Watch This Guy Work, and You’ll Finally Understand the TikTok Era

The creator economy is fragmented and chaotic. Talent manager Ursus Magana can (almost) make sense of it, with a frenetic formula for gaming the algorithms.
Diptych of Ursus Magana

We were on the patio of a middling Los Angeles taqueria when Ursus Magana tried to talk me out of writing this story. A hirsute fireplug of a man with a slew of anime tattoos, Magana wasn’t worried that I’d spill any awful secrets. In the months since I’d first messaged him on Instagram, he’d been endlessly candid about his life as a talent manager for emo rappers, goth TikTokkers, and OnlyFans creators. He just thought I was wasting my time on a project that seemed unlikely to excite the social media algorithms that mean everything in his world. “Do you know how hard it is for an article to go viral?” he warned. “I mean, articles never go viral.”

Perhaps fearing he’d bummed me out by implying that my career was pointless, Magana put off eating his last brisket taco to whip up a blueprint for how he would guide me to stardom. It started with me ditching journalism to focus on churning out daily TikToks in which I’d offer tips about storytelling. Magana’s talent management startup, 25/7 Media, would ensure eyeballs for this content by enlisting its 60-plus clients to drive traffic my way. Once I’d built a decent fan base, 25/7 would produce a weekly podcast featuring my candid conversations with up-and-coming digital creators. I’d then parlay that success into a “big swing”: a how-to book or Netflix series that would land me a spot on The Tonight Show and a lucrative endorsement deal with, say, a manufacturer of ballpoint pens.

I’m enough of a realist to know Magana was flattering me and that I’m much too boring to pull off any of what he proposed. But he delivered his pitch with such confidence, such zeal, that a dreamy little piece of me couldn’t help but see myself telling witty anecdotes on Jimmy Fallon’s couch. And when I caught myself flirting with that fantasy, I grasped how a genuinely talented young artist must feel when Magana lays out his plan for making them the richest person in their family by the age of 19.

Magana and his colleagues at 25/7 have made good on that grandiose promise enough times to prove that, despite any semi-delusional schemes for my future, they know what they’re talking about. In an entertainment industry still dazed by the chaos of digital platforms, Magana has emerged as a fairly reliable rainmaker.

The creator economy is projected to be worth $480 billion by 2027. In many ways, that figure represents an enormous redistribution of wealth: a tide of ad dollars and other revenue ebbing away from established studios and publishers, and flooding toward individual creators and the technology giants that host their work. But the corporations are the only ones on a secure footing in this arrangement. If individual creators want to stay afloat for longer than a brief moment, they still need managers to help them navigate the algorithmic churn.

The old-guard talent agencies—the Creative Artists and United Talents and Gershes of the world—ventured into this terrain years ago, forming their own digital divisions to court influencers. They face stiff competition from massive newer firms like Viral Nation and Underscore Talent, which boast that the creator economy is woven into their corporate DNA. In this scrum, the upstart 25/7 Media has fashioned a niche for itself prospecting for viral talent in areas that its larger rivals often ignore—the misfit subcultures of the young, which can often cross-pollinate with other online communities to yield colossal audiences.

Like other self-styled social media gurus, Magana hustles to sign clients by touting his ability to game the platforms that shape our tastes. (“Influence the algorithm, not the audience” is 25/7 Media’s slogan.) But part of his pitch, and his gift, is that he’s an authentic product of the subcultures in which he operates. An ardent metalhead and community college dropout who was shaped by a turbulent immigrant experience, the 29-year-old Magana has built his company around supporting artists who are often isolated by their creativity, and by their oddness. “We understand how they feel at home when they’re doing something kind of weird, something that isn’t easily explainable,” he says. “That’s our competitive advantage.” And that is no small edge. Doing something weird at home has never offered such a wormhole to fame.

25/7 clients outside an Airbnb in Los Angeles.

Photograph: Sinna Nasseri

the closest thing 25/7 Media has to a headquarters is a WeWork in Playa Vista, a former nowheresville in West Los Angeles that now teems with boxy glass-and-steel office buildings and absurdly pricey condos. On my first day there earlier this year, Magana was joined by his two cofounders: Andrew Alvarado, who oversees finances, and Rafail Luzi, the head of the music division, who’d flown in the night before from his home in northern Connecticut. Rather than spring for a private office, the three men were camped out at a countertop by the common kitchen, amid other entrepreneurs chattering into MacBooks about their drop-shipping ventures.

