Travis Thompson takes the notion “same team” very seriously. Though he recently signed a partnership with Epic, the Seattle rapper and bonafide everyman ensures his operation is independently-minded from the bottom up.
“Our deal is a little different,” he explains over the phone, from his hotel room. “The idea of anyone trying to tell me how to make something or how to release something just didn’t sit right with me… All the homies got dedicated jobs. I’ve know Shelton [Harris] for a very long time, he was rapping and then transitioned into being my manager. My drummer and merch guy, Jordan [Santana], I’ve known him since first grade. The video director, Dylan [Fout], I’ve known him for six years now. He didn’t even have a camera when we started. My girlfriend, she learned how to produce the videos. She puts budgets together, and she just works at a preschool. Finding the talents in your own people is really important.”
Like Taylor Bennett, at the heart of his operation—aside from passion and “the homies”—is TuneCore. For every financial hurdle that Thompson has faced in his career—lack of budget, lack of equipment, lack of gas money—TuneCore’s service has been there to allow the rapper to advance his career to the point of quitting his day job at a preschool and making this rap thing the real deal.
“I was making money!” Travis declares. “I was working at a preschool and also able to supplement that income with the few streams we were getting. That’s how I was able to make the transition to quitting my job and becoming a rapper. Like, ‘When this TuneCore money is matching my salary, I’m outta here! I’m outta here!’ You know what I mean? Eventually, we just kept working and we got our way up to that. I was able to quit a couple years ago.”
“I did get the sweet moment of being able to tell my family that I’m not working at that job no more,” Trav concludes. “I was opening checks around my parents so they could really see what was going on. It’s a beautiful feeling, especially when your parents are finally cool with music being the route.”
DJBooth’s full interview with Travis Thompson, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: Why is being an independent artist important to you?
Travis Thompson: I [recently] signed a partnership with Epic, but our whole operation is still independent. We get label services, but the videos and the music is all through us. Our deal is a little different, but at the same time, it was still important to keep it like an independent operation. The idea of anyone trying to tell me how to make something or how to release something just didn’t sit right with me. My whole thing is vulnerability and transparency. The whole message is just to be yourself; to not let the business side of the music reflect that would be a disservice.
Of course, because your music is all about being yourself.
My homies are very capable; we’re still evolving and getting better. All the homies got dedicated jobs. I’ve know Shelton [Harris] for a very long time, he was rapping and then transitioned into being my manager. My drummer and merch guy, Jordan [Santana], I’ve known him since first grade. The video director, Dylan [Fout], I’ve known him for six years now. He didn’t even have a camera when we started. My girlfriend, she learned how to produce the videos. She puts budgets together, and she just works at a preschool. Finding the talents in your own people is really important.
What are some of the hurdles you’ve faced while building your career?
All of my team is just as dedicated as I am, so the hurdles are finding people who are just as dedicated, who wanna make it happen just as badly. In the beginning, finding budgets to make things happen was a hurdle. We didn’t have any gear! I had a sh*tty little Chevy—I still have it—and that’s what we were driving to video shoots.
Another hurdle is not being a part of the conversation. It makes people not really realize when stuff is working. We were doing hundreds of thousands of views organically, but because Akademiks wasn’t posting me, the homies weren’t as stoked. You know what I’m saying? Another hurdle is being like “Yo! I’m here, this is working! You should take notice.” At the end of the day, we have a solid core of people, so any hurdle is like “Whatever” to me.
Polo Perks Is Building a Future From Pieces of the Past
We talk to the Surf Gang artist about microdosing alternative music in his raps.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of building your career?
Man, when we go backstage at these big events or we’re out in new cities, I don’t look to my right and left and find people that the label assembled. I look to my left and it’s my girlfriend and my homie from first grade. It’s cool to be able to do this for myself and be able to bring my friends along for the ride with me. They’ve soaked up so much game—the people on my team operate on a higher level than some of the people we meet when we are put in rooms in big offices in New York. I firmly believe when I walk into labels: “My homie can do what you do.” The rewarding part is to be able to give game to the people around me and hopefully provide more than what was laid out to them back home.
How does TuneCore factor into that homegrown success?
We’re on TuneCore still. TuneCore was the very first place where we ever uploaded music. If something went wrong, I could send an email and TuneCore was back to me in minutes. TuneCore was definitely vital in that aspect, and also the aspect of… I was making money! I was working at a preschool and also able to supplement that income with the few streams we were getting. That’s how I was able to make the transition to quitting my job and becoming a rapper. Like, “When this TuneCore money is matching my salary, I’m outta here! I’m outta here!” You know what I mean? Eventually, we just kept working and we got our way up to that. I was able to quit a couple years ago.
Has your success with TuneCore impacted your desire to work with a major label?
I would definitely stick with the partnership because I can see exactly where everything comes from on TuneCore. [Editor's Note: Travis' 2019 EP, RUNAWAYS, was released through his BLVD BOYS, LLC imprint, under exclusive license to Epic Records, a division of Sony Music Entertainment.] I can find out exactly where these streams were coming from. It gives you the analytics you need. The advances you can do… There were moments where we didn’t have budgets for videos, and there’s a TuneCore advance thing, and I was able to get a couple thousand bucks from TuneCore to help make a video.
Honestly, that was one of the exciting things about signing to the label. After releasing this EP, my other music has gained traction. YouGood? is performing at such a higher rate, because of the label, and that’s all TuneCore. That’s all for us. I wouldn’t change anything. It’s cool to be able to be part of the label system and the independent system and collect on both ends.
So does TuneCore help facilitate tours and videos, too?
TuneCore analytics helped us route tours. Where is it really working? That advance thing, also, it determines how much you’re making so it gives you a limit on what you can take from based on what you’ve made in the past. A few times, that sh*t has saved us. We didn’t have enough money to rent a camera, so I would take out a TuneCore advance and be able to make that happen.
I didn’t have a lot of fans, but we got offered a show in New York. I didn’t have any money. I was working at a factory, but I had a TuneCore advance that was able to buy a flight and an AirBnB for the homies.
What did it feel like when you got to quit your job?
Oh my God! Literally… I kinda didn’t quit, because I was working at a preschool and it was June and I’m like “Yup, I’m ready to quit this job.” And then I got into the office and they’re like “It’s a bummer you’re not coming back next year.” I did get the sweet moment of being able to tell my family that I ’m not working at that job any more. I was opening checks around my parents so they could really see what was going on. It’s a beautiful feeling, especially when your parents are finally cool with music being the route.
Are they supportive now?
They’re hella supportive! I’ve been a bad kid from the jump. But I was always doing my own thing, you know: poetry, music. Eventually, the music was becoming a real thing and I was playing shows and kids would know the words. It was a beautiful feeling to be able to quit the job. TuneCore became my employer fresh off my last job [laughs].
What’s the best advice for indie artists looking to stay indie but be profitable enough to be full-time artists?
The best advice I could give somebody is make the best art you can, but you have to build that [brand]. I knew from jump that I’ve got a crazy lookin’ face and we are makin’ music that’s a little different than people are used to, but we are gonna go hard on videos so people can feel invested. That’s what worked for me. We went super hard in the videos, we invested in ourselves. Damn near all the money we were making on TuneCore was going back into the videos, printing up a little merch, or the gas to go drive to a show somewhere hella far away. We weren’t making money, but TuneCore was able to pay for that.
If you wanna stay independent, you have to create a narrative that people wanna be a part of. You have to be somebody that people wanna root for because being independent is a journey. Be transparent. Show people the ups and downs of this sh*t.