The Coachella music festival starts tomorrow in Indio, Calif. I’m excited to go for the third year in a row. At the same time, I’m dreading it a little, because I know I will be spending about 10 hours standing in the sun, cheek-by-jowl with kids as young as 13, in order to secure a prime viewing position for headliners Beyoncé and Eminem. It’s the standing that’s brutal, by the way. The teenagers are generally okay, though when I hear them talking about middle-school sexcapades and rolling on Molly, I always want to call their parents and say, “Come get this child!”
Another Coachella moment that I’m dreading is my review of the merchandise selection. Before I plant myself in front of the main stage, I’ve got to scan Eminem’s merch for these dog tags, which were sold on his website for a few days starting Dec. 8, 2017.
It’s going to harsh my music buzz if those tags are there because I wasn’t the one who made them — even though I spent three years working with Eminem’s outside merchandising team on a silver capsule collection that included an “autographed” Slim Shady dog tag.
A lot of people think manufacturing jewelry (or anything, really) is about an idea and a sketch. But creating a product entails much more work than meets the eye. As the emails embedded in this post prove, I’d provided Eminem’s merchandising team with creative concepts and design direction for necklaces, earrings, and rings; determined pricing of the designs in various materials and quantities; produced physical sterling-silver samples; and made modifications and new designs as requested. I’d researched the use of black metal instead of silver at the request of the team just months before the other vendor’s dog tags appeared online.
As of the day I saw the tags, I’d yet to be paid a cent for my work. I hadn’t even received the bare minimum of $2,833 I was owed after spending my own money to manufacture prototypes, let alone anything for my labor.
After another company finished the project, my chances of being compensated seemed, um, slim, especially when my right-hand woman Eryn called our main merch contact to say, “We saw the dog tag on the website …” and he shot back, “AND…?!?”
So I did the only thing I could do at the moment.
I truly thought I was going to do this project, especially after they inquired about using a black metal this September. My factory still has one of my quality samples, ready to match it in production. pic.twitter.com/J5UmlCahxI
— Wendy Brandes (@WendyBrandes) December 9, 2017
Shining a light is sometimes the only recourse a small company has. In 2012, for instance, Topshop pulled its too-close-for-comfort version of my famous swear rings from its website because of tweets from my customers and blog readers.
This time, my original tweet and follow-ups caught the eye of a freelance reporter who writes for national publications. Her curiosity was piqued as to how a small artist’s interaction with a world-renowned artist’s merchandise department went awry.
When she reached out to me, I told her upfront that I wasn’t claiming any violation of intellectual property rights. I don’t own the concept of dog tags, Eminem’s “Slim Shady” signature, or any combination thereof. But the signed dog-tag design that appeared on Eminem’s website was undeniably similar to the concept that I had worked on for so long, with direction from the merchandising team and the expectation of compensation. You don’t need perfect vision to see that.
I also made it clear that I never interacted with Eminem himself in any way about this project and I don’t hold him responsible for any of this. From what I can see, Eminem is an artist who is passionate about his craft. He has generously supported up-and-coming artists in his field, stuck by the performers who knew him before he was a star, and gone out of his way to draw attention to his hip-hop heroes. He doesn’t appear to be money-hungry, and he gives back to the community: His philanthropic efforts include a program to foster literacy via songwriting. I have no reason to think he knew this project was in the works or that he would condone the outcome. Seriously, Eminem would have to physically stand in front of me and say, “Yes, Wendy Brandes, I enjoy scamming other artists, plus I desperately needed you to float me $2,833 for three years,” for me to believe that such behavior was even a possibility. (And Em, if you needed a loan that bad, you could’ve just asked!)
Nor did I have much direct interaction with Eminem’s personal record label, Shady Records, despite the fact that this whole experience began with an inexpensive gift sent to Shady’s office in 2014. That year, my silver middle finger emoji stud earring was my best-selling style.
Emoji users had been begging Emoji HQ — official name: the Unicode Consortium — for a middle finger emoji to use on their keyboards, and I’d beaten HQ to it. (My earring came out in 2013, and the real emoji wasn’t released until 2015.) Accordingly, the stud was very popular, and it occurred to me that there had to be someone at Shady who would get a kick out of the earrings, seeing as Em’s the longtime king of flipping the bird.