My tutorial in how 25/7 Media operates began during the founders’ late-morning Google Meet with an executive from the digital music distributor Vydia. The executive was keen to strike a deal involving a 25/7 client named YoungX777, a guttural, nihilistic trap-metal musician with long curly locks that veil his face.

This article appears in the November 2023 issue. Subscribe to WIREDPhotograph: Sinna Nasseri

YoungX777 had been discovered by 25/7 in late October 2022, after Luzi and his two full-time music scouts had glimpsed promise in the data for his song “Toxic.” A sludgy sonic wallop about suicidal ideation, the song hadn’t racked up many streams. But its five-second intro, a post-toke cough followed by a throaty scream, had popped up in a few TikToks of MMA fighters pummeling each other and weightlifters grunting beneath squat bars. Experience had taught 25/7 Media that when brief “recreates” of these kinds of songs burble up in those particular TikTok communities, virality can soon follow.

When the number of recreates climbs into the tens or hundreds of thousands, Magana told me, two of 25/7’s core tenets become germane. The first: Once a social media user hears an audio snippet nine times, it gets stuck in their head to some degree. The second, which Magana has dubbed the Ten Percent Rule, is that 10 percent of those earwormed users will end up tracking down the snippet’s original source.

Confident in the algorithmic potential of the “Toxic” intro, 25/7 Media had rushed to sign YoungX777 even though he had less than 30,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. Taking such risks is an essential part of the strategy: The firm has to snag clients before they appear on the radars of well-heeled competitors. “We’re the ones who hit you up before you blow up, so we can say we believed in you before you got big,” Magana told me. “These artists, a lot of times the only sign they have of their success is some kids sending them videos of themselves dancing to their song. We’re often the first ones who aren’t their friends telling them, ‘Hey, you’re good.’”

Once YoungX777 was on board, 25/7 Media ran its standard campaign to juice a new client’s recreates. Rather than pay one or two famous influencers to use the “Toxic” intro in the hopes of producing a trickle-down effect, the firm appealed to scores of MMA and weightlifting TikTokkers whose followings rarely top more than a few hundred. (Some were given small payments to push the song, but others were happy to do it for free.) Flooding the zone this way caused TikTok’s algorithm to funnel posts featuring “Toxic” into the feeds of users who consume gym-centric content. Inevitably, some of those users were creators themselves, and they began to weave YoungX777’s clip into videos targeting related subcultures—like the region of TikTok obsessed with highlights of soccer players bursting past hapless defenders.

The “Toxic” intro became a TikTok and Instagram Reels sensation in mid-January, at which point the Ten Percent Rule kicked in. By month’s end, the full song was zooming toward more than a million plays on Spotify. Now, Vydia was pitching 25/7 Media on letting it take charge of distributing YoungX777’s catalog around the globe. It would use its proprietary technology to collect royalties from disparate platforms and stamp out copyright violators in exchange for a cut of YoungX777’s revenue. After much hemming and hawing, the Vydia executive ballparked his offer at around $200,000, a seemingly vast sum for YoungX777, who’d been eking out a living as a solar panel salesman.

Magana and Luzi seemed underwhelmed. Luzi responded that he was certain a major record label would offer a quarter-million for YoungX777’s next album without a second thought. “If I tell one of my artists that I turned down a quarter-million dollars, I might not have that relationship any longer,” Luzi said. The call ended with the Vydia executive promising to talk to his team about increasing their offer. (Vydia did eventually reach an agreement with YoungX777, who now has more than 1.9 million monthly listeners on Spotify—a figure that translates into annual revenue that can top $450,000. Soon after the deal was inked, Vydia was sold to a new media company founded by the former creative director of Apple Music.)

I gleaned more about 25/7’s way of doing business during an afternoon call with Ovrthro, a 22-year-old Canadian musician and TikTokker whom Magana was eager to sign. Much of Magana’s pitch centered on how, if hired, he would promote an Ovrthro song called “Death,” which is based on a sample of the villain’s whistle from the animated film Puss in Boots 2. He talked a lot, of course, about the tactics 25/7 Media uses to “ride the algorithmic wave,” but he also stressed that the ride can be short unless a client is committed to constantly pumping out fresh content. The algorithms are designed to highlight new material, even if its quality is subpar. “When you drop one song,” he told Ovrthro, “there needs to be four other versions of the song right away.”

The volume of work required to stay in the algorithms’ good graces can certainly be daunting. A 25/7 Media creator named Nixxi, who derives most of her revenue from her OnlyFans subscription fees, told me she is urged to post across multiple platforms every day, and that she uploads three folders’ worth of content to her manager’s server every Sunday so that posts can be scheduled in advance. Another client, an Oregon-based musician who goes by 93feetofsmoke, said that he was aiming to release around 50 solo songs this year and produce as many as 70 for other artists. “You can’t take weekends off,” he told me. “Like, I don’t take the weekends off, ever.”

