Showing TLC: South Buffalo's Diggins drives relaunch of pop group - The Buffalo News
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Showing TLC: South Buffalo's Diggins drives relaunch of pop group

SAN FRANCISCO — In places such as this one, everyone seems to be in control. That’s why someone like Bill Diggins is here, at the posh Olympic Club, where the wood-paneled walls seem to breathe out soft flute music as its members, with their taut skin and lithe bodies and designer clothing, dine on egg whites and orange juice and coffee that never splashes onto the tabletop.

This isn’t to suggest the people here are fake. They are not. They are accomplished and driven and they wrap themselves in a way that suggests those things. They are like Diggins, who has a square jaw, a freckled complexion reminiscent of his South Buffalo roots and an athletic frame whittled by biking the famous hills of his adopted hometown.

Diggins, a music manager and tech entrepreneur, drives a black Maserati with tinted wheels and uses places such as this one to meet with his projects. On this day, as Diggins dines at breakfast, he has two: He is launching a tech startup, Diggit, which provides mass quantities of digital data to marketers. And he’s engineering the comeback album release of the pop group he has represented for 20 years, TLC.

“It’s exciting,” Diggins said, “because you’re birthing something that you just don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”

Manager Bill Diggins, center, spends time with TLC after their performance on "Dancing with the Stars." (Jenna Schoenefeld/Special to The News)

A tech launch, the relaunch of a '90s pop group — these are not obvious paths to success. Diggins has the management background to easily land a C-suite job in any city, or to do some lucrative by-the-hour consulting. The money would flow freer and fatter; he could still drive a sports car and golf on his club’s pro-level course. But he isn’t wired for that.

“Without risk you can’t succeed at anything in life,” Diggins said. “I’m a risk-taker and always have been. When you get into your 50s you’re not suppose to really be taking risks. But I don’t; it’s the alchemy in my body. I don’t know how to do it any other way.”

He’s relinquishing some control to creative – and potentially huge – pursuits.

* * *

Diggins grew up with two sisters in a modest South Buffalo home where his mother, Marie, who turns 90 this year, still lives. His late father, William, was a Georgetown-educated lawyer. Diggins attended elementary school at St. Thomas Aquinas in South Buffalo, then headed to Stella Niagara in Lewiston. Diggins was 17 when he finished school and moved to Los Angeles, where he sold welding rod for his uncle’s company.

“I was just very ambitious and very restless and curious about the world,” Diggins said. “With no formal education, with no financial resources, I said I was going to go conquer the world. My father didn’t talk to me for a month before I left. Rightfully so.”

A few years later, though, Diggins’ father rightfully recognized his son’s success. Diggins discovered he had a knack for sales; by 22, he had sold enough welding rod to buy a home in Bel Air. From there, he started dealing in real estate, and also decided he wanted to become part of the music industry. He massaged connections to become part of the management side of the business, and over the next few years began working with Billy Idol, Bjork and Johnny Rotten, among others.

Then, in the mid-1990s, Diggins heard that TLC was looking for new management. Despite smash successes such as the song “Waterfalls,” which transcended urban radio to become a widespread hit across formats, TLC was in financial trouble. The group had declared bankruptcy, split with its management and was hoping to get out of bad record deals.

TLC member Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas laughs with visitors while manager Bill Diggins looks on. (Jenna Schoenefeld/Special to The News)

New managers were lining up to represent T (Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins), L (Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes) and C (Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas). Diggins was among them. He flew to Atlanta to meet with the group. The essence of their conversations was captured in the 2013 VH1 biopic “CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story.” (Diggins was an executive producer of the movie.)

Sitting in a busy restaurant, Left Eye – played by the rapper Lil Mama – looks at Diggins with thick hesitation.

“What are you going to tell us that the other 10 managers haven’t, Mr.” – she halts to look at her list of names – “Diggins?” she asks.

Diggins, played by the sandy-haired actor Donny Boaz, delivers a confident pitch: “You girls are the top-selling girl group of all time. You’ve broken every barrier there is: Gender. Race. You name it. I will guarantee you $50 million the first year we work together. I’ve negotiated an upfront, worldwide headlining tour and then you get right back in the studio and start working on your next album. We’ll take breaks, have hospital spots for Tionne” – Watkins has sickle cell anemia – “and have EMTs along the entire way. That is the only way that you girls will be able to get out of this hole you’re in: tour, and then another album. I will devote all of my time to make sure that you girls can actually benefit from your success.

“Bear this in mind: If you hire me, I’m going to piss off a lot of people down here. Because I’m looking out for you, and not them.”

Diggins was hired and delivered. TLC’s 1999 album “FanMail” included two global hits – “No Scrubs” and “Unpretty” – and won three Grammys. From the podium, the group thanked Diggins, who had also righted them on the business side.

“When he got involved with them they were a complete mess financially,” Diggins’ longtime friend, the music executive Bryan Turner, told The News in a 2015 story. “They had contracts that were incredibly unfair and one-sided. He was relentless. He was able to do things that a lot of other guys would have been frightened away from.”

