Why Roc Nation May Move On From Its Record Label

The entertainment company has hedged its bets for the disruption in the music industry.

The 2018 Roc Nation Pre-Grammys Brunch (via Kevin Mazur/Getty)
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Roc Nation has made recent headlines for nearly every aspect of its business except its record label. Its sports agency, Roc Nation Sports, just signed NBA player Trey Burke. Last week, the ten-year-old entertainment company won its bid to halt an ongoing arbitration case because of a lack of black arbitrators. The company also started a new film and TV division this year. As Roc Nation continues to expand into different sectors, Roc Nation Records has become an afterthought.

The label started off strong when it signed a 24-year-old J. Cole in 2009. At the time, Cole’s trajectory seemed like a validation of Jay Z’s experience from Roc-a-Fella Records and Def Jam. But the label’s track record of developing talent since then has been less-than-stellar. The label is still home to Rihanna, but she was a bonafide star when she joined Roc Nation in 2014. Today, many up-and-coming artists pursue younger record labels, like Quality Control Music, or go independent.

Roc Nation Records still has 24 artists signed to the label, but the sports division has nearly double that number. The music side of the house focuses more on artist management, most recently supporting Mariah Carey’s new album, but many of its managed acts are in the twilight years of their careers.

If trends continue, Roc Nation Records will be more symbolic than it is impactful. The label may soon become a mere vehicle for the 4:44 rapper to drop his own albums and an excuse to host bougie brunches before the Grammys. It’s an inevitable, but logical, outcome based on the management structure that Shawn Carter and Roc Nation CEO Jay Brown built. The business can still thrive regardless of changes in the music industry.

Roc Nation used its record label as an opening to the entertainment industry, the same way that Amazon sold books as its entry into retail.

Roc Nation was built to hedge bets

When Hov left his role as President and CEO of Def Jam in 2007, he grew frustrated by the industry’s age-old business model. He shared his thoughts in an interview with Rolling Stone:

“I told [Def Jam], ‘How about this idea — instead of spending $300 million to break four acts, why don’t you guys give me a credit line, and I’ll just do things. I won’t make music. I’ll go buy some headphones, or buy a clothing line, just be part of the culture.’ But the money scared them off, because they’re not used to thinking in that way.”

Roc Nation was the answer to what Def Jam couldn’t do. The company started as a full-service firm that offered 360 deals, artist management, touring support, and marketing. At this point, Jay had a fairly diverse portfolio of his own entertainment interests. He was part-owner of the then-New Jersey Nets, co-owned the 40/40 Club, and had just sold his stake in Rocawear. He wanted this new company to mirror his mentality.

Jay actually tried to do something similar with his first label, Roc-a-Fella Records, in the early 2000s. Him, Damon Dash, and Kareem “Biggs” Burke started Roc Films as a subsidiary and released cult favorites like Paid in Full and State Property. The expansion was the right mindset, but it wasn’t in the company’s DNA from the jump. And by that point, the relationships between the Roc-a-Fella founders started to fray. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, and there was no way for the Roc’s new vision to takeoff when Jay was clearly done with his business partners.

Summer Jam 2001. Jay Z’s face speaks volumes louder than anything his Roc-a-Fella team said in this interview.

When Roc Nation Sports started in 2013, Jay confirmed that the new division was part of the company’s initial plan to extend beyond music. The expansion was timely with changes in the music industry. The once-celebrated 360 deals soon became viewed as a predatory measure to keep artists under the label’s control. New streaming services like Spotify gained steam, causing many record labels—especially those solely focused on music—to yet again re-evaluate their strategy.

The strength in hip-hop and sports

Jay Z and Jay Brown’s decision to start the sports agency under the Roc Nation umbrella, and not as a standalone firm, was critical for two reasons.

First, it strengthened the entire company. Roc Nation partnered with Creative Artists Agency to start the new division. When then-Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant and then-New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano signed with Roc Nation Sports early on, there was less pressure for the record label to find the next J. Cole. A star is a star for Roc Nation, whether they are on a basketball court, in a ballpark, or in a recording studio.

Second, the decision signaled the company’s desire to bridge hip-hop and sports. In several interviews, Jay stressed the importance of each division communicating with one another. Roc Nation’s stable of athletes grew up watching these worlds collide in memorable moments like the Allen Iverson and Jadakiss Reebok commercials. Athletes perceive Jay as a channel to these brand-building opportunities because he’s done it himself.

