Why I Left The Major Label System

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It’s generally agreed that this is a problem for the artist, not the consumer of art, to solve. To find the answer I began to pay attention to indie artists with integrity who still make a good living, and I found myself paying attention to comedians. When Louis CK filmed a stand-up concert and made it available for stream and download on his website for $5, he made a cool million and gave half of it away to charity. I thought it was a genius idea, but when I tried to apply the realities of releasing a hip-hop album thru this kind of platform, the task seemed daunting. Louis CK comes up with jokes in his head and delivers them solo, on a microphone to an audience that is paying for seats. His only costs were probably the filming, the streaming and getting the website built, but the money he made from the concert could have probably covered these things. Louis’ hit show on FX and the success of his past comedy specials did the marketing for him, so he didn’t have to spend a lot of money in that department. He had no producers to pay, samples to clear, studio time to pay for, engineers, musicians, etc. There are no royalties that he has to pay out to anyone once the product is released as well. I scrapped the idea of being a hip-hop version of Louis CK, until singer/producer Ryan Leslie tracked me down to share an idea with me.

When it comes to being tech savvy, Ryan Leslie is the opposite of me. A Harvard graduate, he came to fame in this business not just for his singing and producing skills, but for YouTube videos where he would share his creative process with his audience. He has remained ahead of the curve when it comes to figuring out how to monetize cultural relevancy, and once he realized that artists are shut out of the analytics that show us who buys our art and where, he began to think of a way to collect that information. If Amazon, Google and iTunes can have access to our fans’ emails and spending habits, why can’t we?

Ryan Leslie, Talib Kweli, Res at Vans OTW event, August 2012

Ryan and his Disruptive Multimedia team built a website, RyanLeslie.com, where Ryan’s fans could buy music directly from Ryan, no middle man, as long as they provided their contact info. Any artist can use a service like Tunecore to sell digital music on iTunes, or go thru a distribution company to sell physical products to stores, but you are giving up a hefty percentage to do that, and you will not have access to the emails of those who spend money on your art. At Ryanleslie.com, Ryan is retaining 100% of the profits he makes from his art, and he can contact each person who spent money with him directly. In fact, as he was explaining this to me, I watched Ryan receive a sale direct to his iPhone and then call the fan up and thank him for his purchase on the spot. It was revolutionary. Isn’t this what we all say we want?

In the fall of 2013 Disruptive Multimedia set up a similar site for me, Kweliclub.com. Even though I had just dropped Prisoner of Conscious through Caroline Distribution, the excitement of cutting out the middleman was too much for me to bear and inspired me to record an album called Gravitas. Recorded mostly in amphitheater locker rooms around the country while I toured with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Gravitas was an album that spoke directly to the freshly-independent mind state I was in. Seeing Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ incredible success as an indie act was also a motivating force, and by December of 2013 Gravitas, featuring Gary Clark Jr, Black Thought, Big K.R.I.T., Raekwon the Chef and more, was available for digital sale at one place in the world, Kweliclub.com.

Gravitas cost me about $30,000 to record, but the demand for the physical was so high that I ended up doing a deal with Fat Beats Distribution that gave them the right to press up CDs and vinyl. The advance I received from Fat Beats coupled with the pre-orders of Gravitas on Kweliclub.com covered the initial recording costs, and all monies made from release date on was profit. To not have to wait months to profit on my art, to see profit the day of release, was a first for me. It was like a high, I felt unstoppable. As liberating of a feeling this was, it soon became clear to me that without marketing dollars or some sort of incredible marketing idea, the majority of my fans would never know the album existed. I filmed a couple of videos for promotion and I tour constantly, which gave me an opportunity to talk the album up in front of audiences all over the world, but there are so many artists competing for the eyes and ears of music consumers that it’s hard not to be swallowed up by all of it.

In February of 2014, 2 months after the digital, the physical for Gravitas was released. To make fans aware, I hired a marketing firm to get some press and TV and filmed a couple more videos. Sales continued to trickle in, the song “State of Grace” became popular in activist circles and was nominated for a BET award, but for the most part, most of my fans are still unaware of Gravitas. While consumers say they want to support artists directly, we all respond way more to products that are heavily marketed to us, even if that response is to be vocal about how what you don’t like while refusing to support what you do.

There was a time, pre-internet, where diversity in hip-hop music was represented in the mainstream. Fans of what is dubbed “true hip-hop” could find it on the radio and TV. Once the internet became dominant in our lives, these fans realized they didn’t have to sit through commercials and songs they didn’t like, they abandoned radio and TV as a source for hip-hop. As a result, major labels stopped spending money promoting this kind of hip-hop altogether. Now that marketing dollars are only spent on hip-hop that appeals to the lowest common denominator, many of these fans do not have the know-how or the energy to find alternative ways to receive the music that speaks to them.

Source : https://medium.com/cuepoint/why-i-left-the-major-label-system-a0ecfa06ae91

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