Boston rapper Michael Christmas only had three goals coming into 2020: go on tour twice, do a stand-up comedy set, and release his third studio album, Hiding. Thanks to COVID-19, the tours were taken off the table, but he managed to see the other two missions through to the end. “You just gotta put your hand in every possible cookie jar in order to sustain,” he says to me over the phone.
Over the last six years, Christmas has built a stable, independent following through music, comedy, and an affable personality. Projects like 2014’s Is This Art? and his 2015 debut album What a Weird Day caught the attention of Fool’s Gold Records, through whom he released his 2018 sophomore album, Role Model, and a handful of singles.
Once he began creating Hiding in December of 2019, Christmas decided to pivot back to independence and make this project “as DIY as possible.” Here are Michael Christmas’ 10 keys to maintaining success as an independent artist.
Be yourself. “The cool thing about it is, I’m like this all the time. I don’t have to feel any pressure. The idea is I can go out and do my thing, and it’ll be enough because Mike Christmas is enough. That pressure comes from people who have to be something other than themselves all the time or for people who have created something bigger than themselves.
“I don’t think it’s that tough to be Mike Christmas. I think I actually set a cool standard for what I want to have around me when I’m around. I talk about pizza and being left alone enough that people should know. It’s not like I set the stage for myself to go somewhere and be thrown into some shit I’m not ready for.”
Recognize influence. “I was influenced by a lot of artists who were all about keeping it real back in the day. Redman is one of my biggest influences in the whole world. He wasn’t about to paint a picture for you that isn’t real; like he said with the MTV Cribs shit, he was gonna get the fake house, but then his mother told him she would tell people that’s not where he lives. Stuff like that has always been my favorite shit: people being themselves and being admired for it.
“That’s really all I want. I want people to look at me and think to themselves, ‘Damn, I can go and do my thing.’ It keeps the expectations where I’m at. If people see me painting this picture and I’m not out here with these things, then it’s a sad story.”
Use labels to your advantage. “[My time with Fool’s Gold] was more about testing the waters than anything else. They were one of those labels that were super consistent with doing whatever you wanted to do, whether it was songs or projects. We wanted to see what that was like. It was an experiment to see what would be different and how we would benefit, but I thought it was great.
“The biggest thing I got from Fool’s Gold was being able to do crazy videos. ‘Ball’ is probably the most fun I’ve ever had shooting a video. For me, it was all about trying different shit. We shot the video for ‘Not The Only One’ with $400, and some friends and I wrote and directed it. Then we did ‘Ball’ and ‘Girlfriend’ with these big budgets and big productions and shit. It’s all about seeing the differences and seeing what we like more and less.”
Be self-sufficient… “After we finished [Role Model], we had the choice of whether or not we wanted to do another one [with Fool’s Gold] or do our own thing. It had been such a long time since we had done a full album rollout on our own, but we wanted to see what that was like. [The label] was a great experience, but I came to the conclusion I wanted to do the next phase as DIY as possible. I made most of the Hiding album between December 2019 and March 2020. We were working on making things sound clean and perfect for a long time, but the actual music was done before the pandemic kicked into overdrive. We just went on a tear for those couple months.”
...but don’t be afraid to ask your community for help. “The main thing as an independent artist becomes, ‘How do you pay for shit?’ The pandemic made everyone feel this kind of togetherness. I got a ton of help from a ton of different people over the course of the last few months. If I had gone somewhere else to get the album mixed, it would’ve been a million dollars.
“When I set up my studio at the crib, I got my first mic from the homie, Brady Watt. He needed a feature, and I told him I wasn’t going to any studios because I’d die, so he sent me a microphone. I got good at recording myself, and Tunji [Ige] hit me up when I was looking for a new microphone. He wound up sending me his old shit. It was on some, ‘Yo, we’re artists, and we need to be helping each other.’ The next person who needs help, I’m gonna send them my old microphone. These are the types of values people have picked up on during the pandemic. There were people like that before, but people need each other now more than ever.
“This year has been awful for everybody. You can get back pain just from waking up and watching the news. But the camaraderie I’ve experienced during all of this has inspired me a lot going forward. The way people have just shown out to help others and me is priceless.”
Make your fans feel special. “Engaging with fans is the most important thing you can possibly do. I learned that from Logic because that first tour [the Under Pressure tour] had the most insane fanbase I’ve ever seen. You wanna talk about dedicated? Those kids were ready every single night in every part of America. It didn’t matter where we was at; it would be a million people coming to rap every word. Logic is Logic all the time, so his fans love him. Seeing that and seeing the way he’d talk to people during the meet-and-greets, just let me know you have to engage your fans.
“It shouldn’t even be a job because you should appreciate these people. They love you. You make rap. That’s a choice, and nobody has to listen to you. It’s easy to turn some shit off and play something you wanna hear. To be somebody that somebody else wants to hear is the biggest thing in the world. If I choose to watch or listen to your shit, that’s an active choice. I’m supporting you.”
Learn how to budget. “Budgeting and figuring out how you’re gonna do things beforehand are two of the most important things to creating an album. As far as figuring shit out beforehand, I’d just start talking to people about what I have and what I need. If you’re just upfront with people, they’ll be more susceptible to what you need.
“Ultimately, we’re all trying to get shit done, and a lot of people aren’t working at this time, and we need to support each other. Find people who actually need the work, who need the same things you need. It’s about using those connections in a way where you both get something from it. If I make a dollar, everybody makes a dollar.”
Use every skill at your disposal. “Luckily, when you’re independent, and most of your projects are released independently, you get to keep most of your bread. Most of my shit is all independent, so I’ve been able to do alright with streaming money and random shit that [manager Tim Larew] brings to me. We’ve been able to come up off some random shit, like how a lot of artists get lucky, just because I’m a writer and I’m funny and shit. You just gotta put your hand in every possible cookie jar in order to sustain.
“The goal is to be able to do whatever I want and have the same people who support my music supporting everything else I do the same way. If I go do a movie, I want those people to see the movie. If I do a stand-up set in Boston, I want them to come to that as well.”
Be creative. “We do everything we wanna do all the time. What comes with that is knowing what you can do. That’s where creativity and imagination become important. If you wanna shoot a video and you only have $100, you can shoot that video. Talk to people who want to shoot videos. If there’s somebody out there who’s young, hungry, and talented, go with them instead of waiting ‘til you can afford an $8,000 video from a big guy who will do a decent job at best.”
Establish your inner circle. “Do as much as you can as possible by yourself and with the people around you. Do not look to anybody outside of the people who care about you because that’s the way you’ll get shit done. Keep as much of that shit in-house as possible.
“I don’t know if you’ve heard of Van Buren, but they do all of their shit. They have a studio out there [in Brockton, Massachusetts], and they do all their shit on their own. They inspire me a lot, and that’s why Luke [Bar$] is on the project. A lotta people don’t know this, but we went to school [together] when we were little. We didn’t know each other like that, but this dude was there the whole time. This is a potential superstar, and they’re all over the place just doing their own thing until it works all over the world.”