As a bonus, I had an earring version of the “sign of the horns” gesture — first made famous by Ronnie James Dio — that was featured in one of Em’s 2013 promotional photos.
I was sure that if the folks at Shady saw these, they’d love them so much that they’d want a few more for their friends and family. And maybe one of Eminem’s artists would eventually spring for a bigger nameplate necklace like the ones I’ve done for my rapper friends Gangsta Boo and Hi-Rez.
But those possibilities were far down the road, because a gift is a gift. There can be no strings attached, particularly when it comes to celebrities. I’d actually sworn off doing celebrity gifting because it is often ineffective from a business standpoint. Consider one of my celebrity “success” stories: I was thrilled when Rihanna wore a gifted 18K gold Mud Flap Jill necklace in 2012, about 18 months after I sent it to her team. It was exciting to see the photos. But the briefly worn gift didn’t generate sales, and bragging rights don’t pay the bills.
However, I was willing to make an exception for Eminem — or, at least, his people — because (a) I knew my design was a perfect fit, image-wise and (b) I figured the people working for a male performer known for his casual wear wouldn’t already be drowning in lucrative jewelry deals from the likes of Chopard.
It turned out to be a challenge to touch base with Shady Records. Eryn had to go into full Sherlock Holmes mode to make a personal contact. The company has to fend off a lot of people trying to wangle something out of Eminem — money, record deals, and who knows what else. Eryn’s leery contact wanted to know what we were really asking for. Eryn was like, “We. Are. Asking. You. To. Take. This. Free. Gift.”
Nevertheless, we persisted, and Eryn finally made the delivery personally on July 11, 2014. She had a good time, chatting with her new friend-on-the-inside, while he fended off a call from a would-be rap star determined to audition over the phone. There was also an unexpected compliment: Her contact said the jewelry would make “cool merch” after all! Eryn — never one to turn down an opportunity — said we’d be happy to do that.
When Eryn told me about the merch remark, I was like, “Uh-oh” because I had recently decided to concentrate my resources on my ultra-high-end gold designs. The silver emoji studs were great for buzz, and I loved seeing people who don’t have unlimited budgets have access to a Wendy Brandes design. I’m adding to my silver line to this day because of that. But, as I’ve discussed before, it’s difficult to make money if most of your sales are to individuals buying small, made-in-the-U.S. silver pieces. Gold makes more sense financially: I can sell one gold design and make $1,500, or I can sell 100 silver designs to make the same profit. On the other hand, any Eminem merchandise would be a quantity wholesale order that could be made affordably overseas and delivered in one easy shipment — rather than 100 shipments — so I justified the strategic detour as a project that would be a connection with a big name and pay off financially.
Besides, I was suddenly bubbling over with Slim Shady-related design ideas. On Twitter, I’d sometimes see Em’s female stans saying that the apparel offerings on Eminem.com were too masculine-looking, or unisex at best, with a lot of boxy t-shirts, sweatshirts, and baseball caps. And it just so happens that one of my specialties is turning bad-ass concepts into jewelry that ladies love.
We heard back that Eminem’s longtime manager, Paul Rosenberg, liked the designs! And Eryn’s contact introduced us by email to the merchandising team at an outside agency called Fame House, which did merch for a number of A-list artists.
The merch team set up our first conference call for Oct. 28, 2014. One member of the team said they did a lot of work with small vendors and they wanted to be sure we made money on this deal too, so I felt good about the relationship. To get a feel for costs, we were asked to price an order of 1,000 earrings and 1,000 necklaces. I priced everything in silver-plated brass, gold-plated brass, sterling silver, and gold-plated sterling silver with a factory in Thailand, where such a large order can easily be produced. Then we found out that Shady wasn’t going to continue using the SHADY XV font, so Eryn and I put together a presentation of 10 other designs suitable for a small collection, minus the logo necklaces.
