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How Will and Jada Pinkett Smith Built a Content and Commerce Powerhouse

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In 2013, the Smith family was going through it. Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith’s movie After Earth was a box office failure. Jada Pinkett Smith seemed more interested in her heavy metal rock band than Hollywood. And their daughter Willow Smith had backed away from the spotlight after her hit single “Whip My Hair.”

The timing couldn’t be worse. The entertainment industry was changing fast. Social media became a force multiplier for actors who knew how to use it. But the Smiths, a couple once known for their privacy, were getting left behind.

Hollywood success is hard to maintain, especially for a middle-aged Black couple who rose to power on a 1990s playbook. Many assumed Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s best years were behind them. If anything, Jaden and Willow were the ones to watch.

But Will and Jada went back to the drawing board. In a few years, they bounced back like a Cash Money rapper that just got out of a horrible contract. Will can now drive box office results from his Instagram account. Jada’s Red Table Talk can dominate social media with ease. Their businesses run in lockstep under Westbrook Inc., a cross-platform holding company that runs the family’s content and commerce. Their career resurgence is a lesson on how legacy talent can adapt to the times.

A plan that was ripe for disruption

In the early 90s, Will had it figured out. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star told his manager James Lassiter that he wanted to be the biggest movie star in the world. Lassiter and Smith looked at the ten highest-grossing movies of all time and identified three common themes: special effects, creatures, and love stories. That focus led to films like Independence Day, Men in Black, and many more. For each film, the actor-manager duo targeted a different country to maximize international ticket sales. For instance, Bad Boys outperformed its overseas expectations by 15x thanks to a targeted campaign at the Cannes Film Festival. In the 2000s, Will Smith had eight straight movies gross $100 million domestically. He was a box office cheat code who topped the Billboard charts in his spare time. Hollywood may never see a run like that again.

Jada ran her own game and checked the boxes. She starred in Black cinema classics like Menace II Society, Jason’s Lyric, and Set It Off. She did comedy blockbusters like The Nutty Professor. Jada even joined the horror flick wave with Scream 2 (but only for the first 10 minutes because… well, you know). And even though Will turned down the lead role in The Matrix, Jada got a role in its sequels.

But the Smiths’ plan was ripe for disruption. They thrived when an actor’s name alone could sell movies. Back then, original screenplays like The Matrix could become tentpole franchises. Film studios took more risks. Even if a film had mediocre ticket sales, it could become a cult classic on VHS, DVD, or get syndicated on cable TV. But the rise of the internet, video streaming, and cord-cutting ate into that backend revenue. It became harder to greenlight the same movies.

Today’s entertainment landscape has led to a bifurcation of content. Most movies fall into two groups: big-budget franchise films derived from proven intellectual property with worldwide popularity, or arthouse projects from indie studios like A24. Original concept blockbusters, like the ones Will Smith starred in, are now few and far between.

When Will and Jada first rose to power, attention was easier to command. The biggest online distractions were Napster and AOL Instant Messenger. But it soon became hard for the private couple to keep up. The modern era favored social media influencers, reality TV stars, and actors who brought fans behind the scenes.

That wasn’t Will and Jada, and the results started to show. Movies like Seven Pounds, Concussion, and Collateral Beauty could no longer rely on Will Smith’s name to sell tickets. Meanwhile, Jada’s movie star career soon became a TV career in the early 2010s with roles in both Hawthorne and Gotham.

If the Smiths wanted to reclaim that glory, the model had to change.

The shift from private to prolific

For years, Will avoided social media because movie stars “needed mystery and separation.” In 2015, one of Will’s only social posts was to confirm that he and Jada Pinkett Smith were still together! But eventually, he studied how Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson used social media to become a modern-day box office draw.

The former WWE wrestler has a team who helps him post inspirational videos and entertaining content to engage followers. When it’s time to sell his movies, the Fast & Furious franchise star has a ready customer base. The studios pay him to spread the word too.

From Forbes:

In addition to hefty $20 million up-front paychecks and cuts of back-end studio profits—starting with July’s Skyscraper, in which he plays a former FBI hostage-rescue leader—[Johnson will] insist on a separate seven-figure social media fee with every movie in which he appears, according to people familiar with his deals. In other words, rather than have studios dump money into TV ads or billboards, their new paid-marketing channel doubles as their marquee star.

That seven-figure social media fee is a drop in the bucket. Studios spend nine figures to market the blockbusters that Johnson stars in. But The Rock’s social media likely drives more revenue per dollar spent than other distribution channels. It’s a page right out of Tyler Perry’s playbook. The Madea creator’s email list was once his primary source to sell tickets to both plays and movies.

In 2017, Will Smith adapted these rules for his career. He signed with Netflix to star in Bright, the entertainment company’s first big-budget film. It was the perfect opportunity to establish his online presence. Smith got help from CAA to assemble a social media team. When Bright debuted in December 2017, Will’s social media came out the gates hot. He appeared on The Ellen Show to announce that he joined Instagram. His Instagram debut felt even bigger than Bright’s debut. Two months later, Smith became the top actor on social media according to The Hollywood Reporter.

When Will Smith’s Aladdin movie was announced in 2019, box office expectations were tepid. Disney’s past live-action remakes had mixed reviews, and Aladdin’s trailer got dragged for how wild Will Smith’s Genie looked. But the Aladdin team prevailed. Smith used his socials to propel the movie to beat analyst predictions by over 50% at the domestic box office. Aladdin grossed over $1 billion worldwide.

Analysts estimate that 12-20% of all Aladdin trailer views came from @willsmith. And since trailer views are a proxy for box office sales, Smith proved his impact. The connection between social media and viewership is even stronger now. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the push for on-demand access to movies that are still in their theatrical run.

Will Smith’s social media impact is a signal of the power shift from institutions to individuals. A similar shift happened in Silicon Valley. Amazon Web Services cut the cost for startups to get off the ground, which made it easier for founders to operate without the same reliance on venture capital. VC firms like Andreessen Horowitz leaned into this by elevating founders and getting them the best terms possible. The firm’s strategy was inspired by CAA founder Michael Ovitz, whose talent agency led Hollywood’s power shift from film studios to actors. Today’s social media influence, for both actors and founders, is a natural evolution of that dynamic.

Transparent content builds audience trust

In 2017, Jada Pinkett Smith had a year of healing. The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements were catalysts for her vulnerability and openness. The following year she launched Red Table Talk, an unfiltered conversation series with herself, Willow, Jada’s mother Adrienne Banfield-Norris (aka Gammy), and celebrity guests. Jada chose to host it on Facebook Watch because the social media platform is built to get people talking and commenting, which is the goal of her show. Red Table Talk started as a hobby, but soon became a force in media.

In early episodes, Jada addressed a few never-ending rumors about her and her husband. Were Jada and Will swingers? Was it an open marriage? Were they Scientologists? Do Jada and Gabrielle Union still got a little feud going? It was all on the table, literally. Jada put herself out there, which created content that got covered by all the aggregators, media publications, and social media pundits. It all drove traffic back to her show.

The first episode of Red Table Talk was a conversation between Jada and Will’s ex-wife Sheree Elizabeth Zampino.

Jada’s transparency is the key ingredient. It’s a shift from her once-reserved public persona. The Smiths still might not share all their entanglements unless they’re forced to. But Jada’s openness led other celebrities to join her at the table, including Jordyn Woods and Kid Cudi.

Red Table Talk’s average viewership is now 14 million per show. Jada boosts Facebook Watch ratings like Serena Williams in a Grand Slam tennis match. Jada’s deal with Facebook was signed in January 2020 and extends until the end of 2022. The series now includes a spinoff series with Gloria Estefan and plans for international expansion. The show’s success has been a launchpad for a line of e-commerce products, Jada’s Hey Humans personal care beauty company, and more.

From iP to IP

When good content can be produced fast, it’s easy to capitalize on its potential if it takes off. Westbrook Media calls this fastlane intellectual property or “FLiP.” For instance, Will Smith’s Bucket List was a popular Instagram account that led to a deal with the Discovery Channel for its annual Shark Week. Jada’s role as a healer in Red Table Talk led to a starring role in REDD ZONE, an upcoming Netflix film.

“iP” (lower case i) is content that is fast, cheap, and easy to produce. The most successful “iP” becomes big-budget “IP,” which is often sold to major distributors to maximize its reach.

Here’s the flywheel I drew. The more content created, both iP and IP, the more commerce for Westbrook.

For instance, in 2020 Will started Will From Home, a Snapchat series on Will’s life in the early days of quarantine. It soon became a testing ground for bigger projects.

From The Hollywood Reporter:

After Will Smith hosted a virtual Fresh Prince reunion during an episode of Will From Home, the Westbrook Media team realized they could turn that concept into something even bigger. They pitched a 90-minute reunion special to WarnerMedia, and executives, seeking ways to promote that HBO Max was the exclusive streaming home of all six seasons of the 1990s sitcom, immediately bit.

That reunion special for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air became an opportunity for Will to address his 27-year-long feud with Janet Hubert, the show’s original Aunt Viv. The only thing missing was Jada’s red table! And when the reunion show dropped, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air released a merch store to capture the timely interest in the show.

To further capitalize on the hit show’s popularity, Peacock ordered two seasons of ‘Bel Air,’ a new dramatized version of the sitcom which came from a 2019 fan fiction short film. Fresh Prince is the Westbrook Media machine running on all cylinders.

This is today’s entertainment model. This is why Spotify and Chernin Entertainment announced a multi-year first-look partnership. Chernin’s film and TV production company now has access to Spotify’s podcasts. It can bring the best ones to life on the big screen. This is also why Drake drops smaller EPs and singles before he releases his albums. The most successful tracks influence the album’s sound and are more likely to make the final cut. In both cases, iP is the farm system for IP.

Build the audience, then sell the products

Social media has revived their entertainment careers, but it also upped their investment game. In 2018, Will Smith launched Dreamers VC, a Los Angeles-based venture capital firm.

Here’s Vik Sasi, a partner at Dreamers VC, in an interview with Entrepreneur’s Handbook:

“We’re living in this peak of influencer marketing right now. In an environment where something like 30 to 40 percent of venture dollars trickles down into Google and Facebook just given how much paid media these startups are spending on. So when you bring along an influencer, especially someone of Will’s caliber, you can bring the marginal cost of acquiring a customer to $0 if they do an Instagram post, mention you on their YouTube, etc.”

Every company wants to lower its customer acquisition cost—whether it’s a film studio, an email newsletter, or a venture-backed startup. This is why audience-first products have become popular. It’s a relevant strategy for both an A-list Hollywood actor’s production company, a superstar rapper, a company like Trapital, and everything in between.

Here’s a visual of how it works for Westbrook:

In March 2021, Will told The Hollywood Reporter, “We have seen this company in our minds for decades — the artistic quality, the synergy of our team, the service and healing aspects of our content and the revolutionary approach across the board.”

They built the company they wish had existed.

If the 2001 version of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith met the 2021 version of Will and Jada, they would be shocked. “Y’all just put your business out there?” “Why do you keep saying ‘content’?” “Do you live on that phone?”

But they would also be impressed. Like the characters they play in movies, Will and Jada overcame obstacles and found a way to stay on top.

Their transformation is remarkable. But before long, they’ll have to go back to that drawing board. The landscape keeps changing, now more than ever.

5 Lessons You Can Learn From Troy Carter’s Relentless Determination

This guest essay was written by Polina Marinova Pompliano from The Profile. Below, she shares lessons from music exec Troy Carter on building a fanbase, gaining momentum, and using failure to his advantage.

Hi everyone!

I’m Polina, and I’m the founder and author of The Profile, a media company that profiles the most successful people and companies in the world.

Every Wednesday, I publish The Profile Dossier, a weekly deep-dive on a prominent individual that takes you on a journey from their greatest triumphs to their most gut-wrenching failures. Each Dossier documents the lessons they’ve learned along the way, and how you can implement them in your own life.

One person whose path to success has been neither linear nor straightforward is talent manager, entrepreneur, and investor Troy Carter.

Troy Carter grew up in West Philadelphia with a single mom. His father went to prison for murder when Carter was just 7 years old. Carter dropped out of high school to pursue a failed rap career, and he ended up as a local concert promoter for then-upstarts like Notorious B.I.G.

Through sheer persistence and grit, Carter landed an internship at Bad Boy Records, and later went to work with Will Smith’s business partner James Lassiter in Los Angeles. He was fired and sent back to Philadelphia, where he discovered a 19-year-old female rapper named Eve who was in need of a manager.

He helped Eve become a commercial success, but he made some mistakes along the way. Eventually, Eve fired him in 2007. The loss put him close to bankruptcy. His house was foreclosed upon, cars were repossessed, and he barely had enough cash for gas.

And then he met Stefani Germanotta.

She was wearing fishnet stockings and big sunglasses, but she had even bigger ambitions. After performing several songs, she cut to the chase, telling Carter: “I want to be the biggest star in the world.”

Germanotta had been recently dropped by Def Jam Records only four months after she signed with the label. But Carter recognized something in her no one else did — pure talent. He took her to Spaghetti Warehouse where they spent three hours talking about life, career, and music. She became his newest client.

It took Carter a full year to help get Germanotta’s song played on the radio. That song was, “Just Dance.” And just like that, Stefani Germanotta transformed into Lady Gaga.

Carter became known for spotting talent early — and not just in the music industry. As a serial entrepreneur and investor, Carter has invested in some of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups, including Uber, Lyft, Dropbox, Warby Parker, Spotify, Gimlet, and Slack.

Here’s what we can learn from Silicon Valley’s favorite talent manager:

1. Find your first 50 fans

Beyonce’s Beyhive. Taylor Swift’s Swifties. Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters.

These are all devoted cult-like fan communities. Carter and Lady Gaga were pioneers in that they developed a philosophy called “The First 50,” which referred to finding the first 50 most loyal fans.

Gaga first became popular in New York’s LGBTQ community, so she played four to five clubs a night to make sure that they felt connected to her on a personal level. The ties became stronger, and ultimately, her “superfan” base snowballed into hundreds of millions of fans around the world.

Even before she exploded in popularity, Gaga engaged with fans on social media, met them at her performances, and took their feedback. “For us, it’s about, ‘How do we build an authentic audience and grow it very, very organically?’ It’s slow bake versus the microwave,’” Carter says.

2. Create inflection points

The biggest myth about Lady Gaga’s career is that it was an overnight success.

Carter and Gaga spent a year convincing Canadian radio stations to play her song, “Just Dance” before he was able to convince a station in Buffalo, N.Y. to put it on air.

There was no single thing that put her on the map — it was just many small wins that led to her seemingly big breakthrough. “It was a series of inflection points,” he says. “It wasn’t one explosive thing that just happened. It was us planting seeds in every place.”

In the early days, momentum is critical.

3. Form a personal board of directors

You’re never too old or too successful to have a mentor. Carter has mentors across music, tech, and business. “My mentor will never ever tell me what I want to hear, even when I need it,” he says. “You know how sometimes you just need a bear hug? He won’t give me a bear hug. That’s why I could trust his advice because there’s no skin in the game.”

The key is finding people who aren’t intimately invested in your journey and can give rational, level-headed advice. “It’s always important to have a personal board of directors,” Carter says.

4. Remember that there is no shortcut to success

When Carter met Lady Gaga, he knew she would be successful because he saw her work ethic. He had seen that same work ethic in some of his favorite artists. Their capacity for work was unmatched.

Many people never even get close to their goals because they live in the theoretical — not the practical.

“If your job is to sweep floors, the only way those floors are going to get swept is if you put the broom on the ground. If your job is to code, you need fingers on the keys,” Carter says. “So whatever it is you do, you actually have to do the work. You can’t just talk about it. You can’t be philosophical about it. You have to get the physical work in.”

5. Use failure to propel yourself forward

Carter grew up in poverty with his mom often struggling to pay the electricity bill. But his grandmother always said: “You can’t fall off the floor.” When you start from nothing, there’s nowhere to go but up.

One of Carter’s mentors told him that you can use failure as a headwind or a tailwind. “Failure breeds fear, and fear paralyzes people, which makes you go into a downward spiral,” Carter says. “But how can you use that same exact energy to propel your forward?”

Even when you feel like you’re in a losing fight with life, Carter says, you’ve got to find the strength to throw that one last punch. Because that final punch may be your winning ticket.

When James Lassiter fired him, he found Eve. When Eve fired him, he found Gaga. When Gaga fired him, he found his love for tech investing. Remember, you can always bounce back.


This guest essay was written by Polina Marinova Pompliano from The Profile, a weekly newsletter that studies the world’s most successful people and companies. Sign up here to get it in your inbox this Sunday:

How More TikTok Stars Can Succeed in the Music Industry

The social media app is a launchpad for music superstardom, but the record label pipeline won’t work for every breakout star.

2020 was a wild year for TikTok. The company’s rapid rise came with geopolitical pressure, CEO turnover, record label disputes, and censorship complaints. TikTok had more drama than James Harden and Daryl Morey in a Houston Rockets offseason! But the Chinese-based social network prevailed with and nearly 1 billion monthly active users. It left the year stronger than it started.

In the music industry, executives have mined TikTok data to find the next superstars. A growing ecosystem wants to maximize the ByteDace app’s potential, especially in hip-hop—its most-popular genre. But that energy needs more paths to success. Otherwise, there may be a generation of artists who won’t reach their full potential.

TikTok is modern-day MTV

In 1981, MTV’s launch changed the music industry forever. Music videos turned stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson into superstars. MTV became the music industry’s marketing channel to sell more albums. It was a commercial and cultural phenomenon. “I Want My MTV” was a lifestyle.

TikTok has that similar influence on today’s culture. It’s not the home for traditional music videos that YouTube currently is. But YouTube didn’t change how artists make music. It just made music videos on-demand. TikTok learned from Vine (RIP!) and built a platform that rewards user-generated content focused on music. As a result, artists are encouraged to make catchy tunes and dances that fans can easily replicate. It’s a two-sided relationship that led to Drake’s “Toosie Slide,” 24KGoldn’s “Mood,” and brought back Southern anthems like Ying Yang Twins “Say I Yi Yi.” If TikTok expands to three-minute videos, it will be the perfect length to include full songs, not just sound clips.

The TikTok wave has been called out for its . But critics said the same about MTV! Here’s music attorney Michael Guido in a 2004 interview with :

“I think MTV was the beginning of the end for the recorded music business, in that it solidified a mindset that exalted marketing over substance. It made the record industry a one-trick pony. It became only about a three-minute single and a visual image, and if you didn’t have the three minutes you were over…Once that corner was turned, we started on the path that has led us to this moment here, where kids are treating music as disposable.”

MTV helped the music industry more than it hurt it, and the same will be true about TikTok. Disruption always attracts both critics and enthusiasts. It’s part of the game.

Rising stars need more than the established stars

TikTok’s said that over 70 artists who broke out on the platform that year had signed major record label deals. It’s an impressive stat since record labels signed in 2017. In 2020, the platform helped push that charted on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s why UnitedMasters and other distribution services have partnered with TikTok.

Most of TikTok’s biggest users became stars on the app itself, but it’s a different case in music. Eight of the top ten most viewed artists of 2020 were stars before TikTok. The trend is not uncommon. Established clients often bring in the most money and get the most support. This trend has played out in several areas. Music distribution services often champion their safest bets. YouTube’s top clients are major media production companies. Venture capital firms have shifted more money to the safest bets to exit. Even WeWork, a company that’s branded as a solo entrepreneur’s haven, is much more focused on serving large companies with long leases.

Similarly, record labels are in the business of superstars. Yet most artists on their roster won’t become superstars. The model is built to take on the risks. The risk is high for the 70+ recently signed TikTokers. It’s even harder to predict lasting potential in this microwave era of music, especially if the predictor of success is user-generated content growth (i.e. the number of people making TikTok videos using a song).

For most aspiring artists, TikTok growth alone won’t cut it. Here’s TikTok’s former director of music content and artist partnerships for North America, Mary Rahmani, in an interview with :

“When a song is having a moment in the app, the first thing we always recommend is to share TikTok content on their socials. Just stay consistent and engaged. We really try to encourage artists to stay active between spikes to maintain their growth and connection.”

Cross-promotion helps, but there’s still some disconnect between TikTok and other platforms. Jason Derulo and Iggy Azalea peaked years ago as major label artists, but they’ve won on TikTok. They highlight the optionality (and comeback potential) that the platform offers. But they also show the need to segment artists and match them with the best opportunities. The TikTok to major label pipeline should not be a one size fits all goal.

The TikTok pipeline needs to be segmented

There are three broad groups of TikTok success stories. The first group is for artists like Drake. He breaks records on TikTok, but he also breaks records in streaming, Billboard charts, and concert tours. His success subsidizes other artists on Universal Music Group. The only place Drake can’t win is at Tyler The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival when they . Otherwise, the Toronto rapper is platform-agnostic.

The second group is for artists like Megan Thee Stallion. She’s TikTok’s top artist of 2020, but her power is platform-dependent. Hot Girl Meg gets tons of coverage. But her November 2020 debut album Good News sold just over 100,000 units in its first week. It sold less than Drip Season, the , her 300 Entertainment labelmate. Gunna’s got talent, but he’s not out here like Meg! If Gunna makes the record label more money than Meg Thee Stallion, but Meg is #1 on TikTok, then the strategy for “Megan The Stallion, Inc.” has to be different from the Young Thug protégé. Her primary metric of success shouldn’t be album sales.

The third group is for TikTok artists who have the potential to be like Drake or Meg, but the verdict is still out. The TikTok-to-record label track is imperfect since most labels are built to groom artists like Drake. That means that Meg, and artists on her path, may leave money on the table.

Here’s a visual I drew to show how the current TikTok to record label pipeline looks:

It’s pretty standard, but some of those stars who wind up in the “everyone else” bucket could become the next Meg Thee Stallion with a bit more support.

