Whenever I start talking to someone outside of the music business about Chance The Rapper, particularly those older than myself, I always get asked the same question: “How does he make money if his music is free?”
It’s a fair question.
Chance’s trajectory is unlike that of any hip-hop artist we’ve witnessed to date. Who else has been able to make music and perform at the same level as Chance, without some kind of monetary backing from an established infrastructure? A-list guest features, elaborate stage setups, putting on a festival in a baseball stadium—how can an artist who’s never charged a dime for his music bankroll everything?
Last week in Chicago, during a sit-down interview with Katie Couric to discuss the stellar couple years he’s experienced, Chance was asked very bluntly, “How do you make money?”
Chance’s explanation is one that I’ve always half-expected, but hearing him lay it out so plainly was still fascinating: merchandise.
His comments begin at around the four-minute mark.
"Well luckily I have a very successful merchandise business. I sell merchandise online, at ChanceRaps.com. That's my main revenue." —Chance The Rapper
Not necessarily a shocking revelation, but Chance’s take on the merchandising game has always been impressive to me. It’s easy to envision how merch pays the way for Chance now, as fans across the world clamor for their own “Chance 3” hat (all of the black ones are currently on backorder), but Chance has low-key been crushing the merchandise game for years.
Before the GRAMMYs, the Chicago White Sox / New Era partnerships and the Obama merch, Chance The Rapper was peddling limited runs of creative merch to hungry fans in college towns across the country. During his 2014 tour, Chance and longtime Social Experiment collaborator OJ Hays teamed up to create custom, locally-themed t-shirts for each of the colleges he would be playing to. Not only were the designs creative and often hilarious, but it set the bar early on for the type of grassroots engagement Chance has with his fan base to this day.
Years later, Chance’s web store is chock-full of items ranging from hats and t-shirts to patches, lighters, posters, and stickers—all of which are apparently selling very well.
His creativity isn't limited to just merch either, as Chance explains to Couric that he also sells concert tickets on his website. Chance is offering refreshingly imaginative VIP packages for his upcoming Spring 2017 Tour, which boasts memorable experiences like a best of three rock-paper-scissors tournament (with Chano) for $75 or a selfie with Chance that will be tweeted from his personal account for $250. While those may seem like steep price points for what amounts to a meet-and-greet, it’s worth noting that most high-profile VIP packages are jam-packed with hastily-crafted trinkets rather than actual experiences with the artists.
It’s also worth noting that Chance’s personality is the ultimate selling point. Chance’s persona is that of a genuinely warm, giving and engaged artist, and when combined with his rejection of the traditional music industry at large, his likeness has evolved into a Bernie Sanders-esque symbol of all things righteous and wholesome within a snake-ridden industry. Fans have no problem paying $75 for a quick visit with Chance because they know that he cherishes their support and they won’t be treated like cattle herded through a formulaic personal encounter.
As Chance continues to surprise the industry in every way possible, all the while putting out exciting, high-quality music, it’s increasingly impressive that he’s able to do so without signing his life away, so to speak. So the next time I have an extra $50 laying around, best believe it’s going towards a “Chance 3” cap, because it’s not just a cap—it’s an investment in a new way, a better way.