER: It's gone. I invested - and I invested in this new business. And Eve was going with me, so I said you know what, I know exactly what we're doing. This is going to the next level. You know, did a build out on these beautiful offices on Wilshire Boulevard and started this new business.
RAZ: What happened to it?
CARTER: You know what? Eve walked in one day. You know, I think maybe I was probably about a year, maybe a year or two into the new business. So she came into my office. You know, she sat down on the couch. And she said, I think I want to go in another direction.
CARTER: And I said, well, what do you mean? She said, well, I think I'm going to find new management. I said, well, why? She said, well, I think I want to go to the next level. And I want to go with a manager who I think could get me to the next level. I said, well, are you thinking about anybody specifically? She said, yeah, I'm thinking about this guy Shakim (ph). I said Shakim? Shakim's my mentor and good friend. So she ended up signing with one of my good friends from management.
RAZ: Wow. And, I mean, she was like your - she was your ticket to making that new business successful, so...
CARTER: And even more, she wasn't even - she was my friend. And we - you know, really close. You know, she was there through, you know, girlfriends and through my wedding, through the, you know, birth of, you know, my kids and - it was a heartbreak, you know, number one, in terms of how it ended up happening. You know, and then the business was highly hedged on that success, with, you know, of her.
CARTER: You know, it was a single-client business pretty much at that time.
RAZ: So what happened to the business?
CARTER: It was over. This was, you know, this kind of bleeds into, you know, going into probably 2007, when, you know, I didn't have the cash flow. And my phone started ringing. And it was the landlord of that building saying you know what, rent hasn't been paid.
You know, all of my vendors, you know, started calling me. And then it kind of spilled into home. My house was under foreclosure. And my wife and my mother-in-law ended up pawning their wedding rings to, you know, to save the house.
CARTER: And even down to, you know, the kids were in private school. And having to tell, you know, the head of school, asking them to, you know, could you please keep the kids in school? You know, and I'm going to pay tuition. I just need a little bit of time. But, you know, scared that when I gave the waiter my credit card for a couple of bowls of oatmeal, that it was going to be declined.
CARTER: You know, so it was tough. And, you know, super humbling not just as an entrepreneur but as a dad.
CARTER: And, you know, and having to live through that really dark, dark, dark period.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CARTER: In hip-hop, it's a very small community. And it, you know, we had a couple of buddies who were like, you know, real executives in our business who had committed suicide, who were, you know, had successful careers and everything else or whatever. And, you know, and with me, I, you know, I never, you know, considered suicide but I know why people do.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Obviously, you had already demonstrated some talent by managing Eve and by all the promotional work you'd done. But in your mind, did you - were you able to say to yourself OK, I'm talented, I'm going to pull out of this, or were there moments where you just thought I'm doomed, like, I am not going to get out of this?
CARTER: No, you know what? It's - you can't fall off the floor. And I was on the floor, nowhere to go, right? And my mom, you know, she was a single mom. We grew up where a lot of times we had to choose between whether we were going to have a phone line in the house or electricity.
And I remember us being on the bed with a penny bank. And it was a bronze penny bank shaped like a pig. And she would stick a butter knife into the slot to get the coins to come out. And we would divide the coins up to get, you know, so me and my brother would have bus fare to get to school. So we grew up tough.
CARTER: My mom caught the bus every day to go to work and walk sometimes for 30 years straight. So my mom's work ethic and spirit is in my DNA.
CARTER: And I was always working to - I wanted to make my mom and my grandmother proud. That was always a big thing for me. And - I'm getting a little choked up. Sorry.
RAZ: It's OK.
CARTER: And, you know, I want to do that for my wife and family. And I think having somebody who has your back - knowing you got somebody who has your back like that...
CARTER: It's a big deal.
RAZ: So in the midst of this, like, really tough period, what happened? How did you turn the corner?
CARTER: Wow. A good buddy, Vincent Herbert, who's like this very jubilant guy. Vincent's like a character but he's super talented. You know, he was a child prodigy. He was like 16 or 17 producing records for Celine Dion and, you know, Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton. And we were the same age.
And every time he was in LA, he would pop by and just, you know, we would just talk and catch up. And he had called me and said, you know, Carter, I got this girl that I saw on MySpace that I want you to check out. And he brought her in. And she played her music, which was great, and it was Lady Gaga (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: In a moment, the story of how Troy Carter came back from financial ruin and helped to build a superstar. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So Troy Carter is probably at the lowest point in his life. His house is in foreclosure. His business has fallen apart. And he's basically bankrupt. But around this time, he gets introduced to a young singer and piano player who calls herself Lady Gaga.
Did you know that she was going to be huge?