There’s an opportunity for new TikTok-focused indie record labels and distributors to meet artists where they’re at. These companies would be specifically built for artists who gain early traction on TikTok, Triller, or other short-form video user-generated content platforms. The new companies can hone their strategy, monetize their songs that pop on TikTok. They can still sell albums, EPs, and mixtapes, but it’s one piece of the pie.

Over time, if an artist on their roster shows the potential to sell tons of albums, they can level up to a major record label. But if the artist wants to stay on the indie label, use music as their loss leader, and focus on other areas, that works too. This farm system would offer more development and help de-risk the talent from TikTok, and more artist succeed.

The concept is not new. Companies like Human Re Sources and EMPIRE have partnered with major record labels to serve rising artists where they’re at. But it’s time for more companies like that to emerge that focus on rising TikTok stars.


Every artist’s ideal mix is different, especially today. But for each mix to be maximized, the “next step” for TikTok stars has to open up. Some of these lanes already exist, but some of them don’t.

Music culture is as multi-hyphenate as ever, especially in hip-hop. TikTok’s not going anywhere, so it’s time to make moves. If the company survived 2020, it’s gonna be here for a while.

CORRECTION 1/11: An earlier version of this piece said that Mary Rahmani was still working at TikTok, but she is no longer with the company.

How Ringtone Rap Influenced Modern Hip-Hop

The ringtone era is long gone, but it set a precedent in hip-hop that’s as strong as ever.

In 2006, T-Pain was the face of a $6 billion global market. “Buy You A Drank,” “I’m Sprung,” and “I’m N Luv (Wit A Stripper)” sold nearly 10 million ringtones combined. He sold more ringtones than albums or digital downloads. The man who rhymed “mansion” with “Wiscansin” gave the music industry a breath of fresh air when it desperately needed it.

The ringtone wave is long gone, but its themes have lived on. Artists now make songs specifically for TikTok, just like they did for ringtones. The music industry now tracks TikTok and streaming charts like it once tracked ringtone charts. And yet again, hip-hop is the driving force behind it. The similarities between the ringtone and streaming eras are strong indicators for where the music industry is heading.

Ringtones set the pace for audio products for mobile phones

Ringtones first got popular in the early 2000s, back when Nokia brick phones and Nextel chirps were status symbols. Cellular companies like Cingular set it off with their polyphonic ringtones. Remember those? Half of them sounded like an 80s video game, but it was better than the standard jingle. Hip-hop beats worked better than other genres as polyphonic tones, and the popularity grew.

But once ringtones became mastertones—snippets from actual songs—it was a new day. The market exploded. Usher’s “Yeah” had a glow up from this to this. The cell companies, record labels, songwriters, publishers, PROs, and artists all got paid from the huge wave.

Companies like BMI made more money from ringtones than any other income stream. Boost Mobile had a deal with Kanye West, Game, and Ludacris for an exclusive ringtone. Newer acts like D4L, Jibbs, Yung Joc made records to sell ringtones first. It was a whole movement. Ringtones were the first true audio product made for mobile phones.

Nearly 10% of U.S. music industry revenue came from ringtones (via Pie Chart Pirate)

Ringtones were so lucrative it was a borderline racket. Fans paid up to $3 for a 15-second clip of a song that they could keep for just 90 days. If consumers wanted it after 90 days, they had to buy it again. In other words, Cingular was out here charging quarterly subscriptions for a single ringtone! Remember, fans could still purchase the song on iTunes for $1 and keep it forever (or illegally download on Limewire for free). But neither of those options offered fans the self-expression of a ringtone.

When your phone rang in public, it was a statement. If your ringtone was Shop Boyz “Party Like a Rockstar,” you wanted folks to think you were bout that life. If your ringtone was Akon “Don’t Matter,” you were in love with whoever was calling. And if you leveled up, you had specific ringtones for every friend, a ringback tone, and ringtones in your voicemail.

The ringtone customization options are similar to Instagram’s features. Most users stick to traditional posts. But there are more steps for those who post daily stories, reels, IGTV, and more. The business model for social media is different, but the desire to use music as self-expression is still here.

Ringtones thrived when phones were advanced enough for customized audio, but cell phone plans were much more expensive. Back then, carriers still charged 15 cents per text message and promoted their “free nights and weekends” like it was some Cyber Monday deal. It was a brief moment, but the industry made the most of it.

Hip-hop culture is always ahead of the curve

One of the strongest indicators of ringtone success was placement on the cellular company’s charts.

From Reuters:

But the most important factor to a best-selling ringtone is featured placement on wireless operators’ ringtone menus. Ringtones that have been available for months can suddenly spike as much as 75 percent once they reach the top of the carrier’s “What’s Hot” section.

“What’s Hot” and the Billboard Ringtone charts were the playlists of their time. They captured emerging trends better than the Billboard Hot 100 could.

But as the iPhone grew in popularity, ringtones fell back. Fans could more easily create customized ringtones. Cell companies also started offering unlimited texts. The novelty faded away, as did many of the ringtone rappers themselves.

Ringtones were one of the first examples of hip-hop’s early mover advantage with new technology. It happened with YouTube, Twitter, Vine, digital streaming, Cash App, and now Clubhouse. The list goes on. There’s an eagerness to check for the latest thing. It often stems from an entrepreneurial spirit. But it also stems from a lack of faith in the traditional system. That extra hustle is how hip-hop got to where it is now, and that won’t change.

Here’s Mike Shinoda accepting his 2006 MTV VMA for Ringtone of the Year. What a moment, truly.

Artists will specialize, and companies will follow

Music’s role in tech is stronger than ever. Most social networks have licensing deals with the major record labels. Peloton now has a multi-year partnership with Beyonce. The integration opportunities will continue to grow.

We’ll soon see more hip-hop and R&B artists specialize in certain areas, just like they did with ringtones. Some rappers are already focused on TikTok. Others will make workout music for Peloton and SoulCycle classes. Some will focus more on Fortnite or Roblox. And others will make music for livestreaming platforms like Twitch.

The future is hyper-specialized. But frankly, music has always been this way. Pop music shifts with tech and media trends. In the late 90s, artists like Eminem and *NSYNC made songs to make music videos to get played on MTV’s TRL. In 2018, Tierra Whack made an album specifically for Instagram’s 60-second posts. In the streaming era, the average beats per minute for hip-hop songs has slowed down for on-demand, at home listening. Song and album titles have also gotten shorter to make it easier on voice-controlled speakers and touch screens. It’s all intentional.

This specialization can help artists build an audience. But it may be difficult for major record labels to navigate. Most labels are built on a generalist model. Their primary goal is to sell albums for their multi-hyphenate talent.

Eventually, new record labels and distributors may form that are specifically focused on music for a particular area, like gaming, live-streaming, or short-form video. It will be a starting point to build a niche audience.

But these new niche labels and distributors don’t have to compete with major labels. Instead, they can be talent feeders. Then, the major record labels can do what they do best—turn stars into superstars. There’s an opportunity for everyone in the industry to succeed in the new era. It’s idealistic, but it’s the best outcome for an industry that needs to keep up with emerging trends.


In a few years, TikTok and Twitch may be old news. There will be a new company pushing a trend, and hip-hop will be up on it first. Those new trends may remind us of the ringtone rap era. They might even have a subscription cost since that’s the current wave.

But there’s no chance in hell anyone pays quarterly subscriptions for ringtones ever again. Bet that.

 

 

 

How Apple Music Fell Behind in Digital Streaming

The company that revolutionized digital music is now playing catch up.

It’s been a wild ride for Apple Music. The service launched in June 2015, right in time for the feud between Drake and Meek Mill. While hip-hop fans waited for Meek to recover from “Back to Back,” Apple Music wasted no time. It released a Meek Mill vs. Drake playlist at the height of the drama. It proved that the streaming service was here to be relevant in culture.

A lot has changed since 2015 though. Spotify has expanded its focus, Amazon Music has gained steam, and Apple Music’s market share has declined. Apple, the company that revolutionized digital music, is now trying to catch up.

Tim Cook has said that Apple Music’s “not in it for the money.” Apple Music head Oliver Schusser said that it would rather be “best” than “biggest.” Being “best” is the same mentality behind Apple’s premium-priced, top-notch hardware.

But music streaming is different. The service is a borderline commodity and the margins are razor-thin. Apple Music now needs to grow in markets where premium pricing won’t work. Instead of being “best,” Apple should follow its old slogan and think different.

Early growth through hip-hop culture

At first, Apple wanted no parts of a music subscription service. For years, Steve Jobs had said it wouldn’t work. But the iTunes digital download ownership model couldn’t last in a world where consumers care more about access. Soon enough, Apple launched iTunes Radio, acquired Beats by Dre for its streaming service, and brought them together in Apple Music.

Beats gave Apple Music an identity. Here’s what Apple SVP Eddy Cue told Billboard in an interview:

“We’ve always thought that hip-hop was underrepresented both in iTunes and in the streaming chart. And more people listen to hip-hop now than ever before so we’ve done a lot of work in that area.”

In iTunes’ heyday, U2 was the star. In 2004, the band had its own red and black special edition iPod. In 2014, the group’s album magically appeared in every iTunes account. Plug an iPhone in a USB port right now and you’ll still hear Bono’s voice within seconds! The Irish rock group made the deal of the century with Apple.

But for Apple Music, the star has been Drake. The Toronto rapper signed a reported $19 million deal with Apple. He spoke at the 2015 Worldwide Developers Conference in advance of the Apple Music launch, started OVO Radio, and has been in several commercials. “God’s Plan” is now the most-streamed song in Apple Music history. Drake was a legit ambassador. If Tim Cook needed a shoulder rub before an Apple Keynote, Aubrey would have been in there like he was for Nick Nurse at the Toronto Raptors game.

This was the dream for Jimmy Iovine, who was head of Apple Music back then. He had spent his career at Interscope building megastars and wanted to do it again. Apple Music soon offered similar album exclusive deals to Drake, Chance The Rapper, Frank Ocean, and others. By restricting access for desired products, Apple Music differentiated itself and gained market share quickly. Fifteen months after launch, Apple Music had 17 million paid subscribers.

But after the controversial release of Frank Ocean’s Blonde in August 2016, the major record labels refused to do album exclusives with streaming services. The decision pushed digital streaming providers toward commoditization. Apple Music got hit the hardest.

The growth challenge

Despite the end of album exclusives, Apple Music still had an advantage with hardware integration. iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks had the Apple Music app pre-installed. A free trial was a few clicks away.

That strategy worked best in the U.S. where iPhone use is high. But it was less effective in the rest of the world where Android reigns supreme, and a $9.99 per month music subscription won’t work. Without a free subscription tier, Apple Music lost out on customers that used free, ad-supported options on YouTube and Spotify.

To grow in emerging markets, Apple has lowered its price below $2 per month in some regions. That strategy is fine for a company like Netflix where there’s no marginal cost per subscriber. But it’s a tougher sell when the record labels take 60-70% of the revenue from each customer.

It was tough for Iovine too. Apple grew tired of his extravagant spending on artist exclusives. Jimmy’s visionary approach lost appeal internally. In 2018 he transitioned to a consultant role and has since cited the strategic challenges in music streaming.

Here’s a clip of him explaining those struggles:

Apple Music’s biggest challenge is that it was built for a streaming war, but got caught in a price war. From a product perspective, it invested heavily in big name voices like Zane Lowe and Ebro Darden, and now has Verzuz and Apple Music TV. But from a distribution perspective, its current strategy is dominated by free trials, paid conversion rates, and bundles. It’s a tough game for Apple, a company that rarely does price wars. But it’s hard to avoid when its rising competitors are doing the same.

The real competition

Apple Music main competitor has been Spotify, but the real company to watch is Amazon.

Amazon, like Apple, has a more affluent U.S. customer base who already owns the company’s devices. But Amazon more effectively turned its devices into lead generation platforms. Want Alexa to play “Baby Shark” for your kid? Say less. It’s already set up through Amazon Music’s free tier. No need to sign up for free trials (and set calendar reminders when it’s time to cancel!) Want to hear Baby Shark ad-free? Done. Amazon Music Unlimited is an easy upgrade that’s sold at a discount for Prime customers.

This is a strategy that Apple has since announced in 2020 with its HomePod mini and Apple One bundle. But HomePod mini doesn’t have an Apple Music free tier. And Apple One’s other services ( TV, News, Arcade, iCloud, and Fitness) are far less desirable than Amazon Prime.

According to Counterpoint, Amazon Music grew over 100% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2020. Its overall market share grew from 13% to 14%, while Apple Music’s has dropped 3%. In 2020, Amazon might have surpassed both Spotify and Apple Music for U.S. subscribers. While Apple Music and Spotify battled for the trend-setting youthful customers, Amazon focused more on those with a higher willingness to pay and offered them the lowest-priced service.

Despite the relative success of competitors, Apple’s growth is still promising. It has an estimated 82 million paid subscribers and double-digit growth since 2019. But Apple can do more to regain its place at the forefront of music technology and get the market share that comes with it.

Brandy and Monica's Record-Breaking 'Verzuz' Battle Showed the Power of R&B | Complex

Verzuz was a good pickup for Apple Music, but the streaming service needs more than the shade thrown back and forth between Brandy and Monica (via @Verzuz)

The potential with AirPods

The way to win in music streaming is through true differentiation. Amazon has done this through price and integration with popular products. Spotify has done this with its audio strategy. On that note, it’s wild that Spotify is now leading audio. Apple had a Golden State Warriors-level 3-1 lead in both digital music and podcasting! But hey, it is what it is.

Apple’s best opportunity is to integrate its AirPods—one of the most successful products of the past decade. AirPods are great wireless headphones, but the real potential is in augmented reality and wearables. Apple can create a new audio experience for both artists and fans.

Here’s what Apple analyst Neil Cybart wrote in Above Avalon:

Apple can empower iOS developers to come up with new forms of content and workflows designed to be consumed on a range of wearables (along with mobile devices). Along with music and podcasts, there could be room for new mediums and experiences, many that can’t even be envisioned yet. In such a dynamic, Apple could then leverage its biggest advantage over Spotify: hardware and a broader platform with various services.

What if Travis Scott created an immersive audio experience that can only be heard through AirPods or similar? Fans could listen to specific parts of an album as they travel to different parts of the house, walk further away from their phones, take one AirPod out, or bring in external sounds to further engage. AirPods Pro already has a Transparency Mode that enables external audio. If Apple can work with an artist on this, it would be a huge win.

This would hit stronger in hip-hop, where artists have been the most creative with their craft. It would be smart for Apple, since it’s still the most popular paid digital streaming provider in the U.S. for hip-hop. There would have to be some serious discussions with the major record labels though. They would be hesitant about one DSP gaining exclusive power again. It would further anger Spotify too, who has already called out Apple for its nefarious App Store fees and similar tactics. But if Apple can create a unique audio experience and convince artists to buy in, then it has an advantage.


In the past decade, there are a bunch of “what if” scenarios for Apple. What if they pushed back harder on Jobs about the future of music subscriptions? What if they took podcasting more seriously? What if they had bundled Apple Music with the monthly cell phone bills for AT&T and Verizon customers? But “what if” games get old quick.

Apple may no longer be the company revolutionizing digital music, but it’s not too late to reclaim that title.

Netflix’s Strong Black Lead Strategy, Explained

The global entertainment company has grown stronger since it leveled up and focused on its influential customers.


Ava Duvernay (via Variety / Shutterstock)

Listen to this essay: 


On June 30, 2020, Netflix made two huge moves. It transferred $100 million to Black-owned banks and named Bozoma Saint John its chief marketing officer. These announcements came in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Society called on corporate America to do better, and the video streaming company responded. It was an end-of-the-quarter flex that built confidence with shareholders and customers alike.

This was no surprise. Netflix had recently promoted more Black executives, elevated its Strong Black Lead initiative, and acquired more Black content. Black subscriber growth has been a key driver of Netflix’s performance. Customers now expect the streaming titan to be a hub for Black culture.

But one day, that growth may slow down. And when it does, will Netflix keep this same energy?

Netflix feared missing out on a pivotal moment

In 2013, Netflix was praised for the diverse cast of Orange is The New Black. It was a step in the right direction, but the strategy didn’t take off until 2015 when a group of Black employees spoke up.

From Ben Smith in The New York Times:

In the summer of 2015, Black employees at Netflix produced a memo and PowerPoint presentation to make the case that the company was missing an opportunity with Black audiences. They argued in the documents, which I obtained, that Netflix risked missing a boom defined by “Empire” at Fox and “Black-ish” and “How to Get Away With Murder” on ABC.

 

At the time, the memo estimated, only about two million Black households were subscribing to Netflix — 5 percent of its total subscribers. It said that Black households were a $1.4 billion revenue opportunity and that few of Netflix’s top 100 shows, popular across other groups, were resonating with Black audiences.

These shows often get lumped together, but they tell different stories. Black-ish viewers are 20% Black. How to Get Away With Murder was 31%. They proved, yet again, that Black-led shows can reach the masses. The majority of their viewers were non-Black, yet still brought in more Black viewers than most primetime shows.

Meanwhile, Empire’s audience was 63% Black. It was Fox’s biggest hit in years. It was Terrence Howard’s biggest hit since he fumbled the bag with Iron Man. Black shows with a majority-Black audience could succeed on a major network too.

Netflix had the data and budget to target these segments. It could reach that Shondaland – ABC audience with shows like Seven Seconds. It could reach majority-Black audiences with Tyler Perry’s A Fall From Grace. This was the perfect challenge for a company that doesn’t play by Hollywood’s rules and spends more money on content than everyone but Disney and Comcast.

The “Law of the Few” to grow subscribers

The Black audience value is deeper than subscriber counts. This is also about influence.

Let’s revisit the Trapital essay Beyonce’s Streaming Strategy Explained:

Let’s assume Netflix paid $30 million total to produce and market Homecoming. According to the Financial Times, Netflix’s customer lifetime value is just under $200. A 3:1 ratio of ‘lifetime value’ to ‘customer acquisition cost’ is a common target in tech. If Netflix wants Homecoming to meet that, the documentary needs to bring in (or maintain) 450,000 subscribers to justify the $30 million it spent.

Homecoming drew 1.1 million viewers on its first day with a 63% Black audience. Black people over-index in consumer power. We are 44% more likely to post about our favorite brands on social media, which leads to more trending topics and more earned media.

Netflix rarely shares stats, but let’s safely assume that Homecoming was more valuable than Netflix’s Taylor Swift documentary, Miss Americana. Taylor’s Swift’s audience may technically be bigger, but Beyonce’s is built different. The Beyhive runs like a low-key inside sales team. It’s a group of passionate mavens who attract subscribers by spreading the word. This is the “Law of the Few” that Malcolm Gladwell broke down in The Tipping Point. In this case, the “few” are the tens of millions dedicated Beyhive members–especially those at the bottom of her sales funnel.

This is the power of the Beyhive. A limited few can easily reach the masses:

But this isn’t just a Beyhive fanatic thing. This extends to most Black content in Netflix’s catalog. These nuances need to be factored into the company’s lifetime value / customer acquisition cost ratios. If a customer is more likely to attract other users, then the company should spend more to acquire that customer.

Produce the content, build the relationships, brand the initiative

Netflix’s Black content strategy can be broken down into three parts. First, it acquires and produces the content. It gets the 90s classics like Menace II Society and Set It Off. It also creates originals like What Happened to Miss Simone? and The Black Godfather. (Fun fact: the Black Godfather, entertainment exec Clarence Avant, is the father-in-law of Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos. Small world.)

Second, Netflix builds relationships with popular Black directors. Ava Duvernay has done several projects with the entertainment company, including upcoming ones on Colin Kaepernick and Nipsey Hussle. Spike Lee had trouble finding a home for Da 5 Bloods, but Netflix came through. In 2019 Black directors helmed 13% of Netflix’s feature-length releases, compared to 5.5% for the rest of Hollywood. Netflix then gave those filmmakers a platform to tell their own story in the First Time I Saw Me campaign. The company also has deals with showrunners Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris.

Third, it branded the initiative. Strong Black Lead used to be the company’s internal employee resource group. In 2018, it became the marketing arm to highlight stories, produce podcasts, and engage with its audience on social media.

But to be fair, it took Netflix some time to get here. In 2018, the company fired a PR exec after repeated use of the N-word. Its infamous algorithm has made it difficult to find Black content. And its personalized artwork may have people thinking Molly’s Game is a movie starring Idris Elba.

It’s far from perfect. Yet still, it’s ahead of most competitors. Over time, Hollywood’s racial shortcomings became Netflix’s arbitrage.

This 2018 video from Netflix recreates the iconic 1957 “A Great Day in Harlem” photo.

The shift from acquisition to retention

Since 2015, Netflix’s Black subscribers have grown from 5% of all Netflix customers to 13%. The number of overall subscribers has tripled, from 60 million in 2015 to over 190 million in 2020. But overall U.S. growth has slowed down, which means Black subscriber growth in the U.S. isn’t far behind. International growth will become the priority.

The Black content strategy may shift from acquisition to retention, which could mean changes. For instance, the two most popular shows on Netflix were once The Office and Friends. These shows were audience anchors while Netflix built up its original programming.

But by the time WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal bought the exclusive streaming rights to Friends and The Office respectively, Netflix was good. It treated those shows like undervalued players on its NBA roster. It got a great deal under the initial terms, but once the deals ended, other teams paid up for the max contracts.

Churn is not a big issue either. Netflix has the highest retention rate of any over-the-top streaming service. Two-thirds of its customers are still signed up after 12 months. The more ubiquitous the service becomes, the harder it is to leave. If Netflix knows it has an audience, and it’s less likely to leave, will it still put the effort in? Historically, we’ve seen networks like Fox, UPN, and The WB pull this stunt before.

Remember, Netflix isn’t scared to make unpopular moves. This company is known for its anybody-can-get-cut approach to talent. CEO Reed Hastings has said on several occasions that Netflix is a team, not a family. Even Qwikster, a PR nightmare that lost the company 800,000 subscribers, was still reinstated years later with DVD.com.

