Why Music Producers Like Me Are Leaving "The Industry" to Sell Beats Online

"I was more worried about looking broke in the public eye than I was of NOT being broke in real life."
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My name is Curtiss King. I am a veteran music producer/rapper and the author of The Prosperous Hip Hop Producer. Through my YouTube channel, CurtissKingTV, I have had the opportunity to inspire, mentor, and educate over 4.2 million rappers and music producers around the world. My production credits include Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, E-40, and MURS, as well as corporate giants like MTV, VH1, and Vans. My last two albums, Jubilee Year and Summer Salt, both reached No. 4 on the iTunes Hip-Hop chart. But more importantly, I am a husband, father, and go-giver. 

The first time I was introduced to the idea of leasing beats online, I laughed hysterically out loud. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the concept of renting my beats to unknown rappers that I'd never met for prices significantly lower than what I'd charged as an industry music producer. 

The year was 2010, and my main concern was getting my beats placed on albums from major-label rappers. At the time, placements were considered the Holy Grail for any music producer that desired to make a comfortable living creating music and the only way that I would be able to see significant and consistent cash flow. At least, this is what I was led to believe by my highly influential mentors.

My first paid placement that year was with Glasses Malone and Mack 10 for $500. It was an impressive feat for a first-time placement because many of my peers never received any payment for their first major-label placement. I was extremely grateful to finally get paid for my production. Unfortunately, the high I felt cashing my first placement check was short-lived and bittersweet. Within 24 hours, the money I made was gone. Let's just say my bill collectors didn’t sign up to be my Shark Tank investors. For a vision of how broke I was at the time, I had to take a flip-phone photo of my name being mentioned in The Source because I didn’t have five dollars to purchase the magazine.

There are many success stories about music producers who have captured that ever-elusive first placement and saw their value skyrocket soon after. However, there are many more producer stories that revolve around the dark side of first-time placements and music careers that never quite take off. I am one of those horror stories. From crooked business dealings that sought to leverage my insecurities and my fear of impending evictions and car repossessions, I have experienced a lot in this industry that would have made most people give up without hesitation.

It’s important that I note that the business of every music placement is not conducted the same way. Some placements do pay music producers handsomely upfront and on the backend. And although it is not the responsibility of the recording artist or their major label to manage the money of their music producer, there are challenges presented to us because of the way business is conducted.

For starters, each paid placement that I have received in the music industry came with a lengthy waiting period before I actually had the money in my hands. Most major labels pay new producers a flat fee the following quarter after an album is completed and released to the public. In many instances, this can mean that a producer must wait for nearly a year to get paid if their beat gets picked early on in the album creation process. 

Knowing this, I knew that I had to look at these pending placements as seeds that would one day bloom into financial abundance. It wasn’t a guarantee, but I deemed it worthy of the risk. This meant many late-night sessions creating and playing beats for indecisive rappers trying to determine their next move musically. This meant having a good chunk of my catalog in limbo instead of being sold to customers ready to purchase them. Attempting to approach this risk wisely, I put in work on seven pending placements with major-label rappers, all with the promise of paying top dollar when their album finally dropped.

Unfortunately, after a year of waiting for those albums to drop, when I looked at the credits I saw my producer name was nowhere to be found. This wasn’t because my beats were stolen, but simply because my beats weren’t chosen for the final cut. Now imagine the delectable slice of humble pie that I had to consume as I returned calls to all my bill collectors literally begging them for yet another extension because my cash cow never came through. Picture the look of disappointment in my mother’s eyes after I explained to her that my only excuse for not getting a job was to invest my time into these possible placements that were guaranteed to change our lives when they released. Additionally, take into consideration the personal embarrassment of meeting diehard fans of your beats who have no idea that the man they look up to has less money in his pockets than they have.

You would think that after 10 years of the same old story I would have grown tired and quit, but my desire for stardom and my passion for one day making music for a living kept me addicted. I don’t use the word "addicted" lightly in this situation because I pursued these desires in spite of the pain I knew that they would inflict upon me. In the name of paying dues, I repeatedly walked into the fire of pursuing placements hoping that just one time I wouldn't get burned and would be one of the lucky producers to emerge from the inferno stronger than ever before, like the mythological X-Men character Dark Phoenix.

It didn’t matter how many rap heavyweights sat on the Mount Rushmore of my production credits; the needle wasn’t moving, and my notoriety wasn't paying the bills. So, in the midst of me playing the placement waiting game, I decided to go to a music conference in Los Angeles, hoping to find the answers to what exactly I was doing wrong.

On one particular panel that afternoon, I was introduced to a producer by the name of Epik. In 2011, he was widely known as one of the most successful leasing producers in the world. He eloquently shared his experience of how he too got fed up with the politics of the music business before he eventually decided to walk away from it and sell his beats online. He broke down the steps he took to turn a mere $50 investment into a six-figure business. Just looking at his mannerisms I could almost feel the artistic weightlessness and financial freedom that the beat-leasing business gave him as a music producer.

I wanted to experience that for myself.

No longer did Epik have to chase finicky major-label rappers around to schedule studio sessions. Instead, he determined his own work schedule from the comfort of his home. No longer did he have to wait to be paid for his work every quarter by major labels. Now, because he chose to set up his own e-commerce beat store and make it available to the public, after every sale he received payments instantly to his PayPal account. No longer was he struggling to pay his bills because of the lengthy wait times between placements. Instead, he treated his beats like online real estate that was constantly being rented out by "tenants" who were independent rappers and singers.