CARTER: Yeah. You know what? You - the real answer is you don't know. You think and you hope but you don't know. And what people see now is what she was, you know, except for, you know, she was a brunette. And she didn't dance at that particular time, you know, she was behind the piano. Actually, L.A. Reid, who had done your show, had just dropped her from Def Jam. But you know what? She - in all fairness to L.A., she was a piano singer.
CARTER: And she had gone to West Virginia, cried on her grandmother's couch afterwards because her dad gave her a year off from school and basically said you've got one year to figure this out or you need to go back to NYU. So she thought her dreams were shattered.
I think it was that sort of thing you can't fall off the floor. And so, you know, she had the spirit in her that, you know, when you feel that sort of pain, you never want to feel it again. So she was an incredibly hard worker. So she just worked hard every day to get better and better.
RAZ: So what did you guys start to do? I mean, how did you - I mean, you are almost bankrupt basically. Financially, you're bankrupt.
RAZ: And she's like, oh, please can you manage me? And you're like yeah, sure, OK.
CARTER: So, you know, so we made music. That was the big thing. Like, Vince was incredibly talented at, you know, helping her shape the sound. I knew how to work with female artists. You know, I knew about the fashion business from working with Eve. You know, Gaga had signed to Interscope which was the same label that Eve was on. So I had a, you know, great rapport with the label already.
So it was very - it felt natural kind of navigating it. And, you know, I think we worked on the music for almost nine or 10 months. And then we took it to the record label. And the record label said, oh, those songs are great. Let's give this to The Pussycat Dolls. Let's give this to Britney Spears.
CARTER: So she ended up becoming a great songwriter. And a few of the songs we actually fought for and we said we're just not giving these records up. And we went out and we took those songs to radio. And it was a disaster. The radio wouldn't play it, so...
RAZ: They wouldn't play - what song are you talking about?
CARTER: It was the song "Just Dance."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST DANCE")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) Just dance. Going to be OK.
RAZ: Nobody would play that song?
CARTER: Nobody would play it. Nobody would play it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST DANCE")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) Do-do-do (ph) just dance.
RAZ: How did you start to build her career? What did you do?
CARTER: We - you know what? It's - we ended up - this is as Facebook and Twitter and MySpace and YouTube, all of those platforms were starting to just emerge as places where you could reach audiences directly. And we started using the platforms. They were free. Where we got lucky is that a lot of them were global. They were in markets outside of the U.S., so we started reaching audiences in places where we didn't travel geographically.
RAZ: What would you do? Would you just like post text or videos or like messages from Lady Gaga?
CARTER: Yeah, both, you know...
RAZ: How would people even discover her?
CARTER: You know what? It's these sort of underground music communities that want to find things before other people find them. And I remember we came up with this concept called Gagavision for YouTube. And it was like these three-minute video clips of basically these art clips of her and her dancers, her - and, you know, but we would have the embedded music underneath it.
And it was super artistic. And, you know, she was brilliant and, you know, one of the first music voices who really knew how to use and leverage social. And it really worked, so we started building these sort of underground followings throughout the world. But it wasn't big.
CARTER: It was 75 to a hundred people in clubs that we would play but we super-served that community.
RAZ: Let me just pause for a sec because just a few years or a year and a half before that, you're in a high-rise office building in LA, a glass office building, living this life as a corporate executive at this management company. And you are now, like, going back to traveling in vans and, like, sleeping in them and trying to get this artist into small clubs?
CARTER: Yep, started over, started over.
CARTER: And also, you know, this was new for me because this was pop music, totally different from hip-hop. It was a different skillset...
CARTER: ...And so really starting over.
RAZ: How were you able to even fund, like, the videos and her tour? Like. You didn't have any money at the time. So how were you able to do it?
CARTER: Interscope Records.
CARTER: You know, so Interscope stepped up and they funded a bit.
RAZ: But presumably not a lot 'cause, like, it sounds like they didn't think she was going to be as big as you thought she was going to be.
CARTER: No. You know what? It was a shoestring budget.
CARTER: We didn't need a lot, though. You know, I remember her - she, you know, she didn't have outfits, so she had this idea for this sort of mirror bra panty set or whatever that she couldn't afford. So she took a mirror and she actually broke the mirror up with a hammer and crazy glued each piece onto a bra and panties.
CARTER: You know, we had this - you know, for all of the early Gaga fans, you know, from the early days, you know, she had this latex costume, you know, with these big shoulder pads that she wore to every single show. Not multiple outfits, one outfit that she wore to every single show.
So, you know, so we basically bootstrapped this thing. And every dime that she did make, she reinvested it back into her career. So I think when you married - you marry that with the perfect storm of I don't have a plan B, she doesn't have a plan B, Vincent doesn't have a plan B, we have to make this work.
