50: The Man Who Helped Shape Gaga, Trainor, Legend: Troy Carter, Atom Factory & Spotify

 
Troy Carter grew up in West Philadelphia, and has developed a reputation for valuing artists the mainstream underestimates.

Troy Carter grew up in West Philadelphia, and has developed a reputation for valuing artists the mainstream underestimates.

When he was 14 years old growing up in West Philadelphia, Troy Carter started promoting parties at a neighbor's house and charging for entry. He did the DJing himself to save money. 

Today he's one of the most respected visionaries at the intersection of two industries: music and tech.  

Carter wears a lot of hats. He's been a manager, working with the likes of John Legend, Lady Gaga and Meghan Trainor. He's an investor, a general partner at venture capital firm Cross Culture Ventures. And he's a connector. As global head of creator services at Spotify, he's ushering artists into the streaming age. 

I met up with Carter recently outside of San Francisco at the Black Enterprise Tech ConneXt Summit. We talked about his path from rags, to riches, to rags, and back again – and how a high school dropout learned to reinvent himself, and an industry. 

What's Your Essential Difference?

Carter talks about seeing a passion – a cause – in an artist that he believes can set her apart. With Lady Gaga, it was outreach to marginalized youth who didn't fit into society's gender roles. With Meghan Trainor, it was giving a voice to women who didn't look like typical magazine cover models. And then there's the question of motivation.

"What are those soft things that I see in this artist that, absent a hit song, could push them over the finish line? Because artists ebb and flow. You're hot and you're cold," Carter says. "Do you have that natural ability, drive, where you're going to take a Mack truck and drive it through a cul-de-sac to see things through? In entrepreneurs, you're looking for the same thing."

It's a valuable question for non-entrepreneurs, too: What's essentially different about the creative spark that you bring to your work? What fundamentally changes when you're added to a team?

Look for the Gaps

Part of the reason Carter was able to break into the music scene was that he was promoting acts that established venues wouldn't touch. In the 1990s, that meant up-and-coming hip-hop acts.

"I was the first person to bring Jay-Z down to Philadelphia, Wu-Tang Clan down to Philadelphia, Notorious B.I.G. And I met P. Diddy through bringing B.I.G. down to Philly. That was sort of my relationship with the New York hip-hop scene. That was one of the things that took me out of the farm club and into the minor leagues, and kind of moved up from there."

Carter believed there was a broader audience for the artists, and that it was possible to put on profitable events that wouldn't descend into violence. Because he had learned to move in different cultural circles, he had the insight to build a career on it.