It’s one thing to bet on yourself and chase your dreams. It’s something entirely different to lay the concrete and pave your own way to success when one is not provided to you. Nashville’s own Christian McCurdy didn’t necessarily find a path to success through the established mechanisms in the Music City. Similarly, he ran into roadblocks when he decided to fly out to Los Angeles and build a life for himself on the West Coast. Still, he continued to push forward and made the most of the opportunities provided to him. The numerous challenges and setbacks he faced along the way built him into the person he is today. Breaking away from the traditional routes to success, he built Legion, a certified hit-making factory with clients like Nija and Ant Clemons. In under a decade, he, his team and his family of clients have helped craft some of the world’s favorite songs like “No Guidance” by Drake and Chris Brown and “Cozy” by Beyoncé. As Legion continues to strive for more success, Christian McCurdy took time to speak with Def Pen Culture Editor Ryan Shepard about growing up in Nashville, working at T-Mobile and what makes a hit record in 2023.
Ryan Shepard: I’d like to start the interview by asking this question. Without mentioning your job title, how would you describe yourself?
Christian McCurdy: Without mentioning my job title, I’d say that I’m caring. I feel like that’s a big part of who I am. I’m caring and I’m hungry. I constantly want to achieve more. I’m not someone who gets settled easily. I think that aspect of myself could be a strength or weakness because I’m never satisfied. It’s unfortunate at times, but I think it also propels me forward. At the same time, I’m also not somebody that can get to where I want to get to in a way that I feel is unethical. I’m really big on that. I care about the people around me. That’s probably the best way I can describe myself.
I hear you. The world knows you as the president of Legion. Before that, you were a guy growing up in Nashville, Tennessee with a lot of dreams. To the outside world, Nashville is defined by country music. It’s known as the Music City. While that is a big part of the city, it’s definitely more than just one genre. It’s a lot of people with a lot of different dreams. As someone who grew up there, how would you describe the city to someone who has never been there?
It’s slow, but people are kind for the most part. It’s somewhere that has hoods like anywhere else. People sometimes forget about that, but people are pretty kind overall. It is super big on that Southern hospitality. Nine times out of ten, people aren’t just going to walk up to you and start issues. If you start it, people are going to meet you and match your energy though. That’s on all sides. Regardless of your skin color, background, etc. [they’ll match your energy.]
Though, Nashville is a slow city where we just like some good food and some good music. In Nashville, that music is usually country music. We have a street called Broadway and 2nd. It’s two streets and it’s like every bar has live music. Side by side, every single bar has a live band in it. The band may play country, bluegrass or a little bit of rock. So, that’s the best way to explain it, man It’s country. That’s the reality. Nashville is growing right now for sure, but it’s still country. You’re going to see people with their cowboy boots. It’s a “small” big city. That is the way I describe it.
Definitely. I’d agree with that. I lived there for a little over a year. It’s different than what I was used to. I grew up in New Jersey in a small town about an hour outside of New York City, so I grew accustomed to something different growing up. When I moved to Nashville, I felt the shift in the pace of the city. With that said, it’s definitely still a city and I really enjoyed it.
What part of New Jersey did you grow up in?
I was born in raised in North Plainfield, New Jersey.
One of my clients, Nija, is from Union. It’s right across the bridge too.
Yeah, that’s about 15-20 minutes away from where I grew up. That’s dope! Going off of my previous question, I read that you went from Nashville to Middle Tennessee State for college. What I found interesting is that you studied music business, but you had a minor in Spanish. I thought that was pretty cool. How would you describe your time there and how did studying music business on an academic level prepare you for your work now?
It didn’t help me that much. I’m going to be real with you. I’m not anti-school at all because I valued my time there. More than anything, I learned to think about things in terms of the big picture.
I learned how publishing deals function, how splits work and what roles existed within the music industry. I went into the program not knowing much outside of the music itself. So, they help me understand the big picture. Once I graduated, I had to learn more about how to apply these things in the world.
That’s what I would say. Going to college, I learned more about the terms and the people. I met a lot of talented people there. So, my relationship with people carried over to what I’m doing now. I met like-minded individuals who really love music the way that I love music and were trying to make it a part of their lives moving forward.
There’s one other thing that I wanted to ask you about before we begin discussing your work with Legion. You worked at many different places while you were in college, including Sony Music. However, there’s one thing that caught my eye. While you were working towards a career in the music industry, you were also an assistant manager at T-Mobile. How did you end up at T-Mobile and are there any skills you picked up from that job that transferred over to your life in music?
For sure! I learned a lot of things at T-Mobile. I started off working in sales before being promoted to manager, which still involved sales. It was a sales job, but I feel like I learned how to present things to people in an appealing way. People will walk into the store and my job was to get them to buy a phone or a case. Even if they came into the store with a specific issue they were trying to fix, my job was to fix the issue and find a way to upsell them and get them to walk out with something extra. Maybe, it was a new phone, case or even a tablet. Something! That job helped me improve my people skills.