RAZ: This had to work.
CARTER: It had to work. It had to work.
RAZ: I'm getting anxious just listening to this story because I'm thinking, oh, my God, it's crazy. It's such a crazy risk. OK, so you - so you're trying to convince radio stations to play her music. You're building up a social media network. But what was a moment where she just blew up?
CARTER: The moment that I knew - like, you know, because it wasn't just one moment, right? It just was like this grind over a one-year period to get it on the radio. And so I remember we were playing a theater. It was The Wiltern Theatre in LA. And, you know, this is as things are feeling better.
RAZ: Yeah, that's a pretty big venue.
CARTER: Yeah. But I remember we were so nervous about The Wiltern though because it's a thousand seats.
CARTER: But we had sold out a couple of nightclubs, so we're like maybe we can stretch it. We'll keep the tickets at $20, so, you know, so it's super affordable or whatever. And we can give away whatever we don't sell. We can give to the radio stations or, you know, kind of pad the venue, right?
RAZ: This is like 2008, 2009?
CARTER: Yeah, around that time. And I remember driving down the street that morning because I had to go downtown for something. And I drove down past the theater and kids were asleep outside.
RAZ: To get tickets to that show?
CARTER: No, they had already bought tickets to the show and they just wanted to get in first.
CARTER: And when I saw those kids sleeping outside, I said we did it. We did it. Because when you can get them to line up, you got something special. You got something special.
RAZ: What was that ride like?
CARTER: You know what? It was pretty incredible. You know, we had gone to places that I never dreamed about, met people you never thought you would meet. So not only did she go to an incredible level in her career, it actually took me to a level in my career that, you know, I thought, you know, what I did with Eve, I thought I was at, you know, a height but this height was, you know, you're in the - you're on Mount Everest.
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RAZ: Did you guys - you and Lady Gaga - did you ever have moments where you just had a quiet moment and you would just look each other and say how did this happen? This is amazing.
CARTER: Oh, yeah. You know, me, Gaga and Vince, we're like a trifecta. And we would always have those moments, like, oh, my God, can you believe? Wow. You know, you look out at a crowd. Or, you know, I remember seeing her play Sting's rain forest event in New York where, you know, Sting will bring out, you know, legend after legend, you know, Elton John, Bono, Stevie Wonder, you know, just all of the greats and her being the only young artist that are playing with those guys, seeing her hold her own with those guys and them just taking her under a wing - you know, under their wings. So, you know, it just - all of those moments were just, you know, very, very special moments.
RAZ: So during this time - I guess this is sort of like 2010-ish - you also start to, like, you thought I'm going to branch out, right? I mean, because you started a company around that time. It was called Atom Factory, right?
CARTER: Yeah. I started Atom Factory - actually so I started - Coalition Media Group was the original name of the company. Things started - it just - it was this sort of energetic shift within the company. And, you know, and I had gone through, you know, a terrible time period.
I said you know what? I'm just going to - I want to change the name of the company. I want to bring a new energy into it. And I said I want this company to be something small but yet powerful.
CARTER: And just to be honest with you, the thing was I just said I want to wake up every day and do cool [expletive]. That was the mantra for me personally.
CARTER: And so whether that included management or, you know, producing TV or whatever, I just wanted to do things that inspired me.
RAZ: Yeah. So you start this company and Lady Gaga's career is doing great. And one day she walks in and says, I'm leaving.
CARTER: Yep. She walked in and say - I want to go in another direction basically.
RAZ: Which is a story you had heard before.
CARTER: Yeah. So I can't say it felt any different than it felt the first time. But you know what? It's - it was a different experience for me.
CARTER: The first time, I went into panic mode, you know, when that happened to me. This time, you know, I think I was able to sit in the middle of that storm and watch the storm pass.
RAZ: Why did she want to part ways with you?
CARTER: You know what? It's - I think it just - it happens. I think it differs in opinion, you know, on what happened and why it happened. But ultimately, you know, I respected it and took it on the chin.
RAZ: Are you guys still friends?
CARTER: You know what? I wouldn't say friends but cordial.
RAZ: Yeah. Because you were - she was probably the closest person to you outside of your family for, like, a lot of years.
CARTER: Yeah. That's, you know, that's the thing about management. You know, you - I can't do it without pouring my soul into it. I can't do it without investing 100 percent into that relationship. So I didn't go into the relationship with Gaga with my guards up, you know, because of the thing that happened with Eve. You know, so it just doesn't work that way for me. I'm - there's just no gray for me. I'm either all-in or all-out.
RAZ: Is it bittersweet to see her perform at the Super Bowl?
