This Is My Rifle: Quitting & The Harsh Realities of Being an Artist
Everybody raps. Everybody has a $200 microphone, Mbox and Garageband. Therefore, everybody is now an “artist” and believes that Hip Hop, being the simple and disposable art form that it is, will be their fast track to success and all of the abundance that comes along with it. But, what most of these entry level “artists” don’t realize is that the gateway to wealth, fame and women is a narrow one and most are not permitted to enter. Regardless of this fact, every single human being with a MacBook and a severe case of delusion will eventually become a drop in the proverbial ocean of terrible music that floods the internet daily. But within the bottleneck of cringe worthy mixtapes that culminate around the open mouth of the Hip Hop machine, every now and then somebody worthy of passage fights their way to the middle and begins their ascent towards the mighty gates of Rap glory.
About a month ago as I flipped through the pages of The Smoking Section I came across one such artist. Adam Reverie was a name I had never heard before and right away his passionate delivery caused me to sit up and listen. The song I heard was “The Unbosoming” and upon further reading I discovered that although this was my first time hearing Adam’s undeniably dope brand of music, it would also be my last. In Adam’s own words:
“I would like to thank everyone who has supported me thus far, but I have to tell you all that at this point and time in my life I will no longer be making music. Please do share the music with someone who will appreciate it - Luv Rev”
Damn. I couldn’t believe it. It’s so rare that I find MCs that I can relate to and actually like nowadays, and just as I find one that I would pay to listen to, he’s decided to hang it up and move on from music for the time being.
As unfortunate as it is to know that an artist as talented as Adam Reverie will be temporarily --and possibly even permanently-- walking away from music, he’s not alone in this sentiment. I myself have had the same thoughts repeatedly during the past few years and many artists within my circle have contemplated making their exit as well. I’m not exactly sure why Adam has decided to press the pause button on his musical ambitions, but most of the artists that I know who are actively searching for other creative outlets cite a dying music industry and near impossible odds of ever realizing their dreams as their reasoning behind calling it quits.
So to all of the weary, worn out and exhausted artists reading this, I would like to say:
FUCK THE INDUSTRY
The music business is a trap-- particularly the iron clad corporate walls that surround Hip Hop artists. Since its inception, the industry has raped, robbed and bankrupted rappers without mercy. Whether it’s the slave deals of the 80s and 90s, or the 360 deals of the 2000s, the business of Hip Hop music has systematically swallowed and shit out nearly every artist that has crossed its path. Make no mistake about it, for every Drake and Kendrick Lamar there are thousands of bloody bodies littered along the yellow brick road to Rap stardom.
Knowing this, why is it that we equate a contract with a major record label to true artistic legitimacy? Hip Hop is the only musical genre where independence is generally rejected rather than celebrated. The community as a whole has always perceived independent artists as minor players, when in most cases these artists are a step ahead of their major label contemporaries-- specifically today with the accessibility the internet provides and instant worldwide distribution through services like iTunes. Forget the success stories of independents like Strange Music or XL Recordings, these companies are anomalies in an industry that tends to suffocate smaller labels under the weight of Universal, Warner and Interscope.
You alone, with no label whatsoever, have the ability to record, market and release your own music to the world on a shoestring budget. Consider this: 10,000 copies sold on iTunes --minus taxes, expenses and percentages taken by Apple-- equates to roughly $50,000 (this number will vary by region and country) in your pocket. You can earn a blue-collar salary as an artist completely on your own with nobody’s help (although a good booking agent and touring will go a long way). But still the question remains, where are you going to find 10,000 people who will buy your album?
FUCK THE BLOGS
Trust me, I fully understand the irony behind my previous statement considering that I’m writing this article for DJBooth.net. But what you need to know is that the world of Hip Hop blogs is much like what radio used to be, and pretty much like everything else you will ever encounter. Some of the people involved in this world are truly passionate about the music (for example, this site right here) and some of them are dickheads stretching the fabric of the culture as far as they can for their own financial gain.
The truth is, while a post on DJBooth may expose your music to a larger audience, it’s up to you to cultivate relationships with the listeners. I’ve heard so many artists bitching and moaning about the lack of response to their “smash hit single,” but in every case I always find that the artists expected the blogs to do the majority of the work for them. What you should be doing is viewing every blog post, no matter how big or small, as an opportunity to increase your exposure. Do you think that little blurb with the link to my latest album, Facebook and Twitter at the bottom of this article is an accident? Fuck. No. These articles that I write serve a dual purpose: one, I get to share my thoughts with the world outside of my music and two, every time one of my articles goes live on DJBooth my album gets a few more downloads and my Twitter earns a few more followers. It’s not a drastic increase, but even just one new listener is more than worth the time it takes for me to sit down and write something new.