While many rappers view Jay the same light, others still see him as competition. Some of it’s healthy and aspirational, like J. Cole learning from Roc Nation to build Dreamville. But some of it stems from pure envy. Hov shared his frustrations this summer on The Carters’ song “Boss”:

“N—— would rather work for the man than to work with me
Just so they can pretend they on my level, that shit is irking to me
Pride always goeth before the fall, almost certainly”

The more brazen the artist, the more likely they are to fall into that category. Meanwhile, many of Roc Nation artists have accepted that they are better off teaming up with Jay than trying to match him.

Jay Z and Roc Nation CEO Jay Brown (via Complex)

The Amazon strategy

Jay Z and Jay Brown know that their patient approach disappoints young artists. “We take our time. It may not be most popular with artists, especially new ones that wanna come out tomorrow,” Hov told Zane Lowe in a 2013 interview. Jay Brown shared a similar sentiment four months ago in an interview with CEO.com. The Roc Nation mindset is in direct conflict with the SoundCloud Rapper strategy: drop music early and often, get instant feedback, slide into DMs with a link to the song, and hit folks up an hour later if they haven’t responded yet.

Many of Roc Nation’s artists rose to fame in the heyday of record labels. There was no instant gratification back then. These artists are satisfied with Roc Nation’s harvest strategy: maximize revenue until the artist decides to call it quits. Roc Nation still has a few young artists, like Jaden and Willow Smith, but Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s kids don’t face the financial pressure to succeed that their SoundCloud-focused peers do.

A newly-signed group like The Lox knows that they are well past their prime, but Roc Nation can still help them score worthwhile deals. If the company can get Fabolous to perform at the Roc Nation Sports Boxing Match, similar opportunities exist for Jadakiss, Fab’s Friday on Elm Street partner.

Although the company has shifted in priorities, music still served a critical role. Roc Nation used its record label as an opening to the entertainment industry, the same way that Amazon sold books as its entry into retail.

Amazon would have shut its doors years ago if it still relied on revenue from hardcover novels, just as Roc Nation would have struggled if it still banked on 360 deals. Both companies were well-diversified to handle the disruption in their initial industries and moved forward.

Five years from now, many of Roc Nation’s promising athletes— like New York Giants 21-year-old running back Saquon Barkley and Manchester United’s 25-year old Romelu Lukaku—will still be in their prime. Its venture capital firm, Arrive, may have a few exits by then. And the new film and television divisions could have a couple hits by then too. The Roc Nation enterprise is well-positioned for the future.

But it’s hard to see Roc Nation Records expanding further. Many of its marquee artists will be approaching their 50s. All harvest strategies have a natural expiration date. Young rappers will continue to pursue other options to elevate their careers, and the Roc Nation team seem very content with that.

And plus, with the way Jay Z use Twitter, there’s no way in hell he responds to an aspiring rapper who tries to slide into his DMs to get signed.

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Trapital is written by Dan Runcie. Contact me at dan@danruncie.com

P.S. - THANK YOU to everyone who supported the Trapital Product Hunt launch this week! Appreciate it!!

Why Tidal is Banking on Meek Mill's Success

The streaming service hopes to leverage the Philadelphia rapper's comeback and convert his fans into loyal subscribers.

Meek Mill at a Tidal benefit concert (Evan Agostini / Invision/AP)
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When Tidal first announced its promotional offer for Meek Mill’s new album Championships, it sounded like a desperation move. For a mere $3.50, fans can go to Foot Locker and buy a Meek Mill collectors booklet that includes a redeemable code for a six-month trial subscription to Tidal. That’s a $60 value—one of the highest yet for an album bundle. Tidal subscribers also had access to a special pre-sale to buy tickets for the 31-year old rapper’s upcoming Motivation Tour.

The aggressive sales tactic shines a light on the positions that both Meek and Tidal are in. Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first album since his release from prison in April. His trials and tribulations have attracted widespread support, but now it’s time to turn that attention into album sales.

Tidal is seeking its own redemption. Based on recent estimates, the Norwegian-based company has around 3 million subscribers—far less than Apple Music (50 million) and Spotify (83 million). While Tidal’s current subscribers are loyal, growth has stalled. Finding new customers is a glaring priority.