From left, TLC members Tionne Watkins and Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas talk with friends and family while their manager Bill Diggins looks at his phone. (Jenna Schoenefeld/Special to The News)

But not nearly as daunting, or heartbreaking, as what came next. In April 2002, while TLC was on break, Left Eye was killed in a car accident in Honduras. The tragedy halted TLC’s career for most of the next decade. Though the group never disbanded, Chilli and T-Boz spent most of their time working on individual projects and focused on their personal lives. (Chilli has a 20-year-old son, Tron; T-Boz, has a 16-year-old daughter, Chase, and in summer 2015 adopted a baby boy, Chance.)

Diggins, meanwhile, was married (and now divorced) but never started a family. “For whatever reason, I never felt I had the ability to holistically manage my life that way,” he said. “Was it a mistake or wasn’t it? I don’t know.”

He spent the years after Left Eye’s death working in the tech industry, developing an expertise in using data and analytics to drive entertainment marketing. But when T-Boz and Chilli were ready to fully relaunch TLC – first with the VH1 movie, then a tour and now an album that was released June 30 – he came back, too.

“He really believes in us,” Chilli said before a show in Toronto last fall, as TLC was putting the finishing touches on the 12-track album. “He has to. And his loyalty to us is very much appreciated, because he could have left us a long time ago.”

* * *

The group’s comeback (and likely final) album – which is titled “TLC” – is more than two years in the making. Diggins engineered a Kickstarter campaign to fund the album; the $430,000 raised from fans more than doubled the group’s goal.

Rather than pursuing a label deal, TLC formed its own record company, with Diggins joining T-Boz and Chilli as a shareholder. Longtime music producer Ron Fair, who has worked with stars including Christina Aguilera, Black Eyed Peas and Vanessa Carlton, was hired to oversee the production of the album.

Diggins’ role was coordinating – and enforcing – budgets, schedules and a high standard for the final product, which he wanted to match “the integrity of quality” of TLC’s seminal hits such as “Waterfalls,” “Creep” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”

“‘Music business’ has two words: Music and business,” Diggins said. “The music has to have freedom. The business side of it has to have conformity.”

Tionne Watkins stands with Bill Diggins, manager of TLC. (Jenna Schoenefeld/Special to The News)

T-Boz, who calls Diggins “the glue that holds it together,” scraps diplomacy: “Dealing with producers is like dealing with children, you know what I’m saying? I’m just keeping it real. It’s like dealing with children. It’s like being the father to all these little kids and keeping them in place — people and their emotions, their schedules, and all that. He kind of helps bring it together when there’s any problems.”

As he promised during that first meeting back in Atlanta two decades ago, Diggins also fought hard for TLC. Over the past several months, as the album production wrapped and the first single, “Way Back,” was released, Diggins leveraged every bit of data and feedback to elevate the group and the album.

The VH1 film was the most-watched cable movie for adults in 2013; he hired companies to cull viewership data and conduct look-alike modeling to determine the demographics of TLC’s potential fan base. That information, combined with data from TLC’s tours in recent years in Australia and across North America with New Kids on the Block, suggest the the audience is women from their mid-20s to 40s, with mid-to-upper 30s as the sweet spot.

Last winter, when the judges from NBC’s “The Voice” released an acoustic version of “Waterfalls” that went viral, Diggins used that as leverage in negotiations and to reinforce the strength of TLC’s audience. When TLC’s spring show in London sold out in minutes – and afterward, when the reviews were raving – Diggins used that, too.

Since the fall, he has negotiated distribution deals with companies in North America, Europe, Japan and Australia. Diggins and his contracted team of dozens of specialists, from radio promoters to publicists, have pushed radio play, television appearances (including high-profile performances on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and NBC’s “Today Show”) and ticket sales for TLC’s summer I Love the '90s: The Party Continues tour.

In late June, days before the album release, Diggins said, “The moment of truth is coming up very fast. Friday. I’m counting on a top-10 album.”

This week, Diggins will find out the results. His team is telling him the record is likely to be among Billboard’s top five new albums, and has a shot at the top 10 overall.

“I haven’t worked this hard since I came into TLC’s life in ‘FanMail,’ said Diggins, who resigned as CEO of his tech company Diggit in November so he could focus on the TLC project. (He remains Diggit’s second-largest shareholder.)

Bill Diggins, manager of TLC, hangs out in a bungalow. (Jenna Schoenefeld/Special to The News)

Diggins is an owner in this TLC project – he wasn’t on “FanMail” – “but I’m not doing it for that reason,” he said. (Diggins openly acknowledges, with a laugh, “there are a lot easier ways to make money.”)

“I’m doing it because of the fact that I love these girls,” he said. “I think they have a voice that still needed to be heard. I always believed that they would deliver an album that would connect and be emotional, and I believe that they had a touring life that would go on for years to come, and have a lot of fun, and drive a lot of revenue.”

It’s the kind of risk that drives Diggins — and it sounds a lot like that promise he made to TLC so long ago.

Email: toshei@buffnews.com

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