Only with 20/20 hindsight can I say this is the moment I should have also put together a contract. Back then, I was proceeding as a jewelry designer, where we often do a lot of concept work before we can agree upon exactly what it is we’re going to make. Then we sign a contract. As InStore Magazine said in this February’s issue:
Operating under that premise, I got silver samples of eight styles underway in New York so that the merch team could make an informed final decision. While those were still in production in December 2014, I went to a concert to see Royce da 5’9” — a Shady artist — perform as part of the Prhyme duo. After the show, I spotted Paul Rosenberg. I introduced myself and he was so cool! He said his wife loved the SHADY XV necklaces, and that I should come by the office and have some Champagne to celebrate our collaboration. I happily emailed Eryn on my way home …
… then I pushed my manufacturer to get the New York samples finished for Shady by Christmas. It’s a tough time of year to get work done because everyone’s finishing up holiday orders placed months earlier, but I convinced my guy that this was life or death. I wanted to be prepared to turn the project around first thing in the new year. We did it, and in January 2015, the merch team made some modification requests and approved next steps, including sending New York-made samples to be priced by the factory in Thailand. I got a quote from the factory in mid-January 2015 and was approved to move forward with five of the designs on Feb. 4, 2015.
The crossed-chainsaw necklace was always my favorite. When I wore the sample out to gauge reaction, women who didn’t know it had anything to do with Eminem would ask to buy it. I’m telling you … tiny chainsaws for the win!
As you can see, we took the merch team’s requests to heart, putting serious thought into elements like the chains.
Fame House set up another conference call and it looked like smooth sailing.
Then, two months later — while the Thailand samples were being finished — Eryn broke my heart a little by deciding to try out a design job in the apparel industry. Alas! But we agreed that she would keep handling the Shady account and she sent a note to assure the merch team that she’d still be their contact.
As promised, Eryn let the merch team know when the Thai samples were on their way …
… responded to the team’s approval on May 13, 2015 …
… got the okay on a down payment the following day …
… and sent the invoice for 30% down (with a courtesy discount on the New York samples!) on May 20, 2015.
Then all activity came to an abrupt halt.
We’d been discussing costs from Day One, but now Eryn and I wondered if Fame House had gotten sticker shock over a bill for $9,000. It’s not as if Eminem is an indie artist, or Shady an indie label. Shady Records is owned by Interscope and Interscope, in turn, is owned by Universal Music Group, which reported $6.8 billion in revenue for 2017 alone. Universal Music Group is one of the big subsidiaries of the French mass-media giant called Vivendi, which had revenues of over 12 billion euros ($15 billion) in 2017, and employs over 33,000 people. In 2015, Fame House — the middleman — was owned by SFX, which had a market capitalization of a billion dollars at one point, but filed for bankruptcy in 2016. After that, it was acquired by Universal Music Group, putting it under the same corporate umbrella as Shady.
Eryn and I followed up with the merch team in June 2015 …
… and September.
Then it was time to gear up for the holiday season again. Plus, Eryn was working long hours at her real job. We put the Eminem project aside, and were pleasantly surprised when Fame House reached out to us to resume it in February 2016.
During the quick call we had — which Eryn, who didn’t even work for me full-time, had to take in the car on the way to a vacation, while her friends listened to the whole thing — the merch team alarmed us by saying they’d be selling wooden dog tags that spring, made from the door of Eminem’s razed childhood home. But, they assured us, that product would be very different from ours and they just needed a little bit of a gap between the release of the wooden tags in May and our higher-end ones. That made sense. I do fine jewelry that’s meant to be worn. Who’s really going to wear wood from an old house? Not the female fans I wanted to cater to, I thought.
Besides, I was working on a mini-collection, not only a dog tag. The merch folks requested a different font for the backwards E pendant, and I whipped up a new wax model for them by March 11, 2016.
I was more cautious by now and I didn’t do a finished silver version of that pendant because I hadn’t been paid for the previous samples. But I was still willing to invest time, shopping for different chain styles.
Then it was May and we were told to get back in touch in June. In August, I checked in personally, noting that we’d be looking at 2017 delivery by now.
In November 2016, prodigal child Eryn returned to the Wendy Brandes Jewelry fold. She and I plunged into several big projects — including our new Concierge Service — and tried not to think about our Shady merch situation. But, as we put the final touches on our beautiful Concierge Service look book in 2017 and turned our attention to a website redesign, I realized that the Eminem money would come in handy for paying our developer. I had two choices: I could pursue the money I was already owed for samples, or I could try to make a real profit by somehow driving this project to completion.
I, sadly, chose the latter, ensnared by the “sunk cost fallacy.” “Sunk cost fallacy” describes the way people keep investing in a losing project/relationship/war (seriously, the sunk cost fallacy applies to a lot of different situations!) because of the time and money already spent on it. The loss-averse part of our brain says, “If I don’t stick with it, I’ll have wasted all that time and money!” That’s when you wind up “throwing good money after bad,” as the saying goes, instead of cutting your losses.
