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Canadian music startup gives Death Row second life

By Robert Thompson

TORONTO (Billboard) - The Canadian music startup WIDEawake Entertainment Group is moving from obscurity to Death Row, having unveiled its ambitious plans for the U.S. gangsta rap label, whose catalog includes recordings by Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur.

Despite a low profile even in its home country, WIDEawake snapped up Death Row Records from bankruptcy for $18 million in January. It now plans what it says will be a "hugely profitable" business strategy for the company, built upon digital and mobile formats, synchronization licensing deals for television and film, and the issuing of previously unreleased material -- including songs by Shakur, who was killed in 1996.

Some industry observers have questioned the acquisition price, but WIDEawake founder/CEO Lara Lavi says there are plenty of revenue opportunities.

"The label hasn't been exploited significantly for the digital market," she says. "There's no mobile exploitation and absolutely no synch (synchronization license) income. When you put those things together, you have a pretty good sense of what this company is worth."

Lavi says WIDEawake's interest in Death Row commenced last summer when Ronald Ovenden, chairman/CEO of WIDEawake investor New Solutions Capital in Mississauga, Ontario, asked her to find a "cash-generating entertainment asset."

She quickly set her sights on Death Row, saying the label's financial details made it attractive. Lavi says that even with all the turmoil surrounding Death Row --including the incarceration of its founder Suge Knight and the bankruptcy -- it was still pulling in $3 million-$5 million in what she calls "passive" annual income, without promotion or significant marketing support.

'EXQUISITE MATERIAL'

Lavi has hired former Death Row producer/engineer John Payne as senior vice president at Death Row/WIDEawake Entertainment LLC. Payne says the real opportunities in the 10,000-song catalog reside in unreleased tracks by the likes of Petey Pablo, Kurupt, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and even Beyonce. He's now working with the artists concerned, ensuring that appropriate contracts are in place.

"There's so much exquisite material that never saw the light of day," he says. "These are artists that would love to see their material released, and I'm sure they want to get paid for what they've done."

Payne has been working with the Shakur family to arrange the release of 13 songs, chosen from about 40 unreleased tracks. He and Lavi also have been investigating song placements and synch deals and have met with MTV and others in the TV, movie and advertising industries.

"Based on those meetings, I'd say there are some extremely lucrative opportunities out there," Payne says.

Some might question whether an obscure Canadian entertainment group without any real track record is best placed to exploit those opportunities. But Chris Taylor, founder of the Canadian law firm Taylor Mitsopulos Klein Oballa, which investigated Death Row for Lavi before WIDEawake's bid, says the underdog role suits the company.

"Though they might not be widely known, they are a quality operation," he says. "I'm confident of their ability to deal with the Death Row catalog."

Meanwhile, Death Row co-founder Lydia Harris believes WIDEawake's distance from the business may prove to be an advantage.

"There were a lot of people worn down by the bulls--t around Death Row," she says. "For someone to come in from the outside, it should allow them to avoid some of the problems."

Even with the Death Row deal in place, Lavi says WIDEawake remains committed to its Canadian operation and to upcoming projects involving the little-known Toronto R&B singer Sean Jones -- WIDEawake's only previous music signing -- as well as a film project about the life of Marvin Gaye and a graphic novel that will involve the Death Row catalog.

(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)

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