Toward the end of his call with Ovrthro, Magana talked about how 25/7 presses its clients to help one another in commandeering the algorithms. His example involved a social media starlet named Emma Langevin, a thickly accented New Jerseyite known for her darkly comic confessional posts about makeup, food, and mental health. An object of untold thousands of crushes, Langevin let a fellow 25/7 Media client named SyKo use her photo as the digital cover for a song of his entitled “#BrooklynBloodPop!” Magana credits that photo—Langevin’s de facto seal of approval—with giving “#BrooklynBloodPop!” its initial launch into the stratosphere. Few songs were more omnipresent on TikTok in 2021, when SyKo’s bright “hyperpop” beat became the backdrop for a million videos of teens doing the 10-second dance that had virally attached itself to the track. (The song now has more than 250 million plays on Spotify and 120 million views on YouTube.)

When the Ovrthro call was done, I half-jokingly noted to Magana that the collaboration between Langevin and SyKo sounded like a prime example of synergy. He said he’d never heard that word before but that he loved it and would be incorporating it into his recruitment spiels from now on. He also encouraged me to post a TikTok explaining the concept. (I later texted Magana a vintage GIF from The Simpsons to show that “synergy” has been lampooned as corporate jargon for nearly as long as he’s been alive.)

The musician Syko shows off a gold grill given to him by an LA jeweler.

Photograph: Sinna Nasseri

Though Magana was excited about the prospect of adding Ovrthro to the 25/7 Media family, he was clearly more passionate about another artist he’d recently unearthed: a 17-year-old musician and TikTokker named Lumi Athena, whose social media profile lists his interests as “sushi, emo girls, and shiny stars.” Magana sensed enormous potential in Lumi’s signature style. His songs were inspired by the same hyperpop genre that SyKo had capitalized on, but they had a spacier, more haunted edge. A sample from his catchiest track, a singsong ode to debauchery entitled “Smoke It Off!” was beginning to get recreates on TikToks celebrating the weirder strains of anime.

Magana had first contacted Lumi via Instagram last December, and on their subsequent phone call, they’d instantly clicked. “I’m Mexican, he’s Mexican, we start cracking jokes,” recalled Magana, who teased Lumi for having pale skin. (Magana, who proudly claims that an ocean of Aztec blood courses through his veins, has a much darker complexion.) Lumi felt comfortable enough to reveal that a few record labels had already approached him with offers of $10,000 for an album—an attempt, in Magana’s eyes, to exploit an undereducated teen’s naivete about how the industry really works.

magana traces his love for music back to an experience in utero: In the spring of 1993, his pregnant mother attended a Guns N’ Roses show at Mexico City’s Palacio de los Deportes. Both she and Magana’s father served in the Mexican army, but they were much hipper than most of their military peers. Once a year, for example, they’d make the long drive to Southern California to buy flashy clothes that they’d then resell to Mexican entertainers. (When he was a toddler, Magana had his picture taken with Alejandra Guzmán, a famous singer who’d bought sequined outfits from his parents.)

But for reasons that Magana is hesitant to discuss, his parents came to believe their lives in Mexico were untenable. On an early summer day in 2000, Magana’s parents told him they were taking a surprise trip to Disneyland; he remembers being ecstatic as they passed through the border checkpoint. But instead of heading to the park, the family drove to an apartment in a shabby part of Long Beach. For weeks, Magana’s parents told him they were playing a game of make-believe, which the 7-year-old boy took to mean they’d soon return to Mexico City. “And then they signed me up for school,” Magana recalls. “And that’s when I realized like, oh, yeah, we ain’t going back home.”

Clockwise from left: Magana with the musicians Jnhygs and Syko.

Photograph: Sinna Nasseri

Long Beach proved to be a hostile environment for a chubby kid whose poor English marked him as an outsider. Magana was frequently taunted and beaten up by packs of older boys. He remembers being chased by gang members because his school’s bus stop was on a street they controlled. The harassment only got worse as Magana began to develop a taste for bands like Van Halen and Kiss, whose music and fashion were reviled in his rap-obsessed neighborhood.

