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Music made Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs famous, but here’s what made him rich

(Chris Pizzello/AP Photo)

When Forbes released its latest ranking of the highest paid stars in hip hop last week, a certain trend was pretty noticeable. At the top of the list was Sean "Diddy" Combs, whose estimated $60 million in earnings came almost entirely from ventures having little to do with music. It's been, after all, six years since his last album was released. Just beneath him was Jay Z, who earned much of the $56 million he raked in from business ventures outside of the music world.

Far below were the rest, many of them musicians who had made the lion share of their money from actual music.

Though some still earn plenty for it, music has become a much less lucrative realm in recent years, thanks in large part to how it's shared. A handful of savvy artists, however, understanding the weight of their influence and reach, have harnessed their own personal brands into more successful careers than music alone could ever have allowed for.

That's no mistake, said Combs, who believes the two go hand-in-hand. He insists that he has always been a businessman first. From early on, he has branched out into a range of ventures, including clothing, television, cologne, alcohol and bottled water.

Cîroc, which was an irrelevant vodka brand not long ago, is a prime example of this power. When Combs teamed up with Diageo in 2007, the brand was selling only a small number of bottles each year. But in the time since, sales ballooned to some 2 million cases a year, making Cîroc the second-largest high-end vodka in the United States.

I spoke with Combs to learn more about the arc of his business career, his thoughts about personal brands, his success with products such as Cîroc and a few other things.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When you were just getting started in music, did you ever imagine you’d be this successful at business?

What you might not realize, what I think a lot of people don’t know, is that from the get-go, when I started my first job, I was only 12 years old. I was a paper boy. And the way I got the job was really through my entrepreneurial spirit, which is something I got from my mother.

At the time, I wasn’t old enough to work legally, so I made a deal with the paper boys who were leaving for college. I told them to let me deliver their papers and I’d send them half of the money. By the time I was 13, I had six routes.

I say this all to say that before I entered into the business of music, I went to college at Howard University. I didn’t graduate, because I decided to pursue my career in the music industry. But I was just given an honorary doctorate from Howard. I went there for business.

I’ve always been a businessman first. Even when I pursue my passion in the music industry, I do it from the perspective of an entrepreneur.

You've talked about the significance of Washington, D.C., in the past. Why is D.C. important to you?

The thing about D.C., especially if you’ve been there for a long time, is that you feel how tight-knit the community is. It’s chocolate city. There’s no city like it. I have a lot of love, and a special connection with the city, that I only have with D.C. I feel like I grew up there, that I was raised there.

Leaving school early was tough. I’m the type of person who always wants to finish what I start. It was always something in the back of my head. For them to recognize what I’ve been able to do by leaving school, for them to make that gesture, it’s hard for me to express what it means to me in words. Words can’t express how happy and appreciative I am to be an official Howard University alum.

Today, is the music industry a destination or a stepping stone?

I can only speak about myself. And as I said, since I was 12 years old, I have always seen my job as providing a product. As I’ve gotten older, that’s shifted to providing a lifestyle. I wanted to make the records that you woke up in the morning to. I wanted to make the clothes you got into after taking a shower. I wanted to make the cologne you put on after that, while you listened to more of my music while driving to your job. I wanted to make the water that you drink, Aquahyrdate, when you’re at the gym. And then when you’re back home, I want you to be able to turn on the TV and watch one of the television shows I produce. Then when you go out for the night and party, I want you to switch out of your suit and into a more casual outfit I offer. And one of the final touches is that you can go to the bar and order Cîroc.

All of that is well thought out. That was my dream. I just think that because of my earlier experiences, watching my mom work four or five jobs at a time, I’m wired like that. I have never been one to put all my eggs into one basket. Music was never going to be enough.

You’ve been particularly eager to talk about Cîroc lately. How did you come to be associated with the vodka brand?

Cîroc was moving money, but not much. It was about a 30,000 cases-a-year brand. Diageo came and talked to me about creating my own brand. I looked at that opportunity, but was worried it would take a while to build. So I saw this brand, which wasn’t doing too well. I had tried it before. I knew it was made in France, and that it was extremely smooth. So when they were showing me their portfolio, giving me a choice, I doubled back on this brand and asked them, "Hey, what are you doing with this one?"

They said they weren’t doing much, and that it was struggling. So I decided to take a chance on the brand. We decided if it does well, we can be 50-50 partners.

That’s how it began, and something like only 14 months later we went from selling 40,000 cases to a million cases.

Where are you at now? Cîroc, I mean. How’s it doing?

