Streaming numbers are the record of measure these days when it comes to an artist's popularity and increasingly becoming the way your favorite rapper is viewed in the music industry. With a decline in hardcopy album sales and exponential growth on music platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal, an absolute indicator about what makes a rapper a star has becoming increasingly murky. There still isn't a definitive answer on what should be held with more weight -- album sales or streams -- however, it was a huge moment when the Billboard 200 chart began to incorporate streams and track sales to its daily report in 2014.

Artists getting their music to streaming sites has become that much more important, especially for those who've parted ways with major labels and independent MCs in regional areas. And since buying CDs is a thing of the past and traditional local mom and pop music retail stores have begun to evaporate quickly, here's where EMPIRE comes into play.

What do Fat JoeRemy Ma, D.R.A.M., Mozzy and Anderson .Paak all have in common? Besides being popular rappers with solid fan bases in 2016, they work with Empire. The company, which was founded in San Francisco in 2010 by Ghazi Shami, initially just provided digital distribution to major streaming platforms and online retailers but has since evolved into a full-service company.

By signing non-exclusive deals, both the rapper and EMPIRE win. The results have paid off wonderfully. "Broccoli” by D.R.A.M. featuring Lil Yachty is No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 while the 2015 summer banger "All the Way Up" by Fat Joe and Remy Ma was a top 40 hit. Buzzing artists like Mozzy, Peewee Longway, Buddy and more are running to Empire for their needs. As a result of their positive experience with the company, the artists are seemingly doing strong marketing for EMPIRE.

"I'll always run into someone that I'm doing business with and had very good dealings with and they share our stories with someone else and we plant a seed in that community and the word spreads," Shami tells XXL over the phone. "I think when you pay people on time the word spreads [laughs]. That's one thing early on in the company. We were really good with transparency in our accounting and paying people on time and openly communicating with our labels."

The 40-year-old former urban director at INgrooves talks to XXL about his history in the music industry, the importance of streaming and how EMPIRE is becoming a hub for hip-hop's top acts.

XXL: Let's talk about your first job in music.

Ghazi Shami: That’s the thing; I never had a job in music. I started making records when I was 14 my freshman year in high school. That kind of was derived from a good friend of mine back then who was a DJ this is the early 1990s. This was my first experience seeing turntables or a mixing board. I already had a passion for electronics as a kid. That kind of quickly ignited my whole passion for music and creating.

DJ’ing quickly turned into producing records, grabbing drum machines, pianos and we just started recording and making music. By the time I was 18 I started to take engineering classes. Then I became an engineer and was one of the main engineers in The Bay. I was also producing on a lot of records and I was writing and rapping and doing anything under the sun. Anything in and around hip-hop I wanted to be a part of it.

I stayed in the production side of things for a good 10, 15 years and then at some point it just made sense to transition to more of the executive side of things. I felt like I had a wealth of knowledge that needed to be used to create a platform for a lot of people to prosper rather than keeping that knowledge for myself. One thing led to another and I did work for a company called INgrooves in 2006 to 2009 and I was doing a lot of consulting work and developing the urban talent and signing urban acts over there.

For me, that was a chance to redline agreements to deal structure and that nature, which I felt was one of the things that I was missing in kind of my knowledge power. When I got out of there, it was time for me to put together my company. In my mind I always thought about building this self-contained ecosystem where we would have our own platform for success and we can combine our own relationships and our own resources to create a success story and that was the whole concept behind the word empire and why I chose to call my company Empire.

What was the first goal for EMPIRE?

The first immediate goal was to figure out the mechanism on how to deliver records into the DSPs and retailers. So how do I get my music on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play? How do I get my music out into the world, because that’s what I was doing when I was at INgrooves. I knew that the primary challenge that independent artists had was distribution.

A lot of people knew about marketing, street marketing, street promo, handing out CDs and thumb drives, visiting your local radio station. People knew how to do all of that. But a lot of people didn’t have a firm handle on distribution, or distribution outlet or platform. So the first thing was to build the distribution mechanism and once you had the platform or mechanism then you can surround that platform and that mechanism with other resources. That was the first initial step, how do we deliver the project. And once we figure out the project, it was how do we add value to the product. That was the second phase.

Ghazi Shami of Empire Distribution

What are the steps to add value to a project? That’s what feels like separates EMPIRE from the rest.

From that point going forward, it was just adding the more traditional record label services. How do we add strategy? How do we set release dates and publicity with the release dates and wind the record down? As the company grew, we started to add a radio component. How do we get the records to radio? From the grass roots level how do we work them to the program director? How do we get artists on tour, how do we do merch?

For me, the whole company was…when you're in high school you take algebra class and plot a lot of dots on the graph and after you plot the dots on the graph it creates a picture. For me, it was all these different things in the music industry, [they were] just dots on the graph and the more dots you put on the graph, the more concise the picture you paint. That’s really what it was, building blocks of the company.

