Run The Jewels Succeeds With Free Music And A True Connection With Fans

from the doing-it-right dept

Techdirt has always been a place where we have discussed new emerging business models for the entertainment industry, including the music business. For far too long, there has been a battle about how musicians should monetize their art, with one side claiming that infinitely reproducable music files should be costly out of respect for the musicians and the labels that produce them, and the other side pointing out that this doesn't make any economic sense and that there are plenty of ways for artists to monetize their work without pretending the internet doesn't exist. Free music has always been at the forefront of this discussion, as some artists have given away music files as a way to make money elsewhere: live concerts, merchandise, etc. Yet, no matter how much money the new models can and do make for those musicians that embrace them, there is a stigma about what is essentially art enjoyed for free. And that stigma is often dressed up as a concern for artists.

Yet that concern must wane as examples of artists making the internet work for them have proliferated. And those examples are no longer relegated to smaller artists with short music lifespans. Recently, Killer Mike and El-P from the exploding hiphop group Run The Jewels were guests on The Daily Show (we can't embed the video because Comedy Central, stupidly and inexplicably, doesn't use HTTPS — but you can view it at that link, or this one for our Canadian readers). While most of that conversation didn't revolve around the music industry, the first few minutes of the interview certainly did and both artists' explanation for why they chose to give away their music should sound quite familiar to Techdirt readers. Here's El-P:

I ran a record label for 10 years back in the day, I ran a record label called Def Jux, and it completely collapsed under the weight of the whole music industry, essentially. People stopped buying and we were based on an old model.

We kind of did the first record just as a thank you to our fans. We were really thankful that we had our solo careers, we had been working together, and we didn't want to go through everything. We didn't want to look at the first week sales, we didn't want to compete, we just wanted to give something away. It just occurred to us, it just felt right. We wanted to get the hearts and minds of people, we didn't want to trick them into buying a record with one single and, you know, we just didn't want to play the game.

We released it and we just gave it to everybody and said "if you like it, support us, and if you don't? That's fair."

What is clearly on display are two artists, one of whom had previously run a record label, that are far more interested in their art and their fans than they are playing the record label business game. Instead, Run The Jewels decided to give their music away for free, while also setting up a way for their fans to support them by buying the music as well, and it is working. Why? Why would young hip hop fans with internet connections choose to pay for music that was otherwise available for free?

Because Killer Mike and El-P connect with their fans on so many levels -- they treat their fans well, don't take themselves too seriously, and have built up a following that enjoys their work. For example, the whole Meow the Jewels effort from a couple years ago fits right in with our increasingly long list of examples artists connecting with fans and giving them a reason to buy. It started with (of course), offering the music for free, combined with a variety of premium packages -- including the "I'm on the List, Asshole" package, in which you get backstage passes to a bunch of shows, and a promise that El-P and Killer Mike will pretend to be friends with you. But El-P also joked about remixing the album with just cat sounds, called "Meow the Jewels." And their fans took them seriously and put together a Kickstarter campaign. The guys originally felt uncomfortable about this, but eventually embraced it with a plan to donate all the music to charity. And, of course, they did, in fact, make the remix, and it's... actually pretty cool.

But it's not all jokes. Both guys are politically active and outspoken, which has helped build an even stronger connection with those who agree with their political leanings. In addition, the group also still makes all kinds of money off of merchandise and concerts, which has always been a key source for musician income. What's missing is a traditional record label siphoning away money for the kind of marketing efforts the band can now do themselves because of the internet and free music -- which enables a two-way path with the fans. It helps the group connect with the fans and deliver them awesome music, while also allowing the fans to support the artists back. No label needed.

Were the stories told by the labels accurate, we shouldn't even know who Run The Jewels and these two artists are, never mind being able to watch them explode onto the scene in the way they have. This is a success story that needs to be bookmarked and used as a rebuttal against those that say music must not be given away for fear of artists failing to make it.

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  • icon
    restinglichface (profile), 3 Mar 2017 @ 2:39pm

    Damn straight

    Besides that fact that they make great music, I've been so happy with their business model that I've traveled to other states twice to hear these guys live and bought a good amount of merch from them online as well. The sooner more artists realize that the dream of being "found" and signed by a label is a terrible anachronism, the better. Put your music out there, be geniune, connect with people, and don't let a bunch of twats in suits profit from your creativity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 6 Mar 2017 @ 3:52am

      Re: Damn straight

      According to the MAFIAA this should be a time-space distortion that should bring the universe to an end because things can only be created via copyright and strict enforcement of it.

      But hey, If you've created six impossible copyrightless things this morning, why not round it off with breakfast at Milliways?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mark Wing, 3 Mar 2017 @ 2:50pm

    I loved the talks on YouTube between Killer Mike and Bernie Sanders.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Nastybutler77 (profile), 3 Mar 2017 @ 2:50pm

    I first heard RtJ on the closing credits of an episode of Silicon Valley. I loved the song and have been a fan ever since. I get their music through Google Play so hopefully they get a pittance from all my plays of their songs. If I ever get a chance to see them live I won't balk at ticket prices knowing a label won't get a cut.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Mar 2017 @ 7:52am

    but eventually embraced it with a plan to donate all the music to charity.

    Nice of them to donate their music to charity and everything, but I feel like it was likely money they donated instead...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Mar 2017 @ 9:46am

    I always enjoy reading 'new media' success stories about people that garnered money, connections, a fan base, etc., via old media first. ;)

    While touring and merchandising have traditionally been places for artists to generate profits, those things need a certain amount of capital up front to make happen. How many banks are going to give a band a small business loan to go on tour or make t-shirts? That's the money problem labels help solve, and will continue to help solve until everyone is born independently wealthy.

    Also, more record labels are doing '360 deals' which means they get a cut of everything (including touring and merch) because just getting a cut of music sales isn't the money maker it used to be. What, you thought labels were just going to watch their revenue streams dry up and not do anything?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Moving Companies, 15 Mar 2017 @ 9:13am

    The old way of thinking you 'need' a record company to succeed slowly transforming into artist understanding how to market themselves. Especially in this social media age where getting worldwide exposure is a mouse click away.

    The artists' should enjoy the fruits of their talents without 100 hands in their pockets.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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