Converting promotion-driven fans into lifelong customers is a tall order for any business, especially one that has faced the public scrutiny that the four-year-old company has. The results of this promotional run may dictate future moves that Tidal makes on its continuous quest for subscriber growth and profitability.

Both Tidal and Meek Mill value hip-hop fans that vote with their dollars. The fans who already support criminal justice reform are more willing to back a company like Tidal that shares its values.

Time for a turnaround

2015 was supposed to be a career-defining year for both Meek Mill and Tidal. That June, Meek dropped his sophomore album Dreams Worth More Than Money. It was Meek’s transition into mainstream rap. With Nicki Minaj on his side, the “All Eyes On You” rapper was destined to elevate his platform and put Philly on his back.

That same year, Jay Z announced the relaunch of Tidal. The Roc Nation founder was destined to win the culture over with an artist-owned platform that offered better sound quality than its competitors. “If these artists can sit in a room together, the game changes forever. And that happened today,” Jay said at the press event.

But 2015 turned ugly fast. Just one month after Meek’s album dropped, Drake released the Grammy-nominated diss track “Back to Back,” turning Meek into a hip-hop punchline. Meanwhile, Tidal quickly went from celebration mode to crisis mode. After the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Jay Z’s launch event, Tidal’s leadership changed hands an embarrassing number of times. Reports showed that the company had massive losses in 2015. Industry experts began to question whether Tidal’s value proposition was enough to compete with Spotify or Apple Music.

The Tidal launch. They low key acted like they signed the Declaration of Independence. (via Tidal)

Three years later, its Meek who has recaptured that same energy. After hitting rock-bottom with his 2017 prison sentence, he gained support from influential friends, national media outlets, and the hip-hop community. Since his release, he’s built a stronger following and generated hype for Championships.

Tidal is still trying to bounce back. In 2016 the company had a big—but allegedly overstated—boost in subscribers from Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, and Rihanna’s ANTI. It had another boost this past summer with The Carters’ Everything is Love. But many of these customers left once the 30-day free trial ended or complained on Twitter when they forgot to cancel their membership. Most other music streaming services have long since moved on from the once-popular exclusive album strategy.

The company has since shifted its focus to partnerships. Earlier this year, Tidal launched new deals with mobile carriers in Brazil and Uganda to expand its international footprint. This past month, Tidal also announced partnerships with Microsoft’s app store, Samsung Wearables, and Plex, the multi-media player system. These deals will help Tidal cross-sell to techies and audiophiles who spend money on high-quality technology (and in turn, might consider paying $19.99 / month for lossless sound).

These deals are smart tactics, but Tidal still needs to attract customers that are bought into Jay Z’s mantra of ownership. Consumers buy based on emotion and justify with logic. The ideal Tidal customers are inspired by the opportunity to support the artists, but rationalize their purchase because of the higher sound quality and other features.

When customers segment themselves

Those who back Jay’s mantra are also likely to feel compassion for Meek Mill’s tumultuous journey. Both artists efforts are united on the broader theme of black empowerment. Meek’s resurgence is not just a model for Tidal to replicate. It’s an opportunity for Tidal to continue riding that same wave.

Tidal has doubled down on its support for Meek’s freedom. When Meek served time, Tidal live streamed a conference about the artist’s legal challenges. This October, Meek performed at Tidal’s annual benefit concert for criminal justice reform. With the latest promotion, the streaming service won’t earn any money from the $3.50 booklets from Foot Locker—all proceeds go directly to #REFORM: a movement to liberate one million people unjustly caught in the criminal justice system.

We see you, Meek! (via Mamadi Doumbouya/Vulture)

The Foot Locker promotion, despite its steep cost, may offer Tidal beneficial data on prospective customers. To redeem the six-month subscription, fans have to physically go into a Foot Locker store and have a conversation with the sales associate:

“Hi, I’m good, thanks. Nope, not here for the all red Jordan retro 12s… Can I please get a Meek Mill collector’s booklet?”

It’s a simple task, but it makes a difference. A trial subscriber who walks into a store and asks the cashier for a special item is more likely to remain a customer than someone who quickly redeems a Cyber Monday deal that popped up on a social media timeline.