But Netflix shouldn’t stray for several reasons. If the “inside sales team” has nothing to tell their friends about, then the value of the content will drop. Word of mouth is still undefeated.

Next, the Black audience still has room to grow. For context, 24% of Twitter users are Black. And Cash App is now a $40 billion business with help from hip-hop. Plus, most other video streaming services are just now trying to get where Netflix is now. It would be foolish to let that slip.

Black-led content is also extremely popular overseas. It’s America’s biggest cultural export. This content will resonate in Netflix’s growth regions. The playbook can be adapted for other cultures too, with shows like Top Boy. The addressable market may shift, but the love for the culture stays the same.


Netflix is operating in a different era of entertainment. This is a world of Black Twitter, Oscars So White, Black Panther, and the dozens of networks vying for Black content. Accountability is high, interest is high, and the same excuses don’t work.

Other networks have adapted as well. HBO cleaned up at the 2020 Emmys thanks to Black-led shows like Watchmen and Euphoria. It also landed Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You after the actress turned down Netflix’s offer.

Netflix still has the power. With almost 200 million subscribers, distribution is its biggest strength. But if it gets caught slipping, its competitors are more than willing to take its place.


Correction: an earlier version said Netflix is a $40 million. That was a type. It’s a $40 billion company.

Why Hip-Hop’s Indie Economy Has Taken Off

Listen to this essay:

Hip-hop’s indie economy has damn near exploded. Every few months, there’s a new program launched to make life easy for the DIY artist.

Wanna text your fans? Done. There are several apps for that. Need to manage social media? There are more apps for that than there are social networks! Want to distribute music from your phone to all the digital streaming providers? Several companies got you covered.

These services support the rise of individual creators. Each company is on an aggressive quest to unbundle the services offered by legacy institutions. It’s a pivotal shift with tons of venture capital betting on it.

But each service will reach a point where it makes a tough decision. Will it serve the upstart indie users who love the platform? Or the corporate partners who help cut the big checks? Most will try to do both, but it’s harder than it sounds.

A movement defined in phases

Indie rap isn’t new. We can break it down in phases. Phase 1 was in the 80s and 90s. People like DJ Screw and Master P made bank independently. They were direct-to-consumer before ‘DTC’ was a keyword in pitch decks.

They paved way for Phase 2, when unsigned artists hopped on the internet. Services like MySpace Music and SongClick were key for DIY rappers. In 2007, Soulja Boy inspired a generation with the YouTube sensation, “Crank Dat.” The era led to success stories like Nipsey Hussle on TuneCore and Chance the Rapper on SoundCloud.

Phase 2 aligns with Web 2.0 and the rise of sharing and user-generated content. Tons of artists tried to replicate those success stories. But much like nonstop “Crank Dat” remixes (gotta love Crank Dat Roosevelt), many of these artists struggled to build a career on it.

That led to today, Phase 3. Today’s companies were built with Phase 2 success stories in mind. These new services address lingering pain points, especially in distribution. Stem and UnitedMasters help artists get their music on streaming services, simplify royalty splits, and gain access to brand partnerships. SuperPhone and Community show how far texting has come. Not too long ago, Mike Jones gave out his actual phone number and he got called 40,000 times a day. What a time. Long live 281-330-8004.

These businesses line up with the broader trends in the “creator” ecosystem. Email newsletter services like Substack were first built to breed more success stories like Ben Thompson’s indie publication, Stratechery. OnlyFans has evolved from an X-rated membership platform to an informal paywall for Instagram-style content. If there’s an audience to monetize, there’s a startup that’s on it.’

The strength in power users

Most of these Phase 3 companies follow three popular tech waves: platforms, membership, and unbundling:

  • Platforms facilitate a value exchange between two parties. In music, those parties can be creator-consumer, creator-vendor, and more. When creators make more money, platforms do too.
  • Membership models are hot because they offer recurring revenue. The digital era has granted customers access to a growing suite of services that improve over time.
  • Unbundling splinters off services offered by institutions, like record labels. On the consumer side, it’s direct access to fans. On the business side, it’s music distribution, partnerships, and other services.

Much like record labels, the business model thrives on the short tail—the few power users who subsidize the majority. Keeping these users happy is key since there’s no commitment to stay on a platform. Usually, the best switching cost is the ease of use compared to alternatives. These services are often quick to sign up for, save users time, and can yield results quickly. If the alternatives have steeper learning curves, the platform’s retention will be higher. And if switching costs aren’t enough, the advances can get offered to the most valuable users.

These companies are built to grow fast. Profitability is delayed. But how they become profitable, if ever, is when the strategy gets tougher.

The platform’s strength is its flexibility

The success stories from Phase 2 helped Phase 3 companies attract early users and investors. But by the time Phase 3 companies gained traction, the landscape had changed.

For instance, UnitedMasters CEO Steve Stoute once said there needs to be 250,000 Chance the Rappers. When Chance and Russ came up, there were fewer indie artists in the pool. Their success has since inspired more to follow their lead. The pool got even bigger when Phase 3 companies addressed the pain points that held others back.

In-house success stories became far more relevant. That includes young artists like NLE Choppa and established ones like Jeezy. Both are doing their thing, but it’s still a narrow scope of what’s possible. Phase 3 needs to hit that next level. The platforms need to embrace their flexibility with their multihyphenate users.

Artists like Jason Derulo now make bank on TikTok. His business model has more in common with TikTok star Charli D’Amelio than Trey Songz. New partnerships like UnitedMasters and TikTok can help creators distribute the music behind their video clips. A music distribution service can be home for the rapper who wants to be in your Top 5 and the creator who wants to build the Hip-Hop Hype House.

Music distributors, text marketing platforms, and email delivery services should embrace the wide range of use cases. They should support those who make money from the content itself, use the content to distribute other services, or both. The best Phase 3 companies will lean into this. They will surpass the platforms that are stuck on recreating the Phase 2 champions.

Ryan Leslie breaking down how he uses SuperPhone and where it sits in his marketing funnel.

The most powerful users possible

The current indie economy is both blazing a new trail while mirroring those who came before. YouTube, an undisputed Phase 2 champion, is much further along in its indie creator lifecycle. But the video platform has evolved considerably, which angered its initial users.

The Verge’s Julia Alexander broke it all down in The golden age of YouTube is over:

The platform was a stage for creators who didn’t quite fit into Hollywood’s restrictions. It allowed people like Jenna Marbles; Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg; Anthony Padilla, Ian Hecox, and their channel Smosh; and Lilly Singh to thrive. They were each driven to create a form of entertainment that wasn’t happening elsewhere, and their work was incredibly unique…

 

Behind the scenes, things were changing. YouTube had begun tinkering with its algorithm to increase engagement and experimenting with ways to bring flashier, produced content to the platform to keep up with growing threats like Netflix…

 

YouTube’s biggest front-facing stars began following in the footsteps of over-the-top, “bro” prank culture…The antics were dangerous, but they caught people’s attention.

 

…There was the YouTube the company wants advertisers to see: Ariana Grande on Vevo, series from Kevin Hart and Demi Lovato, clips from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

YouTube’s evolution is a case study on the laws of the internet. First, shock value wins on platforms where views, likes, and subscribers are currency. Early YouTube hits like “Charlie Bit My Finger” can’t compete on an algorithm now built for Logan Paul’s clout-chasing stunts.

Second, and more importantly, YouTube now makes less money from indie creators and more from established companies that got with the times. The “power users” are now the most powerful media conglomerates. They came through the gates with massive audiences, tons of advertising potential, and an overdue need to get with the times. Those original power users made YouTube some money, but they can’t make YouTube that ViacomCBS-money. Big bank literally took little bank.

This trend has happened outside of streaming too. Look at WeWork. The shared workspace company was first pitched as a home for startups, freelancers, and independent consultants. But last year, 40% of its members worked for companies with 500+ employees. Since the pandemic, 65% of WeWork’s new members are from large enterprises. It’s the same shift, same reasons.

Some of this has already happened in music. In 2019, Stem pivoted its business model from serving anyone to only select artists with a proven track record. In August 2020, the company secured $10 million in new financing from several investors, including Quality Control Music’s Coach K, who uses the service for artists on his record label, which is distributed through Motown Records and the largest label in the world, Universal Music Group.

The strategy shift is understandable. These platforms have lofty goals, want to keep investors happy, and the major clients can help them meet those goals. But today’s indie creators should be ready. The platform’s most profitable customers often become the institutions they initially disrupted.

The inevitable re-bundling

The “unbundling” that dominated Phase 3 will lead to an inevitable re-bundle. Despite the numerous tools available, there are still unmet benefits that record labels and other institutions once offered artists.

For instance, global distribution is still an uphill battle for indies. If an American indie rapper wants their album to do well in Tokyo, they’ll have a harder time than a signed artist on a major label. It’s why Russ had a distribution deal with Columbia Records until recently, and why a self-made mogul like Tyler Perry still needs a film distribution deal with Lionsgate.

The re-bundling will happen in several ways. Indie artists themselves will band up, share ideas, and pool resources for shareable services. A group of 18 former Deadspin writers recently came together on The Defector, a new paid media publication where each writer owns 5% of the company. The same can happen in music.

Platforms will also re-bundle by adding services. Distributors like EMPIRE and Audiomack have ramped up their content arms to serve the artists on their services. The various re-bundling efforts can succeed as long as they embrace the independent ownership of its users.


It’s an exciting time and an uncertain time. Today’s indie artists and founders are asking the same question: How far do we go before we team up with powers that be?

For some, the answer is never. They want to run their thing, serve the initial customers, and keep it going. For others, the shift is inevitable. But with the wide range of options and past examples to learn from, the inevitable shifts shouldn’t surprise anyone.

How Tyler, The Creator Built a Cult-Like Following

Tyler’s greatest creation is the loyal fanbase that’s been riding with him for over a decade.

Tyler performing at Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival 2015 (via Beat Grade)

Listen to this essay on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.


Tyler, the Creator’s Grammy victory still feels ironic. The self-proclaimed outcast earned the most mainstream award possible. He did it in rap—a genre he’s repeatedly distanced himself from. He did it with a history of problematic lyrics and a “fuck you, try me” attitude to cancel culture. But his Best Rap Album award was met with widespread praise from both day-ones and new fans.

The 29-year-old’s greatest creation isn’t his award-winning albums, eclectic fashion show, or one-of-a-kind music festival. It’s his cult-like following that makes it all possible. Since he started his career as a teenager, he’s been a symbol for those who were ignored by hip-hop. Those fans have rewarded him with the utmost support.

An addressable market that was ignored

In 2007, Tyler the Creator’s Odd Future collective was born. In the early days, the group’s Tumblr and YouTube pages were its gateways to the world. Fans got a behind-the-scenes view on the wild antics from Tyler, Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, Syd, Taco, and others.

Here’s a quote from The Face on how Tumblr strengthened Odd Future’s connection with fans:

The genius of Odd Future’s Tumblr page was how it made you feel like one of the family. You had a front row seat and got to watch as the group slept on each other’s floors, dealt with dodgy promoters, and humbly ate French fries together at a diner. This meant that by the time they did their first TV performance, or when Tyler won a VMA and Frank won a Grammy, the day one Tumblr followers felt like they had gone on the same journey, and each had a personal stake in this success.

Backstage content wasn’t new to hip-hop. (Roc-a-Fella’s 2000 Backstage documentary is still a revered classic). But Odd Future spoke to a different group.

Hip-hop was always known for its idolized archetypes. Even in the rap blog era, there was a certain type of artist that got covered by sites like NahRight and 2DopeBoyz, and it definitely wasn’t Tyler. Odd Future was for the people who watched Aqua Teen Hunger Force and played non-sports video games. As Tyler once put it, his brand is for the people who go to Taco Bell or make an illegal deal that they should not be doing. Would that audience get targeted by Vanity Fair? No chance. But it’s still a valuable group.

Businesses often confuse what’s sexy with what’s profitable. It’s often the exact opposite. Trends attract competition, so there’s less money to go around. The best moves are often where others aren’t looking. Tyler has a “not everyone is accepted everywhere and that’s fine” mentality that has served him well in both life and business.

The right opportunities, not the biggest ones

As Tyler’s profile grew, the opportunities did as well. In 2011, Tyler dropped “Yonkers.” The wild music video was a breakthrough sensation that took Odd Future to new heights.

It caught the attention of Rick Ross who wanted Tyler on Maybach Music Group. At the time, Rozay’s MMG crew was on top. The Miami rapper was dead set on growing the squad with the hottest artists possible. But Tyler didn’t even take his call.

Here’s Tyler’s friend and Diamond Supply Co. founder Nick Diamond who told the story to Complex:

Rick Ross called me out of nowhere and was like, “Yo, what’s up with Odd Future? I wanna talk to that Tyler kid. I want to sign him.” It was funny, ’cause when he called me, Tyler was actually in the store, standing next to me. So I was like, “Rick Ross wants to talk to you.” Tyler goes, “I don’t want to talk to Rick Ross.” I was like, “Dude, just fucking talk to him.” He was like, “Nah. I can’t talk right now.” So I didn’t put him on the phone.

If Tyler joined MMG, his popularity could have soared, but it also would have peaked early. And plus, can you imagine Tyler, The Creator suited up, mafioso style, rapping next to a Maybach?! Tyler eventually signed a distribution deal with Columbia Records, where he maintains control and his creative vision.

This mentality extended to his merch strategy. Here’s what Tyler said about Golf Wang in a Billboard interview:

“I don’t want it to be like fucking Rocawear or, I don’t know, a lot of things that come and go. That’s why I don’t give out free clothes to famous people. That actually could be the worst thing possible, if famous people wore Golf Wang.”

He doubled down on this in a Vogue interview when he said “…I’d rather sell 20 shirts to people who actually want it. I don’t ever want people over my brand like Ed Hardy or Von Dutch.”

According to Tyler, his Golf Wang apparel company made $17 million in revenue in 2018. It took seven years to get there, but the company’s seasonal drops continue to gain traction. The last place Tyler wants to see his clothes is on a TJ Maxx clearance rack—the home for once-popular brands that get too excited and flood the market.

Brands that rise and fall quickly don’t sell on loyalty, they sell on ephemeral popularity. Their customers buy because they want what’s “in,” not because of the brand itself. Meanwhile, lasting brands take time to build, but the rewards are often greater.

Tyler’s fashion shows are unlike any other fashion show. With people just wearing regular clothes?

Build the community, sell the lifestyle

With his engaged following, Tyler extended the brand quickly. In 2012, he started a show on Cartoon Network’s adult swim called Loiter Squad. That year he also launched his music festival, Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival. In 2013, Golf Wang had already teamed up with Vans. By then, Odd Future had already boosted Supreme’s popularity and had an informal relationship with the streetwear brand.

Tyler’s 2013 plan is an aspirational target that today’s artists still strive for. He had the content, production partnerships, in-person events, and merch. The only thing left was a podcast deal.

But unlike other artists, Tyler’s wasn’t driven by financial gain. He truly enjoys building stuff. “Rapping is so limiting,” he says. “I’m interested in everything,” he told LA Magazine. He’s hands-on with almost everything he does. He writes and produces most of his music. He designs his own clothes. It’s a difficult business to scale, but that’s not the point. His curiosity is a driving force to do what others won’t.

The first Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival only had 2,000 fans. Many musicians wouldn’t put that much work in for an event that could only gross around $100,000 in ticket revenue. But the small crowd was a blessing in disguise. Those attendees were fully decked out in Golf Wang apparel. They set the tone for a crowd that has steadily grown to nearly 50,000 fans.

Community-building is a hot topic for creators. One of the most common tips is to start with a small group, ensure that those members gain value, and slowly scale from there. Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival is a great case study for this.

In 2015, the festival to expand to multiple stages. The next year, it expanded to multiple days. In 2019, the community was powerful enough to boo Drake off the stage! It’s both ridiculous and impressive. Drake wouldn’t even get booed at a Kanye West concert, and Kanye can’t stand him.

Tyler’s fans don’t dislike the Toronto rapper. The crowd wanted Frank Ocean. They thought they were getting Frank Ocean. But the last thing that crowd wanted to hear was “Ratchet Happy Birthday.” It was a rough moment for Drake, but it speaks to what Tyler has built.

Brands like Supreme have benefited tremendously from Odd Future and Tyler’s strong fanbase.

Evolving to reach the next generation

As communities grow, they start to divide. In music, the split happens when day-ones separate from newer fans. For Tyler, the early signs came long before the success of his albums IGOR or Flower Boy.

In 2015, a since-deleted viral Reddit post titled “I’m done with Tyler,” complained that Tyler’s Cherry Bomb album moved away from the darker vibes from his earlier work. Tyler came back with a 900+ word response. He sympathized with fan’s relationship with 2011 Tyler, but stood behind his evolution:

“when you have a favorite artist, you tend to grasp onto an era, trust me i do that with artist that i love but i also know they grow and see new things and change and mature and all of that. im sorry that im not in the same place to talk about those things…”

Most artists would ignore haters or sic their fans on them. Tyler’s nuanced response helped bridge the divide. Sure, he’s lost some fans since the Odd Future mixtape days, but he’s still himself.

Now, he’s officially mainstream. He may hate that designation, but if he’s winning an award from The Wall Street Journal, he’s mainstream! This recent wave of success may seem like the antithesis of Odd Future, but it fulfills one of Tyler’s ultimate goals.

Here’s what he said in a 2018 interview with GQ:

It’s still a piece of me that not only wants to be on the radio, but it’s probably some 11-year-old in the middle of fucking nowhere who might hear a song, look me up, get introduced to a whole world—and that could change everything he’s into for the rest of his life.

When Tyler was an 11-year-old in the middle of LA County, he looked up to Pharrell Williams and Andre 3000. Those guys changed him for the rest of his life. Tyler knows he’s in a position to do the same for others. Radio play is a vehicle to reach those 11-year-olds. So is performing at Madison Square Garden, performing at the Grammys, and everything in between. By extending his reach, he continues to grow the fanbase.


Unlike his peers, Tyler’s fans don’t have some cutesy name. They’re not the Ragers or the Barbz. Those are all clever tokens, but that stuff doesn’t make a fanbase.

The fanbase is made by the feeling it creates with the audience. Tylers fans have had that feeling for years, and that’s not changing anytime soon.

 

 


 

The Hip-Hop Touring Business is Broken, Part II

Artists waste tons of money when they cancel tours they had no chance of selling out. The impact will be worse when the pandemic is over.

A Chance the Rapper concert in the Manila in 2018 (via Rappler)

Hip-hop is full of underdogs who beat the odds. Each star was once an ambitious talent chasing an unlikely dream. If they had played it safe, they never would have made it.

That mentality is invaluable on the come-up. Ignoring critics is a damn-near superpower for the rising rapper. But on the come-down? It gets rough. Artists will book venues they can no longer fill and use valuable resources that could benefit others. Nobody wins.

That initial transition from the A-List to the B or C-List is tough. The audience starts to shift before the artist does. Sure, artists can “get over it” and lower expectations, but it’s a bit more complicated.

Decisions should be made on future expectations, not past performance

In recent years, several big-name artists have missed the mark. Chance the Rapper’s The Big Day (2019) couldn’t top the Billboard charts. He wanted to extend that 2016 Coloring Book run, but the fans weren’t having it. He canceled The Big Tour to “spend time with family.” Nicki Minaj’s Queen (2018) couldn’t keep up with Travis Scott’s merch bundles. The North American leg of her NickiHndrxx tour was inevitably postponed to “spend more time on rehearsal.” And earlier this year, Justin Bieber was out here begging fans to stream “Yummy” and still got beat by Roddy Ricch. His ambitious stadium tour was downgraded to arenas due to COVID-19 concerns (well before any lockdowns began).

The writing was on the wall for all three—they overestimated demand. Especially Bieber. Who told him he could tour in NFL stadiums??

If their tickets had sold, those cancellation excuses might have been overlooked. Not everyone is as straight up about these decisions as T-Pain.

Here’s what I wrote in December’s Chance the Rapper’s Canceled Tour is No Surprise. It applies to many artists in this situation:

The following 12 hip-hop artists outsold Chance’s 108,000 albums in their first weeks in 2019:

 

Post Malone, Kanye West, Tyler, The Creator, Juice WRLD, DaBaby, Summer Walker, DJ Khaled, NF, Young Thug, Chris Brown, Dreamville, and Drake (Care Package).

 

How many of those acts can sell out a 36-show North American tour in 15,000-capacity arenas (which is what Chance the Rapper had planned for)? Drake, Post Malone, Kanye West, Dreamville (because of J. Cole) and maybe, MAYBE Tyler, the Creator in certain markets. Chance attempted to do something that most of the folks who outsold him can’t do either.

These cancellations may seem surprising since there’s a vast amount of data now available. No one expects a concert venue to optimize capacity like Delta Air Lines, but come on. This is still a business! The less variance, the better. These 15,000 capacity venues have the potential to gross $700,000 per night, but touring decisions get made like it’s Monopoly money. The opportunity cost per night is too high to be playing games.

Artists often take out cancellation insurance policies, which can cost up to 3% of the total insured amount. But that protection often leads to further risk-taking.

Nicki Minaj was quite upset with Billboard and other outlets that suggested she rescheduled her tour due to low ticket sales. (via Clevver News)

Taking a “step down” is still viewed as a risk

In January I wrote briefly about both Chance and Nicki in Hip-Hop Touring Business is Broken:

Keep in mind, Nicki spent the past decade silencing doubters who never thought a female rapper could reach the heights she did. Chance proved the industry wrong as an indie rapper who won Grammys and did arena tours. Their brand is to stay resilient when projections told them otherwise. You wanna go back in time and try to convince them that the lackluster responses to “Chun-Li” and “Groceries” were signs of what’s to come? Yea, good luck with that.

