From spinning records to turning deals

By 15 years old, Jorge Brea had already won a contest that led to him having one of his songs released commercially, via vinyl. It was a remix of an original song by an artist named DJ 43, entitled “No Tears.”

There’s a distinction, he makes. He was making music, not “playing” music. 

Brea began his music career at 13 years old. He had a love of computers and used that interest to make his own music, or remixed versions of songs he liked. 

“I always liked creating things,” Brea says. 

At 16 years old, he started making money from being a disc jockey and producer. He had his first DJ gig in Melbourne, but it wasn’t what he expected it would be. 

“They put me in a limo and I was like ‘Cool, this is what it’s going to be like,’ ” Brea says with a laugh. “Then they stuck me in a room that was all hip hop and I’m playing electronic music.” 

He made $500 that first gig. In 2022, his company, Symphonic Distribution, made $50 million. 

Symphonic Distribution, established by Brea in 2006, provides digital music services, distribution, playlisting and marketing services. Some musicians he’s distributed content for include mainstream names like Daddy Yankee, Robin Thicke, Deadmau5, Method Man and Slick Rick, in addition to countless independent acts. 

Today, Symphonic has more than 100 employees in the United States, including Tampa, New York, Colorado and Nashville and a global presence in the Dominican Republic, Canada, Colombia, Brazil and Africa. 

It completed an acquisition in 2022 and continues to adapt to the ever-changing music “scene.” You know those catchy tunes you hear on TikTok? Their company has a hand in that. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Ask your kids … or read on. It’s way more complicated than you might think. 

THE MUSIC MAN

Brea was born in the capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo, in 1984. 

Brea’s family moved to Tampa when he was just 7 years old. He is the baby of three siblings, with two older sisters and one older brother. 

Brea’s father worked in politics, working elections, his mother was a teacher, and business professional, and later moved into sales. 

“My childhood was really fun,” Brea says. “My parents worked hard to give our family a good childhood, in a country where there’s definitely a bit of chaos sometimes. It’s very populated, traffic is hectic. It can be a bit stressful to live there.” 

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, the government in Santo Domingo was undergoing a shift and, at that time, the Brea family made the decision to move to Tampa. 

“I came to Tampa for the first time in 1989. It was one of the coldest winters here, like ever,” Brea recalls. “To me that was incredibly fun because I had never been anywhere that was below, like, 65 degrees.” 

The family permanently relocated to Tampa in 1992. At the time, Brea spoke English, but not fluently.

“I went to summer school and really just kind of understood the language by watching TV and cartoons,” Brea says. Now, with very little accent. 

He describes himself as a quiet kid, not one to get into trouble. 

He grew up in Tampa and, as he reached high school, began to put some thought in what he wanted to do after school. 

“I loved computers and computer science, but I went to the class and it was just a total wreck,” he says. “I struggled, a lot, in high school. I had a tough time concentrating. I was put into all these [advanced placement] honors classes and it just didn’t work out. I was a pretty terrible test taker.”

As high school progressed, Brea says he struggled and barely graduated. 

During this time, still in high school, Brea developed a love for music. 

“My brother and I would go get a haircut and right next door was a record store. We would then go to the record store, and I would help him pick out records,” Brea says. 

He remembers the first cassette tape he purchased was Guns n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction. A self-described “rock kid” he also liked the Police and Eagles. But he developed eclectic tastes, enjoying hip hop like N.W.A. and electronic dance music. 

Brea tried college, attending Hillsborough Community College, and then he tried corporate America, being an administrative assistant at Coldwell Banker. He later worked for Computer Associates. Meanwhile, he maintained a passion for his music.  

“I was trying to formalize getting my music out there and it wasn’t making much money,” Brea says. “The last day I ever went to school, I was about to go into class, the first of the semester, and I, literally, it sounds like a movie, but I put my hand on the door and was like, ‘Yeah, no, I can’t do this.’ I walked away and I never looked back after that.”

