David and Goliath Marketing: Disrupting The Music Industry

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Hi everybody, Mike here for another marketing article from a slightly different perspective…

Charlie likes to refer to me as his “rock star” assistant – partly because of the role I play in the Predictable Profits team, and partly because, well, I’m more or less obsessed with music…

I’ve been playing drums for 16 years, play in half a dozen bands, make hip hop beats, write lyrics, arrange parts for other musicians, and recently took up learning the guitar…

On top of it, I absolutely devour music of all styles, from all eras. I’m just hooked. It’s my favorite thing. 

With that in mind, I may be a little biased here…

But the current state of the music industry – at least the pop music industry – is pretty appalling…

Practically the whole thing rests on the marketing practices that we KNOW don’t work very well: shoving sub-par products down people’s throats, bombarding prospects with sales pitches, and commoditizing one-hit-wonders to the point of almost no loyalty at all…

There are definitely still some gems out there, but it seems like the most visible artists in the music world today are the ones with the biggest marketing budgets and the biggest PR teams, not the people delivering the best products (music).

And before I get too far into this, a caveat: music is subjective, people won’t like the same things, “better” and “worse” are relative terms… That said, I’ll let my fanboy bias fly a little bit.

Two Sides of The Industry

Right now, it seems like there are two distinct versions of the massive music industry…

On one hand, there’s Beyonce, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, U2, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and the like who, regardless of what anyone may think about their music, have remained in the forefront of the public eye through partnerships with huge companies, prime time TV appearances, clothing lines, ClearChannel radio play, product sponsorships, etc.

This model is certainly working for them, and there’s nothing wrong with partnering with larger businesses to get your brand out there…

But it’s pretty far removed from the other side of the industry – where major label collapses, dwindling local radio stations, and increasingly commoditized competition and “pay-to-play” models have forced many, many artists to embrace a much more DIY approach to marketing – and every other aspect of their careers.

The side of the industry that isn’t backed by huge corporate dollars is still extremely competitive, but focuses much more on niche audiences, providing special content for fans, live performances, independent releases…

Essentially the opposite of the typical, hit-driven market that dominates mainstream media.

Very rarely do these two world collide…

It doesn’t have anything to do with the music itself, but how it’s packaged, how it’s paid for, and how it’s presented to potential audiences…

Enter El-P and Killer Mike, the duo who make up the hip hop group Run The Jewels, and that paradigm starts falling apart.

Organic Marketing Success

The name alone, “Run The Jewels,” is fitting for the group’s explosive popularity (though you may still not have heard of them) – it’s a nod to overthrowing the “rulers” of all kinds, disrupting the status quo, and making their listeners rethink what they assume about what both rap music, and independent music in general, can be.

Neither of them are musical rookies, with individual careers stretching back over the last decade and beyond, but both remained relatively “underground” – enjoying some success, but not to the degree they’ve seen in the last year or two.

After working together on an album of Killer Mike’s, the two decided to form a group and, well, take the hip hop world by storm. They released the first album, the self-titled Run The Jewels, in June of 2013… and the reaction was huge.

But here’s the thing, they gave the album away for free…

No huge advertising budgets or radio partnerships. No prime-time TV ads.

Sure, they were able to leverage their existing fan bases, and their initial social media push helped get the word out, but word of mouth was the key driver…

Simply because it’s that GOOD. The quality of the product was high enough to do much of the marketing for them.

It’s not flavor of the month, one-hit wonder material. It’s got substance, it’s got style, it’s got comedy, it’s got lyricism, it’s got unique, top-notch production, and it’s so original that even casual hip hop fans were forced to take notice.

As more and more media outlets picked up on the buzz and gave the record rave reviews, the album – and with it, the group – gained steam.

Targeting

I think the music’s great – but not everyone will. It’s crass, littered with profanity, often sarcastic, and politically charged…

It’s not hard to see that it could certainly offend some people, that others won’t get the humor or understand the references…

But for their target audience, that’s PERFECT.

They aren’t trying to appeal to everyone, or even trying to be radio friendly – and most of their fan base is likely sick of the radio by now…

Run The Jewels is a welcome change, and a sign of changes to come.

Expertise and Genuine People

Again, the albums (their 2nd is out now, also released for free) are REALLY good.

There’s no denying the expertise of these two…

They’ve earned their stripes in the underground music world, and anyone with a discerning ear for the genre can tell that they’re both excellent writers and MCs, and that El-P is one of the most unique sounding producers in the business…

It’s no wonder they earned so many accolades for their first release, and that Run The Jewels 2 is showing up on “Top 10” and “Albums of The Year” lists all over social media and in the pages of music magazines (more word of mouth and free marketing)…

But there are plenty of talented music-makers out there.

The duo has something else going for them – they’re totally genuine.

Both El-P and Killer Mike regularly chat with their fans on Twitter, share insights into their personal lives, and communicate with honesty. Mike even owns and operates an Atlanta barbershop that focuses on building community, employing locals, and being a safe place for youth…

Even beyond that, their friendship (and the fun they’re having together) is blatantly obvious – and that makes them even more likeable and trustworthy. They have a great banter and energy about them – and it makes them all the more entertaining and – dare I say – endearing…

On a more intellectual level, Killer Mike is also a pretty outspoken activist, and has done feature interviews with NPR and CNN to talk politics, race relations, fatherhood, and beyond – speaking eloquently and powerfully on these often touchy subjects.

All of this rolls together to not only put Run The Jewels at the forefront of a growing “DIY” music world, it serves to make people perk their ears up and truly listen to what these guys have to say!

Purpose

Like Charlie says, the goal of a business is to make money, but the purpose is to serve its customers. In terms of music as a business, it has always been the job of artists to both entertain us AND be a voice to help us better understand the world…

By figuratively kicking the doors down, offering something totally original that both entertains and informs, and doing it in a way that puts the listener before the record sales, Run The Jewels is achieving the musical equivalent of the Predictable Profits methodology – and continuing to rise in visibility and popularity.

Their tour dates are selling out, their names are all over the media, and they’re earning a hefty following of adamant supporters.

It’s pretty clear that they’re doing a LOT right – and any business owner could stand to learn a thing or two from such organic marketing success in an industry lambasted for recycling ideas and a lack of originality.

Cheers,

Mike

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