January 19, 2012

Article: Independent’s Day (Part 1)

As I have been compiling this article over the last several months, a constant question kept surfacing: Is Hip Hop old enough to come full circle? Most of us have a working knowledge –or, at least I hope so- about the history of Hip Hop and where it started out and where it stands today. The music began as a strictly independent genre only to be commercialized and commoditized by major labels years after its inception. As nature proves year in and year out, there is a time for flourishing and a time for fading, an ebb and flow, if you will, only to have this process repeated again and again. This mode of operation is not solely confined to a natural setting. The music industry, Hip Hop specifically, is redefining itself or, quite possibly, simply reverting back to what it knows best: independence.

To better provide answers and insights, I had the pleasure to personally speak with four individuals who are making –and have made- a impact in independent Hip Hop. They draw from the previous model set forth in Hip Hop almost 30 years ago and appropriate it as to fit their respective visions for today and looking ahead at tomorrow. Drew “Dru Ha” Friedman, CEO of Duck Down Music, Incorporated; Brent “Siddiq” Sayers, president/CEO/founder of Rhymesayers Entertainment; Michael Tolle, Director of Operations of Mello Music Group; and Travis O’Guin, CEO of Strange Music offer very candid views on Hip Hop and how they have been able to survive –and thrive- in a corporate climate that is apparently in flux. If you are an entrepreneur, take note. If you are a fan, simply enjoy because these gentlemen are intelligent, innovative and above all, staunchly independent.

How do you develop a marketing campaign and what elements do you consider?

Rhymesayers: It starts with the artist and the album and the accompanying vision. This spurs the direction and then we can determine the feasibility of it from there.

Mello Music Group: Our marketing campaigns are broken down into a few basic components: events, online, print, radio, and retail. Phase one of a typical campaign for Mello Music Group is 12-16 weeks; we then sit down and plan phase two after we see the results of the first campaign. Within each of those components though there is a lot going on.

How do you market to and determine your audiences?  How do you adjust your marketing or tailor it specifically for each artist?

Duck Down: Black Rob or Talib Kweli, for example, have a built–in fanbase and it’s going to those outlets to get their fans excited again. It’s going to those places where they have relationships already. For David Dallas, we’re trying to find a niche for him and see who he reminds you of. This is not to copy artists out there; it’s just to use it as a reference, a starting point and ask, “Who’s the market?” We go to the sites and see where the “kids” are going for this newer music. A big portion of it revolves around the Internet these days.

Rhymesayers: Atmosphere is going to do 150-200K units. Their base is rock solid!  They’ve broken out of all their boxes over the years and developed their own sound. We service alternative radio, too, as their core followers are not the urban market. With Freeway, we brought in additional marketing tools with his past performance and his story, as his core is the urban market but try to introduce them to Atmosphere’s audience, too. It’s about expanding those boundaries. You have to cater to the categories, but we don’t try to isolate the artists to only those markets. We want to put the records into the hands of anyone that would be interested in that artist and product. This progression allows us to naturally grow because we haven’t reached a plateau, so to speak, and we’re still building.

Strange Music: We have a division of the company that looks at artists that have fanbases and previous sales histories like Brotha Lynch Hung and Young Bleed. Some people understand it; some don’t. People can be narrow-minded but we have other things going on here besides our flagship artist, Tech 9ine. “F–k what everybody else says. We’re selling as much as anybody in independent Hip Hop right now.”

What kind of money gets spent on budgeting? What kind of money do you see in return for each dollar spent on marketing?

Duck Down: There’s a general rule of thumb in the industry: assuming a record will sell 10K units, allocate a dollar for album production, a dollar for marketing, a dollar for co-opt and then a dollar for royalties. If a project is projected to sell a certain amount, this acts as a baseline. You have to adjust based on how sales are playing out.

