Dan Runcie: Why Drake is Everywhere

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Since writing the original Naked Brands post, I've applied the concept to financefashionmusic, and basketball. Now, I'm writing a book about Naked Brands. 

This book project requires an extensive research process. I plan to conduct many interviews with writers, influencers, and entrepreneurs. The interviews will all be public and will live right here on my website. We'll go on this journey together — you and me. Together, we'll cross industries, speak with experts around the world, and explore the past, present, and future of Naked Brands.

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Dan Runcie is a writer who covers the business side of hip-hop culture. While traditional media outlets often scratch the surface on hip-hop business, Dan’s Trapital newsletter digs deeper. Each story breaks downs and identifies the strategic moves that shape the culture. I would recommend signing up for his Trapital newsletter.

Dan Runcie, Founder of  Trapital

Dan Runcie, Founder of Trapital


DAVID:

First and foremost, before we begin, I want to say that I love what you’re doing at Trapital. I think it'd be interesting to start off by just how you see the role of musicians evolving, like in my survey of the landscape, musicians are no longer just musicians. They're top of the funnel marketing properties. They're doing so many other things besides music. How do you think about that? I think you're right because, in the beginning, they could just care about the art of making music and not worry about anything else, but today as individual branding and personal branding is becoming a thing, there's just so many more opportunities to be able to make off of the work that they're doing. Thinking beyond working directly with the record label, thinking beyond just touring it, trying to find the best ways that not only makes sense for the industry makes sense for them too. I think we're seeing the music industry is becoming more fragmented where artists can have specific rates that they charge us to really do what they want to do.

DAN:

I think we see that most strongly now in hip-hop. If you want to focus on building a very focused group of fans like J. Cole or Kendrick, you want them to support you forever. I think we're starting to see that business models are becoming more fragmented and I think it's presented more opportunities, but it's also presented a bit more challenges, like playing by the playbook and thinking of how they want to make money.

DAVID:

Yeah. Interesting to hear you talk about Kendrick and I know you've written a lot about Drake. How do you segment in your own head, the different kinds of business models? People like Drake, I remember a couple of months ago that his face was literally on every single Spotify playlist for a week and then you talk about people like J. Cole who has much stronger fan bases and fans for life. How do you think about the different segments of hip hop business models?

DAN:

So in one of my recent articles, I compared Drake to having a Walmart and Procter & Gamble type relationship with streaming companies. And ultimately how he's trying to put out this music that can reach the masses. So by design, he wants to make sure that he is going to be as ubiquitous as possible. And that's why to me, there was no surprise when he was literally on Spotify playlist. He's the biggest entertainer that we have right now. And I think frankly it's working for him pretty well. n the flip side though, I look at a Kendrick Lamar, or a J. Cole. They flip the script and say, okay, we want to still try to put out the best quality work that we can.

This is what we want to do and we want the fans and the culture to recognize this. They are not on the same like annual summer cycle that Drake is. They're taking their time and their fans appreciate it. People are willing to sit down and wait for it. They really do see these guys that try to set themselves apart and not just being part of a larger machine but building and cultivating fans and truly making a name for themselves where others aren't.

DAVID:

It seems like Drake is just the ultimate social media mastermind. Like when I think of Drake, I think of The Gift, just like this kind of business model, is an emergent social technology that was born out of social media. Then also he teamed up with Apple Music where I know his songs over-index in popularity. If you look at Drake and you look at the Internet and you look at culture and where that's moving and how messaging and media is changing. What have you learned from Drake that you think he's doing really well?

DAN:

I think Drake specifically, he does a very good job of being able to control the media narrative and make people think that they want to think about him. He knows that if he dropped a single or he has something like that Hotline Bling music video, those things are pretty calculated. I think he knows how to own and dominate the competition more than anyone. It all stays current, too.

DAVID:

It feels like the Internet basically elevated in hip-hop music in a way that it has elevated any other genre. What do you think it is about the Internet and the way that media is changing, which is given disproportionate influence to hip-hop? It feels like hip-hop is a genre of music of our time that is enabled by the Internet. Why do you think that is?

DAN:

Yeah, I think we definitely see a wave of hip-hop as you mentioned. There's a comfort and there's a reinforced acceptability that's happened to make yourself a brand and to make yourself stand out that I just don't see in other genres. They've done this in  the NBA as well. A few NBA athletes have done a fantastic job with being able to brand themselves.

I listened to the Bill Simmons podcast and he always has this joke where he says, who's the best baseball player right now? Let's say it's Mike Trout. How many people can walk down the street and recognize who Mike Trout is, right? But if the 10, 15 best NBA players walked past you, you're recognizing them, and it's not just because of their height. Like if Chris Paul or Steph Curry walked past you, you're going to recognize that and I think it is the same type of thing with hip-hop culture compared to these other sports. I think there's a comfort with being able to brand yourself.

DAVID:

That reminds me of an article I wrote recently called Naked Brands: The Future of Basketball. As you mentioned, basketball players don’t wear helmets and the court is super small, which makes the players recognizable.

So help me understand this because one thing that is a bit confusing to me is I very much see the music business as inverted. So music really used to be the bottom of the funnel where you would do a lot of advertising and people would buy your records and that was the way that artists make money. Pretty straightforward, but now I see music as much more of the top of the funnel and where music should be free and accessible as possible so that artists can maximize their reach. They can then monetize in other ways like events, like concerts. And one thing that I struggle with is when we talk about the business model for music, I think that so often the industry over-focuses on monetizing music itself, and not enough on complementary business models. And maybe it's because we're in a transition period.

