As prominent media execs, Leonard Burnett and Brett Wright could have partied anywhere they wanted on election night.
But these two pioneers of hip-hop culture — magazine veteran Burnett, 44, is the former publisher of Vibe, and marketing pro Wright, 40, helped shape music label Uptown Records — chose to celebrate Barack Obama’s victory quietly at Burnett’s home in Harlem.
“This was the culmination of our contribution in media to making this happen,” said Burnett, who’s met the President-elect twice at fund-raising events. “It was personal.”Four years ago, Burnett and Wright never dreamed they would see Obama in the White House. But they always knew there was a significant population of people just like him — successful African-Americans.
They decided to create a magazine, Uptown, for this untapped market. Unlike Vibe and rap bible The Source, where Wright started his career, Uptown wouldn’t focus on youth culture or try to compete with Essence and Ebony for a mass audience.
Instead, Harlem-based Uptown speaks to a growing population of blacks who make a good living and enjoy an upscale lifestyle.
Articles would be about successful black businessmen, like former Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons — who serves on the board of the Apollo Theater with Wright — and doctors, not just celebrities and sports figures. The potential audience: 1.3 million African-Americans who account for more that one-third of all U.S. spending among blacks.
“We wanted to show that African-Americans with money aren’t just rappers, they are doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs,” Burnett said.
Uptown now has a circulation of 200,000 and comes out six times a year. It has regional editions in New York, Washington, Chicago, Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C. The majority of its readers, chosen based on their zip codes and estimated income, get Uptown for free.
The current issue, featuring Beyonce on the cover, includes a spread on the opulent home of BET exec Louis Carr, as well as ads for the Lincoln MKS and Tiffany. It also features a roundup of the 20 most important black people of the year (no surprise: both Obamas made the list, and he will be the cover story in the issue due out next week).
With a clearly defined niche and deep ties in the urban media and entertainment worlds, Burnett and Wright had a big leg up in starting a publication from scratch.
Even so, they’ve been close to running out of cash more than once. And while they managed to survive, the economic crisis that has advertisers slashing budgets means the future of Uptown is far from certain.
“If you had a business plan, you probably wouldn’t do a magazine,” Wright said. “We probably should have known better. But we had a blind faith in the product.”
The partners didn’t have to look far beyond their own lives to dream up Uptown. Both own homes in Harlem’s historic Strivers Row. On a recent morning, Burnett, a Detroit native and the son of an entrepreneur, was dressed in an elegant gray suit, lavender tie and Herm�s belt.
Wright, who spent years in the music business and is married to soap opera star Yvonna Wright of “Guiding Light,” wore small diamond studs in each ear and stylish Alain Mikli eyeglasses. The look was a far cry from his childhood in Montclair, N.J.
Burnett and Wright have been running in the same social and media circles for years, but it was an act of friendship that launched them in business together.
In 2004, Burnett had just left Vanguard Media, a urban magazine publishing house forced to close after its money ran out. Wright, who calls himself a “serial entrepreneur,” was running his own urban ad agency, Nu America.
Burnett needed a new gig and the two started to talk. The idea of launching Uptown grew out of a discussion on the economic renaissance taking hold in Harlem.
Wright agreed to invest $1 million in the magazine. Burnett refinanced his house and put in $250,000. The two set up shop in Nu America’s offices on E. 125th St. The first issue of Uptown, with a cover shot of Farnsworth Bentley, the former Diddy valet turned celebrity, hit in August 2004.
Within a year, money was so short Burnett took a job as group publisher of Vibe. “I looked in my bank account and said, �I don’t have the money to pay the mortgage,’” Burnett recalled.
Late last year, thanks to another connection, the duo found some much-needed financing. Burnett’s longtime mentor, magazine mogul Bob Miller — the prominent ex-Time Inc. exec who launched such blue chip titles as Martha Stewart Living and Vibe — introduced him to InterMedia Partners, a private investment firm run by former YES Network chief Leo Hindery. While discussing ideas about new ventures, Burnett pulled out a copy of Uptown.
Intrigued, InterMedia agreed to invest an estimated $6 million for a majority stake in Uptown. Miller, an early investor in Uptown, agreed to put in more cash. Burnett returned to Uptown full time.
The money has allowed Wright and Burnett to expand their staff — the magazine now employs 21, including 17 in the city. Ad pages hit 257 in 2008, up from 100 in 2007.
Uptown is “reaching out to people who are attracted to style and exclusivity,” said Tim Philippo, marketing manager for Maserati, a new advertiser.
But Wright and Burnett can’t count on a platinum payout of their own anytime soon. The coming year will be extremely tough and the first issue of 2009 failed to meet ad sales targets.
“Everything is getting hit in media,” said David Koff, a senior partner at InterMedia.
By Phyllis Furnam for the NY Daily News on www.targetmarketnews.com