These efforts—the Foot Locker deal, benefit concerts, live streams— are an easy way for Tidal to segment prospective customers. Both Tidal and Meek value hip-hop fans that vote with their dollars. The fans who already support criminal justice reform are more willing to back a company like Tidal that shares its values. When Tidal starts prioritizing monetization over customer acquisition, these are the subscribers to target first.

Acquiring new customers is expensive. But if Tidal didn’t spend the money on promotions like this, the company’s internal teams would spend more time analyzing trends to identify these same potential subscribers. One way or another, it still a cost the company would have to pay.

If these promotions work well, then Tidal will dedicate more resources toward this strategy. The more of these customers it attracts—at a reasonable cost—the better. Tidal knows it can’t match Spotify and Apple Music’s scale, but it can get profitable by finding more of the right customers.

But if the Meek Mill plan doesn’t work well, Tidal will have to go back to the drawing board, once again, and try new methods to attract the subscribers it needs.

2019 might be another potentially career-defining year for both Meek Mill and Tidal. The outlook is positive for Meek, who has an Amazon docu-series and his concert tour to look forward to. Tidal’s future is less certain, but its safe to say the company won’t host another launch party.

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Trapital is written by Dan Runcie. Contact me at dan@danruncie.com

Mike WiLL and Metro Boomin; UnitedMasters-NBA Deal; Happy Thanksgiving!

Trapital's hip-hop business recap for your holiday weekend.

Mike WiLL Made-It at the Creed II: The Album soundtrack listening party (via Six Degrees)
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Mike WiLL and Metro Boomin Flex Their Power

November has been a promising month for two of hip-hop’s prominent beat makers. Mike WiLL Made-It curated his first movie soundtrack—the star-studded Creed II: The Album. The “Bandz a Make Her Dance” producer has his eyes on an Oscar nomination for the 15-track project. Metro Boomin released his first solo studio album Not All Heroes Wear Capes (great name, by the way), which debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts. Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre predicts that a movie soundtrack could be in Metro Boomin’s future as well.

When Young Metro heard the news about his album sales, he tweeted a self-assuring statement about his profession:

Metro Boomin@MetroBoominWHAT A TIME TO BE A PRODUCER

It counters the story I wrote last month about hip-hop producers losing their power. Neither Metro Boomin nor Mike WiLL have the exposure that The Neptunes had in 2003, but both have access to opportunities that Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo didn’t get until much later in their careers. Pharrell composed his first movie soundtrack in 2010—well past The Neptunes’ peak. The “Happy” producer was a safe, legacy act in music by that point. His “Lapdance” days were well behind him.

Creed II: The Album, similar to Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther: The Album, is attached to a movie that is already setting box office records. The rising tide of diversity in Hollywood will lift all boats—opening doors that were once closed off.

Hip-hop producers might not have lost all their power, but the landscape has still changed.

UnitedMasters can leverage the NBA without partnering with the NBA

Last week, UnitedMasters—an independent artist services company—announced an interesting partnership with the NBA. UnitedMasters’ stable of artists will now have the opportunity to get their music featured on the NBA’s digital properties. These artists give UnitedMasters 10% of their revenue in exchange for distribution support, like this new NBA deal offers. But unlike a record label, UnitedMasters don’t own the artist’s masters. The artists keep them.

This move is a natural play for Steve Stoute, the company's founder and CEO. The music and advertising executive has built his legacy on merging the worlds of basketball and hip-hop—dating back to his deals with Reebok in the early 2000s.

The NBA partnership gives UnitedMasters an advantage in an increasingly competitive space. But it begs to question whether the NBA itself was the best digital property for the year-old company to partner with.

NBA’s official social media accounts have large followings, but other NBA-related social media accounts have higher engagement. House of Highlights (11M Instagram followers) and parent company Bleacher Report (8.4M) often get more views and comments when posting similar clips that the NBA (32.3M) does. The closer UnitedMasters gets to the accounts with higher engagement—which get preferential treatment on social media timelines—the better it is for the artists.

And while the NBA’s digital properties have come a long way, they still reside outside the raw, take-no-prisoners culture of #NBATwitter. The league’s digital properties do not get caught up in the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green drama or post the legendary Alonzo Mourning acceptance GIF. Meanwhile, Bleacher Report and other accounts have no shame trying to get all up in the smoke. Drama drives engagement, and those properties that fuel the drama are the ones that Stoute and UnitedMasters should consider next.