Sunk-cost thinking led us to try to get a response out of Fame House with the jewelry-designer equivalent of an old-school Spacenook “poke” in June 2017. We sent renderings for two new designs, including a ring.
Finally, in August 2016, Eryn physically took a new printed project proposal of the designs to the Shady Records office, along with the last sample of the dog tag necklace, and left them for Paul Rosenberg. That was our M.O. when we wanted to hear from the merch team: Reach out to Paul. To give Eryn full credit, I should mention that she delivered that package in the pouring rain while on her way to a wedding rehearsal dinner … and she was the maid of honor! That prompted another inquiry about the pricing for the dog tag.
In September 2017, the team was back with the first mention of a black metal, as well as a price request that we had already satisfied. We asked some questions to confirm the delivery date and make sure we understood the design they wanted. They didn’t answer.
Eryn went ahead and found a manufacturer near Eminem’s beloved hometown of Detroit, who could not only work with black metal, but also promised us a shockingly short turnaround time of two or three weeks. I was still worried about what the real deadline was, as you can see from our correspondence.
In October, we used Eminem’s Trump-bashing BET cypher as a reason to reach out to the merch team. Our lead contact said that we needed to talk to “hammer this out” because the last information he had from us was “too long of a turnaround and too expensive for us.” We agreed. Twice. No response.
Finally, on Oct. 25, 2017, Eryn managed to get our lead merch-team contact on the phone for a one-on-one call which she later summarized this way:
“He said that they would be ‘putting a pin’ in our project until we are able to work with them on lead times and getting the price down. This was the first time he mentioned a somewhat arduous process of vetting new vendors, in response to my telling him that I found a new factory outside of Detroit that could produce a black dog tag on a short lead time. He said something about the possibility of producing a dog tag internally and referenced the wooden tags they made the year before, in terms of project direction. The conversation was a lot of general blaming, which is how most of our phone conversations went — they would present a problem, such as price, then we would solve the problem by sourcing a new factory or working overseas; then their next excuse was lead time. When in reality, had we started more quickly after our initial proposals, we could have accommodated both time and money. It was their lack of feedback or response that made us miss deadlines they never let us in on. At the end of the call, he alluded to potentially using the backwards E design that was submitted in April 2016 sometime next year. I suggested we get started now if it would be as early as Valentine’s Day and he said that February didn’t hold any significance brand-wise, so we were again given a super vague ‘let’s talk next year.’ I told him that I understood and we would resume next year. I mentioned our pending invoice and said that we would need to be reimbursed for samples that did not go into production – he asked how much it was; I told him it was in the ballpark of $2000 but I would need to review; he said he would need to see what they agreed to for paying for the samples.”
To be honest, the remark about “producing a dog tag internally” didn’t phase us after the wooden dog tags; we figured it would be more of the same. We didn’t hold out any hope for the backwards E design in 2018, of course. Our attitude was …
… and we started digging up old sample receipts to create a new invoice. We were still sorting through years of paperwork on December 8 when I got a run-of-the-mill marketing email:
I clicked and initially panicked, thinking, “Oh no! A dog tag!” Then I calmed myself down by thinking of the wooden dog tag, and noting that this, too, was different from my work because it was black … WAIT!!!! They asked us to do ours in black! I took a closer look then and saw that, despite some differences, they’d gone with the general concept of the autographed dog tag that we’d been proposing and following up on since 2014. The second dog tag, stamped “Stan” in a reference to Eminem’s famous song about a crazed fan, reminded me that I’d done an earlier rendering of the dog tag stamped with Eminem’s name.
Hands shaking, I texted Eryn to call both the Shady office and the merch team immediately. The merch-team call that started with the unpromising “AND…?!?” continued this way, as Eryn wrote in contemporaneous notes:
“I said it looks eerily similar to a design we first submitted in 2014, which is a project we were working on as recently as Sept/Oct 2017. … He brought up our last call where he told me we were ‘putting a pin in’ the project due to not having ‘the luxury of long lead times.’ I pointed out that three years [on their end] isn’t exactly a short lead time. I also told him that we took the time to try to source a new factory, near Detroit (to add to the brand identity in the design), and that the factory had shorter lead times and could produce the black dog tag quickly. I told him it was he himself who told me that we still didn’t have enough time to do this because vetting new vendors/factories takes too long. We ended with me asking him, ‘Well, you don’t see anything wrong with this scenario at all? We’ve been working on this with you for three years and now you are selling something very similar to what we have been working on without us.’ He said ‘It was made by a vendor we use all of the time.'”
