On July 2, 2020, Jack Nathan went to a party with some friends near his hometown of Livingston, New Jersey. Amidst the revelry, the artist and college student took what he thought was a Percocet. But the pill was laced with fentanyl, and by the early hours of July 3, Jack Nathan had died of fentanyl poisoning. He was 19 years old.
In the wake of Jack’s death, his parents — Brandi Harrison and former Republic Records SVP of Promotion & Artist Development David Nathan — took over the apparel company their only son had founded years prior and was successfully running from his dorm room in Denver. This company, Happy Jack — called so for a nickname a very smiley young Jack had earned during a Pamper’s commercial shoot when he was a baby — sold T-shirts, hoodies, hats and other streetwear, with Jack Nathan donating percentages of his profits to mental health-focused charities.
He himself had long struggled with anxiety and depression, and in making clothing and other visual art, he found a creative outlet that helped him deal with it. A lover of music, especially hip-hop, he was just beginning to expand his business into managing musical acts when he died.
“I have never been more excited, passionate and sure of something in my entire life,” he wrote of his company on Instagram just a few weeks before his death. “I can not sleep, I can not think, I can’t eat. I promise, I f–king promise you, Jack Nathan is a name you’ll never forget.”
Through a new venture, Jack’s father David Nathan and his business partner Sam Koch are making sure to honor that statement. Today (May 4), the elder Nathan and Koch are launching Happy Jack Records, a boutique label taking a mega-proactive approach to the mental health of its artists, in honor of the person the label is named for.
David Nathan, who spent 21 years at Republic Records, brings deep industry contacts and knowledge to the project. Koch — who’s in his 20s — brings a dual passion for music and mental health, along with an understanding of the industry gained from his entrepreneur father, who runs an event production company. Together, Nathan and Koch are structuring Happy Jack Records to be a mental health optimization platform for the artists signed to it, and via them, to anyone who taps into their music.
“Think of us like a bootcamp,” Koch says. “We have a team of coaches attacking different elements of wellness, everyone from therapists, to a psychiatrist, to a vocal coach, to a life coach. We’re going to align them with a fitness trainer and a nutritionist. You’re talking about it all every week in therapy. We put artists into our program for 18 months, and they come out on the other side better individuals.”
With this multi-layered approach to artist development, the plan is to only sign three to four artists a year, with the funding necessitated by the bootcamp approach underwritten by donations. (Happy Jack Records is set up as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.) The idea is to sign up-and-coming artists from across genres and focus on acts who have themselves struggled with mental health issues.
The launch party for Happy Jack Records, happening in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month, happens this event at New York City’s Ascent Lounge with a fundraising event featuring performances by The Arti$t, SNF.JT, American Idol winner Nick Fradiani and a DJ set by ZeeMuffin. Following this fundraising launch, the label will lock in a distributor, with Nathan saying they’re considering got some “amazing options” on this front.
The goal is to also develop partnerships across the industry when the label is fully up and running, and also do cross-collabs with Happy Jack apparel, which David Nathan and Jack’s mother Brandi Harrison took over when their son passed away and which has since donated more than $150,000 to mental health related organizations like Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, Release Recovery, Active Minds and Child Mind Institute.
For David Nathan, the new label is dually an homage to his son and an effort to help evolve an industry in which, until recently, conversations around mental health were taboo. “Honestly, there wasn’t anything,” he recalls of his time at Republic. “There were no help lines, no coaches. You couldn’t make a phone call to the record label five or ten years ago and be like, ‘I’m not gonna go on tour this year, because I need to get my head right.’”
While many mega-stars have since become more open about their mental health challenges, Happy Jack Records’ focus on emerging artist is an effort to tackle the lack of industry inroads and limited access to mental health resources such artists often experience.
“With all the fame, money and success, [a lot of the biggest artists in the world] still have issues,” says Koch. “You can only imagine what it’s like for artists that have no money and don’t have teams of people behind them to give them the resources they need.”
The idea is that artists signed to Happy Jack Records will use the label as both a conduit to their own self actualization (and through it, career success), and will also use their growing platforms to tell the stories of their personal growth.
“We are not interested in signing artists that don’t want to use it as a platform,” says Nathan. “Whatever their issue is, or their experience has been, we want them to share it. And we want them to educate with it. One of the things that we’re really trying to focus on is making this a community for the misunderstood.”
In a cross collaboration with the Happy Jack apparel company, Happy Jack Records is also focused on making mental health cool via merch that Jack himself might have designed. (During our Zoom call for this story, Koch wears a t-shirt from the line that says “I told my therapist about you.”) Another goal is that at the end of each year, Happy Jack Records will take 15% of what its earned from each artist and donate it to a mental health charity of that artist’s choice, with the caveat being that the artist must match the donation. “We’re essentially in a good way, forcing ourselves and forcing the artists to put their money where their mouth is and really be that spokesperson for what they believe in,” says Nathan.
For David Nathan and Koch, everything their doing is essentially a continuation of the work Jack Nathan himself started, via his own unique amalgamation of art, business and honest conversations about his interior life.
“Jack always wanted to start a record label,” says Koch. “He was managing artists at one point, and he loved music. I feel like we’re taking the Happy Jack concept and just doing what Jack would have done.”