Here’s a screenshot of an NBA Instagram post from yesterday with UnitedMasters artist Swayyvo’s music synced to a LeBron James highlight.

As UnitedMasters continues its quest to create “250,000 Chance The Rappers,” it resurfaces the conversation about artists paying companies in exchange for placement and exposure. Stoute himself compared playlist exposure to UnitedMasters’ NBA deal in a recent interview with DJBooth. The opportunity is similar to the themes I mentioned in my story about why RapCaviar should spinoff from Spotify.

If the weekly playlist spun off from the streaming service and formed its own entity, it can monetize by charging artists for placement—the same way other playlists do. The key difference between UnitedMasters and the hypothetical ‘RapCaviar LLC’ is that Stoute’s company is a third party between the artist and the outlets offering exposure, while RapCaviar would be a direct channel for the artist.

Would the UnitedMasters-NBA deal be perceived differently if the NBA itself offered artists direct placement on its digital properties in exchange for a small cut? Of course it would. The definition of ‘payola’ will continue to be cloudy and subjective. But in the meantime, UnitedMasters and its competitors should continue innovating to disrupt the music landscape. These deals ultimately push the industry forward.

Happy Thanksgiving from Trapital!

Today is all about giving thanks, so I’d like to give a few personal shout-outs to the folks who have supported Trapital this year:

  • Friends and family who have supported me from day one.

  • Those who reach out to give feedback (both positive and constructive), it goes a long way.

  • Those who gave testimonials for Trapital.

  • The interviews I’ve done for both Uptown Plug and The Sunday Share.

  • The early accolades and top lists that Trapital has made: MediaREDEF’s Top Picks, LinkedIn’s Must-Read Series.

  • Media outlets that have shared and referenced my work: Music Ally, Valet, Flipboard, MAEKAN, 7|X, Highlark, The AdLib, SynchTank, Uncensored Interview, What To Do Live and others.

  • The teams at Substack and LinkedIn.

  • Past editors at WIRED, Medium, Pigeons & Planes, and The Sports Fan Journal who were great soundboards when Trapital was still in development.

  • Readers who have shared my newsletter with their friends and colleagues. Word of mouth is still the best form of growth, so let’s keep it going. Tell your friends to sign up!

Trapital is still in its early days. It’s only been eight months, but we’ve learned a lot in that span. There are some exciting things coming down the pipeline next couple months so stay tuned. We’re just getting started.

Happy Thanksgiving! GO BLUE this weekend!

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Trapital is written by Dan Runcie. Contact me at dan@danruncie.com

Why the Black Sketch Comedy Needs to Come Back

Hip-hop culture drives Saturday Night Live, but there's opportunity for another show to focus where SNL and others don't.

The cast of In Living Color season 1 (via Brianna Ellis-Mitchell/Pinterest)

Two months ago, Jim Carrey said that In Living Color—the 90s hit sketch comedy show—needs to make a comeback. "That show really needs to happen! That show needs to exist. Especially now, man. There's so much to eat up and spit out so I'd love to see it reconstitute itself in another form."

The Emmy award-winning series was full of edgy and racial skits like ‘Homey The Clown’ that would never air on Saturday Night Live. Since In Living Color, shows like Chappelle’s Show and Key & Peele carried the baton for showcasing sketch humor that was hip-hop inspired and unapologetically black.

But despite the recent boom in diversity across all forms of entertainment, there’s no seminal, cultural, sketch comedy to feed the streets. The focus has temporarily shifted to Netflix and HBO comedy specials. Every comedian wants that Dave Chappelle-seven-figure-money from one of the streaming titans. Sure, Tiffany Haddish, Hannibal Burress, and Amanda Seales can lock those deals down, but there’s plenty of rising talent to fill a sketch comedy show’s lineup.

SNL has received its fair share of criticism for a myriad of issues but maintains its relevancy on the heels of the culture. Black Jeopardy with Chadwick Boseman and the ‘Friendos’ Migos spoof were two of last season’s most popular skits. This season, four of the six musical guests have been hip-hop or R&B artists. SNL’s exposure is great, but the longstanding show’s desire to ‘placate to a wider audience’ leaves an empty space for most culturally relevant humor.

Networks and streaming services should be competing for the worthwhile opportunity to profile young black talent and launch the next hit sketch series.

Today’s entertainment landscape is infused with themes from past black sketch comedy shows.