CHANGING TUNES

Brea’s entrepreneurial spirit came into play, thanks to his eagerness to make a career in the music industry. 

And the music industry was changing, thanks to technology. Napster, Limewire and other services were providing access to music, illegally, for free. This was before streaming became a business model and record labels were struggling to counter the onslaught of lost revenue.  

“The whole reason Symphonic came to be is because I wanted to start my own record label. And I didn’t really have money to do vinyl or CD. But I started to release my music, digitally. And this was right after Napster left the music industry, basically, in shambles and everyone began releasing music online,” Brea says. 

MySpace offered an opportunity for Brea and his music. He used the platform to promote his music and, from there, created his own digital record label. By this time, legitimate websites were popping up on the scene. Streaming gained traction and record companies began to learn to monetize digital-only music. Compact discs were slowly dying a painful death. 

Using the retail store Beatport, a site for DJs, Brea began selling music he produced. iTunes had just launched, and Beatport was providing an alternative to find music you couldn’t get on iTunes. When Brea put his music on Beatport, he began making about $300 per day. 

“That’s when I really started to say, OK, I can build this business. And I was building it while still employed. Because my first goal was just to be able to go full time, because it was totally bootstrapped. No banks, no funding—just sweat equity, so to speak, to start the whole thing,” Brea says. 

It might have seemed like right idea, right time, but really Brea says he shifted gears and created Symphonic to provide a needed service, while building his business. 

“I don’t know if most businesses, particularly ones from first-time business owners, are always thinking of things outside of the business they’re building. We’re just doing the work,” Brea says. “And then, you start to see that there’s potential and you start to get more sophisticated yourself. It just sort of happens.”

As he was establishing, what would go on to be Symphonic Distribution, he knew the business was shifting. And as he navigated that shift, he admits, for the first few years he was glad to see the lights on or the website still up. 

He knew he had to play in the major leagues to be competitive. That meant getting into the biggest name in the business, at that time—Apple. 

“At that time, it wasn’t the Apple it is today, in terms of music. They were certainly very focused on the major record labels but they didn’t really talk to a lot of independent labels, which means that they were definitely not carrying all the world’s music,” Brea says. 

In walks opportunity.

As a distributor, Brea would be able to create a branch that would push music from the “little guys” to the “big guys.” 

“At the same time, I knew that the way that we were taking content, and distributing it, was incredibly manual and it wasn’t going to scale. It was a very tedious process,” Brea says. “The ‘aha’ moment for us was when we were approached by a client of ours who said, ‘You might start thinking about building your own technology.’ ”

FULL-TIME, BIG TIME

By 2009, Symphonic Distribution had built its own technology and that’s when Brea quit his day job to focus on his home-grown business full-time. 

“In a nutshell, you could upload music to us and then we made the delivery seamless. We also report to you the royalties in a way, with analytics daily, in a way that you don’t have to do anything,” Brea says. “That’s when we figured out how to scale.” 

This is when Brea is asked, by TBBW, to explain Symphonic Distribution “for dummies.” (See breakout box 1 on page 26) 

The short version is this. An artist, or an artist’s representative, creates an account with Symphonic. They upload their content, along with the needed vital information, and share it with Symphonic. Symphonic does the heavy legwork of making sure there is no copyright infringement and everything the streaming service needs is there. Think Apple’s rules, Spotify’s rules, etc., and then once the content is on the streaming service, it then sends the royalties back to the artist. The middleman, if you will.

“We started off with distribution but we’ve expanded into publishing and other business lines in the music industry,” Brea says. 

In 2022, Symphonic Distribution acquired Streaming Productions, a Nashville-based marketing agency and expanded to new territories. Symphonic also was honored as deal of the year, by the Tampa Bay chapter of AM&AA, for its Series B fundraising, led by Newspring Growth, and backed, once again, by Ballast Point Ventures, the investor from the series. 

