Hitting The High Note

Marcus Johnson is laying down the tracks to success

Enjoying an Earth, Wind & Fire concert when he was only 9 years old, Marcus Johnson discovered his life’s passion: to make quality music like that of his favorite band.
“My No. 1 objective is to create classic sounds,” says the now 32-year-old entrepreneur, whose office and fully equipped recording studio are stationed in Silver Spring, Maryland. “I want to make the type of tunes that people will be humming on their way to work.” As founder and co-owner of Three Keys Music, Johnson is doing just that.

Specializing in contemporary jazz, Marcus’ 12-employee independent label is leaving its imprint on the music industry with its blend of smooth grooves and soul-stirring beats. Since the label’s founding two years ago, several of the artists on its eight-person roster have secured Top 20 spots on contemporary jazz charts. Late last year, Marcus took a leap into the R&B realm with female vocalist YahZarah, whose debut album, Blackstar, quickly hurdled its way up the Billboard charts, peaking at No. 44. The company, which garners most of its revenues from record sales, touring, and renting out its studio rooms for $80–$500 an hour, generated $400,000 in revenues in 2002 and projected between $650,000–$700,000 for 2003.

Johnson’s venture into the music business began while he was a Georgetown student simultaneously pursuing a law degree and a master’s degree in business administration. During a summer internship with MCA Records, the accomplished pianist who had studied music since the age of 6 learned the ins and outs of the recording industry firsthand. Johnson borrowed $1,000 from his sister, in addition to $2,000 from friends and family to release his debut album, Lessons in Love.

Johnson then secured a $50,000 bank loan and a $50,000 government loan so that he could expand his company in 2001. He was searching for investors when he met Three Keys co-owner Robert L. Johnson at a jazz festival in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. The BET founder invested $3 million to finance the Three Keys Music recording label and build a state-of-the-art studio. “Bob Johnson plays an integral role in the success of our company,” says Marcus of his partner. “But not just because of his investment. There are times I don’t know what to do and I know that I can always ask him for guidance.”

Although business is currently booming, Marcus isn’t ready to rest on his laurels, even with growing success on the horizon. He distinctly recalls the hardship he faced and the revenues he lost when he stopped touring so that he could focus on building the business side of his company. “That year, there was no product released until the third quarter,” he says. “Without [that] or the performance revenues, it made for a very lean time. I don’t want to go through that again.”

Marcus plans to expand his label by creating a New York office and starting a management division that will help educate aspiring artists about the music industry. “I like to follow the Japanese model of business,”says Marcus. “Whatever

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