The opportunity is there

An In Living Color reboot got traction in 2011 but talks ended less than a year later. Keenen Ivory Wayans, the show’s original creator, gave his rationale for the short-lived revival in an interview with the New York Post:

“The bar for ‘In Living Color’ is so high that, if I didn’t feel like we could sustain that, then I did not want to move forward. I just feel like we’re in a different time. The talent pool is different, and I don’t think that type of show works nowadays. The level of talent required doesn’t exist. Not that this generation isn’t talented, but they’re just talented in a different way.”

Wow. That “talent pool” response reads like a tech company’s statement after its employee diversity stats are publicized. It is especially disconcerting since the 2011 revival cast included Lil Rel’ Howery, who now has his own sitcom on Fox.

Despite the missed opportunity, the case for a similar show is even stronger today. Most of today’s popular shows with predominantly black casts, like Atlanta, black-ish, and Insecure, have broken rating records and won several awards. Each of these shows is watched by a majority non-black audience—squashing the long-held belief that only black folks watch these shows. Even Empire, which drastically fell off after its first season, still earns over $225,000 from each 30-second TV ad—fifth-highest in 2018. (sidenote: if all y’all supposedly “stopped watching Empire” then how is it still the fifth-highest? Just sayin’…)

SNL commands an impressive $200,000 per ad spot, but the online performance of its video segments are pale in comparison to Key & Peele’s clips. The top 10 most-watched clips from Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s cult classic show have been viewed over 456 million times total on YouTube, compared to just 292 million for SNL’s top 10.

It’s not that surprising. Key & Peele went where SNL didn’t. The duo’s intelligence and comedic craft was a timely breath fresh air. The most-watched Key & Peele skit on YouTube is the clever Substitute Teacher sketch. Meanwhile, SNL’s most-watched skit is a low-brow bit from 2004 on a Harry Potter spoof centered around Lindsey Lohan’s ‘growth spurt.’

Despite its strong online viewership, Key & Peele did not perform as well on Comedy Central’s cable channel. It averaged less than 2 million views per episode. The Verge put it best, “the trouble with Key & Peele is that, seemingly by accident, it became a web series financed by a major cable network.” The next sketch comedy series can address this issue by linking up with a network or service that is optimized for today’s viewership trends.

The right content

Today’s entertainment landscape is infused with themes from past black sketch comedy shows. Hamilton’s style of hip-hop storytelling can be traced back to MTV’s short-lived hip-hop sketch comedy The Lyricist Lounge Show. SNL’s ‘Black Jeopardy’ is a safer version of Chappelle’s Show’sI Know Black People’ skits. The legacy validates the opportunity for the next show to leave a lasting impression.

In Living Color relied heavily on the creative vision of the Wayans family, but today’s skits would have endless places to source from. Social media is a great start. In August, I wrote about the opportunity for another outlet to revamp Jimmy Kimmel Live’s Mean Tweets Hip Hop Edition by leveraging Black Twitter and social media. The sentiment holds true with sketch comedy.

The Lyricist Lounge Show was WELL ahead of its time. But this video quality is not. 2001 wasn’t that long ago… (via YouTube)

If a black sketch comedy had an episode this week, the skits could write themselves: Jill Scott viral performance, Fashion Nova’s launch party and its growing influence on Instagram, and Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams cringe-worthy interview with her fiancé. And that’s just scratching the surface.

For musical guests, there are plenty of hip-hop artists to choose from. The ideal level of artist is someone who would get interviewed on The Breakfast Club. Most of their guests are big enough to draw half a million online streams but are less likely to turn down the offer in lieu of broader promotional opportunities.

This week, Anderson .Paak would have been a great choice. His new album Oxnard dropped today. The “Am I Wrong” singer has been on an expansive promo run. He’s not quite mainstream enough for SNL’s taste, but can still hold his own.

The right network

Today’s sketch comedies need to perform well as individual skits. The productized approach is a much better fit for on-demand viewing. Only a handful of networks and services can pull it off effectively though.

Cable networks would fall into the same trap that Key & Peele did. Broadcast networks like Fox and ABC provide the highest accessibility, but there’s a risk they might sanitize the content, which would build turmoil. In Living Color ended because of conflicts between the Wayans family and Fox over creative control. More recently, ABC pulled an episode of black-ish because of ‘creative differences.’ Content creators don’t want those problems.

