The Business of Music: From F.U.B.U. to D.I.F.O.
In this two-part series, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Editor Mutiyat Ade-Salu explores the ways in which entertainers are resurrecting the business motto “For Us, By Us” and why she’s giving this movement a new name: “Doing
In this two-part series, Entrepreneurship and Innovation Editor Mutiyat Ade-Salu explores the ways in which entertainers are resurrecting the business motto “For Us, By Us” and why she’s giving this movement a new name: “Doing It For Ourselves”.
In last week’s article, I grappled with the issue of “demand” in entrepreneurship . This week, I’m marveling at how real-life hardship can prepare an entertainer for not just their craft but also business. In America, children with oh-so-important needs like buying video games and celebrity-designed sneakers are often encouraged to work to purchase such items by running a lemonade stand or cutting the neighbors’ grass. (In urban areas, the equivalent is selling candy bars or performing break-dance routines on subway trains.) In each of their own neighborhoods they may be the only one with the drive to perform such services. But what happens when they enter an already established industry where there’s thousands like them with the same level of ambition (if not more)? What if their competitors are better connected to the powerful decision makers? How do they stand out and make a profit then? Or let’s say they enter an industry where there aren’t many like them ( if at all) so there’s no demand to begin with? How do they create a demand without creating competition? (Ooo, that’s even harder.) One fact is that so many markets are over-saturated due to wider access to technology and wider reach through technology. Another fact is that no market is too over-saturated to make room for a unique individual or entity, especially one that operates by its own rules.
Inspired by T-shirts that were printed after Rodney King, an African-American male, was severely beaten by White American officers, Daymond John of recent Shark Tank television fame started the clothing line FUBU, meaning For Us By Us in 1993. After selling T-Shirts with the FUBU log, he then moved on to a variety of apparel made in his home-based shop in Queens, New York. He created a demand for these items by using endorsements from celebrity rappers. That in turn made urban Black Americans feel like they could express their own sense of style by wearing apparel by a designer of their own background. Mr. John (who didn’t work for the typical fashion companies or sell through the typical fashion outlets) was operating as a unique businessman. His creations caught like wildfire, were eventually worn by Caucasian pop artists, and inspired other well-known fashion labels to create “urban apparel” departments. As predecessor to Puff Daddy’s Sean John clothing line, FUBU changed the poster look of American casual wear in the late 20th/early 21st century, not to mention the preferred “street” look in countries all across the world.
Now where do we begin with the genius of musical artist Prince? Artistic genius is already covered, but the business genius is what’s more interesting. Remember in 1993 when Prince began to appear on stage with the word “Slave” written on his cheeks? He literally wanted the world to know he was unwillingly bound to his record label Warner Music, which owned the right to his stage name! Prince then changed his name to a symbol and declared he was to be called The Artist Formerly Known as Prince – releasing new music under that name through his own record label and distribution company and performing rare, unexpected concerts to generate income. In the 21st century, he also fought with YouTube and Spotify over online sharing rights of his music. He then joined Jay-Z’s Tidal company so that the could release his content on a platform that allows artists to co-own their streaming service and have a higher percentage of royalties from their album sales. No other major music artist has spent so much time operating independently and rebelliously as Prince. In the business world, he would have been called a “disruptor” to the status quo, and it’s interesting that after his passing that title has become a lot more acceptable.
Chance the Rapper
At the young age of 18, Chance the Rapper released his first mixtape out of Chicago for free online. Turning hard punishment into an opportunity, he called it the 10 Day Project and followed it up with 2 more free mixtapes – and the third was this year’s Coloring Book. That mixtape became legendary when it released in May and streamed about 57.3 million times, becoming the first exclusively-streamed album to chart the Billboard 200. As if that wasn’t historical enough, the American Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences declared in August that streamed-only albums could now be considered for Grammy Award nominations. Chance the Rapper is also a self-proclaimed independent artist who vows to never sign with a record label. He makes his income from live concerts and product endorsements. Chance has undoubtedly set the trend for aspiring musicians to do the same, taking the art of “disruption” a bit further than Prince did.
Recent history-maker, Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s younger sister) took notes from both Chance the Rapper and her sister by streaming her entire album A Seat At the Table upon release then following it up with a series of visual videos on YouTube. As a result, she and Beyoncé became the first set of sisters to each debut an album at No.1 on the Billboard 200. Solange is no stranger to causing disruption, however. When she first burst onto the music scene as a teenager, there was no R&B artist with her eclectic sound and style; she was so far ahead of her time she did not sell well. Rather than linger in the shadow of her big sister, she owned her identity as an “outsider” and former her own record label Saint Records, providing a platform for select independent musicians to promote their work. One of them was MoRuf.
I’ve known MoRuf since we were small kids in New Jersey, but I learned he was a musichead when he dared me to sing in front of a small crowd of other Nigerian-American kids at a family party by the Olumo Progressive Association. ( I accepted. More on that in a few months.) His love for music is deep and it shows in the way he bridges an African rhythmic sensibility to Afro-American soul and hip hop – or what he sometimes calls “Vibes”. When he released his EP Shades of Moo, I messaged him on Facebook and wrote, “Your music is too good to give away for free.” He sent me a smile emoji, probably because he knew something that I didn’t. Later on, I’d find that there was actually a strategy behind young artists giving their music away for free! In a 2015 article for Sonicbid.com’s blog, writer Hugh McIntyre interviewed another indie artist who said that fans who downloaded his free albums then spread the word for him through word of mouth, creating trust with his fans and the reciprocity of more album sales and sold concert tickets. (Chance the Rapper can attest to this method.) Most recently, MoRuf (also affectionately called Moo) released an album titled Loosies. (Of course, Loosies is streaming for free on his website www.moruf88.com and can also be downloaded for all to enjoy.) In addition to his music, he sells merchandise branded with his personal motto “L.O.E.” (Love Over Everything). With his harmonious approach to disrupting the typical music business model, I doubt he’ll have problems with reciprocity.
So, what can new African entrepreneurs take away from all this?
● Break away from any mold that doesn’t fit you or any system that doesn’t serve you.
● Be generous or charitable with your supporters. (They are your target audience and will become your best marketers.)
This is the dawn of the creative entrepreneur and the rise of the customer-centric market. Who better to dominate it than the most historically creative, resilient and resourceful people on the planet: Africans? After all, we have always been D.I.F.O (Doing It For Ourselves).
To read Part 2 of this series, click here.