Right now, I think of music as sales. Still, our core business is selling music at the end of the day. We’re selling brands. Our clients are brands. That’s how I think about them. They’re companies within themselves. My job is to sell them as people to their fans, people in the industry or different brands. So, that’s kind of how I utilized some of the same techniques I learned back then. The job helped greatly. I was put on the spot and I had to find ways to make things happen one way or another.
Once you got out of college and left your sales job, you decided to go out to Los Angeles. As I said before, Nashville is known as the Music City, but L.A. is known as the entertainment capital of the world. What was the breaking point that led you to the West Coast and how would you compare the music industry in Los Angeles to Nashville?
Oh, man. It’s completely different. It’s different in almost every way. First off, I was stuck between L.A. and New York, right? I found that L.A. kind of had a few more things going on. Also, the weather is just better out here in L.A. That was a big part of it.
Nashville is great and it is the Music City. Everything about the city revolves around music, which I love. It’s probably where some of my passion [for music] came from. At the same time, 90% of that music is country and its surrounding genres like bluegrass. To be real, I got tired of that. I’ve always had a passion for urban music and pop music. L.A. had everything. It had all of the things that I was looking for.
So, I wanted to get out of the city. On the business side, it’s also very small. Nashville is a small city and country music has an older structure. It’s not as progressive. It’s a classic structure, so I wanted to try something different, especially being a young Black dude. I was like 20 or 21 at the time and I wanted to get into music at a high level. I saw that executives were usually younger in these really big cities like Los Angeles or New York and that’s not just as common in Nashville. It’s starting to get better [in Nashville], but at the time, a lot of the executives I saw were older, white men. There were a few women, but it was primarily older, white men.
Nashville is also a very small community. Regardless of color, it also feels like everybody knows everybody. It’s small and kind of hard to break into. The opportunities are not as simple for people who aren’t tapped into that community already.
Definitely. When I was living in Nashville, I remember talking to a few artists who said they had to go to Atlanta or L.A. a lot to get bigger opportunities. They wanted to stay in Nashville, but the opportunities they wanted in R&B, Rap or Pop didn’t always exist for them there.
Going off of that, I read that you got your first managerial role by being in the right place at the right time for a producer. Can you walk me through how that opportunity came to be and what was your first job as a manager like?
When I moved to Los Angeles, I didn’t want to be a manager. I was trying to be an A&R originally. I was interning at studios and trying to find any job that I could, but it was hard to just get a job out here in general.
I was just trying to get in the mix and eventually, I got an internship at Atlantic. I had to start over because I was expecting that I was going to get a job with my college degree. I thought it was going to be cool and it didn’t necessarily work out that way at first. So, I started over and got another internship with Atlantic at a studio working with some of the A&Rs. While I was there, I was somewhat responsible for finding music. I was in charge of their emails for submissions and such. I found this kid whose music was just different and it was fire, so I hit him up. He thought I was this big-time A&R because I emailed him from my Atlantic email and he was super excited. He sent me some more music and sent this Dropbox folder. I downloaded the folder, but I downloaded it under my name. He saw that and found me on Twitter. So, I was like, “Wow, this kid has hustle.” Then, the A&Rs went ahead and signed him to a publishing deal. They asked me to manage me and I was like, “F*ck it, this is my opportunity to do something a little bit more serious.” I ended up doing it and we had a great run.
“I don’t want to make music for the moment. I want to make music forever.”
As a writer, people are always sending me emails with music, but I can imagine the process is a little bit different when people are reaching out to you as a producer, songwriter, etc. They may not be the front-facing stars that the public is familiar with, but they play an integral part in the process of making our favorite songs. For example, someone like Ant Clemons, who you have worked with, has helped make some of my favorite songs. How did you initially connect with him?
There’s an artist named Jazzy, who is also from Tennessee. She’s from Memphis. We knew each other for a minute and I used to put her in sessions when we first started. She was like, “Yo, there’s this writer you’ve got to meet named Ant Clemons. He’s dope!’ So, I was like, “All right, cool. I’ll check him out.” Then, I checked his music out. Actually, one day we ran into each other. We went to church separately and we saw each other and started talking. He asked me to pull up and hear some music he’d been working on. So, I did. Actually, it wasn’t his spot. He was staying at somebody else’s place. He was sleeping on the floor at a friend’s house. They let him stay if he wrote a song for them every day. When I got there, he played me a bunch of music and I thought it was dope. That’s kind of how that relationship started.
When I was learning about your creative brand, Legion, I came across a YouTube series that you all did. It highlighted the work you all did behind the scenes and showed how your team works together. It really looks like you’ve not only built a team, but you’ve built a creative family. You all look, operate and work together as a unit. How do you maintain an environment where everybody feels comfortable and willing to contribute in a way that’s beneficial for everyone?
