A Conversation with Vaughan Taylor

Vaughan Taylor has got his patter down. As a hip-hop star he's gained local notoriety as Texture with Athletic Mic League (AML), producing for a number of other local rappers. But the 31-year-old is all business when he comes to talking about his start-up, SplinkMedia, projecting both confidence and professionalism. He's also got style, wearing a sharp shirt-tie-sweater combo with diamond earrings slick enough to make your sister take notice.

Taylor slips easily between both worlds. In one breath he can talk about how the cream of the crop of hip-hop talent came up with him at Huron High School in the late 1990s, signing a record deal with Slum Village's Barak Records and producing music for the likes of Pharoahe Monch. In the next he will deliver a perfected elevator pitch on why his Ann Arbor-based start-up promises to revolutionize how people monetize music.

"We use demographically targeted music to help brands build their social media following," Taylor says. "The idea is simple, brands want to reach consumers on social networks. They need content to do this. These days it's all about great content to interact with and engage a following. The problem with Facebook and Twitter is they only allow brands to engage people who are already fans. So how do you reach out to people who aren't already fans? Our idea is these music artists already have these fan bases built in. We connect brands with demographically targeted audiences."

SplinkMedia provides the technological bridge between business brands and local artists. It has already helped Mayer Hawthorne (a nationally acclaimed neo soul artist from Ann Arbor) link his music to The Cupcake Station and big-name Detroit-area emcees like Guilty Simpson and One Be Lo to Detroit's 5 E Gallery.

Taylor and his team of four people are close to dropping an online music player for SplinkMedia. This will smooth the path for musicians with an established followings to connect with businesses that are willing to pay to beef up with brands.

"My passion right now is building an outlet for artists to monetize their following without having to sell music because no one is selling music right now," Taylor says. "I have a lot of friends who travel the world, get hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, they can go somewhere and sign autographs, but they're literally dead broke. That's where the idea for SplinkMedia came from."

This isn't just a musician trying to create a new way to make it in the music biz. Taylor went back to the University of Michigan in 2007 to get his bachelors degree and finished it in less than two years. Then he got a masters degree in entrepreneurship from University of South Florida. After stints of living in New York City and Florida over the last decade, he sees his best chance at leaving his mark on the music industry in Michigan, and in particular Ann Arbor.

Taylor recently sat down for lunch with Concentrate's Jon Zemke and Doug Coombe at Arbor Brewing Co.

SplinkMedia is about bridging local musicians with local commerce so both groups benefit. This concept has never really taken off. Why will it work this time?

We're offering a way for artists to get paid and a better interface for them to interact with their fans. You can't just do banner ads. You need high-quality content to engage your users. We can provide a cost-effective way to provide high-quality content.

Most musicians aren't flush with resources. Nor are they known to effectively promote their work. Are underground musicians enough of an untapped asset to build a business on?

I hear that. People say they're bad at marketing, but in general I say they're good at self promoting. Our idea is to leverage their self promoting.

What are the upsides of launching a company in Michigan?

Personally, it's my network here, contacts I have with local stores, social media people, artists. I know everyone here. Plus, costs. It's cheaper to run a business here. The quality of music is high here, too.

Wouldn't this venture better fit in a city like Austin or Nashville or Brooklyn?

There is some merit to that, but I whole-heartedly believe it can happen in Michigan. There is enough community here. You need music, businesses and social network. I would say the best places are L.A., maybe New York. If I couldn't do those, I would say Michigan.

You told me before that "success will lead to growth" when it comes to growing our community of young entrepreneurs. What type of success are you looking for?

My end goal is to revolutionize how people monetize music. When you think about Motown, it revolutionized how music was made. I want to revolutionize the music industry again, in Motown.

You earned your master’s in entrepreneurship from the University of South Florida. Was there anything you learned about the way the Sunshine State does things that Michigan should take a look at?

Besides exercise?

Fair point.

Both states are in similar stages right now from an entrepreneurial standpoint. Michigan is ahead of Florida as far as entrepreneurship. There is no such thing as an A2 New Tech in Florida. There are more entrepreneurial initiatives from the state in Michigan. There's more passion here and more community. People want to change Detroit. They want to revitalize and help Detroit. And I have come across more VC and angel firms here.

Detroit's hip hop scene is legendary, but never really hit the level of Atlanta or other hip-hop Meccas. What could we do to get to that level?

That's difficult for me to answer because I don't want to get to that level. At that level you need to compromise your music so much. For some real good, high-quality hip-hop music, it's here. Nobody is going to New York anymore. When people want to hear some good hip-hop they come to Detroit.