CARTER: You know what? It's not even bittersweet. I think it's just sweet. You know, the songs that she sang at the Super Bowl, you know, are - those are records that, you know, I know the origin. I know the stories behind them. You know, we were part of - I was part of getting those records to the Super Bowl. So it's a part of my life that, you know, I'm always going to be proud of.
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RAZ: OK. So I want to talk about a completely different side of your career, which is arguably a much bigger part of your career, which is investing, right? Because, I mean, you basically at a certain point decided I want to invest in startups.
CARTER: Yeah. That sort of came about through, you know, we were doing all of these things in technology with these startups with Gaga, you know...
RAZ: Social media stuff.
CARTER: Yeah, just to promote the music.
CARTER: And the music industry and just Hollywood in general were in litigation with most of the, you know, the technology companies, so it was this sort of - this wall between technology and content and we embraced it.
And so I started building a lot of relationships in Silicon Valley that introduced me to a lot of young entrepreneurs who started asking me, you know, could I advise their companies, could I put in some introductions, you know, did I want to invest in their companies? And that ended up turning into, you know, I think I've invested in close to a hundred early-stage technology companies now. Yeah, so...
RAZ: And some pretty, like, Uber, Warby Parker, Spotify, right? You were an early investor in all of those.
CARTER: Yeah. Yeah, Spotify, Warby, Uber, Lyft, Dropbox, Slack, really great companies that we're proud of.
RAZ: So like looking back at that that $2 million check that you got, you know, 20 years ago, I mean, you are - let's face it, like you're a very rich guy now. You've done very, very well. Do you feel secure now? Do you feel like you'll never get back to that point, you know, in 2006, where the banks were going after you and trying to take back your house?
CARTER: Is funny talking to, like, people who grew up poor, you suffer financial PTSD. You know, so going through financial PTSD, you always have that fear, that thing...
RAZ: You always have it.
CARTER: Yeah, you always have it. So I'm just - I'm a simple guy. What I appreciate in life and the things that make me happy tend not to have to do with the money itself. More importantly, it's having the ability to live a life that I can wake up every morning doing what I love to do. Nothing's more important to me than that.
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RAZ: You know, you never went to college. You don't have an MBA. You don't have an advanced degree. There have been I think two Harvard Business School case studies about you and Lady Gaga, which is a great irony. But do you ever feel like you didn't belong or that you weren't - I don't know that, like, you were around people who had credentials and made you feel intimidated?
CARTER: Yeah, at times, right? You know, and I had a fifth grade teacher named Ms. Moore (ph). And I was always the littlest guy in the class. You know, you take the school pictures or you get in line to go to lunch in the hallway, I was always first in line 'cause I was the smallest guy. So - but she used to call me the big guy. And she made me feel like I was 6-foot-5. And, like, she - it was something that she did psychologically that like really, really made me feel not only did I belong but that I was special.
So, you know, sometimes I'll go into rooms where it's - this person has a lot more experience than me. They're much smarter than I am. But I know what I know. And I think I bring a very - I bring a unique point of view to the table, you know, just with different experiences. And I'm confident in that point of view.
RAZ: You know, I was thinking about the story you told about your mom earlier. And, I mean, she must be so amazed at how it turned out. I mean, you - I mean, you dropped out of school. She was super disappointed. And, I mean, look where you are today.
CARTER: You know what? She passed away three years ago.
RAZ: I'm sorry.
CARTER: And - yep. And she was 63 years old when she died. And she spent the last three years with me and my family. But I remember - oh, man - we were at an awards show. They were giving me some award for an achievement in the music industry. And she was sick. And she was my date to the show. And we saw Berry Gordy. She said that's you.
RAZ: Wow. Amazing.
CARTER: Yep. Dude, you're like Oprah. You bring out the tears (laughter).
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RAZ: Troy Carter, founder of Atom Factory. By the way, Lady Gaga was not the only star they managed. Over the last several years, their roster has included John Legend, Priyanka Chopra, Meghan Trainor and John Mayer. And you know that decision he made to quit rapping when he was a teenager? It was probably a good one because 2 Too Many's song "Where's The Party?" - the one we played earlier - it's been on YouTube for 10 years, and it only has 13,000 views.
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RAZ: Hey, thanks so much for listening to the show this week. If you want to find out more about it, you can go to howibuiltthis.npr.org. Please also subscribe to our show on iTunes or however you get your podcasts. You can also write us at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on Twitter, that's @howibuiltthis.
And one more quick thing - this week, we've taken a little break from our How You Built This segment but we're definitely going to be back with a new one next week. So if you want to tell us a story about something you're working on, go to build.npr.org.
Our show was produced this week by Ramtin Arablouei, who also composed the music. Thanks also to Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is Claire Breen. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
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