By, Wendy Day from Rap-Resources.com
Let’s say you make great music. Let’s even say you have charisma—the definition of being a star. I think it was Snoop Dogg (back when his name was still Snoop Dogg), who said the definition of being a star is when people either want to have sex with you, or want to be you. Spoiler alert: stars are built. But you do need to possess that star quality, that charisma.
So you have great music and charisma. Now what?
I know you believe that if you just get people to hear your music, they will embrace it, and you, right away. Many of you think it takes one time hearing your song to draw people to you. I know that you think this because you send your music to people in the industry hoping they will recognize your incredible talent and sign you to a successful recording deal where you will make millions doing what you love— making music and performing. And you will be the most famous person ever, being adored by millions, and get constant attention reconfirming your value everywhere you go. *POP goes the bubble
That’s a dream, and here’s your wake up call.
It’s not your fault, really. The music industry is not easy to learn or to access. There’s no definitive book to teach you, no apprentice program or incubator, and no do it yourself kit, and even Empire doesn’t teach you how. You see, there are gate keepers who intentionally make it difficult to enter because if you get frustrated enough then you will sign to them and they will make the lion’s share of the money from your talent and hard work. It will take you years to realize you aren’t being paid properly because of how convoluted, confusing, and non-transparent the payment processes are. But even realizing doesn’t matter, because the contract you signed will have been for 5 to 7 years of your career, and even if you protest, there are 100 more artists stepping up to take your place.
But let’s not depress you with that. Let’s talk about building your career.
As a fan of music, you watch other artists grow to be stars and you think it’s easy and that you can do it, too. Only, you don’t see the initial steps it takes to build a foundation or a fan base for artists because you’re not inside their circle, you just think that what you see as a fan of music is all it takes—get your music on radio across the country, your videos playing on BET or Revolt regularly, and get on stage with an established artist and when people hear how amazing you are, they will love you too.
You think that if you open for Drake in concert, you too will be hugely successful. You think that the top box at WorldStarHipHop will expose you to millions of people. And Complex, Fader, HipHopDX, and Uproxx should see your value and run articles about you and your wonderful story. So you try buying all of these things only to discover it doesn’t bring you the same success. This is absolutely how it works once an artist already has a strong buzz and a decent size following. This is how a mid-level artist goes from $35,000 a show to $75,000 a show and from 10 million streams a month to 20 million streams a month. But this is NOT how a new artist gets established. This is not what gets you to $35,000 a show or from zero to 10 million streams a month. But that’s what you as a fan have seen happen in the established artist’s career from your vantage point, so you think that’s how they became successful. You missed seeing about 2 to 4 years of hard work building that foundation.
It starts with the music. Not good music, but GREAT music—not music that you or I think is great, but music that fans think is great. Music that a large amount of people can relate to and enjoy hearing, and that they hear a lot of times (repetition is necessary). And you need to go out and find those people who like you and your music and bring them into your circle: your fanbase, your movement. They need to like your image, be interested in knowing more about you, and like what you are about. They need to believe your lyrics. They need to hear the passion and authenticity, and relate to what you are talking about. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fooled, many have, but it does mean that if you plan to have any longevity in your career, you better be believable for a lot more years to come. And it’s hard to be fake for a long time.
Once they are interested in you, they will follow you on social media, engage with you, watch your videos, listen to your music, and hopefully grow into a financial supporter that attends your shows, puts your music in their playlists or downloads your music, and buys and wears your merchandise. That is a fan. You can’t buy that and be successful. You can have more image than talent, but you can not buy your way to success in the music industry.
You have to build your foundation and build your fan base. You can’t buy it. Just like buying likes or follows on social media doesn’t benefit you, neither does trying to buy fans. You can’t just show up at radio with a song that hasn’t come up through the streets, clubs, and underground. The chances of it catching on are very, very slim. You can’t just send your video to BET, Fuse, and Revolt without your song growing legs first and your city knowing who you are. They have no reason to spin a video that’s unknown. Radio stations and video channels do not exist to break artists, they exist to sell advertising. The ad prices are based on the amount of viewers or listeners they reach. Listeners want to hear music that they know and recognize or that is bubbling up on the underground, coming to the forefront. You need to be bubbling up, and you aren’t bubbling unless the fans say you are.
An artist is bubbling when people in an entire region are listening to the music and talking about the artist, when the artist is getting paid shows outside of their home state, when the video is getting tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of views, when the streaming numbers are over a few million and the social media numbers are nearing 100,000 real followers on a single platform.
The media is constantly checking for new artists who are bubbling up, and then they will cover them. You can certainly pay the blogs to write about you before you earn their attention, but it won’t build your buzz, it will just have more readers wondering who you are while you waste money. You can pay radio promoters to get your music played at radio, but when the money stops so will the spins and it’s as if you never existed. The shows grind to a halt, if there ever were any. You can pay to open a show for someone famous, but your social media numbers won’t increase because fans don’t discover new music when they are paying to see Drake or Beyonce perform. Most concert goers view opening acts as a scourge to be ignored.
WorldStar is for beefs and bum fights, and videos of chicks who are half naked. If you are an unknown artist, WSHH is not a discovery vehicle for your new music. Once you are famous, it’s extremely helpful to let fans know you have new music or videos dropping. Don’t be fooled into following what famous artists do and expecting it to make you famous too, it won’t. But it will leave you broke.
Here’s what you can do: you can work your music in your own city or town and familiarize local DJs, clubs, colleges, the streets, etc with your music. You can also start building your fanbase on line through SoundCloud, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, and engaging with potential fans on social media. Start building an email list of fans and update them monthly about what you have going on. Talk to people and share your music when you have developed a relationship with them or if they ask to hear it when they find out you’re an artist. This works well both online and offline. After you’ve worked your own area thoroughly, start expanding outside of your hometown. Work your music and spread your image and marketing materials all around your region. Perform for free as much as you can. Work a single, but spread a body of work so people know more than just one song. You attract them with the single and entice them to listen to more by making it easy for them to discover more of your music. Put out and work 3-4 projects a year. Put out your best, original work that represents you as an artist.
Starting at the bottom isn’t fun or easy, but it is absolutely the best way to build a successful career in the music industry. You will need to out work everyone else, have better music that attracts more fans than everyone else, and know who your fans are and how to reach them. And as soon as it makes sense, monetize your music. After all, you’re doing this to earn a living, not just to become famous, right?