Then he tried to get Eryn to call ME right then “so he could explain it to us both.” Eryn refused, saying she would pass me his contact information and I would decide if I wanted to call. I declined. I wasn’t going to sit there and listen to him claim that the research, design direction, creative concepts, and pricing work I provided over three years were worthless. In a previous call, he’d also tried to blame the delay on a personnel change on my end, even though I had clear documentation that Eryn always stayed on his account. Total projection, if you ask me. The merch team was the organization with a revolving door; you can see how many names come and go on their emails.
I preferred to tweet.
The reporter who saw the tweet asked many questions, which Eryn and I answered at length. She then called our main merch team contact, introduced herself, said why she was calling … and then got disconnected. Hmmm. She tried again and was disconnected again. Later, her phone rang, but it was not anyone from the merch team. It was Dennis Dennehy, VP at Interscope Records and Eminem’s publicist. When the reporter told me this, I nearly passed out, because I only notice Dennehy getting involved with big things: Superbowl fee rumors; album rumors; and making it clear that Em wasn’t involved in a music-royalty investment scheme. Dennehy also worked on the funny, fake pharma ads that were part of the Revival album promotion.
Dennehy told the reporter I never had a contract with Shady. I was like …
… because I knew that, although I didn’t have a contract, I had years of emails showing intent. One of the first things I learned in my first job after college was CYA: Cover Your Ass. I rarely delete an email or throw out a note. As a result, I create the kind of paper trails capable of forcing a nepotistic, bullying boss to reassign his own family member. Remember that I said at the beginning of this that Eminem is the king of flipping the bird? I am the wizard of paper trails. And not just any wizard. I’m the Defence Against the Dark Arts professor of paper trails.
Eryn and I proceeded to take screenshots of all our emails and notes — only some of which you’ve seen in this post — and organized them in a folder. Then we had a 2 1/2 hour conversation with the reporter to go over the timeline with a fine-tooth comb — I missed a political meeting I was supposed to lead to do that. After that, Eryn and I completed the samples invoice for $2,833 and sent it off by registered mail. Unfortunately, there was no way for me to bill for labor. That’s where the lack of a contract for consulting services really did screw me. It’s difficult to even calculate the vast amount of time we spent on this project. Here are estimates for a few of the many tasks.
- First project proposal with specs: 6 hours.
- First invoice: 4 hours.
- Following up with emails, phone calls, and personal visits: Minimum of 12 hours.
I can’t begin to calculate the hours Eryn and I spent strategizing about how to deal with this client after our on-off contact started. Nor can I guess at the time spent on research and communications, artwork, wax models, silver samples, and quality control I did with two different factories. I have a whole chain of emails with my Thailand factory contact disputing $4 of his cost for the silver dog tag sample. (I thought he had promised me a lower amount, and we split the difference in order to hit Fame House’s target.) I went out of my way, twice, to meet that same contact when he was in the U.S., in order to keep him engaged in the project in case it resumed. I had no other project with him, and no other business reason to meet him. Like I said many paragraphs ago, manufacturing jewelry requires much more than an idea and a drawing.
While Eryn and I were busy with billing, the reporter circled back to Dennehy with the information we’d given her. The limited-edition dog tags disappeared from Eminem’s website. Maybe they sold out? Anyway, when I next heard from the main merch contact, shortly before the new year, he sounded much friendlier. “We got your letter,” he said, and my $2,833 invoice would be processed as soon as the finance people came back after the holidays.
I received a check on Feb. 5, 2018. While I was waiting, I was working on this post. It will make a nice chapter for my book about small business … once I finish the story. Yep, there’s more to come, because I still have to impart the lessons I’ve learned, which will be valuable for entrepreneurs in any type of business. Stay tuned for that next week. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for the reporter’s story. After all her work, the publication decided not to proceed with it. Sorry, girl. I know the feeling!
UPDATED DEC. 11, 2018 TO ADD: Here’s Part 2! Better late than never.