When he wasn’t busy coping with bullies, Magana could often be found in the company of his entrepreneurial ex--military mother. While her husband toiled on construction sites, she sold counterfeit perfumes and sneakers on the streets of Long Beach. Tagging along with her is an experience that Magana credits with nurturing his gift for salesmanship. “That made me so fucking fearless,” he says. “Like, you know, walking around LA with a bunch of boxes with shoes, and then going into the projects, literally the projects, and convincing these, like, fucking gangsters to buy these knockoff shoes.”

The Maganas eventually saved enough to buy a small home in Pomona, 30 miles east of Los Angeles. Ursus enrolled at an artsy charter high school where he was no longer considered an outcast for his music, his increasingly shaggy hair, or his burgeoning love for the anime series Naruto. “Every time you saw him, he had a guitar in his hand,” says Ken Smith, one of Magana’s high school teachers and a close confidant. “And he always had multiple bands he was in or he was forming.” Magana had his heart set on someday making millions by fronting a metal group, a goal that became especially urgent after his family lost their house in the subprime mortgage crisis. He found more immediate success as a promoter of backyard metal shows, scrappy $10-a-head affairs where sweaty teens smashed one another in the face while dancing to songs about Norse gods and serial killers.

As graduation neared in 2011, Magana realized his future looked bleak. He was an undocumented immigrant, so he wasn’t eligible for federal financial aid to attend a university; he couldn’t join the military despite having been in his high school’s Junior ROTC program; and decent jobs were off-limits because he didn’t have a Social Security number or a driver’s license. Magana had also come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t quite talented enough to play music for a living. He was fated to be, as he puts it, “a metal kid who never made it.” Unable to see a path toward any life he desired, he heeded his guidance counselor’s advice to enroll at Pasadena City College.

An introductory film class there altered his wayward trajectory. Instantly fascinated by the craft of stitching images together to tell a story, Magana talked his way into an unpaid internship with a photography studio that had been branching out into video production. Some nights he would work there until 3 am, editing footage for ad campaigns, then crash at his girlfriend’s dorm at Cal State Los Angeles before catching the Metro to Pasadena for a 9 am class. En route, he’d earn pocket change by busking for commuters.

His reprieve from that exhausting routine came in 2013, when he applied to the new federal immigration program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. For the first time, Magana was able to obtain a work permit without fear of being deported. He soon dropped out of college to accept a paid, full-time position at the photography studio. He also married his American-born girlfriend, a step that allowed him to start inching along the long journey toward US citizenship.

After settling into married life, Magana felt obligated to pull in a higher salary and wound up selling solar panels door-to-door, making upwards of $80,000 a year. But he missed the buzz of spending his days surrounded by music, the art form he associated with his warmest childhood memories.

“The only time I saw my parents loosen up completely and not give a fuck, not give a fuck about anything, is when they were dancing,” he says. “When my mom was head-banging to Metallica while cleaning the house on a Sunday, when my dad was dancing salsa.”

Yet Magana had no clue how to gain a foothold in the notoriously shady music industry. He tried to manage a few small-time rappers, but they kept ghosting him after he’d shelled out thousands of dollars to produce their videos. “So I’m wasting all this money,” he says. “I get really fucking sad, really fucking depressed.”

Then, in 2016, an increasingly desperate Magana created a LinkedIn profile. That profile attracted an inquiry from Fullscreen, one of the first companies to specialize in connecting digital creators with major brands. Fullscreen was looking for a native Spanish speaker, and Magana assumed the job would involve day-to-day interactions with celebrities. “They had, like, Steve Aoki on their website,” he recalls.

Instead, Magana was handed a far less glamorous assignment: doing search engine optimization for Telemundo’s YouTube videos. Through trial and error, he mastered the tricks necessary to inflate a video’s views and thus maneuver YouTube’s algorithm into pushing Fullscreen’s clients to the fore. He figured out how to frame the most alluring thumbnail teasers, for example, and the best place to drop the clickable “end cards” that nudge viewers to watch another video. He also analyzed Telemundo’s traffic data and realized that a lot of viewers were using the channel’s English-subtitled telenovela recaps to learn Spanish. He also knew that those subtitles were automatically generated and often garbled to the point that many users gave up. So Magana persuaded Telemundo to write accurate captions and embed them in its videos, a move that he says boosted the channel’s viewership by hundreds of thousands.

Magana thrust himself into his Fullscreen work, especially as his marriage began to disintegrate: He took to sleeping in his car outside the office so he could put in extra hours. His portfolio expanded as he honed his SEO chops—he was assigned to the Ubisoft account to help launch an Assassin’s Creed title, for example, and he produced YouTube content for Telemundo during the 2018 World Cup. But he still pined to carve out a place for himself in art and music. He often talked about that ambition with Andrew Alvarado, a friend and fellow college dropout who managed a stable of YouTubers for Fullscreen. They kicked around some ideas for doing their own thing, like moonlighting as music video producers, but they never followed through.