I’m going to be honest with you, man. That’s an ever-evolving thing and it’s really important to me. It’s great that you picked that up from some behind-the-scenes stuff because that’s something I pride myself on. But, it’s an ongoing thing because I want everyone to feel like their opinion matters. With that, they also have to respect everyone else’s opinion too. Sometimes, it can get tricky when you mix family with business, but I’ve been blessed with how it’s worked out so far.
I’m big on communication, so I’ll tell them straight up. If anybody has an issue with anybody on the team, including myself, then let’s speak about it respectfully. Let’s try to get to the bottom of it, so we can get back to doing what we love. That’s just the environment I want.
I also noticed that Legion is extremely diverse. From the outside looking, someone may think that the entire music industry is like that, but that’s not the case in a lot of places. At Legion, more than 50% of staff members are women. More than 50% of staff members are either immigrants or have international roots.
When I looked up your name on Twitter, everyone has great things to say about you. Amal Noor of LVRN wrote, “Inspired by Christian McCurdy forever. That n*gga really taught me everything.” As I’ve said before, you’ve built a diverse and healthy workplace that helps a lot of people break into the industry. What does it mean to build an environment where people that are often overlooked can get an opportunity to show what they can do? And what does it mean when you have someone like Amal Noor, who used to work with you, can venture off and blossom at a place like LVRN?
It means everything to me. Honestly, I think that just proves to me that I’m doing something right. Obviously, I love money. I can’t say that I don’t love money, but the most rewarding thing to me is my client’s success. Internally, I feel happier when I see my client buy their first car or their first place. That has nothing to do with me, but it means the most to me because I was able to help that person’s life in some way and change them.
If people work for me and they blossom somewhere else, my goal is to always have a good relationship with them because I want them to win. That means I’m making a positive impact. It also means a lot when it happens for people that didn’t have an opportunity beforehand. I started Legion because I didn’t have the opportunity and I couldn’t find a job. So, I try to offer opportunities to people who are talented but didn’t have the chance to show it. I want to at least give them an opportunity.
But yeah, I’m super proud of Amal. She’s been killing it and she has some dope clients herself. She started as my intern and then she was my assistant. I’m really happy for her and I’m proud of her.
Legion’s YouTube series, The Hit Factory, highlights the clients you have like Nija. She’s worked with Ariana Grande, Drake, Chris Brown and many others. After looking through the resumés of all of your clients, it’s clear you all know how to make great music. In today’s musical landscape, what qualifies as a hit to you?
I think it varies. It’s so much different now. Some people define a hit as a record that goes number one or top five on Billboard. I do think that that qualifies for the most part as a hit. That means a lot of people enjoyed it, but I feel like a hit is a timeless song. It has the same impact if you hear it five years, 10 years or even 15 years later. I think we have songs like that.
Today, some songs pop off and have a big following because of TikTok, right? But if the record can’t transcend TikTok and people don’t want to play it in two years, that’s not a hit to me. A record like Nija did with Chris Brown and Drake? No Guidance? That’s a hit. You can play that 10 years from now and people are still going to dance to that song and we have other records like that. So, that’s what we strive to do. We try to make timeless music.
I agree with that sentiment. Recently, I was talking to someone about “Don’t Play With It” by Lola Brooke. Being in the tri-state area, that song was getting played for a year or two before it took off. With that said, I’m still as excited when I hear that song now as I was when it first dropped. I feel like that embodies what you said. If it can be played a year from now or 10 years from now, that’s ideally what you’re looking for.
One hundred percent, man. I think that’s spot on. I see a lot of artists pop off and they have a big record. Then, a few years ago by. Where are they? They can’t even name their songs right away. I don’t want to make music for the moment. I want to make music forever.
I have two more questions I wanted to ask you. First, I want to look at where Legion is headed. Looking toward the future, you have a roster of successful songwriters, producers, artists, etc. How would define success for Legion five years into the future?
Right now, we’re mainly known as a management and publishing company. Five years from now, I want Legion to be known as one of the biggest, if not the biggest, independent labels. That’s where we’re going with things.
Right now, we have Lu Kala, who is going crazy right now. We have her on the management side, but she’s going crazy. She has a record with Latto that’s doing super well. Moving forward, we want to work with people on the label side. We have a full staff and a creative department. We also do marketing and have studios that are free to any of our clients. We have a lot of the resources already, so that’s the next focus.
Wrapping up, I want to ask you about the celebration of Hip-Hop’s 50th anniversary. We’ve been asking everyone from DJ Cassidy to the cast of Bel-Air about what the culture of Hip-Hop means to them. If Hip-Hop was a person, what would you say to them on their 50th birthday?
Thank you! That’s the biggest thing. I want to give thanks. Hip-Hop changed my life. In general, music has changed my life for the better, but Hip-Hop really did it. I feel like there’s a song that can relate to any moment or emotion — happiness, anger, etc. It’s the temple of my life. That’s truly what it is. That would be the biggest thing. I want to say thank you.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for grammatical clarity and brevity.