A decade ago, at the age of 15, James Batsford and Sam Gilbert met at a Crystal Castles gig in London and immediately bonded over a shared love for music -- particularly vinyl, an appreciation they say their dads fostered at a young age. Now, 10 years later, the two have become business partners, having co-founded the first vinyl-only hip-hop label: Omertà Inc.
Launched in January of this year, Omertà's aim is to reunite hip-hop with its roots by making both mixtapes and albums that have never been released on vinyl available in their beloved format. The commodity's resurgence over the past decade -- although incremental, vinyl sales have increased year-over-year since the mid-2000s -- allowed Omertà Inc. to go from an idea to a reality. "There's a market for [vinyl] now," Gilbert tells Billboard. And now that Omertà is here, he and Batsford are laser-focused on their mission.
Year after year, the market for vinyl has become increasingly inviting -- in 2016, vinyl sales were up another 10 percent over 2015, according to Nielsen Music -- the format still only made up 6.5 percent of total albums sold. But Gilbert, 26, and Batsford, 25, are confident that combining previously-unreleased vinyl editions of rap albums along with mixtapes -- a previously-unprecedented venture -- is a strong enough selling point to succeed, despite how slim a slice vinyl sales are compared to the rest of the pie.
To start, Omertà limits itself to a low-stakes release strategy of two albums per month, typically pairing a newer mixtape from an independent artist with a record from a major label. The first two releases -- Future's 2012 debut album Pluto and G Perico's 2016 debut mixtape Shit Don't Stop, which arrived on Feb. 24 -- set the tone for what to expect; those were followed by Cousin Stizz's tape Suffolk County -- which cost nearly $4,000 to produce and became Omerta's first record to sell out -- and Three 6 Mafia's 2005 release Most Known Unknown in March; and, now, Murda Beatz's Keep God First, out May 26, and T.I.'s 2001 Arista debut I'm Serious, which will be made available on April 22 as a Record Store Day exclusive (Omertà's first and only release to not be sold through their online store).
Securing the rights, however, has been a multi-step process. Gaining access and approval from independent artists has been easy so far, Batsford and Gilbert explain; for Perico's project, they simply emailed a contact from his Instagram account and heard back from his manager within hours. Major label releases work differently, however.
Both co-founders have worked in the industry for the past few years -- Batsford has been at Domino Records for three years, primarily within the realm of direct-to-consumer sales; Gilbert works at an indie store in London -- along the way developing a relationship with Sony, which led to a meeting with the major's U.K. licensing department. "They asked us to submit a list of five titles to start off with," Batsford explains. "Hip-hop catalogs are known to be the hardest to license, and the first few batches we submitted did get denied. But we kept trying."
Eventually, Sony licensed Pluto, which was released under its Epic label, to Omerta, though the process is not exactly that simple. Once a title is cleared, which can take months, the company drafts a three-year contract that starts from the record's release, in which Batsford and Gilbert agree to pay the label a licensing fee, plus a royalty percentage, and deliver full accounting along the way. Independent releases are processed on a more even playing field; Gilbert and Batsford cover manufacturing and promotion, and once costs are recouped, profits are evenly split between Omerta and the artist.
After a license is secured, the two turn to one of Omerta's main selling points: custom, hand-numbered discs with a limited, 500-copy pressing that makes them not only rare, but collectible. But doing justice to each release's original artwork can be more difficult than it would seem; mixtapes, due to their current digital-only nature, often don't bother with a back cover (in this case, a mutual friend, Tim Hampson, creates one out of the main cover's art); while for Pluto, for instance, Sony didn't have the back cover in its system. "We had to buy the original CD and then blow up an image from the booklet that was similar to the back cover," the two explain. "We couldn't use the back; when you blow it up, the track listing enlarges too." All told, the process costs around $100, they say.
So far, all three major label releases -- Pluto (Epic), Most Known Unknown (BMG/Columbia) and I'm Serious (Arista) -- have come from the Sony network, though Batsford and Gilbert say they have since been put in touch with Warner Music Group's licensing department. By this summer, they expect to have licenses from the Warner catalog in the works as well.
Yet when the two first shared the concept for Omertà Inc. about nine months ago, they say -- in unison -- "Everyone laughed," and Batsford admits, "I genuinely don't believe anyone thought it was happening." But they persevered. "It's purely coming from a fan perspective," Gilbert says simply. "We're passionate about hip-hop, we know what we're talking about [and] we know the right records to release."