I know what you’re thinking, “I don’t write for a popular website so how is that relevant to me?”. Well, I spent years sending my music to RefinedHype and DJBooth with no response and in the meantime I built relationships with smaller blogs that were more than happy to support me, and through those blogs I began to build my online presence. Even if there are zero blogs in the known universe willing to post your music, your focus should be on building an audience and not on some arbitrary post over at Nahright that will get buried in a few hours. Go to where your audience is and engage them. Nobody is going to come to you.
Which brings me to my next point:
FUCK FOLLOWERS, LIKES & PLAYS
Why do we put so much value in how many followers, likes, views and plays an artist has accumulated? I realize that it can be an indicator of momentum and fan base, but as we all know, those numbers can be easily manipulated. For example, back in the days of MySpace, when the amount of plays an artist had on their page was equivalent to Soundcloud plays and Twitter followers now, I discovered an easy way to increase the number of plays displayed on my page. It was pretty simple; all I did was copy my player’s code and paste it into messages that I sent to all of my 100,000+ MySpace friends and I did this once every day through a program I downloaded for free from some shady Russian website. As my MySpace friends opened the message, the song began to play and boom- before I knew it my songs had over 1 million listens each. Do you know what this did for me? Absolutely nothing.
I learned a valuable lesson: it doesn’t matter what the numbers say, the numbers always lie. 300 followers on Twitter who genuinely listen to and like your music is a far more valuable resource than 30,000 frauds. Additionally, those 300 followers will do more for your career than any blog post ever could. Sure, there is a percentage of people that will pay attention to what you're doing based on your YouTube views and Twitter and Instagram followers, but they will likely move on when they find the next unknown rapper with 300,000 followers on Twitter. Your true audience is in the 300 that click on your music links and leave positive comments on nearly everything you do. These people are your home base and should be treated as such. Speaking of which….
FUCK YOUR IMAGE
Don't be a dick. Your 300 Twitter followers are not screaming your name and holding signs proclaiming their love for you outside of your hotel in Manhattan. No, these people like your sound and are interested in getting to know you, therefore, converse with them on a human level. They have a day job and you have a day job. Open the lines of communication and allow them to relate to you as a person. Do not manufacture yourself into some Yeezus Christ Superstar type. Your audience knows the extent of your reach and being an asshole will only kill whatever admiration they had for you in the first place. I cannot stress this enough; be a nice person. In the age of total accessibility, a one on one connection is absolutely essential to set yourself apart from the millions of other rappers stampeding the Internet. Who knows, you may even establish some long lasting friendships along the way?
At the end of the day, my way of doing things may not be the "right" way, but it works for me. In all honestly, I absolutely fucking despise the music industry and I do not like what Hip Hop has become. I used to battle with my opinion of the current state of the culture but recently I came to a realization - I'm not an analyst of Hip Hop; I'm a creator of it. My disinterest in the music and industry politics is what drives me artistically and what motivates me to explore new territory creatively. To stop making music would be like trying to quit breathing or using my right hand. I am an MC through and through and I will be one forever. I love what I do, but strangely I am only comfortable when I am disconnected from the machine that seeks to dilute, abuse and destroy it. I don't care about labels, beefs, gossip or industry standards. What I care about, and what sits at the core of who I am as a person, is the music.
The idea of quitting music has passed through my mind on several occasions, but it was only at times when I was thinking selfishly. "I'm so fucking broke. I'm so tired. I'm so depressed. I have no life." These are thoughts that every artist has and what drives most of us over the edge into mediocrity. But what I've come to understand is that my music is freedom and it's what defines me. It is not a product, it is not a commodity and I can never treat it as such. If you choose to purchase my albums -- great, thank you for helping me survive. If you choose to download them for free, that's OK too. I just hope you take something of value from it. When you listen to my music, you're becoming a part of me, and that connection is priceless.
[Jason James is an artist, freelance columnist and writer for RefinedHype.com. You can read/download his free eBook, "This Is My Rifle" and listen/download his most recent album, "Pyramids in Stereo". You can also contact him here and here.]