One night in early 2019, Magana and Alvarado went to a party at a gaudy, largely unfurnished Los Angeles mansion, the sort of place rented by packs of influencers to use as content mills. Magana prides himself on his knowledge of pop music, so he was surprised when the DJ made the dance floor shake with a song he’d never heard. Everyone belted out the brief chorus at the top of their lungs, but they didn’t seem to know any other lyrics.

Magana couldn’t believe he was unfamiliar with such an obvious hit, and he asked a fellow partygoer what it was. “Old Town Road,” by Lil Nas X, she said, adding that it was currently the biggest hit on TikTok—or, perhaps more accurately, its chorus was a hit, having been woven into countless bite-size videos. That was why the crowd knew only two lines’ worth of lyrics.

In that instant, Magana’s next move revealed itself to him. “Like a dog, I ran to look for Andrew,” he says. “Shoulder-grabbed him. Said, ‘We’re gonna start a new company! And it’s gonna be based on TikTok.’”

25/7 media clients from across the US and Mexico congregate in L.A.

Photograph: Sinna Nasseri

magana and alvarado’s first stab at managing digital talent was a failure, albeit an instructive one. In the fall of 2019, they signed a popular TikTokker named Reagan Yorke, who’d attracted millions of followers by posting videos of herself lip-syncing and playing juvenile pranks. The two aspiring managers thought they could extend her presence onto other platforms, and thereby increase her revenue, by adding music to her creative arsenal. “We created a song from scratch, brought in producers and writers that we knew from the music industry, created this song, coached her how to sing rap, all that stuff,” Alvarado says. But the resulting video, starring Yorke’s influential friends, was a dud on YouTube.

Chastened, Magana and Alvarado got in touch with Rafail Luzi, a music promoter they knew through Instagram, to help them figure out what had gone wrong. (Luzi was yet another college dropout; his Albanian parents had hoped he’d become a plastic surgeon.) Their conversations led them to conclude that even their clients’ finest content would flop unless 25/7 figured out how to game the platform’s algorithms and heed the data’s cues.

Now a three-person startup, 25/7 Media put its revamped vision into action to support Curly J, a New York–based rapper they’d signed. When they dug into the data on Curly J’s YouTube videos, they saw that more than a quarter of the comments mentioned video games—specifically the battle royale phenomenon Fortnite. So Magana and his colleagues set about finding ways to have Curly J’s music inserted into the Fortnite montage videos that were doing huge numbers during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. Because Curly J was verified on Instagram, they had him reach out to the teenaged creators of those montages, many of whom were thrilled to hear from someone who’d been blessed with a blue check mark.

“It was personalized messages to each person,” Curly J told me. “Like, to literally over 1,000 different creators.” The ones who agreed to promote Curly J’s work weren’t always reliable; many vanished with the $100 or so that 25/7 Media paid them. But hundreds of honorable creators inserted songs like “No Hoodie” into their montages, then added a link to Curly J’s social media in the description box. What would soon be known as the Ten Percent Rule kicked in as thousands of Fortnite aficionados checked out Curly J’s music. This, in turn, compelled YouTube’s algorithm to push Curly J content into gamers’ recommendations.

Curly J (foreground) and Cade Clair at a recording console.

Photograph: Sinna Nasseri

Curly J’s connection to the hottest game of the pandemic did not go unnoticed in the corporate realm. In June 2020, Warner Records signed him to a $4.8 million deal. Shortly after, 25/7 Media hammered out an arrangement with Twitch that guaranteed Curly J thousands of dollars per month if he streamed himself gaming for a few hours each week. Those triumphs became 25/7 Media’s calling cards when courting other potential clients—proof that the fledgling firm’s approach to manipulating the algorithms could provide a path toward life-changing money.

As 25/7 Media expanded throughout late 2020 and early 2021, brand sponsorships became another handsome source of revenue. One of the firm’s biggest deals involved Emma Langevin, the TikTokker who would become the face of “#BrooklynBloodPop!” Langevin first caught Magana’s attention with a post in which she joked about the tribulations of being a girl who wears a Nirvana T-shirt, a sartorial choice that inevitably causes men to question how well she really knows the band’s discography. Given Langevin’s combination of beauty and self-deprecating nerdiness, Magana thought she could develop a huge following among male gamers. “She didn’t really play video games,” he says. “But I’m telling you, she’s every gamer guy’s dream girl.” Langevin soon began streaming herself playing games on Twitch, sometimes in the company of a masked, gravel-voiced musician named Corpse Husband, who has nearly 3 million subscribers on YouTube. (Langevin would become both the inspiration and the cover girl for Corpse Husband’s most popular song, “E-Girls Are Ruining My Life.”) Those streaming sessions earned Langevin a sponsorship deal with the energy drink G Fuel, which bills itself as a performance enhancer for gamers.

