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An Indie Industry: Torae on the Realities of Making Hip-Hop Money

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Ever since the inaugural inception of the recording business as we know it amongst the bustling streets of New York City in the early 1900s, a rather one-sided power dynamic distancing a small set of major record label players from a sizable stable of indie minor leaguers lurched onward through changing times and musical styles. Towards the tail-end of a tumultuous century and during the beginnings of another, a handful of iconic individuals brought forth immeasurable advancements that forever altered how we live and consume music: Robert Kahn, Sean Parker, Steve Jobs. 

In their wake, a generational shift has slowly but surely seen the impending rise of independent labels—businesses that live at the intersection of creation and commerce to wield the internet and a physical world beyond in pursuit of success. Online distribution is free, concert takes outweigh record sale revenues by a large margin and industry control continues to fall into the laps of the little man—the recording artist. 

A true student of the game and economically sound, rapper and multifaceted entrepreneur Torae is a definitive model for aspiring artists everywhere.

In a world of entertainment where so-called creators fight for fame and displays of fortune are disproportionately overblown, the rhyme slinger plays to a niche audience. You won’t find his face on a billboard. He’s unlikely to ever embark on stadium-status tour, but that doesn’t matter. Torae does what he loves, with or without house-to-house notoriety, and as a result he lives apart from the everyday rat race—and comfortably.   

“I think the power has shifted right into the artist’s hands, and the actual business dealings are way better for the artist,” Torae shared during an informative phone interview. “It’s almost dumb to sign in 2014. If you want to be famous, that’s one thing. But if you want to make a living, that’s something different…. I’m making 50 grand a year—it’s like having a decent-ass job, ya know?” 

Torae—born Torae L. Carr—is a needlessly self-proclaimed entertainer. He grew to love rap culture at a young age through the works of LL Cool J and Jimmy Spicer. Fittingly enough, he first professionally broke onto the scene in 2007 under the collaborative guidance of DJ Premier, DJ Clark Kent and other historic hip-hop figures. While Carr’s techniques underwent tailored grooming, he also began to notice a disappointing trend typically toted by his unnamed heroes.

“I learned from a lot of the hip-hop pioneers. I [used to] go and pack bags at a supermarket just to make $20 so I could go and buy their cassette, and these guys are broke now,” he admits. “20 years later, they’ve got nothing.”

Financial falls from grace have come to tarnish hip-hop—evasive tactics with taxes and the IRS attest to that fact. To avoid becoming yet another rap game name in the papers’ shaming pages, Torae intelligently handles all business ventures through a legitimately licensed sole proprietorship: the aptly titled Internal Affairs Entertainment. Not yet jubilant to jump into the ever-expanding pyramid of labels like so many other unready artists, Carr continues to keep IA a one-man operation. 

“It’s a way for me to make sure I cover my taxes; I have a company that [the government] can always audit and check the books on, to keep the business on the up and up…. An important part of the business is treating it like a business. Be prompt.”

The gifted rhymer’s “pot,” as he affectionately refers to the grand sum of his revenue streams subject to taxation, presents itself as a diversified portfolio of sorts, stitching together an assortment of monies from an array of sources—streaming, digital downloads, physical merchandise and media purchases, touring, consulting, radio. 

Top tier streaming platform Spotify suffered backlash from a handful of high profile artists (i.e. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke) following reports of egregiously insignificant royalty payments (approximated at $0.006 per stream); Torae tellingly aligned with such sentiments, referring to the industry’s latest business model as a solution paying “upon the lowest of the lowest” before adding he’d “rather you stream than just outright bootleg it where [he] won’t see anything…. even if [the purchase] is $1.29 or $.99 or $.49.” As an independent artist, Torae’s receivable income for every purchased song exceeds that garnered by big name acts—he has no major label to recoup a lion’s share of the payment. 

Elaborating on the costless downloading of music further, Torae analogized, “You can’t go to McDonalds and say, ‘Yo, I love Big Macs. Give me one.’ Or, ‘I love these jeans—give them to me.’ Or, ‘I love this movie. Let me walk into the theater for free. All the things that you like in life, everything you enjoy, you have to pay for. Music shouldn’t be any different.” To combat the troublesome truth in today’s music industry, Torae brightly bridged together a slew of differing indies to his own benefit: “There’s probably not an indie label out there that’s not paying me at some point, being at Fat Beats and Soulspazm and Duck Down or E1 or Koch.”

Though thirty days of worldwide sales through digital and online retailers such as iTunes and Amazon culminate into considerable monthly earnings, globetrotting generates much of Torae’s fruit. The man first exposed to an international crowd by overseas favorite Masta Ace now regularly performs across Europe, a valuable market that shows support regardless of current relevancy: “You can go over there and see a Rick Ross show and it will sell well, and then the following night you can go see a Big Daddy Kane show and it will sell just as well because they don’t care if you’re the hottest thing right now.”

Admittedly, the pot, or perhaps its contained contents, would appear more abundant if not for a slew of expenses; making money means managing costs, a daunting and difficult task that Torae excels at. For him, minimizing personal indulgences and maximizing budget space makes the most sense. Eliminate the rowdy entourage or you run the risk of exacerbating flight expenditures. Exchange lavish living arrangements for safe simplicity. Travel to tour, not to explore: “When you want to take a vacation you’re going to spend money. When I’m going out there to work, I’m not going out there to spend money—I’m going out to make money.”  

“Even when crunching numbers and we’re trying to figure out what makes sense, I need to make sure I come back with a certain amount,” Torae continued. “The booking agents need to figure out what their costs are going to be… I’m a simple guy: A room with wifi, no bedbugs and some clean sheets and I’m cool. I don’t have a crazy rider backstage, just give me some fresh foods, some water, some towels; I try to make it as easy as possible for the promoters and the agents who are booking the shows.”

When not recording or traversing airspace, Torae tackles the airwaves of radio: The deep-toned emcee extends his personal network and cultural impact as a weekly host on Sirius XM’s Hip-Hop Nation—a gig he refers to as “a real job” with a “real W-2.” The unique opportunity stemmed from the quality of Carr’s own music and opened gateways into novel avenues within the rap realm, in turn serving as “cross promotion.” After citing examples of artists to have appeared on-air for interviews—Wiz Khalifa and ScHoolboy Q, among others—Torae tells a tale revolving around Mack Wilds: “After I interviewed [Wilds] and got cool with his camp, they asked me to come out and host when he was doing a show in New York, which led to me coming out and hosting a few other shows that he did. Just letting people see who you are and what you’re about, seeing your work ethic [is important].” 

By connecting dots that pay off and paying thought to fiscal responsibility, Torae leads by example—an honest worker worth following in a genre laced with comparably clueless characters. Carr lives by the rhyme, telling stories on wax and loving every second of track time—no bank-emptying gold draping or outlandish Maybach required. “By no means am I rich, but I live a nice, comfortable life,” he says. “My kids are taken care of. I drive a nice car, I got a nice condo. I’m doing alright.” We’d have to agree.

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Support independent music: Follow @Torae and hit his artist page on DJBooth for more music and albums, and cop his new "Barrel Brothers" album with Skyzoo here.

[By Alex Siber, he likes forming sentences. You can follow him @Alex_Siber.]



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