No one wants to admit that the best days are done. But in certain situations it’s more nuanced.

First, some can still sell at A-List levels when they’re a few years past their prime. Eminem’s Encore, Lil’ Wayne’s Tha Carter IV, 50 Cent’s Curtis are some of the best selling hip-hop albums. Each album dropped a couple of years after the artist’s peak popularity, but their post-prime was still higher than most other’s primes. More recently, A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got it From Here… was one of the highest-selling rap albums of 2016. And both Eminem and Lil’ Wayne have continued to sell well in recent years. If they had focused on how far off they were from their peak, they might have regretted it.

Second, albums and concert tickets track different types of demand. Album sales typically signal current popularity, while concert tickets signal legacy fandom. Even if an artist is past their peak popularity, they can sell tons of concert tickets if fans love their back catalog. But these album bundles have made it harder to distinguish live performance potential from temporary popularity. Despite the granularity of streaming data, it’s difficult to infer consumer behavior. The only reason Kenny Chesney can outsell Drake in 2020 is because of his concert ticket bundles.

Third, superstar artists careers can have several peaks and valleys. If Beyonce followed the standard career arc, then her lower-than-usual sales of 2011 album 4 would have signaled the start of her decline. Imagine if someone advised 2011 Beyonce that her best years were behind her?! That would have been worse than the infamous New York Times 2003 article Solo Beyonce, She’s No Ashanti.

When artists believe that their best years are past, they accept that those three instances can’t happen. It can easily be viewed as pessimism.

The pandemic makes it harder on the former superstars

We’re a long ways away from watching live performances in tightly-packed buildings. COVID-19 is as active as ever, especially in the U.S. But when concerts do return, the competition for venues will be intense. The last thing the industry needs is to fill its slate with artists that hope they can fill venues.

In March, comedian and Trapital Podcast guest Roy Wood Jr. wrote an article in Vulture on how stand-up comedians will get squeezed when comedy shows return. It also applies to musicians:

“As larger arena and theater acts cancel upcoming dates, they will be looking to reschedule in the fall, competing with one another and people already booked during that time frame. It’s very plausible that some of these theater acts will trickle down into the comedy clubs, which means if you’re a performer that’s getting canceled right now or set to perform at a comedy club in the fall, your dates may not be safe…

 

If you aren’t a weekend act that’s already selling tickets consistently, the clubs that are hurting in attendance over the next few months could find themselves in a position where it doesn’t make sense to pay you your full fee to come entertain 50 people in a room that seats 300. The fiscally smart thing for the club to do is cancel you and put some locals onstage that will work for less and need the money. No matter what level of comedy you’re at, whether you have dates or not, this shit ain’t safe.”

The competition for venues will be sky high in 2021 and 2022. The market may naturally sort out overly-ambitious artists. But the urgency and eagerness will be strong as ever. If an artist misses the mark in 2021, it might be a long time before they get back to where they want to.

“Past their prime” stars can still serve their diehard fans

Luckily, the live performance industry is broader than the standard North American concert tour. It can often be more lucrative too. Cardi B held off on touring for years because she made more money at music festivals. She also maintained flexibility.

This is where past-their-prime stars shine. They might have lost the Top 40 fans, but they still have the diehard ones. Instead of selling massive arena tours, they can do smaller, intimate shows where tickets cost more. These types of shows are normally reserved for Las Vegas residencies given the audience’s high discretionary income and the willingness to pay for extravagant production. But a lighter-scale model can work in Atlanta, DC, Houston, and other cities that are hip-hop hotbeds and popular destinations.

There have been one-off examples of this. After 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar did a limited 10-city tour called King Kunta’s Groove Sessions. I saw him at the Fox Theater in Oakland, which holds under 3,000 people. K.dot could easily have performed at Oracle Arena and 35 other arenas like it in North America, but he chose not to. If 2015 Kendrick can take a step back, then the past-their-prime superstar can too.

The other option is to focus more on festivals, which have become the “gig-economy alternative” for many artists. Artists often get paid more per show, spend less on expenses. In exchange, they give up the security and direct connection with fans. The past-their-prime star might not get that valuable first or second-row placement on the festival poster, or a primetime performance slot, but a check is a check.


It’s been easier than ever for artists to connect with fans directly. Many rappers have shifted focus to maximize revenue with those who still love their work. That plays to the advantage of the past-their-prime stars. They can still succeed with different mentality.

Some will gladly make the shift. They have no choice. But others will struggle. There are egos involved, and plenty of artists still dream of selling out their hometown arena one more time. But some of those dreams will need to adjust, especially when pandemic is over.

THE BEST OF TRAPITAL 2020

What Hip-Hop Gets Wrong About Young Thug

Hip-hop has waited on the Atlanta rapper to have a big commercial breakthrough, but he’s already won.

Young Thug at the Easy Breezy Beautiful Thugger Girls album announcement in 2017

Last week, Young Thug called out Pusha T for dissing Drake on an unreleased song. For those keeping track, this is Thugger’s third rap beef in twelve months. He’s never afraid to speak his mind. He’ll call out your favorite rapper, make a problematic statement, and won’t lose sleep over it. The Atlanta rapper has had as many controversies as mixtapes, and he’s dropped a lot of mixtapes. Staying true has never a problem for one of hip-hop’s most influential artists.

Yet despite the glowing accolades, many view the “Danny Glover” rapper’s career as unmet potential. The media paints him as a lottery pick with flashes of brilliance, but not a perennial superstar. They want Thug to have his 2011 Dirk Nowitzki moment when he proves haters wrong and rises to the top.

It’s an understandable take, but it ain’t happening. The 28-year-old is quite satisfied with his place in rap. The desire for him to be more commercial says more about fan’s conflicting desires and less about Thug himself.

Checking all the boxes isn’t enough for some people

Young Thug entered the music industry at a unique time. Rolling Stone’s Charles Holmes called him, “a hyperbolic figure who arrived during the dying gasps of the mixtape boom and the slow birth of the streaming age.” At the time, 360 deals were heavily pushed by record labels, and Thug got trapped in a historically bad one. It didn’t help his rise, but he still pushed through.

By the time Rich Gang’s “Lifestyle” dropped, he was a rising star. Would he have risen further had he came out at the height of streaming? Maybe. But Thug checks all the boxes for the modern rapper.

He’s consistent. Thugger dropped 24 total projects since his first 2011 mixtape. He’s unique. His vocal variety is on a level that most can’t reach. He’s polarizing. Day-one fans call him a genius, outsiders say they can’t understand him, and others hate his controversies. He’s multihyphenate. The rapper’s fashion career is so bold he’ll interrupt a runway to fix somebody’s outfit. In an era that produces tons of followers, Thug blazed his trail.

Yet still, it’s assumed that Thug needs to do more. People want more sales, more accolades, and more conventional measures of success. Last year’s debut album So Much Fun topped the charts, but people still wanted more. He’s played the mainstream game with collabs with Camila Cabello and Ed Sheeran, but people still want more. We celebrate Thug because he marches to the beat of his own drum, but still wish he marched to the beat of others.

The conflicting takes aren’t unique to music. In recent years, the tech community has cheered on startups that push venture capitalists away, do things that don’t scale, and ignore easy solutions. But those same folks celebrate fundraising milestones, unicorn-status earners, and rapid growth. Sure, it’s different for every business. But those varying perspectives work better in aggregate across an entire industry. They lose weight when it’s all directed at the same company or person.

Thugger’s critics want him to find that “happy medium,” but it’s not gonna happen.

Commercial success requires some conformity

In 2016, Lyor Cohen, founder of 300 Entertainment, had a predictable argument with Young Thug about how to approach his career.

Lyor wanted Thug to connect more with fans, but Thug wants to maintain a mystique. Cohen also wants more focus on quality over quantity, but Thug wasn’t having that either. Thug’s indie rapper mentality conflicts with a label exec who wants to do is leave money on the table. Lyor has since left 300, but the same debates are likely still happening.

The narrative is ironic since authenticity is so celebrated today. But when mainstream hip-hop celebrates authenticity, the praise is given to artists like J. Cole, Future, and Beyonce. All three had moments where they went too commercial, let themselves down, and came back with more personal projects. But even those comeback projects—2014 Forest Hills Drive, DS2, and Beyonce, respectively— were still commercial enough to ensure that they sold well. They acquiesced to a level of conformity that Thug only does when he wants to.

The influence is what matters

These past few years have been pivotal for the artists following Young Thug’s footsteps. Here’s what Al Shipley wrote in Vulture in 2018:

2018 has felt like an inflection point for Young Thug, the juncture where he’ll either become a major star or start becoming more of a symbolic figure like faded stars often do. It already feels like his influence is becoming more ubiquitous than his own voice — two of 2018’s breakout rap stars, Atlanta’s Lil Baby and Memphis’s Gunna, are heavily influenced by Young Thug’s delivery.

Baby and Gunna are even bigger stars today. Thug has proudly pushed both Gunna and Keed, who are both signed to his YSL Record label. He embraces the mentor role and wants to see them win.

Here’s what he said in a 2019 No Jumper interview:

“Once upon a time, I was in Keed’s position… I used to pray for OGs to believe in me.. I just wanted to wake up every day and feel like, this nigga, the big homie, he can’t tell me nothing wrong… I probably would have felt ten times better. I probably would’ve made better music way back then. And I just be like that with them because they could be the ones.”

The chance of Thug’s protege’s surpassing him would actually make Thug happy. It means he did his job. Young Thug will still remind us he made this all possible. But if his mentorship works as designed, they will be better off anyway.

A New Direction for Trapital

I ended Trapital’s paid membership, launched its strategy services, and learned some valuable lessons.

This week, I ended the paid membership program. It was a tough decision, but the right call for the business. I learned a lot this past year running it. There are a bunch of great things about it that I plan to carry forward, and other lessons learned to improve upon.

Don’t worry, Trapital itself is still here. The essays will still get sent to your inbox. I’ll still do podcasts as well. This is a shift for the revenue-generating parts of my business.

Yes, this is a Trapital-style essay on Trapital. Get ready.

Why Trapital exists

When I first started in 2018, I thought I had this game figured out. I already had a niche for myself as a freelance writer on hip-hop business. But my impact was limited, even when writing for the big reputable outlets. I’m a lifelong hip-hop fan and wanted to see the culture recognized the same way other industries were. I knew that to properly elevate the business of hip-hop, it needed a home.

I learned from what Ben Thompson built with Stratechery. I wanted the same. I knew there was an audience, and I knew I could serve it well. I felt confident in my abilities and was willing to learn along the way. I dove right in.

Trapital began as a newsletter on Substack. The platform was a great way to scale up quickly and get my feet wet. The newsletter soon gained traction with the right people.

As Trapital grew, I noticed the groups who had joined in. Some were here for the helpful content they couldn’t find elsewhere. Others were bought into the brand of Trapital itself. And others were here to support Trapital in improving representation since hip-hop artists rarely get this level of in-depth business analysis.

I soon realized that Substack, despite its ease of use, would limit my potential to tap into all that value. I moved off the service and built my own stack through WordPress, Memberful, Stripe, and ConvertKit. The platform shift had its growing pains, but it was a worthwhile tradeoff for the long-term control and flexibility gained.

Ownership is always a tradeoff, as I write about quite often, but it was needed for a business like Trapital. Without it, this transition would have been a helluva lot harder.

Making tough calls

I launched the paid membership with a ton of excitement. I had the same “freemium” model that’s quite popular with newsletters: $100 annually / $10 monthly. My free essays were lead generation. Paid customers received an additional email update each Monday and Friday, with a brief analysis of the two or three most important news topics. Members were also invited to a private Slack group, group meetups, and other occasional perks throughout the year.

I was dead set on reaching 1,000 paid members in my first year. I was gonna convert at least 10% of my audience to paid, if not more. I looked in the mirror like “Bet. You got this.”

Well, I didn’t hit either goal. I had hundreds of paid members, but not thousands. I converted 6% of my audience at best. Early on, I was frustrated. People said that they loved my content. My email open rate percentage was in the high 40s and low 50s. And I attracted a growing audience of industry power players and household names. What more did I have to do??

Honestly, that tepid success was a blessing in disguise. If I had hit those goals, I would have been less likely to survey members and examine where to improve. This is a common strategic dilemma. Just because an idea can work doesn’t mean it’s the best. To level up, I had to move on from what was “ok” and take a risk toward something greater. I had to try and pull a Masai Ujiri!

It started with a critical review of my current product. The $100 annual / $10 monthly freemium newsletters are popular because they’re an easy way to make a sale. With a massive audience, it can sell quite well. But for Trapital, it blurred the line between need and patronage. In my surveys, I learned that many bought out of need, which is great. Others bought it to support me financially. Others bought it like a gym membership—the intent was there, but the low cost made it easy to cancel if not used enough.

The collective support was humbling, but it couldn’t be my core product. I view Trapital’s mission bigger than myself, and wanted its primary business to solve a true need for customers.

The paid newsletter product was limited for a few more reasons. First, it slowed growth. The time spent trying to convert free email subscribers to “paid” is time that could have been spent growing my overall distribution to attract more people. Second, there were plenty of ways that Trapital can be valuable beyond those Monday and Friday email updates. Just because someone didn’t want a paid membership didn’t mean they wouldn’t want other products. Third, content subscription fatigue is real.

Despite the clear signs, the decision was still difficult. Many people were bummed out. There were several parts of the membership that I truly loved. Our meetups were some of my favorite moments! The Slack conversations were great. It pushed me to want to better serve this community and find dope ways to bring it together. I’ll keep this same energy that moving forward.

Trapital member meetup in Atlanta!

Helping those who can benefit most

Looking back, Trapital’s short-lived membership was like a “friends and family” round. I’m truly grateful for each person who made it possible. It was helpful to get things off the ground, test things out, and get clarity on where I can add the most value.

By far, the most common request from Trapital readers is my time. People have asked me to consult on projects, offer strategic advice, advise their startups, pick my brain (even though I hate that damn term), and so on.

It’s one of the reasons I now offer Trapital strategy services. I want to work more closely with clients I can help get to the next level. It will work out better financially, which will further Trapital’s mission. Companies can play a huge role in elevating hip-hop, and I want to be the bridge to help them get there. I previously worked in strategic partnerships in client-facing roles, so this is a natural fit. I’ve missed that part of my career, so I’m excited to scale it up.

Will I launch another premium offering in the future? Most likely, but no time soon. It will be much more geared toward the execs and decision-makers who need it. Stay tuned.

But before that happens, I would love to reach some new email subscriber milestones.

Thanks again

I appreciate all the support. I’ve met great people along the way who have been tremendous thought partners and friends as I’ve planned this out—especially these past few months. Not naming any names cause I might leave someone off and feel bad, but you know who you are! Much appreciated.

The best is yet to come. I’m excited about Trapital’s future, and I hope you are too.

P.S. – wanna help Trapital grow? Who’s the one person you know who would get the most out of it? Tell them to join the email list.


The Best from Trapital in 2020

How Hip-Hop Helped Cash App Grow Faster

How Issa Rae Became the Modern Mogul

Why Hip-Hop and Gaming are Still Scratching the Surface

How The Weeknd Mastered His Brand

Why Kanye West’s Gap Deal is a Risk to Yeezy

Yeezy’s new partnership with the struggling apparel company is a threat to the brand that Kanye West built.

An old photo of Kanye West in his Gap tee (via @yeezyxgap)

Listen to this essay here or on the Trapital Podcast:

Kanye West’s Gap deal has drawn a wide range of reactions. The College Dropout fans thought back to “Spaceships,” the 2004 song where the Chicago native complained about how his high school employer treated their “token blackie.” In recent years, Kanye has shared his desire to partner with the apparel company time, and time, and time again. This announcement is a full-circle moment.

But the hypebeasts that drove Yeezy’s popularity have less to be excited about. To them, the sneaker lost its allure as it slowly became a mass consumer product. The brand is a long way away from the infamously limited Yeezy Red Octobers.

The 43-year-old billionaire is up for the challenge though. The Yeezy-Gap partnership can fulfill his dream to bring fashion to the masses. But there’s risk in shifting the Yeezy brand downmarket with Gap. Even if the new product line makes money, its potential will be held back by a retailer whose best years are behind it.

A brand with something to prove

Yeezy’s first partner was Nike. It was a dream come true for Ye, who spent his childhood drawing Air Jordans because he couldn’t afford them.

Here’s a quote from Kanye from the first Nike-Yeezy press release in April 2009:

“Growing up, we looked forward to the release of new Nike’s the way we would an album by our favorite artist. So the opportunity to collaborate on a design with Mark Smith and Nike Design has been a dream come true, and a great experience.”

It’s rare to see Kanye say something this glowing about Nike, but it was all good just a decade ago! The first Air Yeezys retailed for $200, but sneakerheads resold them for thousands. Kanye saw the potential and wanted more.

He asked Nike for a Jordan Brand-type deal. Michael Jordan earns 5% royalties on sales from Jordan Brand, which made $3.1 billion in 2019. Nike told Kanye that royalty deals were only for athletes. Unsurprisingly, Ye wasn’t having it. In a 2013 interview with Hot 97, he said he told Nike that he was a performance athlete who “goes to The Garden and plays one-on no one.”

It’s a top ten Kanye quote. Here’s the clip:

But regardless of Kanye’s athlete/non-athlete status, he lacked the leverage to negotiate. Sure, Air Yeezys were popular, but Nike thought he was just another rapper selling sneakers. It wasn’t an in-house brand like Air Jordan. The basketball legend’s royalty compensation was a tradeoff for ownership, and the incentive to succeed was greater.

Lack of leverage was an ongoing theme for Kanye back then. In 2013, he had similar struggles with LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, who didn’t take the artist’s phone calls.

Here’s what I wrote last year in Why Rihanna Broke Barriers That Others Couldn’t:

Kanye might have been correct—as he’s since proven his talent with the Yeezy brand—but he had no leverage at the time. [LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault] was not scared of losing out on the Late Registration artist. Ye did not incite fear. Keep in mind, this was around the same time Kanye was riding in limos holding plates of food up for Paris fashion designers. He was hungry to get his foot in the door, but hunger can’t close deals.

Replace LVMH with Nike, and replace Arnault with former Nike CEO Mark Parker. It’s the same script, different company. Yeezy needed a partner it could grow with.

Yeezy and Adidas both wanted the same thing

Adidas and Yeezy had a lengthy courting process in 2013, but it strengthened their bond. Kanye got the royalties, freedom, and expression that Nike never offered.

It was an ideal match with two partners who wanted more. Adidas had international reach but lacked North American relevance. The company tried to “buy” American culture with the 2006 Reebok acquisition, but culture doesn’t work like that. Meanwhile, Kanye West had a worldwide brand that needed distribution to match it. That mutual dependency made them stronger.

Kanye’s signing rode a wave of cultural resurgence for Adidas. Kanye’s signing came shortly after the introduction of the popular UltraBOOST sneakers, and the rise of Adidas athletes like James Harden, Aaron Rodgers, and Von Miller.

The Adidas-Yeezy partnership had a foundation, but the execution still mattered. Yeezy relied on hype, but Kanye’s end goal was to reach the masses. Here’s what he said to the New York Times in 2015 upon the release of the first Adidas Yeezys:

But West wants to design what might be called fast high fashion: clothes that are truly avant-garde in their design, made from the finest materials, and that would arrive with lightning-quick speed in stores where they could be bought by the public at affordable prices…

 

He claims that he’s not wearing luxury for luxury’s sake but rather as a form of research. “There’s a transition,” he says. “I need to partake in what’s of value and of quality and soul in order to understand it, in order to give it back.”

The limited sneaker releases worked to his advantage. Kanye had a testing ground for products with potential for bigger releases. The economics of fast fashion fit this creative process. It also grew tremendous demand with those who value scarcity.

But it created an intriguing dynamic. Yeezy’s supply steadily increased. It became the ninth-highest selling sneaker of 2018, more than Nike’s Air Force 1. It made $1.3 billion last year. These sneakers were no longer fast-fashion. They were widely accessible. It’s the type of item that a kid can put on his back-to-school list, and a parent has a real chance to get it.

The increased supply put sneakerheads—the same folks who drove Yeezy’s popularity—in a bind. They don’t gush over readily available products. The chase is part of the allure. On “All Falls Down,” Kanye rapped, “Then I spent 400 bucks on this. Just to be like ‘nigga you ain’t up on this.'” That mentality is etched in the brain of every Yeezy loyalist.

In fairness, most products have to evolve past the early adopters to reach bigger audiences, and those evolutions can frustrate early customers. But hype is different. The “evolution” is not a feature change, it’s an increase of supply. Adidas-Yeezy managed this well over the past five years. But Yeezy-Gap is a whole new beast.

Kanye West with yeezy shoes

Adidas was the perfect partner for all these Yeezy prototypes (via Jamel Toppin for Forbes)

The ‘best-case scenario’ is still limited

In March 2020, Kanye was interview by the Wall Street Journal about his plan to make “the perfect hoodie”:

…it would be made for the masses, sold for $60 or so, folded and stacked on tables like loaves of bread.

 

West, who is 42, and his Yeezy label team hoped to sell [the perfect hoodie] somewhere like Costco, which he admires for its broad reach and its democratic piles of merchandise. “I like Costco as an idea. I like Walmart, too,” West says.

Gap is a perfect place for $60 hoodies stacked on tables like loaves of bread. The store was originally called “the Gap” because it served the gap between the fashion runways and department store apparel. But Gap is also a place where $60 hoodies get placed on 60% off clearance racks on Presidents Day Weekend, then get an additional 10% off if you sign up for a store credit card. Those discount-stacking tactics ain’t cuttin’ it for a modern brand like Yeezy.

Gap has steadily declined since the 90s. Old Navy and Athleta have literally carried Gap, Inc on their backs. Last year, Gap itself made $4.6 billion in sales. It hopes Kanye’s Yeezy line can bring in $1 billion annually by year five, similar to Yeezy’s success did with Adidas.