“The phase we’re in, right now, is we’re starting to create our own assets as well as buying assets that are out there,” Brea says. “Because the music business today is vastly different than it was when we started this. This industry, for us, it’s thriving, like it’s crazy.” 

Along for the crazy ride is his brother, Julio, vice president client relations, and his wife of 10 years Janette Berrios, vice president of corporate marketing.

“We’re certainly not the biggest in the industry, today, but we are on an aggressive growth path,” Brea says. “Some of our technology is pretty disruptive to our competitors. But ultimately, we built a sterling reputation in the industry.” 

That, in addition to customer service, that treats their customers like people, building connections with their clients and being responsive to their needs has driven their success. 

“This industry is known for not replying to you, just in general,” Jeannette Brea adds. “They’re not as proactive getting back to people, via email. So we’ve always been really proactive with answering every single email. And we’re really quick with it, which our competitors sometimes take weeks.” 

As the music industry changes, technology changes, issues change. 

The latest challenge Symphonic is adapting to is the rise of using copyrighted songs on social media platforms, like Instagram and Tik Tok. 

“We are putting a lot more focus on risk management, fraud and so forth; because we’re living in a time with [artificial intelligence] being able to create music, and people overseas not understanding copyright law in the [United States]. Copyright law is different everywhere. People will take an asset, slow it down and make their own version, just for fun for people on social media, but they’re not realizing that they’re actually infringing. And these platforms have safe harbor. But we are responsible for ensuring that the music that we put on those platforms is as original as humanly possible and that we are detracting anyone that’s trying to take advantage of the platforms. That’s a whole new ballgame,” Brea explains. 

IT’S A TAMPA THING

Jorge and Janette agree, growing a music business in Tampa has had its challenges but, overall, the market has served them well. At times, the company feels disconnected from other hot beds of music enterprise, such as New York and Los Angeles. But it’s their technology and customer service that set them apart from their competitors. 

“We’re kind of like a new generation, because we’re digital, we’re not physical,” Janette says. “In this new digital space major record labels, and publishers, are very behind, in terms of their technology. Some of these entities are hundreds of years old. They’re slowly moving but we’re moving faster.”

They are proud to tell their “Tampa” story. 

“We’re not going to move away from here. We can expand to other territories but this is a great place to do business,” Brea says. “It’s a wonderful place to live. It’s why you have everybody wanting to move down here. You can build something here and stay here.”

***

Symphonic Distribution ‘For Dummies’ 

At one point, during Jorge Brea’s interview with TBBW, we had to ask him to explain some things to us in terms we can understand.

“I always try to explain it in as simple terms as possible, because it can get really complex really fast. 

“If you make music, we are the ones that can put it on Apple, Spotify or Pandora. And every time that a fan of music is listening to it, it generates a royalty, or a master sound recording royalty, which is the primary royalty that we collect as a business. 

“So, essentially, if you have an account with us, you can upload your content in one dashboard, fill out the details; like your artist’s name, for example, and you upload your release cover, then press send. 

“We have a whole team that reviews everything and makes sure that there’s no infringement and that everything looks good, according to the guidelines that we are being governed by, which is set forth by Apple Music and others.”

Brea goes on to describe a number of different coding processes and file names, and we were confused, once again … but essentially, after all is approved, your music is on the preferred streaming sites and the artist gets paid, as royalties come in. 

Giving Back

Symphonic Distribution gives back in several ways. It does a monthly donation to Legal Defense Fund and has done so for three years. 

“That’s something we’re really proud of,” Jorge Brea says. “It helps minority communities be able to combat injustice and things of that nature.” 

It holds an annual music festival called Vibes of the Bay, usually done in Ybor City, which offers an opportunity for local musicians to get noticed. Symphonic does not collect any money from that event, Brea says. 

Symphonic Distribution also has established a women’s mentorship program, which it launched for International Women’s Day. In 2022, it secured 65 mentors in the music industry from companies like YouTube, TikTok and Spotify, which in turn mentored 165 women. At the time of the TBBW interview, it was planning to do so again in March 2023.

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