Label heads are not an uncommon sight at West Hollywood’s Soho House, but judging by the surreptitious security guard who trails us discreetly as we walk to the private club’s roof garden restaurant, one begins to comprehend that 10K Projects founder-CEO Elliot Grainge isn’t your ordinary executive. 10K’s new suite of offices at the fabled 9200 Sunset high-rise — with a 360-degree view from the Los Angeles Basin all the way to the ocean — is still under construction, but business continues five floors above as we sip our Arnold Palmers.
There’s plenty of business to be done. Grainge’s three-year-old 10k Projects has produced Top 3 album bows for rapper Trippie Redd and the controversial Tekashi 6ix9ine, whom the 26-year-old exec signed to a two-album contract extension even as the hip-hop star awaits sentencing in December on firearms and racketeering charges.
“Tekashi knows how to get under people’s skin,” says Grainge, who remains steadfast in his support of the troubled rapper (busted for dealing heroin, he flipped on his cohorts to help the prosecution). “He is an addictive, charismatic human being — and very intelligent, but he made some unfortunate choices in regard to the people he surrounded himself with. Knowing him like I do, since he was [called] Daniel Hernandez, I wouldn’t be doing a good job as a human, let alone a label head, if I didn’t try to help him. I’m not giving 6ix9ine a second chance, just an opportunity. The rest is up to him. The artist himself has to make those choices.”
Grainge is the son of Universal Music Group chairman-CEO Lucian Grainge, but don’t let the family name color your first impression. The young exec does things his own, very particular way. “Elliot doesn’t follow anybody else’s playbook,” says Theo Battaglia, who left HBO to join 10K as head of marketing. “He marches to the beat of his own drummer, and has great success doing so. But what I most appreciate is how artist- and creative-centric he’s trying to make this company. A great many people preach that, but Elliot proves it, day in and day out.”
Grainge grew up in the U.K. with all the perks of having a father in the music business. His earliest musical memories: listening to S Club 7 dance-pop records at age 5; observing Irish group Boyzone in studio; and accompanying his dad in meetings, soaking up the details by osmosis as he sat in a corner playing his Gameboy.
“I was a weird kid who used to read the music trades,” he says. “What I noticed about my father’s negotiating style was how transparent, honest and sensible he was. When you put your cards on the table like that, negotiating is less competitive and more about teamwork. … How can we get this done together, so that everybody is happy?”
When the elder Grainge moved to the U.S. 10 years ago to take over leadership of UMG, Elliot enrolled at Northeastern in Boston, where he befriended Molly McLachlan, a fellow Brit — now head of artist and media relations for 10K — on their very first day in the dorms. They had adjoining rooms and attended the same lecture. (“‘Natural Disasters and Catastrophes,’ which was telling,” McLachlan says, laughing.)
After graduation, McLachlan was enjoying a successful career in ad sales for Condé Nast in London when Elliot convinced her to drop everything and join him and an intern in January 2018 as the company’s third employee. To in-the-know bizzers, she’s considered the Julie Greenwald to Elliot’s Lyor Cohen; when Cohen and Greenwald were at Island Def Jam, they were not only a powerhouse team, but Cohen empowered Greenwald, his former assistant, to run and be the face of the business for artists and employees alike.
“I had never even heard of Trippie or Tekashi at the time,” admits McLachlan, who helped Grainge organize a regular showcase for student performers enrolled at the neighboring Berklee College of Music during their time at Northeastern. “When I first heard [Tekashi’s] ‘Gummo,’ I thought, he’s got to be kidding. But I had seen Elliot in action. I knew how his mind worked. He is extremely smart, good at business, with a strong will to succeed. It’s something I haven’t really seen in my peers at our age. I really did trust — and felt in my gut — that he knew what he was doing.”
Indeed, Grainge had proven to possess a fertile business mind from a young age, taking a shine to “spread betting” on the market value of gold, sugar and oil, and using a loophole in U.K. law to declare his profit “gambling” winnings, which aren’t taxed. He made and lost a small fortune. While at college, he ran a lucrative bottle-service club promotion business for several Boston-area dance and hip-hop venues, geared to wealthy Euros and Saudis.