DAN:

Yeah. I agree. And I think you hit the nail on the head. I wrote about this recently, once piracy and LimeWire and all that started putting pressure on the old model and then streaming took off and flipped everything. And you're absolutely right. We are at the top of the funnel. I'll still hear people complain about the pennies on the dollar that artists are getting from Spotify streams or YouTube and it's like, I get it. You know, there's a number of reasons for that. We don't necessarily need to go into that with this particular question, but the more people that can hear your music that are in your group, the better off it will be for you because you could then make money from those people in a number of ways and I think the business model is showing that.

DAVID:

Absolutely, you know who's doing really interesting stuff with this? Will Smith. He was an actor and he was also making albums. Like I remember having a song called Switch which was really cool and now he's like a born again YouTube or an Instagrammer and when I'm looking at Will Smith, I feel like he has an intuitive sense of a lot of what you just said.

DAN:

Yeah, he really does. He's definitely been successful in other areas and even with how he's using his Instagram page right now is a wonderful marketing tool for him just to stay relevant. It's so easy for a 50-year-old male actor to fall to the wayside, but he's still putting out movies. But knowing how to market himself is always going to help people remember him. This guy used to get $100,000,000 every time he put out a box office movie, he could still do that. And this Instagram feed outlet, it's a radar to keep that going.

DAVID:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think there's so much to learn from Will Smith and where things are going. I'm really curious to hear about like I think that there's almost a medical question here in your analysis of the music industry and changing business models and he and yourself and your own business model using Substack newsletters to really target the business office and using in like Substack which are new and emerging and trying to curate an audience on your own. I think it's really interesting to see these parallels were having a conversation.

DAN:

Yeah, definitely. Because I think with Substack and with what I'm planning as well, I knew that there was a niche and there was interest out there for people to want to better understand the business side of hip-hop. We're just scratching the surface on hip-hop and business itself and as this conversation has shown, there's as much strategic decisions and mindset that goes into hip-hop as there is in tech. As someone that's worked in a number of different industries and has written about data for a number of publications, I really felt like it was a perfect way for me dive into it, tell the stories that need to be told. I think with putting my content out on places like Substack and meeting with the founders, getting a sense from what they're trying to build as well. If someone can find a space that isn't necessarily tapped into and be able to build a following and you know, getting the reach that they need.

DAVID:

The last question is, I remember thinking back on my childhood and in terms of my younger years back when Internet blogs were really popular like I remember a blog called This Song is Sick and a couple other blogs right? And a lot of artists when I was growing up and would come out with one song a week.

And I always remember thinking that that was clever. And you saw it much more with the up and coming artists. My question to you is twofold. 1 is, are there artists who were doing that sort of stuff now maybe coming out with 15 to 30 second freestyles on Instagram every Sunday, something like that. What sort of emerging strategies are up and coming artists using that the mainstream has been adopted yet?

DAN:

So these are great questions. There are two examples of those. So one is an artist named Russ, he had made his come-up completely independent on his own and he was putting out one track a week, the same time every week, every time. No different than you and I put it out our newsletters.

I think that serves him better than just doing a traditional album rollout, especially in the early days. And now he's on the most recent top 20 Forbes Hip-Hop Cash Kings list that came out. The majority of people didn't know who this guy was a few years ago. The second example is artists using Instagram. There's an artist named Tierra Whack who put out one minute tracks that were all individual music videos, but she released them on Instagram.

But it's interesting. I didn't really see anyone do that and she's a younger artist that I'd say is definitely making a name for herself. She caught a number of eyeballs and attention with that move. But it's something I haven't necessarily seen many other artists do. In a lot of ways, people will tend to follow Drake because he drives the culture. I think we're probably still going to see quite a bit of people releasing, you know, 20 or 30 track albums to try to game the system. But I think the future of the path forward is like what artists like Russ and Tierra Whack are doing. How best can you be able to build a following in the same way that either other companies are trying to do it? Like how you would I do newsletters, trying to be consistent or leveraging Instagram the same way that brands are.

DAVID:

Right. This is really interesting. I have a comment and one last question with what came to mind as you were speaking. I think that the Internet content creators from musicians to writers, they're really going to begin to follow a barbell strategy of staying top of mind with people and building relationships that feel as if they're part of a routine. On the other side of the barbell is super in depth evergreen content that takes an angle or a perspective on a certain aspect of whatever they're writing about. That is hands down the best thing on the Internet and that drives traffic over and over and over again and we're talking about this and I very much think that artists in the future are going to maybe be posting something every day or every other day so that you're opening Instagram and you're expecting something new from that artist. But then, on the other hand, coming out with 20-30 song album that can stand the test of time. And you mentioned 20-30 song albums and you said that they were gaming the system. That's really interesting. Can you talk about that?

DAN:

So I feel like I can definitely see artists trying to have that consistent model and focusing on the other side of the barbell. Back to Drake, the last thing he wants to do is put out an album and it doesn't do as well as the last one did. The last one had 22 tracks and then this one has already 29. Spotify has grown its user base since the last time he put out an album, and because of that it's almost a definite thing that he will continue breaking streaming records. So that's what I mean by like gaming the system to your advantage. On the other side, Pusha T put out that seven track album earlier this year. Even though Pusha T isn't on the same level as Drake, there was no chance for that album to break streaming records just by the sheer fact that it was 21 minutes worth of music on that seven tracks.

DAVID:

Yeah, absolutely. Well Dan, this was lots of fun. I always tell people to subscribe to your newsletter.

DAN:

Awesome. Thank you.


Note: You can keep up with the series by subscribing to my “Monday Musings” newsletter.

And if you’d like to keep up with Dan Runcie, you can find him here.