Mello Music Group: Tough game. With new artists it’s essentially 1:1. But with established acts, you can get away with less investment. That’s why Mello Music Group is one of the few labels breaking new artists; you have to put a lot of marketing into it to break even, so you are truly investing in the future. For us it is worth it because we work hard to build loyalty and treat our team as family. For labels doing one-off projects with everybody, then all they want is a name that’s already recognizable. This way they can pay an advance, put a project out, collect, and walk away. The return is higher, but it’s lazy. We could sit back and let Oddisee sell based on his name; but I’d rather invest in getting his name out to new people because I love his music. I think if people hear it they will support it and he will continue to grow. So, for us we keep the marketing dollars high in relationship to the return. But as a rule, new artists would be 1:1 or 1:2 and established acts could be 1:5 (meaning spend 1 dollar and get 5 dollars in return).  Nothing is for certain though; it’s all about paying close attention to your budget and watching where each dollar goes the furthest. Online marketing is easy to track, but sometimes types of marketing that are more difficult to monitor have a bigger long-term affect. I mean, what does an ad in Wax Poetics bring back? You don’t know exactly. But, I believe it is effective because I personally love reading that magazine and I know other people do too. So, we invest.

Speaking of print media, how effective is it in this era?

Duck Down: It’s still a part of our campaigns using The Source, XXL, and other print media as they’re in newsstands, airports, and offices. There’s still an importance to it nowadays. We can’t allocate to print media like we used to, but it still plays a role. If you see a banner on allindstrom.com or another site in addition to the print ad, there’s still something to it. It’s a combined effort, so to speak.

Rhymesayers: Unfortunately, it’s worthless. Who buys magazines still? It’s nonexistent. We may run a Wax Poetics magazine because it’s more to support Wax Poetics because it’s such a cool magazine. The print companies haven’t even scaled down the pricing in terms of the change in industry norms and trends; they’re still functioning off an old model. I can take that same money and make two videos instead. I’ve never ever gotten cost-to-value print advertising. It’s not that we never do it; it’s just rare if we do it nowadays. It’s never going to be ’95 again or 2000 again. So, how do we adjust?

Strange Music:  I believe in posters, flyers and flats and we had 24 pallets of physical promo material for street teams to distribute.  We even do billboard advertising, at times.  Of course, we support the social media, on-line sites in this day and age and have a team dedicated just for this.  You have to do both very well.

Do you market towards radio? If so, what’s your campaign for terrestrial and satellite radio?

Duck Down: The radio stations are only playing 10 records! With the mixshow DJs, the program directors are letting them know that those records have to make there way into the mix programs. When a DJ has a slot to work in about 13 or 14 records, they’re being told that 10 of those records have to come from the current playlist.  That leaves three or four records for them to have some discretion over. Every now and then you get a Jay Electronica that aren’t in the major systems and break through. Tyler, the Creator is another example. These artists were happening without radio and radio is left having to catch up to them! We had a Kidz in the Hall record “Driving Down The Block” and it was on TRL getting video plays. Radio still wanted to know what our spins were and they don’t take the risks they used to take. Spins are everything to them. Thank God for Sirius radio because they’ve been an outlet for us be it Tony Touch, Statik Selektah, and others. MTV has loosened up with the multiple channels they have and it allows us to have the conversation with them now. The Internet has forced them to adapt to the short attention spans of their audiences.

Strange Music: Are people paying attention to us putting Lil Wayne on a song called “F–k Food?” How do you market that to radio? “It’s a do what you feel type record, so f–k that!” Tech told me about the vision of the song. Anyone in the music business would have made this their single. Oh, T-Pain was on the record, too! (laughs). I’m not trying to cash in on this; he’s doing this because Tech is real.  There are some good radio stations, but it’s like a “boy’s club” and I’m not in the middle of it. I’m excluded from it. “We deal with about 20 stations right now and I really f–k with Reef and the guys at Sirius XM. I wish all radio operated like them.” Radio is having to restructure because the money is not what it used to be and majors are not what they once were, financially speaking.

