As an up-and-coming independent hip-hop artist, one of the biggest things you have consider is whether you should give your music away for free or charge your audience a price.
With platforms like SoundCloud and YouTube pumping out the latest music on a regular basis, consumers these days are conditioned to get all their content at no cost, particularly with hip-hop fans who have been spoilt with free street albums, mixtapes and EPs at an alarming rate.
On one hand, we have artists like Travis Scott and Chance The Rapper who are releasing high quality, professionally produced records like Days Before Rodeo and Acid Rap without charging a dime. On the other hand, we have guys like Drake and Nipsey Hussle putting stuff on iTunes that would usually be throwaway tracks.
The bottom line is: the rap industry is in a weird place at the moment and everybody is experimenting to find out the best way to make money from their music.
So as an independent hip-hop artist, should you give your music away for free?
Let’s face it, unless you’re Drake or Nicki Minaj, you’re not going to be making that much money from your music. In between streaming, illegal downloading and free music; revenue earned from record sales have been shrinking on a steady basis.
In this day and age, record sales matter less than having a strong fanbase. That’s why we have indie artists like Chance The Rapper who are happy to give away their music for free, building up a dedicated following and hitting the road to make their money.
Outside of record sales, there are plenty of other ways to make money off your music such as writing for other artists, endorsement deals and merchandise.
What matters most is having a loyal fanbase that will support you wherever you go and the best way to build one is buy dropping quality music consistently.
On the other hand, why should you give your music away for free? You’ve worked hard on it, pouring in plenty of time and money into your art and now you’re just going to give it away for free? Doesn’t really sound right does it?
Especially when indie artists have access to plenty of distribution channels such as Bandcamp, Google Play and iTunes to make money from their music.
As long as you work hard on building up a strong audience who will support you and keep dropping quality content, an independent artist should be able to build up a big enough catalogue that generates a steady income over years to come.
Aside from giving away music for free or charging for it, there’s also one other route that you can take: the Nipsey Hussle route. He spent years building up a strong fanbase with free mixtapes before dropping Crenshaw in 2013 which he put on DatPiff.com for free download as well as sold hard copies out of a pop-up shop for $100 each.
The venture was a huge success – Nipsey sold all 1,000 hard copies of Crenshaw in one day, making $100,000 in less than 24 hours. Jay-Z was such a fan of the innovative idea that he bought 100 copies himself.
Nipsey did it again with his following release Mailbox Money in 2014. This time the LA rapper expanded his vision, selling 100 limited first edition copies for $1,000 each as well as putting it on iTunes and DatPiff.
Mailbox Money was another successful release for Nipsey, he earned $175,000 in one month which was made up of $60,000 from physical sales, $15,000 from digital sales, $50,000 from iTunes, $50,000 from Spotify and 250,000 DatPiff downloads.
Not every independent artist can do what Nipsey did but there are definitely lessons to be learnt. It’s all about building, cultivating and engaging with your fanbase. Nipsey might not have the biggest fanbase but he’s got a loyal one that will support him and pay for his music.
Nipsey spent years dropping quality music so when the time came, his fans came out with their wallets open. Even then, Nipsey still made his music available for free download so new fans could check him out – he knew his fans would cop the tapes anyway.
Focus on your building your fanbase with quality and consistent music first, the money will come after.