But to reach that Motown-level of commercial success, don't you have to compromise?

No. It’s the whole argument of short-term versus longevity. All of the guys who were hot and from Atlanta five years ago, nobody cares about them now. You can go for the hot flash or the longevity. Longevity will pay off.

Everyone knows that Detroit has its own music identity. Do Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti have theirs?

Yes. Ann Arbor and Ypsi get stepped on. There are a lot of talented people here. Plus, if you go outside of Michigan, Ann Arbor will always be lumped in with Detroit. Inside the state, there is a distinct sound. When we were coming up, there was a very aggressive, competitive feel in Detroit, like the battle networks. We were more light-hearted.

You and AML moved from Ann Arbor to New York City for a time before returning home. That seems to be the trend for bringing in young talent, convince former Michiganders to move back. But what would make the folks you met in NYC, the ones who have never been to Michigan, interested in following you here?

I know a big-name producer in New York and a friend was driving him through downtown Detroit. He saw all these for-sale signs on buildings, so he called to see the price and it blew his mind. He's like, 'Are you serious?'

How do we get the uninitiated young people to make Detroit a destination, like San Francisco and Chicago are now?

I look at Detroit and Michigan as undervalued stock. There is a lot going on that people can't see from the outside. There's no easy answer, but if people could come and see what's going on they would be intrigued.

I am going to list a number of players in the local music industry. After each name give me the lesson or inspiration you take away from them:

Jay Dilla

Something about him makes you want to sound like him. At points in my life while producing music I wouldn't listen to Jay Dilla because I didn't want to sound like him.

Slum Village

When we came to Barak Records they looked out for us. They didn't need to do that.

Black Milk

He always reinvents himself. That's something you can take in all walks of life.


I am inspired by him in 8 Mile, where he is at. It's that all-or-nothing moment, and if he doesn't make it he doesn't know what he will do. I am there with my business. At some point you need to put everything into it, try every avenue, explore every option.

Royce Da 5' 9"

Perseverance. He stuck at it and stuck at it and today he's enjoying success.


I have a funny story about Proof…

It seems everybody in this town has a funny story about Proof.

All the stories are true. He would be everywhere. The coolest dude. I remember I gave him the same beat CD for four weeks straight until he listened to it. He gave everybody an opportunity no matter who they were. If he thought the stuff was good he would work with you.

Jackson Perry (Mayer Hawthorne's manager)

Jackson won't take no for an answer. There are no clubs or VIP sections he can't get into. Funny story about Jackson, he was at a party in L.A. and some guy from That 70s Show was DJ'ing. Jackson tells his friends I bet I can get on stage and stand next to him. He creates the guy's name in his phone and texts himself and goes up to the security guard and says, 'Yo, he just texted me to come up on stage.' The security guard let him on stage.

Mayer Hawthorne

He did hip-hop for 10 years with incremental success, and as soon as he did one thing different it went like this (Vaughan mimics a plane taking off with his hands). He offered value that wasn't there before.


She provided value where there wasn't value before in the community-oriented, activist hip-hop. It's not activist hip hop because she talks about it, but because she is actually doing it. Instead of just bringing light to it, she is doing something about it.


They were the first group in Ann Arbor that really had a following that could sell out the Blind Pig. They were the first ones I saw that had it popping it in the city. I don't know if people sell out shows anymore in the Pig.


As long as there are middle school boys there will always be an ICP.

Which musical equipment is easier to start a company around, turntables or a microphone?

Turntables. You can have a regular DJ gig every week by going to a club and say give me a night. If you go there with a microphone, they'll tell you to get out of here.

Any plans for an AML reunion?

There is an AML project called Giants of the Jungle. It's a whole bunch of stuff we didn't release from 1999 to 2005. We have 20-30 songs we have been sitting on. Everybody is going to pick their top 10 songs and make an album out of it, and everybody is going to release their own version of it. We're going to put it out as a soft launch from the SplinkMedia player. Ideally, it could be out this week.

- Jon Zemke is the Jobs News Editor for Concentrate and the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStartup.com. He conducted and condensed this interview. His last feature was Is MGoBlog The Future Of Sports Journalism?


All photos by Doug Coombe

Vaughan Taylor during the interview at Arbor Brewing Company
Vaughan at Arbor Brewing
Vaughan at the A-Side Worldwide offices at the Tech Brewery in Ann Arbor
Athletic Mic League in 2009
Mayer Hawthorne's SplinkMedia event at The Cupcake Station in 2009
Vaughan at Arbor Brewing
Vaughan at Arbor Brewing
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