Traditional media/marketing vs. Internet/Social marketing. How would you shift your marketing assets for old vs. new artists in terms of old vs. new marketing tools and outlets?

Mello Music Group: Mello Music Group has found that knowing who the fans are is important in this.  For example, our new group DTMD is composed of two 21 year olds, Dunc & Toine, and they appeal to both young and older fans. But many of their fans live online, so shifting attention to online and social media networks is helpful. Also, it affects how we talk to people online; younger people online expect a different approach than an older online fan. An older market is comfortable with straightforward, direct marketing. But, the younger generation is more aloof, they expect subtlety and they don’t want to know it’s marketing; they want to enjoy the experience seamless with their lifestyle –don’t break the suspension of disbelief. Older consumers are savvy and busy and they want you to cut to the chase -what do you have for me? An example is as simple as CDs versus digital.  An experienced fan will find out information online and then cop the CD or vinyl; a younger fan may find out online and cop online, and never miss the visceral affect of physical product. I personally live online like everyone else; but when it comes to consumption, I like to be patient and get those physical experiences of something coming in the mail and opening it, holding it while listening. I find that new artists attract fans that want to simply consume. Whereas more established acts have gained a number of followers who themselves are musicians and thus want to be offered insight into the creative process more than just product.

Duck Down: People’s attention spans are quick and they’re going to move on. You need something different to give them that isn’t seen on YouTube or commonly found on other outlets.

Strange Music: I think that a lot of the traditional methods are important like XXL, Murder Dog, and others and I support it. I believe that it’s a physical piece of goods has a history to it. All this digital material can be a little scary and mind-blowing because it doesn’t have the physical form and it’s stored on a hard drive somewhere that someday technology may no longer read.

Be sure to check out the conclusion of this article next week where topics such as giving away free music, direct sales and 360 deals are discussed.

Chris Moss

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  1. mello says:

    Appreciate you taking time to talk with everyone and compose this 2 part look at indie music! A lot of insightful stuff, I’ll definitely by re-reading this one to make sure I don’t miss anything!

  2. Sandile says:

    Very insightful, this is definitely a re-read! Can’t wait for pt 2

  3. Chris Moss says:

    Thanks for the great feedback!

  4. Great article and informative. It’s good to hear the viewpoint of a truly successful indie label–it’s a rare opportunity. Looking forward to part II.

  5. A great read and inspiration for us smaller labels

  6. Really good article. Most of these labels are smart enough to see the writing on the wall as far as print magazines. I’m not sure how much they’ve been keeping up with the print industry but just as eBooks are beginning to replace digital magazines, digital magazines are beginning to replace physical ones. I’m not talking about those crappy flash based “magazines” people are posting on their websites. I’m talking about tablet and phone based magazines.

    Almost every major magazine publisher has iPad versions of their magazines out there selling subscriptions and issues. It’s only the urban magazines that are failing to take advantage of this technology.. with the exception of US.

    Our Hoodgrown magazine offers the best of both worlds, a print experience in in a digital world where ads are full pages like in print magazines, can have audio and video, and can be tracked when someone clicks through.

    We’re actually the first urban company to produce an iPad (iPhone and iPod Touch) magazine as well and we sell internationally through iTunes.

    Eventually this is where magazines are headed but most of OUR people are slow to react.

  7. Thanks Chris Moss for this very nice article from these 4 indies. It gives me so much inspiration to succeed as an independant!

  8. Tokyo Cigar says:

    Thanks for the article. Very insightful. Learned a lot

  9. So much good quality info in this article.
    Great read, I’m looking forward to part 2.

  10. [...] in this arrangement. If you missed the first part or simply need a quick refresher, check it out here. Otherwise, enjoy Part 2 and please let us know in the “Comments” section of the [...]

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  1. By Article: Independent’s Day (Part 2) on January 30, 2012 at 12:00 PM

    [...] in this arrangement. If you missed the first part or simply need a quick refresher, check it out here. Otherwise, enjoy Part 2 and please let us know in the “Comments” section of the [...]

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