Pete Wentz was treated to dinner a few months ago by Lyor Cohen, the renowned rap promoter and U.S. music chief of Warner Music Group. Wentz, 28, is the eyelinered heartthrob and bassist of punk band Fall Out Boy; but this dinner was in celebration of the hit single just released by another band, Panic! At the Disco, which records on Wentz’s own label, Decaydance. “He asked me, ‘What do you want out of life, Pete?'” Wentz says.
His answer was flip: business cards. The next day he received a stack of cards listing his name and a new title: Baller. That is hip hop for macher, a big shot. Wentz already has his baller bona fides: as bassist and lyricist for a band that has sold 5.6 million albums in four years; as head of his own record label and clothing line; as part owner of a buzzy night spot in New York; and as budding producer of a would-be reality series. (He also has the requisite rock-star arm candy–pop princess Ashlee Simpson–and a scintilla of scandal. In March he briefly became one of the most-searched terms on Google after seminude photos of him surfaced on the Net.)
Such ambitions, de rigueur for rappers 50 Cent, Sean (Diddy) Combs and–Wentz’s idol–Island Def Jam Chief Jay-Z are, to hard-core rockers, a sellout. But Wentz has a fallback plan for when the music industry’s short shelf life catches up to him. “The culture of Fall Out Boy won’t be there forever, so you find what you want to do between now and then,” he says.
Wentz, a DePaul University dropout, formed Fall Out Boy with a few pals in Wilmette, Ill. in 2001. In 2003 the band signed with an independent label, and its debut, Take This to Your Grave, became one of the biggest indie records of 2003, ultimately selling 600,000 copies. Universal Music-owned Island Records quickly signed the band in partnership with its indie label.
In 2004 Wentz, working from his parents’ basement (he moved out only a year ago), formed Clandestine Industries. He self-published a 43-page illustrated book about a troubled boy, based on his own nightmares (he has had bouts of depression). He peddled the book at his concerts and sold 10,000 copies at $15 each. Soon after, he took $20,000 in royalties and launched a Web site to sell Clandestine T shirts. He booked $500,000 the first year–and now brings in $100,000 a month, keeping a one-third cut.
In summer 2004 Wentz cajoled the band’s indie label, Fueled by Ramen, to sign his friends’ act, The Academy Is … . His instincts were spot-on–the band’s debut album sold 250,000 units. But Wentz made nothing out of the deal, to the dismay of his manager, Robert McLynn. So McLynn got the young star to form his own label that fall: Decaydance Records.
Decaydance’s first client was Gym Class Heroes, a New York hip-hop act whose single, “Cupid’s Chokehold,” dominated radio for five weeks. Wentz hit again with Panic! At the Disco, a group of high schoolers who had posted two singles on MySpace. Panic! went on to sell 2.5 million records. Wentz has reaped “a couple hundred grand” thus far from his Decaydance roster. “Decaydance is the Oprah Book Club for the record business,” McLynn says.
Fall Out Boy’s 2005 sophomore album, From Under the Cork Tree, sold 3.7 million copies; heavy rotation on MTV made Wentz a new star. Fan sites popped up on the Net, and paparazzi began photographing him popping into New York clubs, decked out in Clandestine gear.
Jay-Z, who met Wentz backstage at a Fall Out Boy concert in April 2005, has advised him on merchandising. Don’t sell through every store that wants you, he warned–it will dilute your brand. Wentz listened, turning down a few big retail chains. “He told me, ‘Taking a lot of money up front is like betting against yourself, taking a little is betting on yourself,'” Wentz recalls. (Jay-Z sold his Rocawear line to Iconix Brand Group in March for $204 million.)
Now Wentz is producing a reality show of his newest act, the Cab. In March he signed a deal with DKNY Jeans for a new line, getting a 10% cut at wholesale. May saw the opening of Angels & Kings, a new bar in Manhattan. Wentz can’t recall how much he put up for his 10% stake or even what street it’s on–but to the paparazzi and the media it is Pete Wentz’s bar.