But Gap is not Adidas. The Three Stripes had a broader ecosystem that furthered Yeezy’s potential. NFL players wore Yeezy cleats in games. Adidas made its budget-friendly Yeezy look-alike Tubular sneakers, which drove demand without cheapening Yeezys. Gap is not in the best position to do that. It recently sunset its Hill City athleisure company and pulled out of its move to spin off Old Navy. It’s been a rough 2020 for Gap, even without the pandemic.

The best-case scenario for Kanye-Gap is a partnership like Martha Stewart and Kmart. Martha Stewart Living hit $1 billion in sales in its third year. But despite the success, it wasn’t enough for Kmart to avoid bankruptcy. At its best, Stewart extended the life of a department store that got trapped between Walmart, Target, and its never-ending Bluelight Specials.

Can Gap’s Yeezy line sell $1 billion by 2025? It’s an uphill battle, but not impossible. But can Yeezy turnaround the entire Gap Inc though?? In Kanye’s mind, this partnership is his Steve Jobs 1997 “return to Apple” moment. He admired Jobs’ ability to turn the company around, this is his chance to become the Steve Jobs of Gap. But the $60 perfect hoodie can’t match the impact of the iPod or the iPhone. Challenging the status quo has its limits, even for the Louis Vuitton Don.


Yeezy is a brand that thrives on hunger. The hunger of its founder to prove he matters. The hunger of its customers to get products that others can’t. The hunger of the masses to hope they can one day get their hands on it.

But Yeezy’s Gap partnership flips this on its head. The billionaire founder has proved Yeezy can succeed. Customers aren’t as hungry as they once were. The only one “hungry” is the struggling retailer that hopes its former employee can turn the company around.

In Kanye West’s mind, he found a partner to make his ultimate dream come true. But maybe the real dream was the journey he took to get to this point.

How No Limit Records Became Hip-Hop’s Iconic Challenger Brand 

A cultural analysis on how Master P took the iconic brand to the top. Written by Ernest Wilkins from Office Hours.

If I called a company a “challenger brand,” would you know what that means? The term comes from a 1999 business book called “Eating the Big Fish’. 

The book defines challenger brands by three specific criteria:

  1. State of the market: meaning the brand is not a market leader nor a niche brand
  2. State of mind: meaning the brand has ambitions beyond conventional marketing resources
  3. Rate of success: meaning the brand has experienced significant and rapid growth in its market.

You’ve heard of Challenger brands: Warby Parker, Casper, Oatly, Under Armour, you get it? 

These brands carve a piece of the marketing landscape as well as a share of the market for their products by using unorthodox tactics to do more with less. These challengers build themselves to the point where one of the significant players realizes it’s financially smart to buy the company out to increase their share in the market and, in turn, bring the full muscle of a major behind the challenger brand than to compete. How does the challenger brand concept apply to rap? To have productive conversations around the business in creative industries, we need to disconnect the music’s emotion from the company that makes the music. The music industry is selling a product. That product needs to be looked at the same way the founders of other challenger brands look at their creations: A brand that exists in a marketplace. 

For the sake of hammering this metaphor home, I want to clearly apply the challenger brand metaphor to one of hip-hop’s biggest success stories: Percy “Master P” Miller and No Limit Records. 

The Original No Limit Records Logo 

How Master P built No Limit into a challenger brand

From the New York Daily News:

“(Master P) knew he couldn’t compete with other record labels’ huge promotion and music video budgets but this much he could do: give his audience more for less. That, he figured, would keep them coming back. So, a No Limit album would come with about 20 minutes more music than the average CD. Two-CD compilations were sold for the price of one. He formed a group, TRU, consisting of himself and his two younger brothers, Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder, and made sure to cross-promote every upcoming project in his current releases. Then he hit the road and sold everything out of the trunk of his car. “The same way you would see someone selling cologne or Avon? That’s how I sold it,” Master P boasts. “For somebody to sell it out the trunk of their car, you just really know he believes in that product.”

The story of No Limit Records has a dark origin. Master P’s grandfather was killed in a work-related accident at a New Orleans hospital. The hospital settled a negligence claim over his grandfather’s death, and Miller got $10,000 of the money.

Master P attended the University of Houston on a basketball scholarship before relocating to Merritt Junior College in Oakland to be closer to his family, who lived in nearby Richmond. At college, he learned the fundamentals of business, but he also learned about the system of trade. Consider entry-level concepts, things like Tax IDs, and ways to structure a company. That knowledge gave him an upper hand in negotiations. 

“So check this out. The first thing gon’ come to you is a lawyer and a financial adviser. Think about it. The women, all that’s gonna come, the opportunity, all that. But a lawyer and a financial advisor. Now imagine you’re from the ghetto. You’ve never had no money. All of a sudden this guy comes up with a suit on and he’s going to tell you what to do with your money. But this how he’s gonna get you: He’s gon’ tell you, “It’s not going to cost you no money. I’m going to take 5 percent of what you make, and I might even give you some money.”

 

Because they already know what you’re worth. So all they’re going to do is write checks for you, pay your utility bills write the checks to your parents, your friends or relatives, whoever, ’cause you ain’t got time to do that. So they want 5 percent of your money. So think about this, 5 percent of your money, you never met ’em. So two or three years from now, when you get that big contract, it’s a hundred million dollars. What’s 5 percent of a hundred million dollars? That’s five million dollars!

 

For somebody you just met or somebody else just introduced you to that person. One of your friends that probably plays basketball or whatever introduced you to that person that you gon’ give five million dollars to that you’ve never met. That’s how easy they got five million dollars from you and they never knew you.”

Imagine you want to fix your sink and don’t know-how. You might ask your friends, and they can share their ideas, but you’re going to do your own research on YouTube or online. I think education about your industry should be the same way. Even subscribing to newsletters like Trapital is essential for getting a broader context into your industry, you still need to get hands-on experience. Master P wanted to make moves in the record business, so what did he do first? Open up a record store in Richmond called No Limit Records. P took the foundational knowledge of the industry he got in school and directly applied it to his brand by getting active in the marketplace, both as an artist and as a retailer. He also paid a lot of attention to what the other players in his industry were doing. They all had massive support outside the traditional primary label structure, utilizing the alternative media distribution system that we know by the name, the “chitlin circuit.” 

“I learned what Lil’ J (you know him as J Prince) was doing with Rap-A-Lot in Houston because I went to the University of Houston to play basketball. Then in the Bay Area I learned the game from [E-40’s uncle] St. Charles Walter at City Hall Records, In a Minute Records, JT the Bigga Figga, Herm Lou. I was selling music out the trunk of my car, hitting all the swap meets. Eazy-E and N.W.A. The Bloods and Crips had a big record at one time. This guy Duffy would take me around to every swap meet in L.A..

 

So I was out in Crenshaw, swap meets and all them things, way back in the days just selling music on consignment. And then I opened my store in Richmond and people were selling me their records on consignment. It started opening up for Tupac, Spice 1 and the rest was history.”

How No Limit cornered market share

From XXL:

“Y’all can steal all my records, I’m cool, y’all can have them. I don’t even care to be honest with you. I don’t care who take a record from me or an idea. If it make you some money, thank you, good luck to you. It ain’t taking nothing out of my pocket. You got 10 grocery stores on the same corner. It’s only hip-hop artists and black people worrying about the wrong stuff. You got a grocery store and a liquor store on each corner. None of them mad with each other. Think about it.

 

Look at a shopping mall. You got 20 stores in the same place. Are they mad at each other? What’s an idea, man? An idea is real when you can take it to life and build a fanbase off of it. People been taking ideas from anybody. Everybody got gold teeth now because of us. Think we care? When I went to Oakland nobody had gold teeth or dreads! I was like an alien. Now that’s how everybody look. So we worry about the wrong thing and I think people inflate this shit. Man, it’s business.”

If you’re reading this in a city, you likely have a streetwear store or cool boutique that you can visit. That store likely stocks products from the in-house line and then usually an assortment of curated products from lesser-known brands from around the world. The format P used to craft 1995’s compilation album Master P Presents Down South Hustlers echoes this model and illustrates clearly how Master P built his sizeable share of the hip-hop market. 

After P shut down his record store and moved back to New Orleans to build out No Limit, his time spent in the Bay, as well as opening slots for Tupac and Too Short, gave him a reliable face card in markets that none of his competition in New Orleans could top. He knew all the promoters across the country, and more importantly, he knew all the DJ’s. National reach, local distribution.  

We know that brands dedicate $ to media because it brings awareness to their brands. This is the case whether you’re selling socks or streams. It’s my personal opinion that DJ support is the most underutilized method of brand awareness in hip-hop. As countless examples through rap’s history have proved, careers are launched on the back of strong record support from DJ’s.

Down South Hustlas defined the formula to a tee: Drop a massive project, filled with guest stars from various scenes across the country, thus ensuring DJ’s had tons of new music to play. It WAS a local song, which made it relevant to that local audience. When they went to go find “Playaz from the South”, they already knew who was going to be playing it, what stores stocked it and what DJ’s would play it that weekend. Now, take that effect and multiply it by the other 4 releases No Limit dropped in 1995. No Limit as a brand was literally the sound of people’s lives, from the street to the club to the radio. That old saying “roll with us or get rolled over” is the story of No Limit Records market dominance.  

In New Orleans, P needed all the help he could get, since the city was packed with local brands all dominating the niche market. The obvious biggest competitor was Cash Money Records, but other lesser-remembered labels like  Big Boy, Tombstone, and Parkway Pumpin’ provided significant competition. Miller used his business knowledge to leverage local talent to abandon their current label affiliations and sign up with No Limit. Parkway Pumpin’ alone featured a roster that included future No Limit acts like Fiend, Mac, Mystikal (who came over from Big Boy), Mr. Serv-On, and Magnolia Slim b.k.a Soulja Slim, as well as the most critical hire in No Limit history: Parkway Pumpin’s in-house producer, KLC

If you’re wondering how a label with that much talent could get raided, consider that the Parkway label operated without contracts. 

 

Remember: No Limit had a financial base before scaling to the point where the Priority distribution deal could even be an idea. A lot of brands try to go from 0-$1,000,000 quickly, but the difference between non-players and challenger brands is that the brands can only disrupt the significant players with financial ammunition. Here’s an example: In 1992, after Master P’s second album, “Mama’s Bad Boy,” sold more than 150,000 albums independently. In 1994, his third “The Ghettos Tryin to Kill Me!” sold 250,000 units independently, and No Limit Records grossed more than $900,000! They had almost a million dollars in the war chest before they ever signed the deal. You cannot compete unless you have the capital to do so. 

From XXL

“In ’95, you also signed the distribution deal with Priority. How’d that come about?

I coulda been signed it. They had came to the hood and I thought they were the police so I never talked to them, for like two years. So by that time I’m selling records on my own and I started getting good at it. I ended up bumping into Michael Jackson’s attorney and he told me what a distribution deal was. He said, “You need $200,000 for marketing money so you’ll probably never get that.” I was like what’s that? He was like, “That’s an 85/15 deal where you get 85 percent and the record company get 15 percent.” So when [the record label] came at me, I was getting real hot on the streets and I told them I wanted a distribution deal. And they was like, “A distribution deal?” Jimmy Iovine had offered me $1,000,000 before and I ended up turning it down. So [Priority] comes back at me and I say I want a distribution deal. They said, “OK, if you got the marketing money.” I had the marketing money, I was selling CDs out of the trunk in my car, hitting city to city, opening up for all the big acts.

 

They had N.W.A., Ice Cube, Jay Z was on Priority, all of them. Most of those deals were probably 12 percent [or] 14 percent, that’s what artist deals were. Michael Jackson had the highest deal which was 22 percent, and it was unheard of. So imagine with my deal, even if they sold 100,000 or 200,000 records, I probably made more than them just selling 10,000 units.

 

Ice Cream Man was the first album I put out through that deal and they thought I was probably gonna sell five or 10,000 They were like, “We’re gonna be popping champagne if we do six to 10,000 units.” I think we did over 50,000 units. And then it just went crazy after that. The rest was history.”

So let’s recap. No Limit won as a challenger brand because it hit all the right criteria

State of market: meaning the brand is not a market leader nor a niche brand.

No Limit outsold lesser-known labels in the same industry but didn’t perform as high as the leaders in the market.

State of mind: meaning the brand has ambitions beyond conventional marketing resources

This would be a time to mention No Limit’s cultural influence. You remember the tank. You remember seeing P in WCW at the same time as Dennis Rodman and Jay Leno. Not to mention, No Limit might be the most influential record label since Blue Note when it comes to album packaging.

Rate of success: meaning the brand has experienced significant and rapid growth in its market.

Depending on who you ask, No Limit sold about 75 million records between 1991 and 2001, the end of the Priority distribution deal. I’d say that’s rapid growth in 10 years.

No Limit’s challenger brand status was studied closely by Cash Money, who learned from the mistakes No Limit made post-distribution deal and became the behemoth you see today. Looking for a current example of the hip-hop challenger brands? Quality Control Records, coincidentally the subject of Dan’s piece in our little newsletter swap. 


Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in following more of my thoughts on music, marketing and culture, you can subscribe to my newsletter Office Hours with Ernest Wilkins by clicking here. As an added bonus, here are some of the most popular Office Hours articles from the past year:

I’m also on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. Stay safe out there! 

Why Ownership Matters More in Hip-Hop

The system hasn’t always had hip-hop’s best interest at heart, so its artists are more likely to take control.

Beyoncé and others who appeared in the Lemonade visual album (HBO)

Last Sunday, Beyoncé gave the Class of 2020 an impactful commencement speech. There were tons of gems, but this was the part to stand up and clap:

“There was a pivotal turning point in my life when I chose to build my company many years ago… Not enough Black women had a seat at the table, so I had to go and chop down that wood and build my own table. Then I had to invite the best there was to have a seat. That meant hiring women, men, outsiders, underdogs, people who were overlooked, and waiting to be seen.”

We’ve heard “build my own table” before. Tyler Perry said it proudly at last year’s BET Awards. Jay Z started Roc-a-Fella Records because major labels overlooked him. For them, entrepreneurship was a necessity.

It’s different for Beyoncé though. The Destiny’s Child singer was already a commercial success. She didn’t launch Parkwood Entertainment for traction. She did it for empowerment.

For many Black artists, ownership is protection from an industry that doesn’t look out for its best interest. The circumstances behind it are unfortunate, but the outcome made hip-hop stronger.

Less faith in the system

One of Trapital’s central themes is the tradeoff between ownership and partnership. Every artist falls somewhere on this spectrum. Chance the Rapper is on one side telling rappers to follow his lead and own all their assets. Drake is on the other, living large with his “unlimited budget” from Universal Music Group. Yet still, the OVO Sound founder owns more of his business operations than peers in other genres of music. Even the “partnership-minded” rappers maintain some level of ownership.

This happened for a few reasons. The first stems from themes in last week’s article Hip-Hop’s Fight Against Racial Injustice. The 90s hip-hop execs learned from the horror stories like N.W.A. and its late manager Jerry Heller. They weren’t having it. Ownership was an insurance policy against the bullshit that any business partners tried to pull. (Ironically, those hip-hop execs tried that same bullshit on their own artists, which I’ve written about: Death Row and Cash Money).

The second reason is less overt, but still damaging. Hip-hop artists are often given less leeway in their major label deals. Their partners expect them to fall in line and fit a specific profile. The partnership starts to feel more like a short leash. And naturally, ambitious artists have no desire to be leashed.

Beyoncé’s pre-Parkwood career is a textbook example. She kept a pristine image throughout The Writings on The Wall, Dangerously in Love, and B’Day. It was lucrative but unrealistic. In 2013, Beyoncé spoke about it in her Life Is But a Dream documentary:

“I want to be able to sing about how much I hate myself that day, if that’s how I feel. Forget being cool, I’m gonna be honest. I don’t have to kill myself and be so hard on myself. If I’m scared, be scared.”

It’s an experience that artists in other genres are less likely to face. For instance, Justin Timberlake and Adam Levine have been stars for about as long as Beyoncé. The NSYNC and Maroon 5 frontmen have had numerous career transitions–thanks to hip-hop– that were welcomed with little resistance. Any controversial moments faded quickly. Technically, both have launched record labels, but neither as expansive as Parkwood. And frankly, they don’t need to be. When the entertainment industry has their back. There’s less need to build their own table.

And if the industry ever lets them down, Timberlake still has the Trolls sequels and Levine has The Voice. Believe me, they’ll be fine.

The Parkwood Entertainment team (via Billboard)

Put on for others

In a 2013 interview with Billboard, Beyoncé shared why she launched Parkwood:

“When I decided to manage myself it was important that I didn’t go to some big management company. I felt like I wanted to follow the footsteps of Madonna and be a powerhouse and have my own empire and show other women when you get to this point in your career you don’t have to go sign with someone else and share your money and your success—you do it yourself.”

In 1992, Madonna founded Maverick on a similar premise of women empowerment. But the “Like a Prayer” singer and her stable of artists had more privilege to be themselves. Maverick’s biggest victory was signing Alanis Morissette, whose triple diamond-selling Jagged Little Pill was one of the angstiest, no-fucks-given albums of its era. It’s the type of album that if Beyoncé dropped in her early 20s, the media would have lost its damn mind.

Beyoncé built Parkwood to be the company she wishes existed when she came up. The venture with Columbia had the support of a major label and the independence of her own shop. She signed Chloe x Halle, Sophie Beem, and Ingrid Burley to give them the freedom she didn’t have until recently. The company empowers both them and herself. It proves that there is much more to success than external accolades. But that perception can cloud reality, especially if that image is pushed by the artists themselves.

Let’s rewind to 2007. Beyoncé and Jay Z’s “Upgrade U” was everywhere. It had so many Audemars Piguet references it felt like a lowkey ad. The name-drop for Jacob the Jeweler was a rite of passage for 2000s hip-hop. We thought they had won, but not yet. Hov was a frustrated, post-Kingdom Come thirty-something with a short leash as Def Jam President. Beyoncé was tired of maintaining the perfection that was on full display in this lavish music video.

A decade later, The Carters rented out The Louvre for “Apeshit.” It was a much more convincing ‘sequel’ to “Upgrade U.” Jay Z now had Roc Nation and a strong partnership with Live Nation. Beyonce now had Parkwood and more leverage with Columbia Record. They both found their spot on that ownership spectrum.

What could have been

If the music and entertainment industry had empowered Black artists decades ago, the past generation would be much better off. For every Jay Z and Beyoncé, there are countless more who weren’t given much freedom, but their moment passed before they could take charge.

This lack of empowerment hurt both artists and the industry tremendously. Rappers have proved for decades that they can sell millions of records in both major cities and suburbia. If more freedom was given, they could have accomplished more.

This is one of the reasons why Swizz Beatz and others want to launch a Hip Hop Founders Fund. They want to take care of Melle Mel, Sugarhill Gang, and the OGs. The elder generation never saw the easy money that today’s rappers can earn with a sponsored Instagram post. The desire to put on for the old heads has strengthened the community that looks out for one another.


The ownership mentality is deeper than rap. It’s instilled in many Black people. Ownership implies that something can’t be taken away. Rappers want to own their masters so they can’t be taken away. It’s the same reason why many of us are pushed to get advanced degrees; they can’t be taken away. But as we learned, we still need support from the system. That’s where the balance comes in.

There are plenty of advantages to partnering with bigger companies. Beyoncé has been rewarded for her longstanding partnership with Columbia. It took longer than she might have wanted, but she set the model for the next generation to follow.

Let’s just hope that the next generation doesn’t need to be as big of a star as Beyoncé to make it happen.

How Hip-Hop Pushed Companies to Fight for Racial Justice

As hip-hop grew in power, it influenced those that profit off black culture to join the fight for justice.

Public Enemy’s Chuck D in the ‘Fight The Power’ music video (via Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

We’ve been here before. We’ve mourned countless victims, donated to numerous causes, and marched in the streets. This time though, it feels different.

There has been welcomed support from surprising places. Sure, some of it is “slacktivism.” However, the call for change is stronger than it was in 2014.

Hip-hop has always spoken out on police brutality. But more businesses have partnered with hip-hop in recent years. Those companies have felt the pressure to contribute to the same culture that’s making them rich. It’s one of many factors that accelerated the shift in response to this crisis.

This may not be enough for the change that’s needed, but it’s a start.

The fight for existence is in hip-hop’s DNA

People often ask how hip-hop became the dominant culture. The internet is a common answer. It’s not wrong, but it’s reductive. The two main reasons are empowerment and social media.

Let’s start with empowerment. For years, hip-hop fought for its legitimacy. Melle Mel, Public Enemy, and N.W.A. depicted a life that was misrepresented by mainstream media. Their music vocalized black people’s fight for equity in America. As the artform grew in popularity, that fight drove the desire to call the shots.

In the 90s, Death Row, Cash Money, and No Limit made game-changing distribution deals with major record labels. That mentality extended to hip-hop partnerships and newly-launched companies across industries. They set the tone for a generation that wasn’t satisfied with a first-class ticket on the plane. They wanted to fly the plane themselves.

For instance, Jay Z built Roc Nation to make moves he couldn’t have done as Def Jam President. This past week, Roc Nation called on Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to prosecute the four officers who murdered George Floyd. To honor Floyd, the entertainment company took out full-page ads in newspapers across the United States.

Social media accelerated hip-hop’s influence further. Artists could now directly connect with audiences. Their influence became quantifiable and public. There were fewer distributors to claim audience ownership, and fewer execs to “soften” their message. Artists grew their following through authenticity. With the rise of Black Twitter, black culture became the language of social media. The trend further accelerated in 2017 when hip-hop surpassed rock as the most popular genre of music. Companies took notice and wanted in.

It led to a wave of once-unlikely partners, like Tiffany & Co. In 2014, the jeweler was sued for patterns of racial bias. It had just one black employee in over 200 management roles and was accused of not believing that black people were appropriate ambassadors.

