How Lil Baby Found Artist-Market Fit and Took Off
by Denisha Kuhlor
Atlanta has long been heralded as an important city in hip hop’s history. The ecosystem positions artists for exponential success. Atlanta’s network advantages for artists resemble the same advantages that Silicon Valley offers young talented tech founders.
The Southern city provides artists with the capital, experience, industry, network, and music expertise to find artist/audience fit and then expand globally with scale.
Atlanta’s ability to catapult an up-and-coming artist is best illustrated by the meteoric rise of Lil Baby. The Atlanta rapper released his initial mixtape in 2017. Three years later, his album My Turn was the most popular album of 2020 (as reported by MRC Data). Let’s take a look at the evolution of Lil Baby’s career through his latest documentary “Untrapped: The Story of Lil Baby.” His journey highlights many similarities of a successful tech founder.
Lil Baby’s founder-market fit in Young Thug’s “EIR” program
The documentary features interviews from Young Thug and Quality Control Music CEO, Pierre “P” Thomas, who both went into detail about the initial bets that they took on Lil Baby. Young Thug effectively created a de-facto Entrepreneurship In Residence program by offering Lil Baby thousands of dollars a day to keep him off the street and get in the studio.
Meanwhile, P invested in Lil Baby’s artist development. Since Quality Control was home to the Migos, who were dominating the charts domestically and globally at the time, this shift in priorities highlights QC’s ability to keep its pulse on what’s next.
In both cases, P and Young Thug invested their time and money before Lil Baby had a product, but the rapper showed early signs that he would gain traction. P saw Lil Baby’s strong reputation in the streets of Atlanta as a sign that he was respected and principled. And Young Thug was impressed that Lil Baby’s widely-embraced Instagram captions were of his own doing, “I would ask him what song he quoted on the caption and he would say that it was him,” Thug said in the documentary. These moves gave P and Thug the confidence to double down on their investment.
The Pre-Seed Stage: Finding early adopters across the world
Once Lil Baby focused full time on making music, he built a hyper-local fanbase of early adopters by capitalizing on his already popular street brand and basing his lyrics on his life. These references in his lyrics about things unique to Atlanta or individuals widely known to locals forged a deep parasocial relationship with his early adopters. Those fans resonated with his music on an even deeper level because they understood the references.
Meanwhile, Lil Baby had perfected a flow full of “Instagrammable lines,” positioning him perfectly for distribution and virality. Quality Control had what they needed to take the young star to the next level. The independent hip-hop label gave Lil Baby early access to big platforms such as The Breakfast Club, participation in compilation albums, and features with artists with larger audiences. Additionally, P and his QC co-founder, Coach K, both had the foresight to gather experts around Lil Baby to improve his live show, train him for media, and encourage him to perform for smaller audiences to build his fanbase, brick by brick.
Lil Baby also replicated his early adopter formula by realizing the universalness of his music. A key moment in the documentary features Coach K sharing his experiences visiting Amsterdam, Paris, and London with Lil Baby and him coming to the realization that while physically the location is different, the experience of living in the ghetto is largely the same. “In order to understand the significance of what he’s done, you have to understand where he’s come from.” This helped Lil Baby connect with fans all over the world, just like he did in Atlanta.
Setting Up for “The Bigger Picture”: It’s All About Distribution
Lil Baby’s continued success comes from his propensity to adapt alongside his early-stage partner, Quality Control. For many tech founders, there’s a critical inflection point when they need new leadership to take the company to its next phase. These founders often stay involved in a reduced capacity, making way for a new CEO to scale the company and make room on the board for later-stage investors.
But Quality Control was able to evolve and find the right partners to elevate its vision. Quality Control already had a joint venture with Motown Records (an imprint of Universal Music Group), so the label could benefit from major label resources. Since then, Quality Control has launched a venture arm to join the cap tables of companies in which there is a mutually beneficial relationship. Quality Control also has its own film studio.
Lil Baby’s evolution is best personified in a clip in the documentary during the aftermath of realizing he was greatly snubbed by the Grammys. Coach K and P expressed their discontent in the Grammys for asking Lil Baby to perform even though the Recording Academy didn’t nominate his album. But Lil Baby still wanted to perform at the annual show.
In a discerning stream of consciousness, Lil Baby expresses what the moment would mean to his core fans and community, such as, “my homie locked up in jail, my grandma.” He also knew that the Grammy stage would reach viewers who were unfamiliar with him. He viewed the opportunity as a way to satiate his core audience and acquire new customers. Just like any successful founder would. Lil Baby has taken advantage of his early artist/audience fit to ensure that he will be dominant for the long haul.