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How A Quiet, Failed Comic Book Artist Conquered Hollywood’s Nightlife Scene

Franki Chan was once unemployed and broke. Today, his IHEARTCOMIX empire works with the likes of The Rolling Stones and Skrillex.

Franki Chan is an unlikely nightlife king. Now in his late 30s and softspoken, his big professional ambition earlier in life was to work as a comic book artist. But today, he presides over IHEARTCOMIX, an L.A.-based culture agency whose work sprawls into everything from throwing a music festival at Sundance to working with corporate clients, putting out records, and organizing big all-night parties in its home base of Los Angeles.

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Franki Chan

He’s been doing it for more than a decade, and has worked with an entire VIP section of superstars. He’s organized a private concert for the Rolling Stones, consulted for Skrillex, partnered with superstar producer Diplo since 2007, and thrown South by Southwest parties for A$AP Rocky and enigmatic collective PC Music, to name just a few of his dozens of A-list connections.

The way Chan got from there to here is particularly relevant at a time when the world’s biggest businesses–Apple, Google, and Amazon–are expanding well beyond their origins, into TV, cars, jewelry, robots, and, lately, pencils.

So how does a much smaller company, in the murky, mercurial field of entertainment, no less, add new lines of business without losing its soul–or its way?

Desperation Is The Mother of Invention

IHEARTCOMIX began out of desperation. Back in 2003, Chan moved to L.A. with big dreams of becoming a comic book artist. He’d recently gone to San Diego Comic Con with his very first full comic book, and completely sold out. He was sure that he had a bright future ahead of him.

That’s not how it turned out. “I ended up not even having time to do it,” he says over the phone on a recent afternoon. “I just ran out of money and I couldn’t find a place to live and I couldn’t find a job.”

For most people, that would be the end of the story. But for Chan, it was only the beginning. At his low point, jobless and practically homeless, a friend who owned a bar asked him to DJ. He’d played in bands and thrown parties back home in Indiana, so he figured he’d give it a shot. Besides, he didn’t really see any way he could say no. His parties, which featured set lists combining indie rock, rap, and Top 40 pop, quickly became legendary.

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“At the time, it was kind of a radical idea,” he says. “Coming out of the indie rock or punk rock background, there was a whole decade [the ’90s] where fun wasn’t really allowed. But then at the same time, that early 2000s hip-hop music was so good that you kind of couldn’t resist having fun.”

It didn’t hurt that two of the only people he knew in Los Angeles were superstar DJ Steve Aoki and Hollywood fixture Har Mar Superstar (aka Sean Tillman), last in the news for making out onstage with Macaulay Culkin.

At the time, neither of them were as famous as they’d later become. Aoki was running a small independent record label and DJ-ing around L.A. Tillman was touring college towns as Har Mar, often stripping down to his underwear and singing pop songs that sounded like he’d written them on a five-dollar keyboard. The three of them were all young and trying to make something happen.

Chan began throwing bigger and bigger parties, booking local and touring bands. This is when he made his first big business decision. He took a real look at his industry, and came to a surprising realization: Many of the bands he had perform at his parties went on to become extremely popular not long afterward.

“It became really obvious that we were in touch with something that was going on, and there was probably a larger opportunity than just doing a show,” he recalls. “From a business end, that was the first sort of, like, there’s got to be a better way that putting all this time and energy into this one thing that we never get to grow with.”

So Chan began channeling his considerable energy into something that lived longer than one night: a record. His nascent company’s first release was Matt & Kim’s self-titled debut from 2006, which contained the duo’s biggest hit to date, “Yea Yeah,” the video for which has well over a million views. It was a hit.

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It should be noted here that practically anyone can drunkenly yell at a party: “You’re great! We should totally put out a record of this!” Most people just wake up the next morning and forget about it. Not Chan. A partying entrepreneur–or, partypreneur, if you will–like Chan has the knowledge, work ethic, self-confidence, and willingness to just try something, to actually spend the next few months putting out a record. He finds business opportunities at 2 a.m.–and then actually puts them into practice.

The Right Kind of Growth

Over the following years, IHEARTCOMIX has expanded in many directions: DJ tours, a weekly L.A. party called Check Yo Ponytail (which in turn became a show on PitchforkTV), marketing, PR, event production, design, and more.

“From the outside, it appears like there’s been a lot added,” Chan tells me. “If you look at doing one show, or one record, a lot of those elements are all tied into it. You have to book the talent, you have to create the artwork, you have to do the advertising campaign, you have to know the sales, and you have to create video. We were putting a lot of work into things that were small. Now, we’re taking each of those individual small things and applying them to something big.”

In other words: Don’t expand outside of your comfort zone. Build something in which you have internal expertise into an important part of your business, but don’t reach wildly in all directions.

That’s the organic part, but what about your audience? Will they follow you? Chan says it’s all about being true to your brand.

“When you’ve built all those things, you’ve initialed a brand and earned the trust of the crowd,” he says. “And once you have that trust, you’re able to market things to them, whether it’s our own stuff, or what later became a business–other folks’ stuff. If people want to hire us but it doesn’t make sense for our audience or brand, we don’t do it.”

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And he’s not done expanding yet. IHEARTCOMIX is about to go into production on a TV show that Chan will describe only as “the fullest expression of what it would be like to walk into [the IHEARTCOMIX] world–there’s animations and puppets and bands and comics and famous people and a narrative and all kinds of crazy shit.”

During our conversation, Chan casually and confidently tosses off references to building his business into the next Vice or Marvel.

“There’s so much room out there to grow,” he believes. “If you’re willing to work for it.”

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