MC Myopia: Hip-Hop Branding: A Preview

myopia

Myopia = The problem of “thinking too small.”

Several months ago I began writing an article for TricycleOffense.com about marketing for the underground hip-hop artist. What resulted was a 9 page monstrosity which I’ve since decided to make into a full-blown writing endeavor. What follows is a short preview of that project in which I discuss the way the hip-hop world connects with the business world. My intention is to complete the project by early 2015.

Fellow artists, it’s no longer enough to simply create amazing, high-quality music. With a constant barrage of media, advertisements, and distractions, everyone is looking for something authentic to anchor themselves to. Your audience is looking for an experience; something that caters to all of their senses and not just their eardrums. Now it’s more common to associate yourself with a “movement” rather than a label, a “team” rather than a group, and a “following” rather than a fan base. But why did it change? In this article, I’ll explore the topic of branding as it relates to the hip-hop industry and then explore methods you can use to develop your own brand.

To start the discussion, I’ll just throw a few names out there: Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Diddy, Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne. What do all of these artists have in common? One answer is that each of these artists have developed a successful brand, another answer is that each of them are on the Forbes’s “Top 5 Hip-Hop Earners.” Music and royalty profits comprise an incredibly small percentage of their incomes because they have figured out ways to extend their influence beyond their music. For instance, a majority of Jay-Z’s earnings come from investments in Carol’s Daughter cosmetic company, the Brooklyn Nets, and Duracell batteries. Jay-Z has built his entire empire on brand and image recognition.

beats

How about Dr. Dre? He was the hip-hop top earner of 2011 but a majority of his income was derived from premium speaker and headphone sales. Why didn’t they call the line “Headphones by Dre” instead of “Beats by Dre”? It’s obvious, Dr. Dre is known for his meticulous, high-quality beats. If Dre’s beats are off the chain, then his headphones must be equally refined – Or so that line of thought follows. Throw him behind a switchboard wearing his “Beats by Dre” headset and watch how fast people come to the conclusion that his headphones will give them an advantage over their competition.

Diddy and Kanye West are known for their attitudes and strong opinions. In the business world, they would be labeled “opinion leaders” because their influence and exclusivity make it easy for them to communicate a strong relationship with something. Diddy was the number two earner in 2011 mainly from his endorsement with Ciroc Vodka; Kanye West was the number four earner, mostly from shows and touring. Kanye can demand a higher price from each of his venues because HE is rambunctious, mic-snatching, and apology entitled Kanye West! Lil’ Wayne signed multiple contracts but Tha Carter IV is responsible for a large percentage of his earnings. Within the Top 5, Weezy and Kanye are the only ones that banked heavily on music generated income rather than product endorsement.

How about some artists who have developed their brand haphazardly? A prime example I like to use for this one is Eminem. Slim Shady was the right person at the right time with the right message, and he quickly ushered in an era of “shock rap” that hit America like a ton of bricks. However, a few years after the turn of the century, his music began to see less and less of the spotlight. Why did this happen? Its clear Eminem is a skilled artist, but I believe his popularity took a dive for three reasons. The first is because he relied too heavily on a pop platform (shock rap). The second factor was his inexplicable disappearance from the scene for a short period of time (rehab). The last factor is that people finally figured out his marketing mix (more on this later on in the book).

Snoop Dogg is another great example of haphazard branding combined with a slow market response. The Doggfather hit the scene in the early 90’s with a gangster attitude akin to NWA. After linking up with Dre, he put together two hit albums synonymous with three things: gangbanging, partying, and smoking some nug. However, by the beginning of the century his popularity had cooled. What happened? As a generalization, Snoop’s message is to blame for his withdrawal. As the era of gangsta rap came to a close and crime rates plummeted in the mid 90’s, Snoop’s lifestyle and music stayed about the same. The War on Drugs, approached lightly by the new administration, was not as contentious a topic as it had once been. After almost a decade of violence, America was ready to free itself from the drama and pain of the past. Gangsta rap sales plummeted.

Eminem

So how are Eminem and Snoop currently dealing with these branding issues? Eminem was thrust into the spotlight so suddenly that he never really had the time to think about what sort of market position he was trying to achieve. I honestly believe he was playing the situation by ear – up until recently. Right now we see Eminem taking on a bigger team building and mentoring role. With collaborative efforts like The Re-Up, Eminem has taken on the supervision and agendas of his label mates. He began signing talented artists such as Yelawolf and Slaughterhouse to generate fan buzz and then set up a super-dope 2011 Cypher to showcase them. All indicators point to a strategy focused on the management of artists under his Shady label – all to be promoted by his Shade 45 radio station on Sirius.

lion

Snoop on the other hand, still doesn’t have a succinct strategy. We can see him taking steps to reposition as early as 2004 when he released the club joint “Drop It Like It’s Hot”. Next, we had “Sensual Seduction” in 2007 – an R&B track which was a huge departure from anything he had ever recorded before. As recently as a few months ago, Snoop launched a massive rebranding movement – Snoop Lion. With this new moniker, Snoop hopes to join forces with the Marleys and make family-friendly reggae music. Snoop also seeks to place himself in the public eye by appearing on shows such as the “Roast of Donald Trump” and short films like “Malice in Wonderland.” He even hosted WWE RAW to promote his new projects. Only time will tell what happens with his career, but no matter what he does, he’ll always be a pop icon because of his brand.

Finally, I’d like to discuss a couple of artists who I perceive as having a non-traditional branding style. Common and Tech N9ne are two of the most underrated and underestimated rappers in the hip-hop game — and I believe it’s all due to their use of niche branding. For example, Common is raw hip-hop with a message. His music is something everyone can relate to and it is educational; it’s all about provoking thought.  I believe Common focuses primarily on marketing within his region (the Midwest) and that centralizes his fan base. Tech N9ne? He’s insane lyrically! I could easily hear him featuring with – if not being a part of – Slaughterhouse.  Instead, he has firmly seated himself amongst the Goth and Juggalo cultures with his twisted ciphers. In response, this smaller group within the hip-hop whole is wildly loyal and supportive of him, thrusting his earnings into the top 20 hip-hop earners list for 2013.

Don’t misconstrue this, there are plenty of underground artists out there who I really respect and I know some of them enjoy being “underground”. But in our day and age, popular artists have the ability to release merciless volumes of material which can drown out indie artists – no matter how talented they might be. Under the assumption that everyone just wants to be heard, it’s hard to look at the situation and say that these indie artists are doing everything they can to push themselves out there. With that having been said, now I’d like to cover some strategies to help YOU become a brand and market your own music.

I hope you enjoyed this short sample of the project and I look forward to bringing you the full version soon! I will be discussing the use of social media, web services, self-image, and brand to give you an edge in the hip-hop music industry.

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