It was harder, though, for Magana to arrange sponsorship deals for the many 25/7 Media clients whose primary platform is OnlyFans, since brands are wary of sexually explicit content. To increase those clients’ subscription numbers, Magana helped them establish Instagram and TikTok accounts where they could post erotically charged recreates of trending memes and songs—including those generated by artists within the 25/7 Media fold. Every Monday, Magana sends his OnlyFans clients a memo detailing the audio bits they should be re-creating to maximize their odds of jacking into the algorithms—for example, an out-of-context SpongeBob SquarePants clip that prompts the reveal of an alluring outfit. Such posts persuade only a minuscule percentage of viewers to sign up for an OnlyFans subscription, but that’s sufficient to generate fantastic revenue. Magana showed me data for one creator—an Amazonian goth with head-to-toe tattoos and an affection for autopsy simulators—who earns more than $70,000 per month. (25/7 Media also provides its OnlyFans clients with “chat specialists,” contractors who pretend to be the creators when responding to messages from paid subscribers.)

By the time I first spoke to Magana in late 2022, 25/7 Media’s success had given him some measure of financial security. “The truth is that I just retired my parents,” he told me two days after Christmas. “Let’s just leave it at that.” He owns a comfortable suburban home with his fiancée, a popular OnlyFans creator with whom he has a 2-year-old daughter. His parents have stayed busy by teaching their granddaughter Aztec dances.

Photograph: Sinna Nasseri

Magana also acknowledged that, like so many startups without outside investors, 25/7 Media remains just a few blunders away from the abyss: “If 50 percent of my talent or 50 percent of my staff doesn’t work out, my daughter doesn’t eat,” he said.

In the weeks following that initial conversation, Magana came to view Lumi Athena as the client most likely to get 25/7 Media out of its classic startup bind. Recreates of “Smoke It Off!” were sprouting up in more and more TikTok communities, and it seemed only a matter of time before the Ten Percent Rule guaranteed Lumi more than a million monthly listeners on Spotify. But Magana told me that Lumi’s future lay not in creating his own music, but in producing other artists. He saw Lumi as the central figure in a new musical genre called “krushklub,” the occult-themed successor to the now-outdated hyperpop. And 25/7 Media was now planning to corner the market on krushklub talent.

as i sped north along the Hollywood Freeway one February night in Los Angeles, a jubilant Magana called to share some news. He and his partners had just gotten out of a meeting with Mike Caren, a former producer for Beyoncé and Kanye West who is now CEO of his own record label, Artist Partner Group. (Caren famously bought Jeff Bezos’ Beverly Hills estate for $37 million.) The 25/7 team was stunned when, toward the end of the conversation, Caren brought up the idea of creating a joint venture with the startup. The exact parameters of the proposed collaboration were fuzzy, but it was Magana’s understanding that 25/7 Media would receive millions in funding in exchange for recruiting and developing talent exclusively for APG.

Magana was elated in the moment. A joint venture would guarantee enough capital to cement 25/7 Media’s long-term viability. But in the days that followed, he became more measured in his assessment. He was worried about ceding some amount of independence, and maybe even equity, to APG, a company that would clearly be the alpha in their relationship. But he also feared that if he passed up the opportunity, he’d never learn the skills necessary to take his clients to the next level. “You know, I won’t know how to get an artist to the Grammys,” he told me. “I won’t know how to get an artist in, like, you know, Nickelodeon Splash events—like, all the mainstream levers.”

Ravengriim, a content creator, cosplayer, makeup artist, and 25/7 client.

Photograph: Sinna Nasseri

Magana thinks he needs that expertise because so many of his clients—even some with roots in the most subversive subcultures—aspire to conventional forms of validation and fame. Artists who cut their teeth on digital platforms often idealize the careers of their childhood idols, who didn’t have to stress about the exhausting churn of TikTok trends. “I mean, I would love to be in acting and movies and things like that,” Curly J told me. “I would love to have, like, major sponsorships, whether it’s commercials, you know, that you see around, whether they’re from Sprite or Gatorade.”