Four years later, the company made A$AP Ferg a brand ambassador. Yes, the same guy who made the aggressive, take-no-prisoners anthem “Plain Jane” became a spokesperson for one of the most storied luxury brands. And now in the wake of George Floyd, the company acknowledged it hasn’t done enough. It made a social media post in support of Black Lives Matter. Is it still enough? No, but it’s a tiny step.

This collective rise built leverage for hip-hop. For these partnerships to work well, companies have to show up. Their values should be aligned with the authentic artists they want to team up with.

Businesses felt pressure to support the culture they profit from

Social media makes it easy to call out culture vultures—those who profit off culture without contributing to it. If a clothing company promoted its “hot girl summer” line, the racial diversity of its board of directors and leadership team was fair game for criticism.

To be clear, the presence of black execs does not give companies a free pass. It’s like “having black friends.” It’s an acknowledgment, but meaningful action still needs to be taken.

This “cancel culture” trend may frustrate some, but it maintains accountability. Before social media, these inquiries were more likely to get ignored. But companies now face more pressure to stand with the culture they integrated into their business. Their customers will check the receipts and call them out if their actions don’t line up.

 

The Weeknd called out the major labels and streaming services.

Since George Floyd’s death, hip-hop has spoken loudly. I made the Hip -Hop Statements spreadsheet to highlight the artists who have protested, donated, and supported. J. Cole, Tory Lanez, and Lil’ Yachty have hit the streets in protest. Drake, The Weeknd, and Kanye West have put up big checks to various organizations. They’ve set an example for the companies that back them.

In that same spreadsheet, I also kept track of the music companies who have released PR statements. I distinguished the short-term donations from the long-term work that accelerates change.

Tiffani Ashley Bell, executive director of The Human Utility, coined the term “hire or wire.” If businesses want to make meaningful change, then hire black people in positions of influence or wire checks to fund their business endeavors. It was initially a call to action for tech leaders, but it also applies to the music industry where more black executives are needed at the top.


The goal is clear. Hip-hop wants to end to police brutality and racial injustice. The love for black people needs to be just as strong as the love for black culture. Each business has a role to play in that.

Will the necessary change happen? We’ll see, but we know what needs to be done.

Why Hip-Hop Fans Miss the Blog Era

Hip-hop blogs were an organic moment for music discovery and curation. That’s hard to replicate in the streaming era.

The Cool Kids (via Roger Kisby/Getty Images)

In the late 2000s, hip-hop blogs were the chief curators for rising talent. One post could elevate an unknown artist to a subculture of hungry fans. Blogs attracted a group of millennials who embraced the internet well before the music industry. Drake, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar have each paid respect to the websites that put them on when they were coming up.

Blogs were more than a place to find new music. They were an experience. Each site had its community. The desire for those experiences is as strong as ever, especially in the streaming era. Other outlets have since taken their place, but it’s not the same.

Blogs were the spot for discovery and curation

In the Napster days, the internet showed its potential in music distribution. Piracy was rampant, but the opportunity was clear. With a quick search and a bit of patience, users could access any song they wanted.

The process was convenient, but it was one-sided. There wasn’t much discovery or curation on those peer-to-peer file sharing platforms. The only new thing I “discovered” on Limewire was 1) a virus that ruined my computer, or 2) hearing ‘AOL Music, first listen’ on a song I just downloaded. Then I would try to get a different version of the song and boom, there it is again! I’m convinced AOL was up to some trickery but that’s another story for another Trapital article.

Blogs soon emerged at the nexus of distribution, discovery, curation. Sites like Nah Right and 2DopeBoyz were launched by hip-hop fans who wanted to highlight dope music from up-and-comers.

They gave artists a platform who would have struggled without it. At the time, record labels could easily ignore an unproven artist rhyming about Sonic the Hedgehog. But in the blog era, Charles Hamilton could build his following and use it as leverage for a deal with Interscope. The same goes for The Cool Kids and other alternative rap acts that didn’t fit the mainstream.

Here’s 2DopeBoyz founder Meka Udoh in a 2011 interview with Black Enterprise:

We’ve never fallen into that ideal that either posting a video of two idiots in the ghetto fighting or being financially backed by a major label, then have the audacity to claim we’re “documenting the culture” would make us successful or influential. Shining a light to the under-the-radar [artist] was more important to us than a Gucci Mane shout out. The site was started when two friends with vastly different musical tastes decided to start a site to spotlight what we liked, and by the grace of whatever deity watches over us, it became a success.

At its peak, 2DopeBoyz attracted 1 million monthly unique visitors. Those visitors became valuable superfans. They were up on the latest and took pride in it. Remember, blogs peaked at the height of the hipster era. There was social capital in being up on trends before others. Blog curators gave superfans confidence that a rising artist was worth investing in.

It turned into two-sided experience. Artists needed superfans to spread the word to other hip-hop fans. Superfans needed artists to deliver good music so they can enjoy and share with friends. Everybody won.

Here’s Drake in 2009 reflecting on So Far Gone, a product of the blog era.

Curation is art, not science

The streaming era’s first answer to curation was playlists. Spotify’s RapCaviar is the flagship playlist that has gotten the most of the attention. I’ve written favorably about it in the past, but I’ve missed some key points.

Here’s what I wrote last year:

“Spotify has built an economic moat with RapCaviar. The playlist’s size is an advantage that demonstrates power, which begets more features, bigger artists profiled, and richer data. It’s a competitive advantage that’s hard to match.

 

Going head-to-head with RapCaviar is a tall task. Instead, Apple Music, Tidal, and Amazon need to focus on their strengths.”

I still believe RapCaviar has a relative advantage over other digital streaming providers playlists. But “economic moat” was bit much.

By design, Spotify’s curation is taken with a grain of salt for several reasons. First, Spotify is seen as an extension of the music industry. There are ownership stakes and revenue sharing agreements with the major record labels. Spotify is the reason why the labels bounced back from the decline in the 2000s. It’s not the independent voice that blogs were.

Second, playlists are influenced by algorithms. Although the weekly playlists are curated by people, streaming data is inevitably factored in. Even if the algorithmic recommendations are accurate, they can’t match the word of mouth power that drove blogs. Third, Spotify is heavily criticized for not paying artists enough. It adds to the perception that the company cares more about labels than artists. Blogs never had that problem.

Additionally, there’s no community among playlist followers. Listeners and artists can’t interact on most digital streaming providers. And even if they could, a “top hits” playlist with 12 million followers isn’t a community. RapCaviar has held pop-up events and concerts to bring folks together, but those events are few and far between.

Curation is a challenge in video streaming too. Netflix’s Strong Black Lead initiative highlights black cinema. It curates what’s available, but there’s an incentive to highlight original Netflix programming.

In 2018 Goldman Sachs interview, media mogul Peter Chernin spoke about the challenge of algorithms and curation with regards to Netflix:

“I’d be curious how many people have ever watched something because Netflix recommended it algorithmically. I don’t think it happens that often… It’s mostly word of mouth or your friends have told you, but there’s gotta be a better way to give consumers information and curation to what they want to watch at any given time. And I think it’s a big chokepoint in the entire industry.”

This is a challenge that rap blogs helped solve. The mainstream trends have shifted us away from this, but it’s taken a different form today.

Wiz Khalifa’s Kush & OJ (2010) was another memorable project from the blog era.

The “new” curators

Ironically, we’re back to square one. Napster, BearShare, and Limewire got replaced by Spotify, Apple Music, and SoundCloud. We addressed the piracy, security issues, and the damn ‘AOL Music’ drops. But there’s still a curation opportunity.

Technically, the same blogs still exist. 2DopeBoyz is still active. Complex acquired several of the New Music Cartel blogs and have kept them going. But they are no longer needed for artist exposure in the age of SoundCloud and social media.

Curation has shifted too. Today’s rising voices are podcasters and YouTubers. Look at DJ Akademiks. He’s a polarizing figure, but he built an audience on YouTube and expanded it to the show Everyday Struggle. Similarly, his former co-host Joe Budden built a community with The Joe Budden Podcast (a Spotify exclusive). When Budden praises new music, it drives listeners to check it out. When Budden hates on “the Lils” for not respecting hip-hop, it drives listeners to check it out too.

Slowly but surely, Spotify wants to corner the market. It’s on an aggressive quest to become the home for audio. The company wants to control the distribution of music, the curation of playlists, and exclusivity with the personalities who influence what gets listened to. The strategy is smart. But even if it succeeds, it can’t capture the organic independence that existed before it.


It’s almost impossible to recreate the fondness that millennials have for the blog era. Everyone loves what was popular when they were coming-of-age. Nostalgia always sells. Blogs were popular enough to ensure that readers weren’t alone, but not so popular that they were mainstream. It was a perfect balance.

Today’s curators are everywhere. They’re on a wide range of media outlets. They have niche audiences and followers who listen. The dynamic has evolved. But the “YouTube era” or “podcast era” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

How Andre Harrell Turned His Company into a Lifestyle

The late music executive made Uptown Records a brand that extended beyond its music.

Andre Harrell at a part in 1995 (Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

The music industry lost one of its most influential figures. Andre Harrell was an architect. The Uptown Records founder had a bold vision and brought it to life. It’s a dream that most executives have, but few have attained.

Uptown was more than a label. It was a way of life. ‘Ghetto fabulous’ was its image, New York was its home, and entertainment was its game. Mary J. Blige, Heavy D, Guy, Jodeci, Sean Combs, and others sold that lifestyle to millions of fans. Harrell’s accomplishments and challenges broke barriers. He built an aspirational brand for both his customers and the execs who followed his moves.

Understanding the audience

In a 1992 Los Angeles Times interview, MCA chairman Al Teller spoke on why he enjoyed working with the late music executive:

“Ultimately, this business is about instinctive creative judgment, and Andre’s instincts about artists and music and what audiences want are absolutely superb. His track record of success has positioned Uptown to become the black entertainment company of the 1990s.”

Those insights were Andre’s advantage. He pursued segments within the black entertainment experience that others didn’t.

Uptown had an edge. It was hip-hop without the gangsta rap persona. It was soul, but not like past decades. The label had its own lane and a modern flavor. Its style mattered as much as its songs. As a rising exec, one of Puff Daddy’s main tasks was to dress Jodeci how he dressed himself. The image resonated with a market that Harrell understood well. It was based on his own experience.

In a 1993 Vanity Fair interview, Harrell explained that experience and how it differs from his former manager and founder of Def Jam, Russell Simmons:

“Our tastes are completely different. Russell’s a suburban kid who likes extremes on the inner-city tip. I’m an inner-city kid who knows the reality of being poor. I’m looking for escapism. Fun music. Good-time music. So, Uptown.”

We’re attracted to what we don’t have. That’s the escapism. Uptown was an outlet for black Gen Xers who wanted the same. Music was the primary channel for Uptown to deliver that experience, but the expansion was inevitable.

An early picture of The Uptown Crew

Paving the way through success and failure

In the early 90s, MCA and Uptown signed a $50 million multimedia deal to extend that lifestyle. Harrell was ready to make magic happen in film, TV, and more. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out as planned.

Andre felt that MCA restricted his power. MCA felt that Uptown was reckless with its production budget. While Andre focused on movies and TV shows, his artists grew frustrated and wanted out. To make matters worse, tension grew between him and his protégé Puff Daddy, who he fired in 1993. No one was happy.

The common narrative is that Uptown declined because Puff and Biggie left, but that’s not the main reason. First, if MCA wouldn’t let Andre create, there’s no chance in hell they would have given the 23-year-old Puff Daddy much freedom. Second, Puff was still on Uptown’s payroll when he left. Third, and most importantly, Uptown suffered because the MCA deal was a management and cultural clash. The stodgy major label wasn’t built to empower someone like Andre.

In 1995, Harrell got the opportunity of a lifetime to head up Motown Records. He always admired what Berry Gordy built. He now had the chance to sit in that same chair.

His tenure got off to a rocky start. To announce his arrival, he launched a nationwide introduction ad campaign that was heavily criticized. The issues continued to mount. Motown’s flagship act, Boyz II Men, reportedly wanted nothing to do with the “thuggish image” that Jodeci had. The label was still living off its back catalog, yet wanted Harrell to sign superstars as soon as possible. Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge called it a culture clash. It was more than that—it was déjà vu. After 22 months, he resigned.

Fortune Magazine captured Andre’s Motown run perfectly:

What happened between Harrell and Motown was the result of a marriage that probably never should have occurred: Entrepreneur meets rich corporation. Falls in love. Gets married. Feels stifled. Hates all the questions. Regrets loss of freedom. Soon, bingo: divorce…

 

“I was a big fish in a small pond, and I had the flamboyancy to match.” [said Harrell] “When you become a big fish in the biggest pond, you need to take a different profile, and I didn’t realize that until the backlash began. “

It’s a shame. Andre had told Russell Simmons that Motown could become the black version of Disney. Meanwhile, Disney had its own entrepreneurial exec who clashed with the mighty corporate machine. In 1995, CAA founder Michael Ovitz left his company to join Disney and work alongside then-CEO Michael Eisner. Ovitz never felt he was given autonomy. Eisner wanted Ovitz to fall in line, but the agency head wasn’t having it. After 18 months, Ovitz was fired.

Harrell and Ovitz faced similar struggles. It’s easy to say that Ovitz should have never joined Disney, but Harrell’s deals had more layers. The MCA and Motown opportunities were bigger than Andre. They signaled a changing of the guard for black moguls. He helped normalize the playing field for those who came after, despite the challenges. His influence carried weight.

A short clip of Andre Harrell in The Black Godfather documentary

The legacy lives on with today’s labels

After Motown, Harrell focused on the opportunities where he had more control. He started Harrell Records as an imprint under Atlantic Records and later launched the Nu America ad agency. Both initiatives embodied the same aspirational lifestyle.

Over time, more labels in hip-hop and R&B had their own lifestyles. Death Row, Bad Boy, Roc-a-Fella, Shady/Aftermath, and So So Def all had brands. The same is true today with Quality Control Music, Dreamville, and TDE.

Dreamville President Ibrahim Hamad recently spoke about this on the Trapital Podcast. One of his goals is to separate Dreamville’s brand from its flagship artist, J. Cole. It reminds me of this quote from Andre in his 1995 VIBE interview:

“That’s why young black executives don’t get to become the old chairmen—the wise men who’ve seen it and done it. They get to stay hot black executives so long as their instincts are hot. But this is a lifestyle business—only a few of us are going to be cool enough to have great instincts our whole careers.”

That instinct is knowing which artists are gonna pop. Every exec wants a label that can outlast its biggest star. Dreamville wants to stay strong when Cole’s run ends. Top Dawg at TDE likely wants the same once Kendrick Lamar’s run is over. A strong brand is the best defense. It will grow with customers and have a longer shelf life. That’s the tip that drove Andre Harrell’s career.


Three years ago, Andre finally became the old chairman—the wise man who had seen it and done it. He joined Diddy and became Vice Chairman of Revolt TV & Media.

2020 marked his fifth decade in the industry. He had at least one hit record in each of the past four. His time was cut short. With a bit more time, he surely would have gotten that fifth one. That lifestyle that he made a reality in the 80s and 90s is still relevant today.

Andre Harrell. 1960 – 2020. Rest in Peace.

Why Hip-Hop Philanthropy is Hard to Get Right

Many artists are eager to use their platform to give back, but effective philanthropy takes focus and alignment.

Chance the Rapper does a better job than most (via Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press/The New York Times)

Monday would have been the annual Met Gala. It would have also been the sixth straight year that Jason Derulo tumbled down the Met Gala stairs.

Who falls like that?! Why is he doing the most? Come on, get it together.

(Is that really Jason Derulo? No. This ain’t even the Met Gala. But it’s the meme that keeps on giving.)

This year’s fundraiser was canceled, but there are plenty of opportunities for hip-hop’s biggest donors to give back. Most stars have their own foundations focused on important causes. During this pandemic, many more have sent money to those in need.

But celebrity philanthropy is a mixed bag. Hip-hop artists have given to the communities they came from, but the results don’t always deliver. The most-effective interventions need focus, but few have done it well.

Artists face the same common pitfalls

In 2018, Kim Kardashian and Chicago artist Rhymefest argued on Twitter about Donda’s House. The nonprofit was founded in 2011 by Kanye West, Donnie Smith, and Rhymefest to encourage youth arts in Chicago. But it quickly ran into financial problems. Rhymefest claimed that Kanye lost interest. Shortly after the exchange, Donda’s House shut its doors.

Rhymefest’s heart was in the right place, but his skill is writing songs like “Jesus Walks” and “New Slaves.” He’s not a seasoned non-profit operator. Would Kanye fly out the CEO of Make-a-Wish to Hawaii to write songs for his next recording session? Absolutely not.

There’s a fair amount of he said, she said, and finger-pointing with Donda’s House. But the short-lived Kanye West Foundation had a similar fate. According to Statista, less than 1% of its expenses went to actual charities. That’s far below the recommended 65% to 75% for charities.

A study by law firm Stinson LLP shared three common missteps for celebrity philanthropy: failure to file annual taxes, poor management, and not spending enough on actual causes.

Wyclef Jean’s Yele foundation hit all three. It didn’t file tax returns for three straight years. Half of its funds went to travel, salaries, and consulting fees. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Yele received millions to help rebuild. Several projects were left unfinished and promises were unmet.

In a 2014 interview with The Daily Beast, Wyclef defended his lack of resources on the dire conditions:

Within every foundation, will there be mistakes and errors? Yes. If you’re in the middle of a crisis and there’s an earthquake and you’re trying to help 250,000 people, you’re just trying to get them water. That’s what I was thinking. It’s not my job to be filing paperwork. It would be impossible for me to be doing all that; I’m not that gifted.

Unfortunately, a crisis is the worst time for inexperienced organizations to ramp up. They lack the infrastructure to be most effective immediately. Wyclef’s Fyre Festival-level struggles were inevitable.

Celebrities have the platform to raise millions and network to make connections, but that doesn’t make them disaster relief experts. It’s the same reason why visionary founders who are great at fundraising still need technical founders to execute. Skillsets matter.

Scalable, solvable, and neglected

When an artist’s name is attached to an initiative, their image gets boosted. They also gain tax advantages. Those advantages would be greater if they cut checks for other charities, but they would lose the publicity. It’s a tradeoff. For celebrities, philanthropic giving has competing objectives.

Since artists will always want to start initiatives, there are ways to make them better. The 80,000 Hours research group developed a framework to help philanthropists prioritize problems in terms of expected impact.

Here’s a summary:

Scalable – what’s the magnitude of the problem? How does it affect people’s lives today? if we solved it, how much effect would it have?

Solvability – if we doubled the resources dedicated to solving this problem, what fraction of the problem would we expect to solve? How strong is the evidence behind existing interventions?

Neglect – how many resources are already going towards solving this problem? Is there a good reason why progress hasn’t been made?

Finally, if you’re trying to figure out what problem you should work on, you can add bonus points for problems that you are better suited to working on, which we explain in more depth later.

Most new efforts struggle with solvability and neglect. For instance, Akon Lighting Africa has tremendous scale. If successful, it will bring solar energy to over 1 billion people. But regulatory and financial hurdles have hindered its success. The solvability and neglectness aren’t there.

Sometimes, interventions are forced even if there’s no path to solvability. Los Angeles Unified School District famously proved that iPad programs are worthless without proper planning. But rappers still donate iPads to schools to empower the next generation. Sure, those devices will still get used by the students. But if the desired outcome is to improve opportunities, there may be more impactful ways to spend $15,000 than on 30 iPads.

Drake gave away $1 million total in the “God’s Plan” music video, but he earned a whooooole lot more in publicity.

A few artists do it well

A scalable, solvable, neglected initiative still takes talent to run. If the initiative can integrate with the artist’s existing work, it’s more likely to succeed.

In 2002, Harvard professor Michael Porter wrote that corporations are “best positioned to use charitable efforts to enhance competitive context and long-term business prospects.” That might seem self-serving, but it reinforces two things. First, the charitable effort will get the attention it deserves. Second, it will leverage existing skills. Remember, starting a new foundation is self-serving too! But it’s more likely to struggle.

A good example is the late Nipsey Hussle. Here’s what I wrote last year in How Nipsey Hussle’s Marathon Can Continue:

Last year, Nipsey launched Vector90, a co-working space in Crenshaw. It was designed as a pathway from the streets of South Central to opportunities in Silicon Valley. Nipsey recently bought the plaza where The Marathon Clothing sits. The purchase was an additional step toward economic empowerment. These moves were praised because they acknowledged the time and dedication needed for successful community building.

 

He distinguished his efforts from the “slacktivism” that’s begrudgingly common from high-net-worth individuals. Nipsey didn’t start a nonprofit or a foundation and ask a friend to run it for him. He didn’t throw money at the local school district to boost PR. Thankfully, his moves echoed a slow and steady progression. It’s a theme that’s consistent with Nipsey’s music career.

He employed the Crenshaw community. The co-working space gives students and residents discounts. In areas where Nipsey wasn’t an expert, he teamed up with business partners like Dave Gross. It was scalable within the South Central community and helped solve a pipeline issue that was neglected. It wasn’t perfect, but there’s a lot to learn from it.

Another good example is Queen Latifah. In 2018, she launched “The Queen Collective” in partnership with Procter & Gamble and Tribeca Film Studios. The initiative’s goal is to help more women of color behind the camera gain traction in Hollywood. Each year, two women will get chosen and the Collective will help make sure films are financed and distributed with mentoring from Latifah herself.

It leverages Latifah’s skills. She has spent her career creating and producing movies and TV shows. The scalability is career-changing for recipients. And it’s still neglected. The underrepresentation in Hollywood speaks for itself. Some may push back on its scalability, but Hollywood is a relationship-driven business. High-touch initiatives are the most scalable way to create the desired change.

