Tucked away beyond the main thoroughfares of Lee’s Summit is a hidden empire few, even the locals, know about. For nearly two decades, a music label by the name of Strange Music has been quietly expanding its reign as one of the top independent music labels in the industry. Of course by now, most in the region are familiar with Kansas City rapper, Tech N9ne, who co-founded Strange Music in 2000. But the man behind the music, Tech’s partner Travis O’Guin, played a large role in helping Tech achieve such notoriety. He is also behind the music label’s unconventional location and the Japanese-influenced business approach that has proven to be a driving factor of its success.
O’Guin was already an established businessman in his own right when he met rapper Tech N9ne back in 1997. O’Guin founded Furniture Works while still attending Van Horn High School; a risky move, he will admit, but he ended up successful, expanding to 32 locations across 18 states. His business ventures eventually led him to invest in Paradise Originals clothing line. As part of an event for the line, O’Guin hired Tech to perform. Following that event, O’Guin arranged a meeting with Tech with the intention of advising Tech on his business dealings. But O’Guin soon learned Tech needed more than advice. The rapper was entangled in a web containing a total of seven managers and multiple contract obligations. O’Guin, who was already running multiple businesses, decided he was already spread too thin to invest the time, money and effort that would be required to pursue a successful business relationship with Tech, but the two stayed in touch. Then one day, Tech sent O’Guin a song called This Ring, which changed everything.
“I couldn’t leave the song alone,” O’Guin said. “My wife has to hate that song to this day because I probably played it a thousand times throughout the entire house.”
O’Guin called another meeting to figure out exactly what Tech was interested in pursuing. The rapper revealed he wanted to start a music label called Strange Music. The peculiar name was a tribute to one of Tech’s favorite bands, The Doors. O’Guin was sold. The men joined forces and after more than a year and a half of litigation and millions of dollars in lawyers’ fees to get out of previous deals, Strange Music was born.
In the early years, the pair faced setbacks in distribution, but they were determined not to let that get in the way of reaching their audience. O’Guin shifted the focus to touring where they had tremendous success.
Strange Music’s first two albums sold half a million copies. Eventually, a representative from Universal Music attended a Tech N9ne show and in 2006, offered Strange Music a deal. Now Strange Music is the largest label within Universal, a title it has held for the past seven years in a row. Originally, Strange Music with its staff of four people (including O’Guin and Tech) was located in Blue Springs, but the label quickly outgrew the space. O’Guin’s quest for more square footage led him to Lee’s Summit. He bought an old Major Saver building and converted it to his headquarters. Over the course of the past 19 years, the Lee’s Summit-based headquarters quietly grew to span 160,000 square feet with more than 60 employees.
Strange Music also has offices in the traditional music hubs of New York, Atlanta and at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, but O’Guin said he has never considered uprooting his Lee’s Summit headquarters to any of those cities. In fact, the CEO said it is the cost of business in Lee’s Summit that allowed him to build Strange Music into what it is today. He said he plans to continue to focus building up Strange Music’s property with the addition of a 60,000 square foot building, something he said the city’s Development Center has been helpful with.
“The process here in Lee’s Summit is incredibly smooth in comparison to some other places I’ve built,” O’Guin said.
Added space is a constant need for Strange Music because it is more than just a music label. O’Guin embraces a Japanese business model called zaibatsu, where companies strengthen their control of their business by creating branch-off businesses to support it.
“A lot of companies here in America, they need investment, they need capital, they’ll go to a bank,” O’Guin said. “In Japan, they’ll buy the bank, so it’s a little bit bigger concept.”
With that philosophy in mind, Strange Music recently launched its own distribution arm at its Lee’s Summit headquarters, which also houses accounting, administration, social media, touring, recording studios, video production, editing, a sound stage, merchandise manufacturing, screen printing, shipping, fulfillment, a construction company and a vehicle washing facility.
Those branch-offs proved to be profitable as standalone businesses, many of which are used for contracting with outside business in addition to filling the label’s needs. Strange Music’s headquarters includes a 10,000-square-foot sound stage, the largest in the Midwest. It has been used for KU Medical and Wendy’s Commercials. Lady Gaga also choreographed her most recent performance for the American Music Awards in the Lee’s Summit facility.
Whether it’s rehearsal space or getting their start, many A-List stars have walked through Strange Music’s doors. Rapper Kendrick Lamar toured with O’Guin’s co-founder, Tech N9ne early in his career and Tech’s eclectic style has led to collaborations with Lil’ Wayne, Eminem and more surprising artists like Tech’s idols, The Doors.
“Tech is this crazy artist. Everybody thinks that it’s all hip-hop,” said O’Guin. “He’s the guy that crosses over, a genre-bender of sorts. You can’t put him in just a hip-hop box. He’s done a lot of things in rock, he’s done a lot of things in a lot of different music styles, even R&B.”
Lee’s Summit may seem to be far removed from the epicenter of the music industry, but in some cases, O’Guin benefits that way. He said he has a strict rule of hiring from outside the music industry. By hiring employees who are skilled in their field but green in the music industry, O’Guin has an opportunity to mold them to fit his style of the music business.
Even with its all-encompassing business model, the idea of quality over quantity is evident with Strange Music. The label represents more than 20 artists, smaller than many would predict for such a well-recognized entity, but to O’Guin, it is testament to how seriously he takes his artists’ success.
“I don’t want to be the jack of all but master of none, so my goal is to get it right with the artists that we take in and really work on their behalf and try to make it happen,” said O’Guin. “If we have enough of an interest to sign you, I feel like we have an obligation to help you make a full career out of this.”
Artists who do sign with Strange Music can expect a rigorous climb to success. As in its early years, Strange Music still focuses heavily on touring. The label’s artists put on more than 430 shows in 2018, 200 of them included O’Guin’s co-founder, Tech N9ne. Strange Music has earned 12 Grammy Awards and Tech himself now has more Top 10 albums than any other rapper of all time, but O’Guin said the accolades are just part of the gig.
“People tell me I should be more acknowledging of those things,” O’Guin said, “But I have a certain expectation that if you focus and you work really hard, you continue to be a student, those things are supposed to happen.”
Despite Strange Music’s success, O’Guin said in recent years, the sense of purpose surrounding his job has changed. While O’Guin said he originally got into the business for monetary gain, he now gets thousands of messages from people who say Strange Music’s work has saved their lives.
“This business has a real effect on people,” O’Guin said. “If even one of those thousands of emails is true, we won.”
O’Guin’s daughter Mackenzie Nicole joined the label in 2015. Recently she was diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder and has plans to release an introspective album this summer about her struggle with mental illness.
“I know that album was therapy for her and I hope it’s therapy for a lot of
other people.” O’Guin said.