Distribution & the Death of Regional Music Hubs

Due to global connectivity and digital reach, artists in 2021 are less constrained by geography than ever before.
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To rehash a talking point that has been repeated endlessly over the past year: we’re living in the golden age of remote work. For reasons we’re all too aware of, conference rooms and blazers have been replaced by Zoom calls and sweatpants, and despite experts’ previously held beliefs, productivity has remained largely unaffected.

While this takeaway is still relatively novel to people who work in offices, musicians have known the freedom of being able to work from anywhere for years now. Indeed, there was a time when they felt compelled to pack their belongings into an overstuffed station wagon and drive cross-country to settle in a traditional music hub like New York or Los Angeles. But, in recent years, anecdotes like these have been matched one-for-one by stories about artists who've made a name for themselves without ever leaving their hometowns. Consider the recent boom of Michigan's rap scene or the way Afrobeats has become a beloved genre all across the world. Due to global connectivity and digital reach, artists in 2021 are less constrained by geography than ever before.

Still, this doesn’t negate the advantages present in big cities. Historically, artists flocked to the Londons and Atlantas of the world because they doubled as breeding grounds for opportunity. In Atlanta, artists can attend studio sessions every day, create meaningful connections with people in the industry, work directly with the teams handling their rollouts, and more. Today, the barriers that prevented them from replicating these opportunities elsewhere are virtually extinct, allowing for the creation and existence of miniature music hubs wherever they live.

Take, for example, the recent successes of Vancouver artists like bbno$, Boslen, and MANILA GREY. Known less for breaking successful musicians or its “hustle-and-bustle” spirit than for its beautiful mountain range and sunny west coast vibes, artists who live in Vancouver are typically the first to concede that the city is not the ideal springboard for music industry success. “Most people come here for the nature,” bbno$ says, speaking about the city’s main draw. “It’s less about music than it is, like, listening to the ambient sounds of the world.”

“The culture of the city hasn’t caught up with the talent yet,” echoes Buk Nkosi, CEO of Chaos Club, the Vancouver-based record label that’s home to Boslen and MANILA GREY. "You have to make it somewhere else for people in the city to appreciate and recognize you.”

To the extent bbno$, Boslen, and MANILA GREY have made their mark on audiences today, they’ve done so by taking this latter point to heart. Rather than wait around for hometown buzz or the approval of big city gatekeepers, they’ve taken matters into their own hands, embracing the power of the internet and the digital tools available to them to create adoring international fan bases. Today, bbno$ has ridden the wave of his astronomical TikTok hit “Lalala”—and a continuous drip of solid output since—into tens of millions of monthly streams. Likewise, MANILA GREY has employed a diverse range of savvy branding maneuvers to widen their audience to the point where—even if they’re not the biggest names in Vancouver—they can sell out stadiums in the Philippines.

“There are a lot more tools and platforms that artists and managers can use to connect with people that they didn’t have access to 10 years ago,” Nkosi says. “We’re always looking at what technologies are available for us to be able to connect the dots for our artists.”

One of the tools Nkosi namechecks early on when running down the channels they use to promote artists at Chaos Club is distribution. Working with fellow Vancouver-based distribution and label services company Opposition, Chaos Club can extend the international reach of artists like Boslen by crafting personalized distribution campaigns tailored around strategic playlisting, influencer marketing, media outreach, and more.

“The best analogy for what a company like Opposition does is, if you have your own fire, they can just walk up to it and pour gasoline on it,” bbno$ explains.

“They’re a partner in the truest sense of the word,” Nkosi continues. “They’re involved in so much more than distribution. It’s dope having a company that’s regional, where I can go to the office, but that still has access and can distribute on a high level, just like anywhere else.”

That Opposition and Chaos Club happen to operate out of the same city is, of course, incidental to Nkosi’s greater point about “access” and ability to “distribute on a high level.” For any artist attempting to transcend their regional bubble, these two variables go a long way towards determining whether they’ll be successful in this pursuit. Having “access” to the right people at DSPs and media outlets, for example, is how artists gain exposure on larger platforms. “Distribution on a high level” is how artists determine where the gaps lie in their audience development and devise strategic solutions to plug them.

Consider the example of Houston’s TisaKorean, who first caught the world’s attention when his song “Dip” took off on social media and became the official song of “The Woah” dance craze. Once “Dip’s” single deal expired, TisaKorean’s manager, Marcus Ecby, was tasked with finding a way for TisaKorean and his crew, the GoGetters, to continue building on this momentum without leaving Houston behind.

Standing in his way was the fact that Houston’s reputation as a hotbed of musical talent had somewhat dwindled since the success of Swishahouse in the early aughts. By the time Travis Scott was ready to make his mark in the early 2010s, for instance, he felt he needed to leave the city to do so.

“Nobody in Houston was working together at the time,” explains Ecby, a long-term fixture of the Houston rap scene. “I’m sure Travis was looking at that and thinking, ‘I can't make it out of here because nobody wants to work together.’”

Working in Ecby’s favor: he had a group of talented individuals excited to work together and a lot of inertia to build on. Now he just needed “access” and the ability to “distribute on a high level.”

Much like Nkosi, Ecby turned to a distribution partner to take things to the next level.

“We don’t have to be in LA to do business because we have a team like Opposition that comes in and fills in the holes,” Ecby says. “They make sure the optimization is right on the DSPs. They make sure artists are getting the proper verifications. They’re pitching them to the playlists. They’re going after advertising. It frees my team up to just be creative and not have to worry about any of the work behind the scenes.”

To a casual observer, it’s easy to chalk up this shift away from regional music hubs to the prevalence of the internet. “TisaKorean and bbno$ don’t need to leave their hometowns because they went massively viral on TikTok,” you might think. This assumption is an oversimplification. Every artist has the same internet at their disposal, and if it were as simple as being present online, no artist would ever leave their hometown ever again. The distinction lies in how artists’ teams use the tools supplied by the internet to replicate the buzzing ecosystems present in cities like Los Angeles and New York. Distribution services can automate this process on the artists’ behalf, so all they have to worry about is making great music.

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