We got more revenue? Let’s hire another employee, let's hire another player on the team that can play a different position and let's train them at that position and let's make them a rock star at that position and lets move on to the next phase. In year one, it was retail and marketing. In year number two, it was figuring out how to do publicity and digital marketing. And in year number three, we added radio. And now we’re in the phase of the company where we in the final piece of the company and just refining what we built.

How important is streaming for the company and how does it factor into EMPIRE’s growth?

For me, streaming was big. From the very, very early beginnings I was fascinated by it. The reason was I worked in the streaming world in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it was the dot coms in San Francisco. So I knew all about streaming very early on in my music endeavors. Like really early on, we would take beta tapes and rip them and embed on webpages. I went to high school in San Mateo, that’s where the original Napster was founded.

I’ve been in and around the technology in an early phase. So being that by day I was running around and doing all these technology jobs and learning about streaming and mpeg technology and embedding videos into webpages, mp3s, mp4s, m4as and all these different technologies early on. I’m doing that by day and at night I’m in the studio with urban artists and urban music and learning how music moves through the streets and how the CDs are being distributed and how the content is created and proliferated and consumers become fans of the content and so on and so forth.

Very early on what I saw in streaming is that urban music is heavily pirated and heavily bootlegged. I always saw streaming as a solution to piracy because it adopted something similar to what the terrestrial radio model is. With radio, you don’t pay for radio. You listen to the radio then 10 minutes on hour there’s advertising and the advertiser foots the bill for the radio station and the radio station pays royalty to ASCAP or BMI and royalties are paid to the artists, so everybody wins.

Radio gets an audience, advertisers get to advertise and artists get to eat and make a living. So the streaming world adopted a lot of the same model. I saw that happening really early and I think that model was kind of like the proof of concept…it happened in the video space long before it happened in the music space. As soon as Netflix came about you saw Blockbuster went out of business. The local bootlegger, he was gone too. And people said, “Hey, I’m paying $10 a month, I’ll just watch Netflix.” And keep in mind, Netflix isn’t even a complete offering at that time, it didn’t even have all the movies. It was a decent movie offering and it was able to displace bootleggers and traditional storefronts. So for me, I saw that as an early indicator.

In the music streaming space, the entire catalog is going to be available and it’s going to be a complete listening environment than Netflix. And yeah, not everything is on Spotify or Apple Music but for the most part anything you want to hear you can find on it. And I knew that as that ecosystem evolved and continued to grow, people would less and less feel the need to pirate music. One of the early indicators in the urban world was Muve Music, which was on Cricket phones. You pay for Muve Music, it was a part of your phone bill and we were doing so well on Muve Music, we were one of the top market sharers as a distributor. I saw it really early. This is going to be awesome for the music industry and yeah, it's fraction to a penny on the dollar but it’s going to change user behavior. It’s going to change listening behavior, it’s going to change consumption behavior and more finally what a lot of people don’t realize is with every format change comes a new level of consumption.

So when people went from tapes to CDs, a lot of people threw away their tapes and switched to CDs. When they switched from CDs to downloads, they threw out CDs and downloaded the music to their iPods. And now we’re going through the same format again. As people are shifting to streaming music, we’re seeing resurgence in a lot of the catalogue and hit music from the past that people are re-consuming all over again; more money for the artists. We’re no longer concerned with first week sates but with artist trajectory long-term.

You’ve done so well with finding regional artists who are on the cusp of breaking out. How do you find these MCs?

You want me to tell you what it comes down to? It comes down to one thing for me. We’re in the music business, and that’s an amazing thing, but music comes before the word business. I’m a music person before I was a business person. Like I was really in the trenches with these guys. I really understand the music. I live, I breathe and I love the music. I love the culture, I was raised in the culture. I’m still actively in the streets, at parties, in the studio, at the strip clubs, at the main stream clubs, at radio stations, I’m in and around the music.

And yeah, there are these great A&R tools and you can research YouTube, Instagram and these great analytics come through our dashboard and all that is amazing. There are things that weren’t available and that help us paint a clearer picture but at the end of the day I am the leader of the company and I have an affinity of music and I believe I hired people here who share the same affinity for music that I have.

I think that’s an important component of it. We’re all really passionate about the music. This isn’t just our job; we would do this if it wasn’t our job. I could of easily went back to the Silicon Valley and kept my Silicon Valley job that I had when I was fresh out of college. But I made a decision that this is what I’m passionate about and that same passion permeates through the company and that’s how we resonate within the artist's community. We find things early because they are looking for us too. Early on, they weren’t and early on it was based on a lot of relationships. A lot of people are on the hunt for us and it’s really special to us that people really seek our service.

So what’s next for EMPIRE?

We want to refine everything that we’ve built and be the best version that we can be of ourselves. I think we still have a long way to go before we’re the best version of us. So I just want to continue to refine the company, grow the footprint, turn non-believers into believers, acquire great content, do a great job for our artists and leave a lasting impression on the music industry. I think that’s probably a big part and what we stand for and what we’re trying to accomplish for the next few years.

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