Celebrity donors don’t all need to take on the biggest issues possible. It’s more important to be narrow if that means it’s more effective.


Hip-hop philanthropy may look very different in 2020. Funds might be tighter without live performance money. But those who can give will have plenty of options to do so. Let’s hope that the most effective ones get chosen.

Why Hip-Hop and Gaming are Still Scratching the Surface

Travis Scott’s Fortnite event showed what’s possible, but there are more opportunities out there.

Travis Scott in Fortnite (via @Fortnite)

Last week, Travis Scott brought 28 million of his closest friends together for a pivotal event. His Astronomical Fortnite performance hit all the big trends: A hip-hop superstar. The rise of gaming. The Metaverse. In-your-face product placement. And a quarantine-safe experience.

These opportunities are top of mind, especially in this pandemic. Artists might not tour again until late 2021. They need other options, and Instagram Live streams won’t cut it (especially if the app can’t handle Babyface and Teddy Riley).

Travis Scott and Fortnite showed what’s possible, but it’s for a defined audience. Luckily, the crossover potential for gaming and hip-hop is endless. But it needs more effort to realize the full opportunity.

Travis and Fortnite were a perfect match

Travis Scott succeeded in Fortnite for two reasons. The audience is aligned and his popularity is sky-high.

It’s been two years since Drake, Travis Scott, and Tyler “Ninja” Blevins made headlines with their Fortnite Battle Royale. Fortnite was at its peak popularity. Drake was already rap’s biggest act. Travis was popular, but this was pre- “Sicko Mode.” He was still on the come up. The Houston rapper had more to gain from teaming up with Epic Games, the creators of Fortnite.

The demographic seems identical. Fortnite players are 72% male and 63% are ages 18 – 24. I don’t have stats on the Ragers (Travis Scott fans), but those stats line up quite well with the people in the photos from Astroworld Festival:

The fan experiences for Travis Scott and Fortnite are quite similar. Both thrive on sensory overload. Most Travis Scott songs have a lot going on. There are multiple beat changes. Sometimes it sounds like the ad-libs have ad-libs. It feels like a journey to a parallel universe where TravisBott exists. As I wrote in February, he’s hip-hop’s growth hacker. Everything he does is next-level. Similarly, Fortnite is a lot for a first-timer. Astronomical brought it all together.

Travis Scott’s popularity made the alignment even stronger. He’s now one of the biggest rappers in the world. Hip-hop heads can debate if he’s disrupted the Big 3 of Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole. They each have a case to make. But if all four artists dropped albums on the same week (and used the same sales tactics), I doubt that Travis Scott finishes fourth.

As Drake proved with “Toosie Slide,” traction comes easier for those on top. It boosts projects that wouldn’t work for the average artist (like a contrived TikTok dance). But in Travis Scott’s case, it further elevates projects that would still have succeeded.

Untapped potential beyond Fortnite

Last year I was skeptical about the wave of hip-hop investments in esports. I am less skeptical today, but esports is just a subset of massive gaming industry.

Gaming is a $152 billion industry that’s expected to reach $196 million by 2022. There are 2.5 billion gamers across the world and 46% are women. The news headlines make it easy to group Fortnite and esports with these numbers, but that’s a mistake. Candy Crush players are different from those who play League of Legends, who are also different from those who play NBA 2K20.

But Fortnite and esports get most of the attention. Both cater to the younger male segment of gaming. If Travis Scott’s Astronomical, FaZe Clan, and 100 Thieves are the default for hip-hop and gaming, we’ll miss out on big opportunities.

New Zoo conducted a recent study on the personas of men and women game enthusiasts. The most popular persona for men was the Cloud Gamer. They enjoy “high-quality game experiences, but only spend hardware when necessary.” That’s essentially Fortnite. Meanwhile, the most popular persona for women is Time Fillers. They “play games, typically on mobile, to pass the time.” That sounds like Candy Crush.

These stats are believable, but following them precisely is problematic. Are women more likely to be Time Fillers because they prefer games that pass the time? Or is it because cloud-based gaming content caters more to men? A recent study shows that 62% of women esports fans don’t believe that esports brands market to them. This needs to be taken into account.

The same challenge exists in Hollywood. In the book Hit Makers, Derek Thompson wrote about the challenge in following audience data:

“…Hollywood storytellers are caught in a trap of their own design. Audiences expect and prefer vulnerable female characters, having been instructed by the history of film that likable women out to be feminine. The only way to break the cycle is to break expectations. Forward-thinking writers should just write kickass female leads and stop asking audiences for their permission.”

Similarly, gaming can look beyond gendered psychographics. There are dozens of hip-hop artists who can bring their worlds to life if the opportunities extend beyond Astronomical.

Expanding the pie for everyone

Some of the most well-known hip-hop artists have introduced listeners to characters, alter egos, and newly-imagined settings. Most Lauryn Hill fans have a vivid image of the classroom in The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. They know what the students look like and can picture themselves in the classroom. Other artists like Missy Elliott created the imagery for us with outrageous music videos. A Hype Williams-inspired Metaverse would be peak Hype Williams.

Pushing these boundaries would grow the pie for all parties involved. First, the artists make more money by partnering with gaming companies. The gaming companies then acquire and retain more monthly active users. The Travis Scott-Fortnite deal terms weren’t disclosed, but Epic Games definitely paid him well.

Second, it’s a great opportunity for brand exposure. In Fortnite, Travis Scott wore his signature Nike Air Jordan 1s. The placement was hard to ignore. But that’s a mere scratch on the surface of what’s possible.

Travis Scott is signed to Jordan Brand JUST IN CASE YOU FORGOT

Media analyst Matthew Ball wrote about this recently:

It’s likely that soon we’ll see D2C consumer product companies begin building their own bespoke experiences inside digital theme park platforms; the age of growth-hacking via referral codes, native podcast ads, SEO, and social is over. Imagine, for example, a Blade Runner-esque immersive world created by Harry’s. Similarly, we’re not far from albums premiering via “in-game” concerts attended by millions and which are set-up entirely by a label, rather than Roblox Corporation or Epic Games.

This should be top of mind for all companies that partner or have endorsement deals with hip-hop artists. Also, an artist’s brand is likely stronger than the company’s brand. Product placement with a top artist may be more impactful than a standalone sponsorship.

Cloud gaming experiences deserve more attention but that doesn’t mean that passive gaming experiences should be ignored. Candy Crush has nearly four times the monthly active users as Fortnite. Yes, there are institutionalized and gendered norms that influence this, but the massive audience is an opportunity.

Issa Rae’s Insecure: The Come Up is a mobile game that falls somewhere between the cloud gamer and time filler groups. There should be more products like this. But it shouldn’t be the only option for those who don’t fit as neatly in the cloud gaming box as Travis Scott.


Gaming won’t supplement all the lost income from touring. No standalone option will. Artists need a suite of acceptable options, and gaming has an opportunity to make it happen. But if these immersive experiences are only fit for the Travis Scotts and Lil’ Uzi Verts, then there’s more work to do.

How Issa Rae Became the Modern Mogul

The Insecure star used modern tactics to grow her audience and made timeless moves to build synergies across her businesses.

After an 18-month break, Insecure is back. Issa Rae needed that time off to live life. “Insecure takes nine months out of my life. I’m pulling from life experience, and if you’re not living, then what are you really making?” the 35-year-old recently told Teen Vogue.

Her break also included four movies, a newly-launched record label, a coffee shop in Inglewood, and more projects on the way. The multi-hyphenate shows no signs of slowing down.

Issa says she models herself after Oprah, Diddy, and Ellen. But those three came up in a different time. Some of their tactics aren’t relevant for Issa, who got her start on the internet. She developed her own playbook, but still learned from those who came before. Her journey is more relatable for the rising media mogul.

Building community

In 2007, Issa launched Dorm Diaries: a YouTube series on black life at Stanford University. To get the word out, she used Facebook to create groups and add new friends. The social network had just expanded to let anyone become a user. While many of us frantically hid our profiles from potential employers, Issa went all the way in.

Here’s her quote from a 2015 documentary short:

“It started with Facebook randomly, trying to add friends. When they opened it up to the world I was like “Oh my gosh I’m gonna add all the Senegalese people.” Cause there’s like three last names, all I have to do is type the last names. And that was like a community, an African community where we can share stuff amongst each other.

 

Three shows down the line when I launched Awkward Black Girl, I already had a fanbase from the other two shows. I really learned from my mistakes, learned what people wanted to see, then studied the analytics. By the time that show came out, there was an audience. It wasn’t huge or anything, but it was enough for them to share with their friends, and they would share with their friends.”

She kept that same energy as other platforms got hot. Her friends made fun of her for saying, “You need to get on Snapchat!” (as someone who STILL gets dragged for hyping up Google+ back in 2011, I can relate.) But that mentality made the difference.

Awkward Black Girl took off because of its strong base and word of mouth. Issa launched a Kickstarter for season 2. She nearly doubled her $30,000 goal. Those who donated got different levels of rewards and recognition for contributing.

Those grassroots, community-building tactics are needed when moving outside the mainstream. When Peleton first launched, many were put off by the stationary bike’s $2,000 price tag. But its moderated Facebook community built confidence with prospective buyers. Customers shared photos and stories, which boosted sales. The public group now has over 270,000 members.

Similarly, Issa’s Facebook groups brought together awkward black folks from all walks of life. Her content attracts those who can watch her show and say “YES! That’s def me.” Her audience is used to being the only ones in the room. Bringing these folks together enhances the experience. Issa’s official Facebook page now has over 250,000 fans.

Staying true

Season 2 of Awkward Black Girl was distributed by Pharrell Williams’ I Am OTHER. Major networks started to pay attention, but they tried to make it something it wasn’t.

Here’s Issa’s story in a 2015 New York Times interview:

To Rae’s disappointment, most wanted to completely rework [Awkward Black Girl]. Rae recalls a phone conversation with a network executive who wanted to make it into a pan-racial franchise operation, starting with ‘‘Awkward Indian Boy.’’ Another suggested Rae recast the lead with a lighter-skinned actress with long, straight hair — in essence, the exact opposite of Rae. She turned down the offers.

Sure, some compromise is given when dealing with major networks. But those changes would have ruined it. True Awkward Black Girl fans would have been lashed out at a lighter-skinned recast or pan-racial franchises (and rightfully so).

This journey is far too familiar. It’s like a startup raising capital. The earlier the young company hops on the VC treadmill, the more likely it is to prioritize the VC’s goals over theirs. It’s true in music too. When artists sign early deals with record labels, they give up more control.

Issa built up her leverage. When HBO came around in 2013, it took some time but they got it right. Now, anyone who’s seen both Awkward Black Girl and Insecure can see the differences. The premium cable show has more sex appeal than Awkward Black Girl ever had. It’s HBO, what did we expect? But despite the glamour and glitz, the show maintains its awkward-as-hell identity.

Finding synergies

Issa doesn’t own Insecure, HBO does. But she uses its intellectual property for a growing number of ventures. There are four key areas.

First, she uses Patreon to hosts behind the scenes interviews with Insecure cast members. She also grants exclusive access to events and offers other perks. That Patreon revenue is used to support other diverse and talented creators.

This challenges a misconception on Patreon. It’s often viewed as a donation platform for budding creators. But why should creators leave Patreon after they break out? Sure, Issa no longer needs that revenue to live life. But it’s more valuable to shift it to initiatives or philanthropic efforts that fans value. Otherwise, it’s harder to convene these passionate customers.

In my Tyler Perry article, I wrote about why he still performs his Madea plays on stage. He no longer needs that money, but the live audience is a testing ground for content that may make one of his movies. It’s also a way to serve those who supported him before he broke out.

Second, she teamed up with Atlantic Records to launch her Raedio record label. The artists she signs will likely get their music played in Insecure and Issa’s other digital properties. Raedio recently acquired a music supervision company to oversee the use of music in both film and TV. Raedio also partnered with Kobalt to collect publishing revenue and manage its library. Kobalt exec Jeannette Perez said it’s the first time they’ve worked with someone who bridges all her companies together.

Third, she has an upcoming show on HBO Max called Rap Sh*t. It follows a fictional South-Florida-based female rap group trying to break out. All these initiatives start to converge. Here’s what I wrote in November in a Trapital Member Update:

If we connect the logical dots here, the rap group in Rap Sh*t will get signed to Raedio at some point in the show. The songs they release during the show will be featured as standalone singles available to stream everywhere. It reminds me of Gimlet Media’s StartUp—the company’s first podcast, which focused on the process of starting Gimlet Media. Very meta, but effective when done right.

Fourth, she’s launching a new mobile game, Insecure: The Come Up. Fans of the TV show can bring the game to life as Insecure animated figures. They’ll be able to unlock parts of Los Angeles, improve their community, and get involved in all the uncomfortable situations they desire.

It’s quickly become an entertainment universe! Each business reinforces another. Here’s what her synergy map looks like:

If this looks familiar, it should. It’s similar to Walt Disney’s synergy map from the 1950s. It’s been the blueprint of Disney’s strategy for decades.

Back then, this strategy was limited to those with deep pockets, tremendous clout, and unlimited access. But today, it’s easier to execute on a smaller scale.


Issa’s goal from the jump has been to put on for other diverse creators. One of her favorite bars is Jay Z’s verse in Drake’s song “Pound Cake“:

Here’s her quote from a Forbes interview:

“That pound cake verse that Jay Z has where he talks about how his associates have made billions because he’s paved the way for them is “goals” for me. It’s not even from a monetary perspective; it’s really about ownership.”

Those associates are the folks on her direct team. They’re also the diverse talent who will benefit from her programs. They’re the record label signees. The list will continue to grow.

This group might be less interested in getting rich themselves though. If it happens, great. They’ll take it. But I bet they’re more interested in putting on for others, just like Issa has.

Why Instagram is Hip-Hop’s Quarantine Destination

D-Nice, Swizz Beatz, and Tory Lanez’ livestreams have thrived on Instagram Live’s massive reach and high engagement.

Tory Lanez, front and center (via @torylanez)

DJ D-Nice’s Instagram Live sets have inspired a wave of entertaining content. At this moment, Tory Lanez is likely prepping for the next Quarantine Radio. The 27-year-old artist broke viewership records with his twerk-streams and wild commentary. Meanwhile, mega-producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland have pushed an idea they’ve sat on for years. Their Verzuz DJ battle series have hip-hop fans begging for dream matchups with their favorite beatmakers. These livestream sessions have been silver linings in an otherwise scary time.

If this relationship between artist and social media platform feels familiar, it should. Hip-hop artists often become social media sensations. We’ve seen DJ Khaled on Snapchat, Lil’ Nas X on TikTok, and plenty of others. Their popularity drives growth on the platform, which influences how those networks evolve. It’s a chicken-and-egg dynamic.

But that growth comes with tradeoffs for both artists and platforms. “Saying no” is just as important as “saying yes.”

Strong distribution beats strong product

Instagram’s goal is simple. The ten-year-old app wants to maximize this opportunity. In the unwritten rules of social media, networks get one moment like this if they’re lucky. Live’s features are designed to drive more engagement between creators and fans. Engagement can be monetization, improved experience, commerce-related partnerships, and more. Some of this work is already in effect.

IG Live wasn’t built with Quarantine Radio in mind (clearly). There are stronger products that can serve these artists. But those services can’t match Instagram’s massive reach.

Here’s what I wrote in a recent Trapital Member Update:

Live’s strength is its massive audience of 500 million daily active users….[Twitch] is much better built for this moment though, especially with its SoundCloud integration. The challenge, still, is its niche positioning. Twitch has 15 million DAUs and its gaming-focused brand are still an uphill battle for creators to climb. Twitch may have a superior product, but it’s more important to have the “good enough” product and strong distribution. Live is better positioned than anyone to get there.

The same is true in other mediums. Spotify does not have the best audio quality. Netflix does not have the best content. But those streaming services are on top because of scale. Instagram Live’s journey to hip-hop stardom is far more coincidental, but the infrastructure was in place to attract the audience. And that audience is now more engaged than ever.

For better or worse, Instagram will have time to reap these rewards. Social distancing measures will be in effect for the foreseeable future. If there are no concerts in New York or Los Angeles until 2021, then there’s plenty of time for Tory Lanez and his hype man to perfect their ad-libs.

IG is now in the driver’s seat, but its journey will have its challenges.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B-xhMmZJKhM/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

If you’ve never seen Quarantine Radio, this clip should give you an idea.

Avoid past mistakes

For most artists, Instagram is for marketing and influencing. But distribution may be on the way. Some of this already happens. On Verzuz, several DJs have teased unreleased tracks. Eventually, Instagram will have to revisit its music licensing agreements. IG wants to best support creators. It will need to ensure that those creators and their partners earn their fair share.

Water & Music’s Cherie Hu captured those challenges in a recent article:

“The fact that most people who are scrambling to livestream are probably not clearing their performances beforehand potentially leaves a lot of money on the table for music rights holders — including the artists themselves, not just labels, publishers or performing rights organizations (PROs). Moreover, none of the open livestreaming platforms that are popular today (Instagram, Twitch, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) have the proper legal infrastructure to close that financial gap yet.”

Artists, labels, and producers may take an L because Instagram doesn’t have these licenses in place. It may take time to clear.

There’s a delicate balance. The platform still needs to serve its regular consumers and other businesses outside of music. There’s danger in doubling-down too hard. Past networks have leaned too heavily on opportunities in music and rode them into the ground.

In the late 2000s, Myspace became a strong distribution channel for musicians. 50 Cent and Soulja Boy gained traction on the yesteryear platform. Myspace had a record label and had dreams of becoming a strong digital streaming provider.

In 2008, there was a rumored $300 million 360 deal on the table between 50 Cent and Myspace. It was twice the size of Jay Z’s 2008 Live Nation deal. Remember, this was a year after Curtis got outsold by Kanye West’s Graduation in its head-to-head matchup. We had a tell-tale sign that 50’s music prime was done. But Myspace had its oversized check ready. It was like New York Knicks owner James Dolan preparing to sign an aging NBA superstar to a nine-figure contract. But this time, the deal never went through.

Instagram’s scale and breadth are much broader than Myspace was. It’s unlikely to make that same mistake. But we’re a few months away from reckless news headlines asking, “Should Instagram become a record label?” The answer is no. A narrow scope is important, even for a platform with 1 billion monthly active users.

Become part of the ecosystem (not THE ecosystem)

The landscape is too fragmented for Instagram to succeed on all potential fronts. It would be a mistake to try and do so. Enhancements should focus on strengths, not weaknesses.

Instagram Live’s strengths are scale, low friction, and high engagement. According to Vishal Shah, IG’s VP of Product, the company is considering several more options to improve the experience. Gift cards and virtual gifts are obvious routes. But artists would love to sell merchandise through livestreams. More specifically, bundled merchandise to drive album sales. To be clear, digital music does not need to be sold on Instagram. The IG purchase can include a redeemable code to download the album on the artist’s website or a digital streaming provider.

Can you imagine if Travis Scott sold Astroworld bundles through IG Live? Between him and Kylie Jenner, they might have broken a few Billboard records.

Instagram’s weaker areas are its performance and range of functions. Swizz Beatz Verzuz series is fine in its current form. The Ruff Ryders producer has not monetized it and doesn’t plan to anytime soon. But when he does, there are other platforms built to make it possible. Caffeine is already a livestream hub with experience in emcee battles. A partnership with Swizz could go a long way. The same is true with Twitch and other livestreaming services. Verzuz would lose out on Instagram’s scale, but the audience for a RZA vs DJ Premier battle is a more devoted group of fans than someone popping into Quarantine Radio or D-Nice’s set. That devoted audience is more likely to switch platforms for an improved experience. These fans are also more likely to support direct monetization.

The artists winning on Instagram Live are still subject to its social media algorithms. The direct audience connection is limited. Sure, artists can plug their email newsletters or Community numbers to build 1-1 connections. But it’s not in Instagram’s best interest to support this since those relationships can happen outside the platform. It’s another reason why artists should use Instagram as a tool, but not the tool.

IG is still a great testing ground for minimum viable products. Strong content can use Instagram as a launchpad for bigger deals or stay on Instagram and maintain its strength. That’s what makes YouTube successful. It’s built for Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl YouTube series to led to HBO’s Insecure. It also built for Complex’s Hot Ones to stay on YouTube and be successful. Quarantine Radio is built for IG, but Verzuz may have greener pastures. That optionality will serve IG Live well.


It’s exciting to think about the artists studying Quarantine Radio and Verzuz. They are preparing to launch their own version. But even as they test it out, their decisions will matter. As Instagram Live explores its options and determines the best past forward, artists should do the same.

Beyoncé’s Streaming Strategy, Revisited

A few things have changed since Trapital first made the Beyoncé sales funnel and assessed her streaming strategy, but a lot has stayed the same.

Beyoncé at Coachella 2018 (Kevin Mazur / Getty Images)

It’s almost been a year since Netflix’s Homecoming, which means it’s been a year since I wrote on of Trapital’s most popular articles, Beyoncé’s Streaming Strategy, Explained.

Here’s are the key points:

A lot of people were surprised that Beyoncé’s Homecoming documentary went to Netflix… Despite her ownership stake in Tidal, the “Formation” singer chose Netflix because it falls in line with her broader strategy.

 

Let’s assume Netflix paid $30 million total to produce and market Homecoming. According to the Financial Times, Netflix’s customer lifetime value is just under $200. A 3:1 ratio of ‘lifetime value’ to ‘customer acquisition cost’ is a common target in tech. If Netflix wants Homecoming to meet that, the documentary needs to bring in (or maintain) 450,000 subscribers to justify the $30 million it spent.

 

Netflix’s 140 million subscribers (and the millions more y’all who log in with your friend’s cousin’s account) are another reason why Beyoncé chose Netflix. It’s a great way to reach casual fans.