As 25/7’s lawyers hashed out terms with APG throughout the early spring, Magana and his partners moved to scoop up the artists in Lumi Athena’s immediate orbit—specifically Cade Clair and Jnhygs, the two vocalists on “Smoke It Off!,” both of whom had met Lumi on Instagram. Clair, a 21-year-old Detroit native who worships Prince, was an easy get. He was desperate for any sort of career boost, since he had just 12 monthly listeners on Spotify. Jnhygs was trickier because she turned out to be shockingly young: The Metallica-loving Alabaman with a honeyed voice was just a 16-year-old high school sophomore. That meant the 25/7 Media crew had to arrange a Zoom call with her parents, who had no clue their daughter was an artist with a rapidly growing audience. “I didn’t even realize that she was making music,” Jnhygs’ mother told me. “Hearing music coming from a room, I’d think it’s just radio or something. I didn’t realize that she was actually doing it herself.”

Magana walked Jnhygs’ parents through the minutiae of how art gets distributed these days and how their daughter’s talent could alter their family’s fortunes in a spectacular way. “You explain to them that, somehow, that noise their daughter has been making in her room has been picked up on TikTok,” Magana says. “And now we’re here talking to you about never having to work another day in your life.”

Jnhygs, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, needed parental permission to shoot content for 25/7 media.

Photograph: Sinna Nasseri

Jnhygs’ parents were receptive to that message, but they made Magana jump through another hoop, insisting that he also meet with their family’s Baptist pastor, who was willing to fly to Los Angeles for the occasion. Magana and Luzi met him at the airport and cued up a playlist of Christian music for the ride to the hotel. But the pastor, who showed up wearing a jewel-encrusted grill on his teeth, demanded that the duo instead blast classics by Young Jeezy. “I see no devil in these boys,” he told Jnhygs’ parents, thus granting final approval for their daughter to become 25/7 Media’s youngest client.

To celebrate its krushklub recruiting coup, 25/7 Media flew Lumi Athena, Cade Clair, and Jnhygs to Los Angeles so they could spend a few days creating music and TikToks in a space-age Airbnb high in Beverly Hills. (The three artists had never met in person.) Keeping his young clients focused on the tasks at hand proved to be a challenge for Magana. “These are kids,” he told me. “Really, we’re just trying to stop them from smoking weed all the time.”

Lumi Athena, a central figure in a new musical genre called “krushklub,” shoots content.

Photograph: Sinna Nasseri

artists have a reputation for struggling with the mundane aspects of life, which is partly why managers exist. One evening at the Playa Vista WeWork, for example, I listened in as Magana and Alvarado tried to explain the basics of personal finance to an important client in Texas. One of six siblings who’d been raised by a single mother, the client had earned a windfall of around $400,000 after going viral in 2021. Absolutely bewildered by the concept of taxes, he’d brought his 1099s to the nearest outpost of a national accounting chain to seek help. The advice he received there had cost him tens of thousands of dollars. Alvarado, the most financially prudent of the 25/7 founders, promised to set up the client with a limited liability corporation and automatically deduct taxes from his revenue-sharing and royalty payments.

The client was also about to fly for the first time ever, to perform at a club in Los Angeles, and he had no idea how to handle the logistics of air travel. Magana assured him that he’d be allowed to check his massive canvas duffel bag, and that he could safely stow his carry-on in the overhead bin.

Many of 25/7 Media’s clients are ill at ease in the world for poignant reasons. As reflected in the inward-looking content they produce, these young artists see themselves as largely defined by their battles with anxiety and depression. “I am going to stop hyper-fixating on my mental illness,” Emma Langevin intones in one of her most moving TikToks. “And I will not make jokes about it that make the normal people I hang out with uncomfortable.” These mental health issues were compounded by the chaos of the pandemic, an event that Magana refers to, perhaps a bit curiously, as “our generation’s Korean War.”

“Due to the internet and social media culture and everything these kids grew up in, they don’t go outside, they don’t interact, they don’t want to talk to people,” Alvarado says. “They’re scared to hop on a call, they have all this social anxiety. And so, you know, the only way to get through to these types of people is to be relatable. And the only way to be relatable is to know what’s actually going on in their lives.”

Relating to clients can become more difficult after they discover that the fame they crave can’t fix their deeper problems. “For a lot of people that become successful, they become successful because of doubt and revenge,” Luzi says. “When that’s kind of out the window and you already did it, what are you looking forward to next? And you have to look at yourself in the mirror and you gotta say to yourself, ‘Do I actually like myself?’ And for a lot of people, they really don’t.”