We’re selling 2 million cases a year. We’re the second-largest ultra-premium brand in the country, second only to Grey Goose. It’s been a dream story, what we’ve been able to do. It’s never really been done before, in terms of how quickly it’s grown.

But even with that being said, it’s all because of this opportunity, which was there with millennials. Also, it’s helped that we have such a strong connection to the African American and Latino communities, who basically at this point run the culture in America. We haven’t been afraid to service them in a very elegant, sophisticated and aspirational kind of way. And we’re doing this instead of just trying to push malt liquor.

The joke about vodka, true or not, is that it all tastes pretty similar. That means branding is extremely important. Can you talk a little bit about how your own personal brand has helped Cîroc?

The thing that people don’t understand is that the only way you can be successful with your branding is if you have a great product to sell. If people go home and aren’t happy, that won’t work. Your product has to stand up for itself.

Cîroc is a supreme product, Sean John is a supreme product. Revolt TV is, too.

I’m not trying to be braggadocios; I’m just saying that before I get into a project, I have a litmus test. I ask myself if it’s a supreme product. And I thought Cîroc was.

But still, even after knowing that or feeling that way, you have to sell the product, right?

Don't get me wrong; marketing and branding are very important. We feel like we’ve been able to do that, in the case of Cîroc, in a way that’s never been done before. Take our commercial with Frank Sinatra, for example. We spent a lot of money on that, and I really think it was something you hadn’t seen or people don’t really see. A black man getting off a jet, going to Vegas, and doing it the way Frank Sinatra would do it.

The thing about Cîroc is that it’s helped diversify an entire industry. You have this industry, the high-end vodka industry, where there was almost no diversity. Now whatever company it is, they want a piece of our demographic. And they know it’s possible.

That doesn’t mean we’re an African American brand. Fifty-four percent of our sales are to people of color. The rest are to general market. So there’s a mix.

But we’ve changed the thinking about something. I guess the one place you’re seeing it now is on TV, with the show "Empire."

I’m going to piggy-back off of that Empire comment. The show has kind of taken America by storm, but rumor has it that you have been critical of it. Can you talk about your issues, or maybe non-issues, with the show?

I love "Empire." I love the show. It’s one of my favorite shows. It’s beautiful to see the business reflected in the way that shows other people, other kinds of people, build empires too. You know, Donald Trump is not the only person who is a model mogul. That doesn’t need to be, like, the only picture of what an American mogul looks like.

But Donald Trump, just to be fair, was born into a lot of money. He’s made money since, but he had plenty to begin with.

Oh, no, I’m not saying anything like that. Donald Trump is a friend of mine, and he works very hard.

My point is that we’re never portrayed, other moguls aren’t always portrayed, in a similar way. The type of intelligence and sophistication that we all have, it’s great to see that magnified on TV. So that when you think of a mogul, of a successful businessman, you think of a variety of examples, of a diverse group of people.

It’s helped me in a way, because it helps people understand a little bit more how much work it takes to do what I’ve done. We don’t walk around with baggy pants, and just hang out with our entourage. It’s not the cliche people think it is.

I’m humbled and appreciate that there may be pieces of my life that helped inspire Empire. But obviously I’m not the only one. There are a lot of people whose life must have inspired the story. And that’s just how you write a story, how you make movies and television shows. There’s nothing wrong with that.

A neat thing about your brand is that you haven’t just leveraged it in the business world. You were a big part of the Vote or Die campaign. Are there any movements or social campaigns you’re particularly drawn to today?

I’ll be making some announcements about my philanthropic focuses.

One of the things I try to tell people, and tell myself, is that I don’t want to be known as the person who made the most money. I want to be known as the person who gave the most money away.

What about social movements? There are many of the moment. Have you been asked to be involved in any? Are you considering being attaching yourself to one?

Vote or Die was very straight to the point. It helped engage a lot of young people. It helped teach people about the Electoral College, and that things they had to do in order to register and eventually vote. It reached the unengaged and disenfranchised, which I was very proud of.

Right now, I’m the most impressed with Black Lives Matter. The message has been firm and consistent. It’s come at a time when it’s been needed. They’ve expressed their frustration in a way that’s clear, that people can’t deny.

But I really think that the thing that makes a movement like this successful is consistency. That’s how the message spreads.

I’m not an official member of Black Lives Matter, or a spokesperson for it, but I would say that I definitely support it. I’m very impressed by it.

Me personally, one of the things I’ll be working on soon is education. But that’s coming up, and I don’t want to give away too much too yet, so I’ll leave it at that.