By Thaddeus Tukes
Since I started playing music professionally as a teenager, I’ve run into countless people whose shining star fizzled out — and most of them believe it was too early.
Many initially took the independent artist route, but said they lacked the resources to make it work. They couldn’t attract consistent visibility or their finances were limited or the record label created dissension or the band stopped liking each other.
On Nov. 11 and 12, Blavity hosted its first AfroTech, a conference dedicated to connecting techies, employees, and founders of start-up companies across the continent. Multiple panelists throughout the weekend had prior experience in the music industry, which led to some key insights on building a brand as an independent artist. Some words of advice:
There Are Riches In Niches
“Don’t be afraid to be hyper specific,” said John Henry, founder of CoFound Harlem and saxophone player. Starting entrepreneurs frequently have expectations that exceed their realistic reach, he said, which can be costly and ineffective. For example, the Legendary Roots Crew has arguably become the most successful hip-hop band in history, with multiple Grammys, production credits on a Broadway musical, and a nightly gig on Jimmy Fallon. Founded by ?uestlove and Black Thought, they have maintained a band structure since their inception, even though the personnel has changed over time. Prior to them, there were no hip-hop bands, as the genre was pioneered by DJs and MCs.
After you find a niche that’s unique to you, what’s next? Panelists said that any entrepreneur should become an expert in the field, but some differed on the specifics. Both Andrea Harrison (owner and founder, In A Clutch) and Emeka Anen (CEO, THRONE) said they believed an independent entrepreneur should become the leading voice in one industry. Advocates of “vertical” expansion, they said their companies have seen success because of staying in one lane. Odane Hanson of Second Life, however, felt differently.
“Become an expert in your field, and then expand and learn as much as you can about other industries,” said Hanson. He advocated for “horizontal” expansion, looking for opportunities to incorporate other brand or services into your product. Currently, Kanye West seems to have taken a vertical route, having created a plethora of diverse sounds within one genre. Conversely, Esperanza Spalding is a prime example of horizontal expansion, with each of her five albums classified under different genres (although still heavily jazz influenced).
Put Out Your 25% Product
“Most people think that the first version of the project that they show to the world has to be the completed version, because they fear someone might steal their idea. But they miss out on an opportunity to make it better and save money,” said Tara Reed, CEO of Kollecto, which hosted a panel on Apps Without Code. Anen agreed. “The first step for us was getting something out there to make the conversation [about our product] concrete,” he said. For musicians, the “25% Product” can be anything from an exclusive streaming link with your friends to a pre-release listening party. Rapper Drake has also been exploring this idea, saying that his next album would be a playlist.
“If I don’t sell, I don’t eat,” said Andrea Harrison on the reasons she is dedicated to her work. According to a number of speakers, many people put out a product and expect it to reach an audience, without doing the legwork to properly promote it. This frequently leads to great projects going completely under the radar.
“As a musician, your best bets are Instagram and Facebook. People like visuals to connect with the music,” said Kyle Henry, freelance digital strategist and former jazz studies student at CalArts. “I”m less of a proponent for Twitter, because the odds of one tweet going viral in the vast amount of tweets are very low.” While he said having even a small budget would make media exposure much easier, a competitive social media following could make up for some of those gaps.
Talk To People
“There are a lot of folks focused on raising capital, but at the end of the day, your best investor is your customer,” said John Henry, following a brief discussion about pitching an idea to venture capitalists. In today’s vast social media landscape, many starting entrepreneurs forget the importance of connecting with their audience in real life. The best modern example is Chance the Rapper, who tells people how his father “campaign managed” his career in the early days, encouraging him to pass out fliers and CDs door to door.
“The most valuable feedback is from what we got from real people, because it allowed us to see what our audience was really looking for,” said Anen.
It can take years for your brand to start to see some real growth, said Hanson. Very little content goes viral, and in today’s social media landscape, it is unlikely that an entrepreneur will see overnight success. While some starting innovators may feel discouraged, panelists said that the potential for growth is just as important as the growth itself.
“I was starting to see opportunities where I could really be a higher-up executive in my company. I had to either go with this idea, or deal with going with someone else’s [idea],” reflected Anen.
Thaddeus Tukes is a journalist and musician from Chicago. His debut project, Thaddeus Tukes’ Vibes, is available on Apple Music, Tidal, and Thaddeus Tukes’ Vibes: EP version is available on SoundCloud