On a daily basis, I explain to emerging recording artists how major record labels work in today’s new music business paradigm. I still find it rather interesting that majority of the artists who I encounter, still think they could get signed just by getting their music heard by an A&R rep, a music manager, or someone who is on the “inside.” Many struggling recording artists still feel that someone can just wave a magic wand and make them a star. I.E., do all the work for them. THE HARD WORK. Artists still think that they could shop their independent album to a number of major labels, and if the right person hears it, that person will be able to see some potential and be willing to take a risk on them. Artists think they could get signed this way. solely by the sheer fact that their music is “good enough.” Time and time again, I have to basically go over the last 15 years of the music business, and explain how labels need to see more than just good music. Other metrics are measured when looking to sign an artist. Be it a record label, Management Company, or booking agency…you need more than just good music. When discussing this with artists, I feel like I am speaking to someone who still thinks the world is flat. For a record label, manager, or talent agent to be willing to “sign” you and invest their time or money, having just good music (despite how good you and your friends might think it is) is not enough. Ya, it helps! This is the music business so music is a factor, but many people have great music. With technology, it is rather easy to record music at home, or hop into a decent studio to make a quality sounding recording for a fairly reasonable price. But, few have a great business to back the music up. I always say having great music only is being “a one dimensional artist.” You need to be a “multi-dimensional artist” to not only be signed by a label or manager today, but to also succeed. That is what I describe as the “X-Factor” today. Few artists actually have that REAL ‘X-Factor.’ That rare X-factor is having a large fan base, a dominant social media presence, a track record of successful or sold out shows, and a background of turning over a profit with the revenue you generate. Being able to do those things could get you signed. It is not the old days. Labels cannot take a blind investment on an unknown artist, hoping that the artist hits a homerun and the label will recoup their enormous investment. If the artists fails and the label loses all the money they invested, that loss could potentially bankrupt a label. Labels, managers, agents, etc. cannot afford to take such a large risk today. The old business model worked because consumers bought tons of music. Today they don’t. Have you actually bought many full albums over the last couple years? Have you bought ANY music? Most consumers get their music for free online, or stream it via online subscription and on-demand sites. When consumers purchase music, they buy it at a 99 cents per unit sold. Fans usually buy music by the song. Prior to what I call the “digital revolution,” consumers usually had to buy a whole CD wether they wanted only one song or not. CDs cost on average of about $15 per unit sold. In the older days of the music industry, labels would sign a handful of artists. Invest millions in them, and majority of those artists would fail. The one or two artists that succeeded would sell enough records that the revenue a label created from the one or two successful artists would help recoup the loss the label incurred from the artists who failed. In today’s music biz a success is maybe a couple 100,000 units sold. The revenue a label generates from that will only be able to cover the initial investment they spent on that particular release. It will not cover any losses the label might incur from any other releases. So, a record label needs to see some success up front prior to taking an initial investment in an artist’s music career. This puts the initial risk and business development on the shoulders of the artist. I think that’s a great thing. Your success depends on you. It depends on your willingness to go out and work hard, and learn HOW to build a career. It doesn’t depend on a label or manager being willing to give you the chance. Isn’t that great??!! An artist today has the ability to build their music career on their own. They just need to learn how to do it. Artists have an edge today though. With things like home recording, social media, digital distribution, marketing, etc. it makes it much easier. Once an artist can do this successfully on their own, THEN a label might be willing to invest in them. As the old saying goes, no one bets on a horse who has not won a race yet! Why would any successful and intelligent business man hand money over to someone who has not proven they can make the money back?
Recording artists in the hip-hop/rap genre build a profitable career on their own rather well. Numerous artists like Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa, Chief Keef, A$AP Rocky, Meek Mill, Trinidad James, and many more have been able to build a successful enough career on their own, that in turn resulted in landing a major label deal. Why? Because they proved they could be profitable. It wasn’t only because they might have had great music. It was because they had great music AND a solid business to go with it. It is called the music business for a reason.
