By Wendy Day from Rap Coalition (www.rapcointelpro.com)
For most of the 16 years of Rap Coalition's existence, we have assisted artists and indie labels with putting out their own records and negotiating major distribution deals for those who’ve done so successfully. In that time we've seen many artists come, and we've seen even more artists go. We've watched artists sell 60,000 units in a few months (at $6 a CD--do the math), and we've seen artists piss away $75,000 in a month to no avail.
One of our goals is to share insights, successes, and failures for those who are inclined to put out their own record. The entrepreneurs; the hustlers; those not afraid to grind. This article is for you...stay strong, stay focused, and keep up the grind. Success is yours, go get it.
Although it started as an alternative for artists who couldn't get a deal, there are two main reasons why someone puts out their own record: 1) to own their own destiny and control their art form by owning their own label, or 2) to get picked up by a larger label or distributor by proving that your music is marketable. You either want to be a Def Jam or distributed by a Def Jam.
Regardless of the reasons, controlling your own project and proving to the world that your music is marketable, while making money, is very attractive. There are many successful examples of self-released artists and labels who have come before: Too Short, No Limit, Cash Money Records, Esham, Slip-N-Slide, E-40, Luke Records, 3-6 Mafia, Big Oomp, Swisha House, Lil Boosie, Webbie, Young Jeezy, and many, many others.
There is a lot of money and prestige in owning your own shit in this industry, provided you have the financing and staff to do it correctly. It isn't rocket science, so provided you have the proper tools and determination, you can make it happen for yourself. That's our focus: doing it correctly-- meaning profitably.
The basis of any successful project is the music. The music must be banging and must have appeal outside your inner circle. That means you don't just play it for your boys, you play it for people you don't know who are most likely to be honest with you about whether or not it's on point. When putting out Do Or Die's first single in Chicago, “Po' Pimp,” we gathered together all the local mix show DJs, club DJs, and some of the local retailers and played a few songs for them. They unanimously picked Po' Pimp as their favorite song, so Do Or Die had reconfirmed exactly which single to press up (and the DJs felt like they played a part in choosing the single). Why spend tens of thousands of dollars on pressing and promotions if you aren't certain you'll have the support of the local DJs and stores?
Once you decide on the first single and press up your record, you market it within a small geographic area that you can affordably control. Unless you are backed by millions of dollars and a flawless major distributor, you don't want to start nationally because you can't be everywhere in the country at once. The larger labels have staffs and budgets to accommodate a national release, but since you don't, start with just your city or town and no more than a few nearby. I usually draw a circle around the city where the artist is based. I make the circle about a three to five hour driving radius, and that becomes the target area.
Make certain you've done the research in all of the areas you choose where the record will sell. Choose areas where the artists can travel cheaply and easily, since they may need to travel often into those areas to support the record. For example, it would not be a wise decision to choose New York, Houston, and the Bay Area for simultaneous release because the airfare alone would kill you financially every time your artist needed to travel to support the record at radio or retail or with a show.
Once the record hits, however, it will spread naturally and you can't control this. When Twista released his first single, Emotions, even though we tried to contain it to Chicago, Milwaukee, and St Louis (all within a few hours driving distance from Chicago where he lived) the record spread naturally to Louisiana, Atlanta, and Cleveland. By the time that happened, we had enough income from record sales to send Twista into those markets.
Cash Money Records focused on Louisiana and Texas for all of their releases until they decided they wanted major distribution and then we expanded slowly throughout the South and up into the Mid-West. At this point they had enough money from their record sales to be taken very seriously by a regional distributor. The success they experienced with this expansion gave me enough ammunition to get them a banging distribution deal with a major, allowing them complete ownership of their masters and their company.
Master P focused on Oakland and the surrounding areas prior to signing to his distribution deal, even though he was getting sales in his hometown of New Orleans. He was not distracted by that and kept his focus on his target area (everything beyond the Bay Area and Northern California was gravy).
Timing is a key element for the project. Once you choose a release date, everything works backwards from that date. All aspects of the project's set-up is worked simultaneously so that everything happens at once on that all important release date. In other words, if a local newspaper writes about your artist or publishes a review of the record, it's important that it comes out at the same time the record is released. It does no good to have an article published four months before the record drops, or four months after. No one will remember it. The street team needs to blitz the streets before the project drops to build anticipation for its release but in a timely fashion. How many times have you gone to a store to buy a record you've been hearing about for months only to find out it's not out yet?
Make certain when choosing your release date that it's a realistic time frame to accomplish the art work, the printing, the pressing, the street blitz, and local press. Don't worry about national press, you'll need that later. Why would you want someone in Oakland to read about a record that can only be bought in Houston or Pittsburgh? As you grow, the national press will come. It won't help you to have a write-up in the Source or XXL in October when your project is local, because when you go back to them in May with a national story to tell, they've already written about your artist and won't do it again. So go for what you need, when it does you the most good.
Don't focus on getting a distributor right away. You'll get a better deal once you can prove your record is selling. You can put your product in stores on consignment, meaning you give it to them and when it sells they pay you. Once your product has a demand and they start to sell units regularly, it will be easier to get paid. If your record becomes a hit and sells quickly, it will be very easy to get paid in advance, and you'll have the distributors coming to you to do a deal. Remember this is a business. As long as someone thinks they can make money from you, they will. If they know they can, the terms will be more favorable for you. The less risk involved for a store or distributor, the better the deal is for you.
Once the distributors start making offers, the best way to find out if a distributor is right for you is to look at the type of music they distribute to see if it's similar. Then ask the other labels they distribute for their experiences regarding the distributor and if they get paid on time. Local retail stores who buy from that distributor can give you great insight as well. If they don’t sell a lot of successful rap CDs, and your record is a rap record, avoid them. They won’t have enough leverage with the retailers to make it worthwhile for your release.
It is important to create a plan and stick to it. Focus and determination are the only things that are going to get you through the chaos of putting out your own record. Many offers will come, most of which are from people who can't do much more for you than you can do for yourself. It's important to weigh everyone's reputation, check on their accomplishments and successes to be certain they are legitimate and true, and be patient and wait for the opportunity that will bring you exactly what you want.
You will not get what you deserve, you will get what you negotiate. The music business is not fair, and seems that one who holds out for what one really wants, usually gets it! Do the research and study the industry so you can figure out what it is exactly that you want. The best part is that you control your own destiny.