The best suitors are premium services like Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and Amazon Video that offer more freedom with their content. Netflix and Shonda Rhimes already have eight new shows in development. The streaming company has made several entries into hip-hop with shows like Hip-Hop Evolution.

HBO and Netflix have already optimized distribution for their satirical news series Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Patriot Act with Hasan Minaj, respectively. Both shows widely available on YouTube. A sketch comedy could follow that same formula.

The dark horse is ‘Disneyflix.’ The media and entertainment conglomerate’s upcoming streaming service is set to launch in late 2019. The properties Disney owns include several predominantly black shows and movies, including black-ish (ABC), Black Panther (Marvel Studios), and Empire (Fox). This week, Disney’s Toy Story 4 movie trailer released. It was a reaction trailer from none other than Key and Peele. Disney will likely have a few shows ready for the Disneyflix launch. A sketch comedy series could already be in development.

Thanks to the old Chappelle Show skit, Wu Tang Financial became a real thing last year! The influence continues. (via Comedy Central)

Viewers of all races want to see bold, fearless, black sketch comedy. There’s no need to ‘placate to a wider audience.’ Instead of asking which network will step up to the plate, the better question is which network will lose out by assuming that only black people watch these shows?

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Trapital is written by Dan Runcie. Contact me at dan@danruncie.com

Why the Migos Solo Albums are Underperforming

Quavo and Takeoff would have sold more records if they took the time to differentiate instead of flooding the market.

Takeoff, Quavo, and Offset (via GQ)

This fall, the Migos rolled out the red carpet for their long-rumored solo albums. Quavo and Takeoff each released albums in the past few weeks and Offset announced he will drop his in December. Their coordinated approach is endearing, but the promotion tactic detracts from any semblance of individuality. The boys from North Atlanta want the glory of solo success within the comfort of their tight-knit group. It’s a noble effort—the Migos are family after all—but it limits each rapper’s ceiling.

Quavo, the group’s frontman, debuted Quavo Huncho and just missed his sales projection. He sold 99,000 units in his first week but only had 6,000 pure albums sales, which is the same number that Rich The Kid’s debut album sold this year. No offense to Rich—“New Freezer” was dope—but there are levels to this. And Quavo Huncho didn’t reach the level it could have. Takeoff followed a similar trend. His debut The Last Rocket is expected to sell 35,000-45,000 units in its first week (with 3,000-4,000 as pure album sales). Offset’s forthcoming project will probably match that at best.

Both Quavo and Takeoff’s albums got less than stellar reviews from critics. Reception is surely a factor in underwhelming album sales, but 2018 has proved that a well-executed album rollout strategy can still yield strong results despite its quality.

The Quality Control record label, home to the Migos, Lil’ Yachty, Lil’ Baby and others, is pumping out new music like Netflix releases new original series. Many of their projects have long track listings to perform well on streaming platforms and playlists. The approach has given QC an unofficial residency on RapCaviar and The A-List: Hip Hop playlists, but that exposure is attained at the expense of the artist. The Migos would get more long-term benefit from a proper promotion cycle that builds momentum and uniquely positions each rapper.

If A$AP Ferg can stand out from A$AP Mob and shape his persona with endorsements deals from adidas and Tiffany & Co., each of the Migos can do the same.

A need for more differentiation

The “Stir Fry” group is Atlanta’s most commercially successful rap group since OutKast. The Grammy award-winning duo spent years showing each artist’s unique skills on albums like Aquemini and Stankonia. By the time the duo dropped Speakerboxxx/The Love Below in 2003, each artist had solidified their unique brands. Andre 3000 was hip-hop’s eclectic and Big Boi was the smooth but rugged lyricist. “Hey Ya” was perfect for Andre and “The Way You Move” fit for Big Boi.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Migos. They dress the same and act very similar. They complete each other’s sentences in interviews like a Desus & Mero skit. Quavo is a little more extroverted than his nephew and cousin, but not by much. To an average fan, Offset is “the one with Cardi B.” And most of us haven’t heard Takeoff utter a sentence in public since the now infamous, “I ain’t left of Bad and Boujee doitlooklikeiwasleftoffBadandBojuee?” interview.