 

If the documentary resonates with this casual audience, they will move further through Beyoncé’s sales funnel. They will be more willing to attend her next concert, buy Ivy Park merchandise, and subscribe to Tidal. Beyoncé would have lost out on the opportunity to convert casual fans if Homecoming was exclusively on Tidal—which serves an audience that’s already bought in.

 

 

Everything Is Love and Homecoming: The Live Album are on Spotify for the same reason Homecoming is on Netflix. It’s a gateway to the casual audience…

 

Tidal may not have started as a segmentation tool for Beyoncé, but it ultimately became one. At the moment, current subscribers might be annoyed that Homecoming and its live album weren’t exclusive theirs. But they shouldn’t worry. The album they really want should be on its way.

A lot of that still holds up, but a lot has changed!

Not all customers are valued the same

For starters, we now have some stats. Beyoncé and Netflix agreed to a reported $60 million, three-project deal. That prices Homecoming at $20 million. Let’s assume Netflix spent $5 million on marketing. That $25 million spend is a bargain for a show that drew in 1.1 million viewers on its first day. That puts the documentary in a special group of Netflix mega-hits like Bird Box, Bright, Tiger King, and The Irishman (but on a much cheaper budget).

Homecoming also set a record for black audience viewership. On its premiere day, 63% of its viewers were black. It helped boost Netflix’s Strong Black Lead initiative that was relatively new at the time. And given the strong influence this audience has on culture (which drives viewership), it’s a more valuable customer than the average Netflix subscriber.

A standard customer acquisition cost / lifetime value ratio would undersell Homecoming. Not all customers are equally valuable. Netflix could have likely paid Beyoncé $40 million for Homecoming and still made money. It also reinforces the Coachella documentary’s position as a top-of-funnel draw for the 38-year-old singer. It would have been much harder to reach 1.1 million day-one viewers on any other streaming service.

A transition away from streaming exclusives

The further we go down the Houston native’s sales funnel, things start to change. A few days after I published last year’s article, Lemonade was made available on Spotify and all other streaming platforms!

I called that one wrong, and I should have seen it coming for two reasons. First, Beyoncé (2013) was made available everywhere after a few years. Lemonade was bound to follow the same path.

Second, streaming exclusives have largely faded away. Since Frank Ocean pulled that infamous okey-doke on Def Jam, major labels have turned away from the practice. Most major artists stopped releasing exclusives, but the few that remained on one service were legacy albums. When Jay Z recently put Reasonable Doubt on all platforms, it was one of the final nails in the coffin.

But the short-lived strategy was still critical for initial audience growth on the digital streaming providers. Tidal’s exclusives helped acquire its ideal customer. The company has doubled-down on that customer profile with its hip-hop-focused content strategy. The same is true with Apple Music.

Here’s what I wrote in a December member update:

Tidal had albums from Jay Z, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Rihanna, Radiohead, and more. Its users had early access to Formation World Tour concert tickets and other perks. It was a great way to build an initial userbase, similar to Apple Music’s exclusives in 2015 and 2016. Without it, there’s no way in hell Apple Music would have surpassed Spotify in U.S. paid subscribers.

Timing segments the fanbase

Lemonade’s shift up to the Casual Beyhive tier highlights the role of timing in sales funnels. In April 2016, Lemonade required a Tidal (or HBO) subscription. But eventually, the diehards fans had memorized the lyrics and ran through all theories on who “Becky with the good hair” actually is. The pop culture sensation passed. It was time to extend the content to the next tier of fans. Otherwise, the “Formation” singer would leave money on the table.

Beyoncé’s new product at the bottom of the funnel is her Ivy Park-Adidas collection. In January, the brand relaunched with tremendous fanfare. The athleisure apparel sold out instantly. The non-celebrities who got their hands on the items must have a) marked the time of release on their calendar and won the internet click race, b) bought from a premium reseller on StockX or another marketplace, or c) bought the Popeye’s look-alike collection and tried to stunt on the ‘gram like it was Ivy Park. Either way, that takes dedication! It’s an even stronger level of fandom than subscribing to Tidal.

Ivy Park will stay at the bottom of the sales funnel for a while. Adidas will likely follow the limited drop rollout that it mastered with Yeezys. Kanye West’s sneakers started in limited supply and slowly ramped up over the years. Beyoncé wants to play the same long game. She called her Adidas deal “the partnership of a lifetime.” Parkwood Entertainment COO Steve Pamon thinks “it will be the biggest athletic partnership of all time.

Here’s a look at the updated funnel:

Hip-hop’s Veblen good

Beyoncé’s fans are patiently waiting for when (and how) her next album will be released. I doubt it will be exclusive on Tidal. It will most likely be available everywhere. I also assume that Netflix will provide a visual album or behind-the-scenes documentary since there are two more projects in their deal. But even though this next album may be widely available, there are plenty of ways to still serve diehard fans.

The Beyhive membership is a true Veblen good: the demand for her products increases as the price (and scarcity) increases. Her fans have no problem shelling out $250 on StubHub for nosebleed seats for her concerts. They stayed up in the wee hours of the morning to watch the Beychella livestream. They have been willing to pay up to $2,000 for VIP concert tickets. Some fans scoffed at the VIP ticket prices, but the price reflects the willingness to pay. Based on the current climate in the world, Beyoncé could be out here selling VIP access to private Zoom calls if she wanted.

The strategy has some flaws though. Beyoncé’s brand, unlike other Veblen goods, doesn’t relish in its high-priced exclusivity. She wants to leave a legacy and be an inspiration, especially for those less fortunate. It’s harder to do that if her core audience is rich people. Luckily, her newsletter and social media following provide connections to those proud Beyhive supporters who would support more if they could do so.


That next album may not come for a while. 2019 was a busy year for Beyoncé. She starred in The Lion King, curated a movie soundtrack, partnered with Adidas, and released Lemonade to the masses. Any 2020 plans she had have been likely impacted by the pandemic. But when the moment comes, fans will be ready—regardless of the distribution method.

And if a Beyhive Zoom call becomes part of that package, you can bet the Beyhive will be calling their internet service provider to up their bandwidth.

Why Adidas’ Hip-Hop Partnerships are (Finally) Paying Off

Adidas has tried to regain its relevancy in hip-hop for years, but has now finally made considerable strides.

Beyoncé’s Ivy Park-Adidas collection

Adidas and Beyoncé are coming up on their one-year anniversary. Last April, the “Formation” singer agreed to become an Adidas creative partner, develop signature apparel, and relaunch her Ivy Park clothing line. She called it “the partnership of a lifetime.” Mrs. Carter had just reclaimed full ownership of Ivy Park in 2018 and wasn’t gonna join forces with just anyone. The Beyoncé-Adidas expectations were sky-high.

A few days before Ivy Park’s January 18 relaunch, Beyoncé sent 20 celebrity friends massive gifts which they unboxed and shared with their millions of social media followers. See, your favorite influencer uses influencer marketing too! When the brand relaunched, it sold out on adidas.com in minutes. The success led to an even bigger social media event. Even Popeye’s, a social media champion in its own right, joined in on the fun with its own Ivy Park-inspired clothing line.

We knew that Beyoncé was the master of rollouts, but Adidas has been on its game too. From the UltraBOOST to Kanye West’s Yeezys to athlete partnerships to Ivy Park, the brand is now synonymous with the culture.

But it took time to get here. The German apparel titan was after hip-hop for a long, long time. Despite its historical roots, dating back to Run DMC, nostalgia has its limits. Companies still need focus to become culturally relevant and reap the rewards that come with it.

Great concepts still need execution

In 2006, Adidas acquired Reebok. On paper, it made perfect sense. The Three Stripes had a strong global footprint but lacked North American presence. Adidas had a deal in place with Missy Elliott, whose music videos were great promo for the retro 1980s Adidas hip-hop look. But she was all Adidas had.

Reebok was an ideal complement. The ‘Rbk’ lifestyle brand had teamed up with A-List rappers 50 Cent, Nelly, and Jay Z, and NBA MVPs Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal. Even Reebok’s athletes had hip-hop albums under their belt. Reebok knew its customers and knew them well.

The acquisition still raised concerns though. Steve Stoute, who partnered with Reebok to launch Rbk and brokered the deals with Jay Z and 50 Cent, expressed caution after the deal.

From The New York Times:

“Treat the Adidas and Reebok brands separately… There’s a potential problem if consumers see the lines as being blurred, so you have to treat them as standalones.”

There’s a paradox when companies make acquisitions for cultural gains. Integration challenges are inevitable and can easily diminish that desired culture, both internally and externally. Adidas’ rigid systems were bound to clash with Reebok’s agency-inspired approach, which impacts the brand’s perception.

A memorable Rbk commercial from that era.

Under the Adidas umbrella, Reebok lost that ‘Rbk’ edge. The athletes and rappers it signed had moved on or were past their primes. It missed out on the next generation of hip-hop artists. In the process, Reebok’s sneaker market share fell from 8% in 2006 to 2% in 2015.

“From the moment we started looking at the numbers, we knew it was a screwed-up business and that we’d paid too much,” a former Adidas exec told the Wall Street Journal.

This statement highlights a critical disconnect. Yes, Adidas paid a lot for Reebok—a 34% premium. And Reebok’s hip-hop era wasn’t perfect. It oversaturated the market with S. Dots and G-Unit sneakers, which ended up on the racks at Marshall’s. The cool factor disappeared. But that doesn’t mean that these deals don’t work. There were plenty of lessons learned.

But at the time, Adidas was likely jaded on endorsements altogether. It had a stretch of bad luck. In that era, its signature roster included Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Gilbert Arenas, Derrick Rose, Reggie Bush, and Robert Griffin III. Each of them had career-threatening injuries during their prime. The “Adidas curse” was a thing. I used to joke with my older brother, who loved McGrady’s sneakers, that I wasn’t trying to go out like T-Mac. I bought the LeBron James Nikes instead.

It’s understandable why Adidas’ experience with injury-prone stars and Reebok’s past-their-prime rappers may have led to skepticism, but it still wasn’t wise. For better or worse, luck plays a tremendous role.

A Much Needed UltraBOOST

Adidas’ fate didn’t change until it introduced BOOST in 2013. The new technology was a landmark achievement for Adidas in both running and athleisure. That same year, Adidas’ signed Kanye West to a deal. The Chicago artist was unhappy with Nike, his former partner. Before Kanye’s released his Yeezys, he rocked the UltraBOOSTs in public. The UltraBOOST-Yeezy tandem was the spark Adidas needed.

From HypeBeast:

The adidas UltraBOOST set an entirely new benchmark for how a performance sneaker should feel and perform, but it was world-class tastemakers like Kanye West who brought the perfectly-simple yet complex design into the world of style. It became the most talked about shoe of 2015, even in a year when Kanye released his BOOST-equipped YEEZY 350. Thanks to this tandem of shoes, the Three Stripes gained market share, increased revenue, sold more product and most importantly, found itself back on the heels of Nike. If it wasn’t for the UltraBOOST serving as a proper intro to the YEEZY BOOST, there’s no telling where Adidas would be today.

Adidas’ market share in U.S. athletic footwear jumped from 6% in 2016 to 12% in 2017.

This deal was the perfect balance of execution and luck—two things that Adidas lacked in the 2000s. BOOST was the well-executed product that changed the game. It got an exposure bump from Kanye luckily ending his relationship with Nike, where his Yeezy line had already gained a cult following. Adidas got one of hip-hop’s most popular entertainers to wear the UltraBOOST, leverage his own brand, and become one of Adidas’ strongest ambassadors. Ye praised Adidas and chastised Nike any chance he could. In the competty-tive social media era, Adidas couldn’t ask for much more.

Kanye performing in the Adidas UltraBOOSTs at the 2015 Billboard Music Awards (via Talia Azadian)

Master the economics of hype

In 2015, Kanye sold just 9,000 pair of Yeezys in his first drop. He knew that scarcity was important, but he assured fans that the product would soon be available for all.

Here’s Kanye in a 2015 interview On Air With Ryan Seacrest:

“Eventually, everybody who wants to get Yeezys will get Yeezys; Adidas has promised me that, because there’s so many kids that have wanted them that couldn’t get them. I talked to the heads at Adidas, and they said we can make them.”

It was an ambitious claim, but it rose internal alarms. Would Yeezys repeat the same mistake and flood the market? Can an artist-led sneaker become a mass-market product and maintain its cool factor? Three years later, Kanye kept his word. In 2018, the Yeezy 350 Triple Whites released a rumored one million pairs. Most anyone who wanted them got them.

Adidas successfully executed the tricky economics of hype. Scarcity drives hype, but the limited supply can make it hard to generate revenue from volume. Companies love building hype, but they also love cashing in on that hype. In 2018, Yeezy became the ninth-highest selling sneaker in the U.S.

Adidas’ current CEO Kasper Rørsted sees the success, but still won’t go all in and mass-produce the shoes.

From Forbes:

“We are continuing to manage volumes in a very disciplined manner so that for 2019 Yeezy sales will not make up a significant share of Adidas’ overall expected sales growth. Not because brand heat is decreasing, but because we have a disciplined approach to managing volumes and product life cycles.”

This mentality likely gave Beyoncé the confidence that Adidas can do the same with Ivy Park. Even if “everyone” can get their hands on Ivy Park by 2023, Adidas can manage inventory and demand appropriately. Hip-hop has also become much more global, so Adidas has the infrastructure to ensure that the product can reach every corner of the Beyhive.

But despite Adidas’ growth and potential, Reebok is still in an awkward position. The brand is a hybrid of its downmarket fitness positioning and hip-hop. It has partnerships in place with Cardi B, Lil’ Baby, Future, Lil’ Yachty, and Rae Sremmurd. These artists can help revitalize Reebok’s nostalgia, similar to what FILA and Champion have done in recent years.


In an ironic way, Adidas and Reebok have switched roles. Adidas focuses on the biggest stars, while Reebok taps into its old school hip-hop vibes.

The so-called “Adidas curse” is also gone. Its flagship athletes are James Harden who has been a top-NBA player for several years, Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes who just won the Super Bowl, and fellow Super Bowl MVP of the Denver Broncos Von Miller.

Adidas’ cultural assets are operating on all cylinders. It might not last forever, but 2020 is off to a hot start.

 

P.S. – Donald Glover recently parted ways with Adidas after one year. No details were shared, but if anyone knows more, let me know!

How The Weeknd Mastered his Brand

The Toronto artist maintained his mystery and still became a superstar.

The Weeknd’s career has played out like an Emmy award-winning drama with plot twists each season. Every few years, fans think they finally got their boy Abel Tesfaye figured out. But that’s the exact moment when he takes them for a turn. He was an “unknown underground indie group” until he unveiled his true identity. He was “Drake’s protege,” then turned down OVO Sound. He was “the guy with the wild, Basquiat-looking dreadlocks,” then he cut them.

Here’s a quote from his 2015 Rolling Stone interview:

“We live in an era when everything is so excessive, I think it’s refreshing for everybody to be like, ‘Who the f**k is this guy?’ I think that’s why my career is going to be so long: Because I haven’t given people everything.”

Five years later, this is still true. The 30-year-old limits his accessibility but still maximizes his reach. His peers tend to follow the same playbook, but the Starboy has stayed true to his path. Fans may never get closure on his identity, and that’s exactly how he wants it.

Brands without brands still need branding

The Weeknd’s come up has become a classic story in mystery marketing.

From The New York Times:

[La Mar Taylor, The Weeknd’s best friend] uploaded Tesfaye’s first three songs — ‘‘The Morning,’’ ‘‘What You Need’’ and ‘‘Loft Music’’ — to YouTube in the fall of 2010, posting the links to their friends’ Facebook walls and hoping for the best. The clips were audio only, accompanied by black-and-white photographs of not-quite-dressed women. Tesfaye’s likeness was nowhere to be found; you had to dig to find his name. He had wanted to call himself the Weekend, but there was already a rock band in Ontario called that, so he dropped a letter. His anonymity was so complete, he says, that his co-workers at American Apparel would listen to his music while he was working without realizing it was his.”

“I didn’t want to put a face to it,” he told Forbes. “I wanted to create a fan base that loved me for my art.”

People often say that his early mixtapes lacked a brand, but this isn’t true. The music and artwork was the brand. Those songs had dark, genre-bending themes full of lust, drugs, and despair. That brand gained traction. His unknown identity drove the intrigue further. To call his mixtapes “brandless” makes them sound like NOW That’s What I Call Music! Vol. 35.

It takes focus to do this well. Companies have tried similar strategies and failed. Brandless—ironically named— was an ecommerce company that sold household essentials for low prices and minimal branding. It raised a whopping $240 million from SoftBank on the notion that consumers prioritized value over marketing. But last month, the venture-backed startup shut its doors. As The Drum put it, Brandless failed because it was “a brand that pretended not to be a brand…After all, it is impossible to distinguish yourself if your goal is to be indistinguishable.”

The Weeknd and his team understood this critical nuance. “Not having a brand” still requires the curation and focus of having a brand. It actually requires more work since its a nonstandard approach with less how-to guides and fewer advisors who can share quick tips. It’s an ambitious goal that can’t be met with money alone. Not even $240 million.

The cover for The Weeknd’s first mixtape, House of Balloons. See that American Apparel-inspired font!

The value prop needs to strong

In late 2010, The Weeknd’s music got featured on the OVO Sound blog. It boosted his exposure and sparked a friendship with fellow Toronto artist Drake. Once they collaborated on each other’s projects, it seemed inevitable that The Weeknd would join Team OVO.

But Abel told Drake, “I don’t want to sign under another artist because I feel I can be just as big or bigger.” The Weeknd’s manager Sal Slaiby said that they didn’t want a label that got involved with the creative process. In 2012, The Weeknd launched XO Records as a joint venture with Republic Records, where the “Hotline Bling” artist was also signed.

When an artist signs under another artist, it’s like a startup getting acquired. Even though the Instagram founders succeeded under Facebook, they would never have outshined Facebook’s leadership. Similarly, it’s unlikely that anyone on TDE will surpass Kendrick Lamar. Same with J. Cole on Dreamville. Same with Drake on OVO.

To be fair, those three rappers, unlike Mark Zuckerberg, would love to pass the torch in-house. But it’s unlikely to happen in today’s hip-hop landscape. There’s some irony since both Drake and Nicki Minaj came up under Lil’ Wayne’s Young Money militia. But a lot’s changed since then, and OVO Sound is not Young Money.

The Weeknd made the right call for two more reasons. First, OVO’s main value prop is the Drake “stimulus package”—the proverbial career bump that artists get from collaborating with the Toronto rapper. But The Weeknd had already got those benefits. He got the co-sign from that 2010 blog post, placement on Take Care, and features on his own projects. What else was there to gain? If he wanted to level up, it was time to move on.

Second, and most importantly, The Weeknd’s brand is not aligned with OVO. Drake has never been a mystery. To anyone. His only career surprise was that he was **in my Pusha T voice** hiding a child. The 6 God’s brand thrives on overexposure and omnipresence. Those core competencies don’t help The Weeknd. Team OVO may have tried to turn him into something he wasn’t.

This behind the scenes on The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” music video is the closest thing fans may get to a true documentary.

The necessary tradeoffs for a mystery superstar

Turning down OVO raised his ceiling, but it lowered the floor too. His first misstep came in 2013 when Kiss Land, his debut studio album, didn’t sell as well as he hoped. Abel went back to the drawing board.

From The New York Times:

“Stymied, [The Weeknd] turned to Wendy Goldstein, the head of urban A&R at Republic, for advice. ‘‘The underperforming of that record in his own expectations of what it was supposed to do shook him to his core,’’ she says. ‘‘I said, ‘You wanna be the biggest in the world?’ He said, ‘I absolutely wanna be the biggest in the world.’ ’’ She and the newly malleable Tesfaye got to work. First, she arranged for him to record the duet he would perform with Ariana Grande at the A.M.A.s, ‘‘Love Me Harder.’’… ‘If I’m gonna be the biggest in the world,’’ he told her, ‘‘I need a handful of songs like that.’’

It’s the inevitable point that every star hits to get to the next level. The product has to evolve to attract new fans. Some of his day-ones will inevitably leave when that happens, but when it’s done right, the loss is minimal and the growth is strong.

Tyler Perry balanced this well. His Madea movies had taken off, but he still stayed true to his roots with the theater circuit and kept his email list active. So did J. Cole and Future. After going too commercial with earlier albums, both artists returned to their mixtape roots and have kept that same energy since.

Perry and Future’s prolific output wouldn’t work for The Weeknd though. That much exposure may ruin the mystique. The Weeknd’s path to superstardom had to be more selective and aware of the tradeoffs.

“Love Me Harder” led to “Earned It” on the 50 Shades of Grey soundtrack, which led to his blockbuster hits, “The Hills” and “Can’t Feel My Face.” These songs, and the 2015 album Beauty Behind the Madness, became the dividing line between his early fans and the masses. He lost some fans from the Trilogy mixtape days, but he gained a whole lot more in the process.

His interview and promo runs have expanded too. He now sits down with more major outlets to promote his albums. But he won’t sit down with anyone. He has never been on The Breakfast Club. Several years ago he met Charlamagne Tha God, who told him that he should called himself “Tuesday” first and work up to being called “The Weeknd.” No wonder he rarely does video interviews!

Luckily, he found the balance that made the most sense.


The Weeknd’s latest album, After Hours, is like a visual concept album that’s consistent with most of his work. Each music video and live performance has introduces us to the same character who just survived a wild night out. It feels connected to Abel’s recent role in the Uncut Gems movie. The consistency is a reminder of this quote from his 2015 Fast Company interview:

“I feel like everything we do comes down to how it looks. Even no branding is branding. For example, you had no face or image to put to my music at first. That was branding. I spend just as much time on how people hear my music as I do the actual music, no matter how long it takes. I’m such a visual artist as well that it always goes hand-in-hand.”

That commitment has been there from the jump and will continue to be. As his career continues, we may never fully know what Abel Tesfaye is all about. Just like he planned it.