This all seemed like a dream come true, but I didn't follow in his footsteps after that conference. Why? Fear, mostly. I had a fear of what my producer mentors would say after seeing me selling my beats for only $25 when I could sell them for $500 and higher by pursuing placements. I had a fear of hearing a multitude of "struggle raps" over my carefully crafted and passionately arranged music. I had a fear of being ostracized by the major-label rappers that I had received placements with. But in the midst of my fear of losing this intangible and untraceable illusion of respect and reputation, not once did it cross my mind how hypocritical I was being. I was more worried about looking broke in the public eye than I was of NOT being broke in real life.

This fear lingered for about two years before life made the decision for me to get my shit together. In 2013, I returned from touring the U.S. with my mentor MURS. By the time I touched down back home, I found myself in more debt than I had ever experienced before in my life. I was also notified that I had to leave the home I was staying in at the time within two months. If that wasn’t bad enough, the car I was borrowing to get around broke down. It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom that I finally decided to put aside my pride and ask a producer friend named OSYM for help.

Although OSYM didn’t have many major-label placements, he was quietly finding massive success online as a beat-leasing producer. Ironically, his mentor was Epik. I reached out to him hoping to gain some knowledge about the business of selling my beats online. As someone that had been a source of information and advice in the past, he happily agreed to help me in whatever way he could. Twenty-four hours later, we sat at my kitchen table and he broke down the business.

OSYM explained how the beat-leasing business was not a get-rich-quick scheme, but rather an internet-based business for music producers with an entrepreneurial spirit. More importantly, it was a service that provided independent recording artists with the opportunity to get their hands on high-quality music production for affordable rates.

When a rapper leases a beat from a producer they agree to very specific terms provided by the producer as it relates to the usage of that instrumental. If that same rapper simply wants to rap over the beat and drop it on a free mixtape, they would purchase a basic lease for $20-$30 that grants them access to an untagged/non-watermarked MP3 instrumental. If the rapper wanted to use the beat in a music video or make it available for streaming, they would need to purchase a premium lease for $40-$50 that grants them access to an untagged MP3 and WAV instrumental. If the rapper wanted to get the best mix on their beat, they would need to purchase the professional lease for $75-$100 that grants them access to the untagged beat stems for that instrumental. That rapper knows that these beats are leased by other rappers and he/she is completely okay with that. In the event that a rapper does want an instrumental exclusively to themselves, they would have to then purchase what leasing producers call "exclusive rights" to that beat for a significantly higher price ($350-$1000).

As he explained the basics I took notes, but in the back of my mind, the most important question I had for him was "Why are the prices so low?" When I finally shared my concerns about the price point he smiled and calmly opened up his PayPal phone app to show me his ending balance over the past three months. I remember being in utter disbelief. He made more money in one month than I had in 10 years of pursuing placements! More importantly, he did it creating the music HE loves to create from the comfort of his own home. When I peeled my eyes away from his phone, he looked me right in the eyes and said, “There’s no reason why you can’t do this as well.”

After that night I vowed to do whatever it took to make this beat-leasing business work for me, including putting my pride aside. I worked day and night creating and tweaking beats in a bedroom for my new beat-leasing website. And as OSYM promised, after one month I had made more money leasing beats than I made from the prior 10 years of pursuing placements! He explained how the decision to allow rappers to lease beats for a lower rate without owning them made him a king of compound interest. I learned this quickly when one of the most popular beats on my website sold a total of 105 times before it was purchased exclusively for $500, bringing its total value to $7000 in less than two months. Keep in mind that this was merely one beat out of 95 total.

Aside from the money, I found myself doing business with amazing men and women who didn’t walk around with egos like their major-label counterparts. Most of the rappers I encountered were hard-working individuals with a dream to make a living creating music. In fact, one of my first beat-leasing customers was a then-unknown artist by the name of Joyner Lucas. I finally began to get a taste of the freedom Epik spoke about on that panel years prior, and I haven’t stopped leasing my beats ever since.

Music producers: this editorial is not a plea for you to jump into the leasing business. This business, like entrepreneurship in general, is not for EVERYONE. This is merely an alternate route you too can travel. The beat-leasing business often gets a bad rap from those that don’t understand our world. I don’t blame them because I too allowed fear and pride to rule my logic and decision-making. But life eventually forced my hand and none of the naysayers were there when it came to putting milk in my fridge. The result of taking that leap has produced the most beautiful life I could ever imagine. 

Have there been lows since my initial ascension? Hell yes! Would I trade the lows of this industry for the placement-pursuing industry? Hell NO! I love what I do. I love the time it gives me to spend time with my family. I love wowing my tax lady every year with the growth of my business. I love providing recording artists with a dream access to quality production at affordable rates. In much the same way that we never forget the first person that taught us how to ride a bike, these rappers will never forget me as their first legitimate producer to help them launch their career in music.

The beat-leasing business gave me my dignity back. It gave me the opportunity to say “NO” to an industry that tried to make an obedient follower out of me and my music production. Now, I wake up whenever I want, work my ass off for my OWN empire, spend time with my wife and newborn son, and grin when I see another PayPal notification on my iPhone.

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