There is an artist right now that EVERY major label is chasing after to sign. 20 year old hot rapper ‘Chance’ has recently been making heads spin in the music industry. From Chicago, Illinois, Chance (born Chancelor Bennett) is the perfect example of what an artist needs to be doing in order to be signed by a major label. His music career started in 2011 while attending Jones College Prep High School in Chicago. While in high school, Chance was ridiculed by his teachers for his aspirations to be a rapper. In spring of 2011 he released his first mixtape titled “10 Day.” The independently dropped mixtape released on Datpiff.com, has been downloaded over 20,000 times. “10 day” was even featured in ‘Forbes Magazine’s’ section titled ‘Cheap Tunes.’ In Forbes, Chance was described as ‘an artist who draws upon a pool of these musical elements and pieces them together into an accessible, fluid amalgamation.’ Check out one of his hot videos here:
Chance has recently dropped his 2nd mixtape, titled “Acid Rap.” On Tuesday this week ‘Acid Rap’ was downloaded over 500,000 times in one night. An astonishing figure for an artist who has no major label backing or promotion (Major label artists like 50 Cent and Lil Wayne’s mixtape’s download numbers pale in comparison). Prior to the release of his 2nd mixtape, Chance had already garnered attention from numerous major labels. He had been flown to meetings with major labels in New York and L.A. Met with execs at Columbia, Republic, Def Jam, RCA, Atlantic, Interscope, Shady and Capitol, among others. In this past SXSW Music Conference, he was picked by Red Bull to perform at their showcase. Music industry legend of Def Jam and Warner Music Group fame Lyor Cohen reached out to meet with him personally. Chance has admitted that he is not very fond of all the meetings and travel, but knows it is part of the business and he has to be involved in all aspects of it if he wishes to succeed in this industry. When asked about his feelings on his new and hectic business schedule, Chance stated “I don’t really like meetings, I like recording and performing music. But I need to set myself up for when the time does come that I need better distribution or just a bigger team behind me.”
After the success of his first mixtape, Chance caught the attention of major key players in the music industry. ‘Team Chance’, as they are collectively called, is small team of people who are involved in his music career. His team includes his manager Pat Corcoran, a former promoter and blogger from Chance’s hometown Chicago. Major publicist Dan Weiner, who also represents another rapper Donald Glover, aka ‘Childish Gambino’ (he also started off as an indie rapper, prior to turning into a national level artist). Chance also just landed superstar CAA agent Cara Lewis. Lewis is also known for representing superstar artists like Kanye West and Eminem. Corcoran, who began managing Chance after the success of Chance’s first mixtape, said “me and Chance have always had a chip on our shoulder like ‘We can do this and it doesn’t take much, just don’t be an idiot. Dan and Cara have been kind of like our insiders. They’ve been amazing while we get to know people and figure out what’s right for us.”
Chance has also gone on tour and collaborated with Childish Gambino, who is also a successful comedy writer and actor (with credits on hit shows like 30 Rock, Community and Robot Chicken). They collaborated on the Childish Gambino’s hit mixtape ‘Royalty.” Hear one of the tracks they collaborated on here:
Childish Gambino recently spoke about his comfort working with Chance, and the way fans responded to the upcoming rapper on their tour. Gambino said, “Chance is easy to make songs with because he’s talented and fun to be around – it’s like hanging with your little cousin. When he opened for us, I always heard people going nuts. You don’t see a lot of rap acts, especially young acts, that can perform on that level.” The positive effect Chance has had on artists and industry vets has been widespread. CAA agent Cara Lewis felt the same. When she first met with Chance, his magnetic star quality, combined with his tangible success was something she couldn’t walk away from. Lewis said, “An emerging artist today can be a superstar tomorrow, but they have to have certain qualities. Chance is extremely charismatic and has an uncanny ability to connect with any audience. You can tell his heart and soul is in it.” 10 minutes into meeting with Chance, she signed him to an exclusive agent deal. With Chance’s enormous fanbase, incredible mixtape download figures, labels began to contact Chance for a meeting.