Upon arriving in Los Angeles to rejoin his family after graduation, it was a natural step for Elliot to launch a data-fueled record label/music company, but he wanted to do it his way — without help from his dad.
A self-declared fan of all musical genres, Grainge professes a love of Eminem in his formative years. “I was obsessed, thought he was the coolest thing in the world,” he says. “If you look at the streaming data and analytics over the past six years, you’ll see anyone under 28 around the world has been raised on hip-hop. It’s a lifestyle, a culture, as rock once was for another generation. And I believe it was Eminem who took it to the next step in terms of global reach.”
The artist roster at 10K Projects represents much of that transgressive, rebel pose, but there are also anomalies, like sunny Texas beach-pop duo Surfaces, which interpolates the likes of “Girl From Ipanema” for its breezy, tropical DIY hooks.
Still, the common denominator of Grainge’s signings — the most recent of which is a label deal with writer-producer Taz Taylor’s Internet Money (producer of Lil Tecca’s “Ransom,” No. 10 on the BuzzAngle Hitmakers chart) — is SoundCloud, which Elliot admits he uses as a “cheat sheet” to find new talent.
“SoundCloud has no gatekeepers, no curators,” he explains. “It’s a full democracy with an average user age of 19. That fascinated me. You’ve got a kid who’s recorded something on his laptop, puts it up online and gets an instant live reaction. It’s completely organic. You can reach right out and sign somebody, then let them keep doing what they’re doing.”
Grainge compares the lo-fi SoundCloud rap scene — which boasts the likes of Lil Pump and Lil Skies and the late rappers Lil Peep and XXXTentacion — to the ’70s punk scene in the U.K. Says Grainge: “My dad was 17 years old at the height in 1977 … seeing the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the Clash at Hammersmith Apollo. What a time that was. Artists could do or say whatever they wanted. I grew up listening to those bands on the car radio driving with my dad, who has always been my musical hero.”
Although he was raised on the major label system, the younger Grainge is choosing a different path as an indie — with distribution through UMG’s Caroline — but he’s well schooled in the advantages and disadvantages of each approach.
“As an indie, there’s a ceiling on the audience you can tap into,” he admits. “When a major label pushes a button, its reach extends to radio, DSPs [digital-side platforms], playlists, digital marketing. … It galvanizes a global team into action.”
Still, streaming’s transparency gives 10K a somewhat equal footing in the digital world. “Radio is dying, physical product is dying, while subscription packages to Spotify, Apple Music [and] Amazon are on the rise,” Grainge notes in positing his bullish stance on the music biz.
By any measure, 10K Projects is proving a success, amassing 18 gold and eight platinum or multiplatinum singles and generating more than 10.5 billion streams to date. As we speak, Grainge is tracking the streams of his most recent single, Internet Money’s “Somebody” featuring Lil Tecca and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, which is climbing into the 900,000s. Like his father, he takes an active interest in technology, recently making a strategic investment in the digital marketing, branding and influencer management company Homemade Records, which shares the label’s new offices.
“Elliot is so intense in pursuing his vision; he goes full speed without looking back,” says 10K Projects president of operations and GM Brittney King Brock, who arrived in May after stints in A&R, artist management, music publishing and production with Sean Combs and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN. “What he has in common [with them] is that tunnel vision; there’s no plan B, and he empowers his team to pull it off. Once they lock in, sink their teeth into something, it’s going to happen.”
Grainge’s relative youth has been both a boon and a hindrance. He complains that his contemporaries don’t hesitate to contact him on weekends, which he prefers to have to himself — “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to continue on this pace,” he confesses — and while he’s the spitting image of his father, don’t look for any “Succession”-style drama here, at least not yet.
Asked if one day he’d like to be in charge of UMG, for the first time he blushes and gets slightly flustered. “That’s a great question,” he laughs nervously, pausing to ponder. “Because I’m damned if I say yes and equally damned if I say no. I’ve already acknowledged my respect for the majors, but I’m committed to succeeding as an indie.”
With that, Grainge offers a high-five on making him think. Don’t bet against him.