Takeoff is often called the best pure rapper of the trio, but only day-one fans and hip-hop junkies know that. Quavo Huncho and The Last Rocket also had many of the same producers on both albums, like Murda Beatz. This also makes it difficult for their distinct styles to surface when the music sounds similar.

It’s hard for the culture to know what to check for when the artists don’t show it. The approach makes folks question whether these projects are true forays into solo stardom or mixtapes designed to keep drawing in numbers on streaming services.

The challenge with Quality Control’s strategy

The streaming era has influenced more artists to flood the market with albums and mixtapes that have a high number of tracks. The seven-track albums from G.O.O.D. Music don’t break records, 18+ track albums do. They increase both streaming revenue and earned media from coverage on their streaming performance. More tracks means more records broken, which means more articles from Billboard, Complex, and HipHopDX on the record-setting news. It’s a decent approach for mature artists that already have an established fan base, but it’s a risk for the Migos who are at a pivotal growth juncture.

In the past, young hip-hop record labels that flood the market struggle to maintain momentum. They are easily surpassed by more formidable competition. Quality Control’s current strategy is reminiscent of No Limit Records’ run in the late 90s. From 1997 to 1999, Master P’s record label dropped a prolific 46 albums (compared to 20 albums in the six years prior). Instead of taking time to develop his stable of artists though, many of those artists plateaued. And once Cash Money Records exploded in popularity, the culture had started to move on from No Limit. Master P’s run as “colonel of the muthafuckin’ tank” was over.

QC needs to avoid that path. The label’s COO Kevin “Coach K” Lee has assured that the label is working at a healthy pace. He shared his thoughts in a May interview with Billboard:

We always say, it's not a sprint, it's a marathon, you know what I'm saying? So if you keep a good pace, you'll finish the marathon. If you get out there fast, you might be in the lead, but then that monkey jumps on your back, you'll have to quit the race or something. It was all part of the plan.

When Culture III drops in Winter 2019, it will be the 28th project from Quality Control since 2016. The Migos would have released 10 projects alone in that span, including the 24-track Culture II. Like No Limit twenty years ago, each of its artists is young, hungry, and still hitting their stride. Quality Control’s success has gotten much praise, but the label can still adjust to avoid the sprint and attain its desired marathon pace—especially as the flagship trio breaks out.

Lil’ Yachty, Quavo, QC CEO Pierre “P” Thomas, Kevin “Coach K” Lee, Offset, Takeoff (via Complex)

A better approach

The Migos can address their solo career challenges—lack of differentiation and market saturation—by building customer personas for each rapper’s fans. Culture III should make it clear that each rapper is distinct. It should be a legitimate pivot toward their solo careers.

Quality Control can help the group answer important questions: Where does a Quavo fan shop? Which other artists do Takeoff fans check for? Who do Offset’s followers also follow on Instagram? The goal is to find the distinct marketable differences.

They should be able to state, “The Quavo customer persona is a 24-year-old Black man named Terrance who graduated from Morehouse College, lives in Atlanta, works at Coca-Cola in an entry-level finance position making $65,000 annually, plans to hit up Essence Fest next year…” and so on.

Each rapper’s manager should then seek out endorsements deals with companies that are aligned. The group’s most noteworthy deal is with Finish Line, where each Migo has played an interchangeable part in their commercials. The spots are well done, but lack distinction. If the trio can each locked up endorsements before the next album drops, the commercials and advertisements can help shape the image of who should be checking for each of their solo albums.

If A$AP Ferg can stand out from A$AP Mob and shape his persona with endorsements deals from adidas and Tiffany & Co., each of the Migos can do the same.

The latest commercial from Finish Line and Migos (via YouTube)

Despite the tepid performance of Quavo Huncho and The Last Rocket, the Migos goal is still attainable. By January, media attention will shift to Culture III. Next year should be an individual brand-building year for the group. The Migos are one of the ten most popular acts in hip-hop, and it’s time that their branding and image to show that.

There’s a lot to learn from these initial solo album rollouts. On a scale from Rihanna’s ANTI (regrettably botched and will be the topic of a future Trapital story) to Travis Scott’s Astroworld (very well-orchestrated, almost to a fault), Quavo and Takeoff’s debuts fall somewhere in the middle. It proved that hip-hop is interested in their solo stardom, but a better strategy will help each of them reach new heights.

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Trapital is written by Dan Runcie. Contact me at dan@danruncie.com

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