That realization is too often followed by self-destructive behavior. “I’ve broken people out of hotel rooms,” Magana says. “Peeled them off of balconies, gotten their parents on the line looking for them.” A teetotaler himself, Magana believes he was well prepared for the demands of fatherhood because he’d already grown accustomed to making sacrifices to protect his troubled artists.

Thankfully, the krushklub crew got up to only mild hijinks during their time in Los Angeles. In between In-N-Out burger runs, they managed to shoot a black-and-white, frenetically edited video for “Smoke It Off!,” which Magana sent to me a few days after it hit YouTube in July. As the central refrain oozed out of my laptop speakers—“Too much / too much / oh yeah …”—I clicked over to Lumi Athena’s Spotify account to check on his progress. He now had more than 3.8 million monthly listeners.

The following month, Lumi returned to LA to pursue a fresh musical direction. “TikTok kinda, like, stole my sound,” he told me shortly after he woke up one afternoon in late August. “Like, after ‘Smoke It Off!’ popped off, they just run off with my shit.” When 25/7 Media told him that his songs were getting surprisingly high traffic from users in Chile, Lumi decided to invent a new genre he dubbed “Latinklub”—essentially krushklub leavened with strains of reggaeton. His time in LA was thus being spent writing and recording new tracks, a process that involves hanging out in an Airbnb Jacuzzi until inspiration strikes, then retreating to the studio until 4 am.

“Like, dude, I already made it in the fucking US,” Lumi said. “But if I managed to figure out how to crack the Latin space, shit, it’s gonna be a way, way bigger impact.”

after weeks of internal debate, 25/7 Media’s founders decided to pass on the joint venture opportunity with APG. Alvarado had lobbied for the deal, contending that it would address all of the startup’s financial anxieties. Magana countered that the rapid success of Lumi Athena, whose flagship song “Smoke It Off!” has now been played more than 235 million times on TikTok, proved that 25/7 Media wasn’t yet at the point where it needed to surrender any independence. As is usually the case, Magana won the argument through force of personality. “I’m the Napoleon of the group,” he told me with a laugh.

Magana’s faith in 25/7 Media’s prospects is rooted in his belief that bigger competitors are too stuck in their ways to emulate what the startup does best. “It’s going to take CAA 20 years to have enough agents who look like me,” Magana says. It is certainly a bit hard to picture someone with his résumé and mosh-pit style climbing the ladder at one of Hollywood’s institutional powers. But the status quo always becomes less important to decisionmakers when they realize they’re missing out on piles of money.

To keep 25/7 growing as a fully independent enterprise, Magana is seeking new ways to drum up revenue. When I was in Los Angeles, for example, he confessed that he had several boxes of silicone vaginas in his trunk, the remainders from a failed effort to create branded merchandise for one of his OnlyFans creators. “He’ll come up with some crazy ideas,” Alvarado says. “And some of them I don’t even know where to start. But I really appreciate him always just saying what’s on his mind, because out of the 10 crazy ideas he has, at least one of them’s gonna end up working.”

Ravengriim shooting content

Photograph: Sinna Nasseri

I patiently listened to Magana talk through a lot of brainstorms, and many were indeed as half-baked as his plan for reinventing me as a TikTokker. But there were also moments like the time on Google Meet when he showed me an electrician’s Instagram page. As I perused various photos and Reels of an attractive young woman installing circuit breakers and wiring light fixtures, Magana outlined one of the next phases in 25/7’s evolution: managing creators who specialize in performing blue-collar jobs.

“She is basically glamorizing the freedom of being a self-sufficient woman in an industry that is not female dominant,” Magana said. What if he could wheedle the Instagram algorithm into pushing the electrician’s Reels onto the feeds of 18-year-olds disillusioned with the idea of going into debt for college, who fantasized about finding another way to achieve their dreams? Or maybe their 45-year-old parents, who are prone to doomscrolling through Reels about lazy teens? Then 25/7 Media would cut deals to do recreates of music on the account, so that a new song could make inroads with people in the building trades.

“What do you do when you work construction?” Magana said. “I know—because I worked construction when I’d work with my dad—you listen to music. So why the fuck wouldn’t you pay her to just use that song?”

It was only in hindsight that I had questions about all the specifics Magana conveniently elided. While he was stringing together one enthusiastic sentence after another, I was sold on his vision. And if the algorithms truly want me to pick up carpentry rather than type these words, maybe I’m being a fool to resist.

Magana’s shirt design by Eva Garcia.

This article appears in the November 2023 issue. Subscribe now.

Let us know what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor at