Play To Your Strengths

Posted on October 24, 2011 by


I’m just back from the Halifax Pop Explosion where I got to lead 5 hours of round table discussions (huge shout out to the folks who sat through me yacking at them for five hours less 15 minutes for lunch), sit on a panel about how Controversy Sells (in rap? We ARE controversy selling), and closed out my attendance with a keynote speech on how to make money with your music in today’s music business climate.

I just finished my first book on How To Get A Record Deal, but it was challenging to write because deep down I don’t believe most artists NEED a record deal–but that’s the question everyone wants to know the answer to, so it made sense to address that topic first with my book series.

In that regard, Halifax (Canada) was no different. Anxious Hip Hop artists wanted to know how to catch the attention of the major labels AND how to break through in the states. Drake’s name was bantered about more than I’d heard in awhile, and can’t we wait and see if he’s actually making money before we use him as the Canadian to American example of urban music success??

I know he’s not rap, but I’d almost rather use Justin Bieber as an example because we know for sure he’s making money from his record deal (and career)!

But I was amazed to learn that Halifax artists have to drive 15 or 16 hours to get to the next good sized city to promote outside of Halifax. They have something like 3 urban radio stations in the entire country. And most importantly, they have a small, spread out population of consumers compared to the giant, crowded US marketplace. And not once did they complain.

On the upside, the Canadian government has grants in place for artists to help assist them financially with recording their music and filming videos, and even support them attending music conferences to boost their skills. Learning the grant process seemed like a full time job to me, though. It’s not exactly “free money.” Additionally, there’s a global recession so the grant opportunities are declining as government funding and spending declines.

Also, Canada is so vast and has such a melting pot of people, that it’s hard for an artist to write a song that will appeal to the masses because the masses are so varied in their experiences, backgrounds, and languages. And if they achieve a topic that appeals to the masses, the amount of “masses” isn’t as big as it seems based on the size of land mass Canada occupies.

Not one artist complained.

The Canadian artists have learned to play to their strengths. They’ve learned to stand out, make music they are proud of, and build careers one fan at a time. In Halifax, the live performance venues are declining, and therefore so are the amount of hip hop shows. The fan base for rap is aging–the bulk of the HPX attendees were older than 25 and the majority (almost all) were white (or some interesting mix of backgrounds other than African or Caribbean that we so often see in the US). Even when I spoke at Harvard University in the past, there were more people of color in the room. Not that race matters–I’m just making an observation!

My point here is how challenging it is for Canadian rappers and yet they find a way to make music they are proud of, find their niche, and continue to happily build careers. They focus on their strengths and compensate for the weaknesses. And they make music they love!

We’re a bit spoiled here in the US. We can promote our own music by driving 3 hours in any direction and have plenty of new fans to promote to (except maybe in the Dakotas). We have a plethora of examples to learn from. Opportunities abound. Our biggest challenge is finding the funding to build careers (you need money to succeed–this is not a FREE industry in which to succeed). We can make music that appeals to the masses quite easily (whether we want to or not is a different subject). We can create a living selling music to our fans via internet and in person with relative ease. Yet the number one complaint I hear as I travel through the US talking to artists is “my city is full of haters more so than any other city.”. Yeah, I know. But somehow you need to get past that and succeed!! Or be a 50 year old person talking about how you could have been a star, but people you don’t know had the power to hold you back….Fuck that!

If the good folks in Halifax can eek out a career in music, so can you. Man up (women, too)! And get to work!!! After all, you might just need to worry about them relocating here and applying that great work ethic locally. They’d blow most of you out of the fucking water…

Wendy Day
Rap Coalition
@RapCoalition (follow me on Twitter)

“Who I am is who I want to be!”
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

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