One thing emerging artists might have a misconception of, is that Chance’s success was not solely dependent on his relationship with music industry heavy hitters. It started before. His buzz and team begun in his hometown of Chicago. It ranges from his 15 year old brother, to his “Save Money Crew.” The Save Money crew came together when most of its members were only freshmen in high school. They were performing at various parties, and attended countless open mic nights. The crew includes rappers, producers, and a film maker. The rappers are Kids These Days, Kami De Chukwu, Vic Mensa, Caleb James, Brian Fresco and Joey Purp. The producers are Peter Cottontale, Nate Fox and Thelonius Martin. The in-house film/video maker Austin Vesely directs pretty much all of Chance’s videos.
Save Money Crew’s approach was a grassroots one. They focused on building a strong and dedicated fanbase in their hometown first. Describing their approach, Chance said “I just turned 20, so the majority of time that I’ve made all of my music I’ve been a teenager. It just made sense that that would be the foundation. Everything we’ve done has been really grassroots.” Chance and his Save Money Crew focused on the local colleges and high school’s. Their business strategy focused on Chicago’s close-knit youth community. After finishing at Jones College Prep, Chance started something called the Save Money School Days. This was an approach where rapper Chance and his manager Pat Corcoran would visit local schools around and focus on selling cheap tickets to Chance’s shows. It was a way to both sell tickets at an affordable price, and also doing meet-and-greets with the students to build on the essential aspect of engaging with a fan base. Manager Pat Corcoran said, “We’d show up at some schools and they’d have the gym ready and make a PA announcement. Chance would sign posters and take pictures with all the kids and give hugs to the girls and stuff. It could get pretty crazy. A few times we were chased away by the cops.” Eventually their young fanbase got older and graduated high school. So Corcoran and Chance altered their strategy. This past March, they started what they called the “March Madness Tour” (the term is taken from the when college basketball starts their annual playoff’s during March). The “March Madness Tour” consisted of Chance and his team stopping by 7 colleges in 10 days.
Like most rappers, Chance comes from a community ridden with crime and murder. Chance chose to discuss the crime has witnessed in his recent mixtape, “Acid Rap.” In 2011 Chance saw a close friend get stabbed to death. That horrific incident and countless others are depicted in the track “Pusha Man.” Take a listen to the haunting track here:
When asked about the incident, Chance said, “They merkin’ kids, they murder kids here. Why don’t they talk about it? They deserted us here. It’s crazy how many people die here and how crucial it’s about to be this summer. Chief Keef put it in everybody’s face and people didn’t like it, but that’s how it is. It affects everybody here personally. Motherfuckers that are 15 and 16 caught bodies already and that’s not normal. So my plan is to put it in people’s face as hard as Chief Keef did it, and possibly harder. Because if nobody talks about it, nothing gets done.”
One of the keys to Chance’s success and the bright future he surely holds, is that despite all the labels courting him, having a manager, a major publicist, and powerhouse agent, he is still working harder than anyone else. Chance is still playing shows in Chicago. He has upcoming shows where he will open for artists like Kendrick Lamar, Toro y Moi, Grimes and many others.
No one ever said that making it in the music business was easy. The music industry is probably one of the most competitive and volatile industries in the world. But, today you have many options to assist you in your success. As I said above, it is not about a manager, label, or anyone else giving you the chance to succeed. It is about YOU giving yourself the chance. You giving your music the best possible shot to be heard by the most people. To do so, the only obstacle you face is learning how to do it in today’s music business paradigm. Use the tools you have at your disposal. Think about the music industry this way…If you invested 1 million dollars of your own money in a record label, what would you do? You would to sign and invest in someone you could not only make your investment back from, but also generate more money. Who would you rather sign? An artist with great music and NO fan base or track record of success? Or, an artist with great music and an enormous fan base, matched with a track record of 1,000s of albums sold (or downloaded), social media buzz, and numerous concert tickets sold? I think the answer is pretty clear. If you can stay away from the romantic fantasy of the music industry that you might have seen on TV or in movies, you stand a better chance of succeeding. Try to look at your music career rationally, and stay away from obsessing on the goal of getting signed or “discovered.” If you can do that, you will be able to make good business decisions that will benefit your overall music career.