Hip-Hop Marketing in the Digital Era

by Quentin B. Huff

20 August 2009

In the Digital Age, music and information sit at our fingertips. How do rappers use tools, new and old, to distinguish themselves from the competition?
Snoop's Father Hood 

Thanks to waning album sales, the experts say we’ve reached the end of the Record Store Era. It looks like we’ve finally come to grips with the reality that the music business is different now, in the Digital Age, compared to the industry’s business model of the past. Much of our analysis pertains to the changes in that business model, often attributed to downloading, file sharing, and e-commerce.

At the same time, technology has aided the proliferation of home studios and decreased recording costs, creating a boom in “independent” output. With this higher volume of musical traffic, how do the players in this ever-changing system market themselves and distinguish their wares from the pack? What are the marketing strategies for the Digital Age and, interestingly, how have the tools of the past been transformed in importance by our evolving technologies and methods for disseminating information?

The artist of the ‘80s might have relied on a record company’s promotional vehicles, making sure to reach his or her audience through public appearances, videos, product endorsements, and performances. Street teams were, and still can be, vital promotional avenues. Touring is still relevant—maybe more so. But the artist of the ‘80s only expected “hits” on the radio and the charts, not the “hits” we look for today on websites.

Back then, you might hear music playing in stores while you browsed. Now, music is streamed and gets embedded in blogs and MySpace pages. Music, and indeed information in general, sits at our fingertips. Our access to information through online culture impacts the ways in which we become privy to, and ultimately enjoy, music. Below, I’ve outlined some of the strategies I’ve noticed that hip-hop artists are using in order to give their work extra shine.

1. Radio on the TV
Musicians are appearing on television and in movies, either in song or in person. Well, that’s nothing new. But for our purposes, the fundamental level of significance is that hip-hop artists weren’t always so prominent in the entertainment business.

Hip-hop’s rise in profile and perceived legitimacy, from a “mainstream” point of view, has opened new opportunities and revenue streams. These days, a show like HBO’s Entourage, produced by former rapper Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg, can be a rapper’s delight. Entourage follows the ups and downs of a young actor struggling to climb the Hollywood ladder to stardom while maintaining his relationships with his two closest homeboys and his older half-brother who’s also in the acting biz.

A single episode might feature a hip-hop song or two (or more) along with a cameo or extended guest spot from artists such as Mary J. Blige, Saigon, Kanye West, Bow Wow, and 50 Cent. Of course, we can’t forget Snoop Dogg. He has enhanced his career by showing up on as many TV spots as he can. For Snoop and everyone else, clips of TV shows and movie scenes play on official sites and other sites like YouTube, creating more opportunities to keep the artist in front of an audience.

In the case of Entourage, the show has done a great job of 1. featuring a mixture of “mainstream” and “underground” rap for its background music and 2. offering a wide array of music from various genres and eras. The latter, I think, is at least as important as the former, since this sort of musical integration suggests a certain amount of foresight and planning. That is, the songs are being chosen to fit the mood and pace of the scenes in which they appear.

Some rappers go beyond mere television cameos. Instead, they do entire reality shows about finding talent (P. Diddy’s band making series), reuniting with partners in rhyme (Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s foray into reality-vision), making amends and spearheading community outreach activities (T.I.‘s Road to Redemption), MC Hammer’s Hammertime, and (once again) Snoop’s Father Hood.  People can say what they want about Flavor Flav, but the absurdity of his reality show career has at least made him relevant as a cultural punchline.

Artists, it’s tough to go wrong with TV promotion. It definitely keeps you away from the stigma associated with something like, say, “ringtone rap”. Personally, I think it could be a smart move to make songs that would sound good as a ringtone. Unfortunately, there’s a prevailing undercurrent of disdain for ringtones, largely due to the image of ringtone music as frivolous and utterly disposable.

Back to the screen, it’s a good idea to properly time your TV and movie events. If you’ve released a song or album, why not follow it up with a TV appearance? Play an attorney on Law & Order or just play yourself on a sitcom. On the other hand, a solid TV performance might enhance your profile prior to a release. For instance, Mos Def, before his Ecstatic album dropped, capitalized on his acting chops for an episode of FOX’s House, M.D.. Mos Def’s work on the show was a highlight in an otherwise scattershot season. 

The release of The Ecstatic has seen critical acclaim, although I’ve listened to it at least seven or eight times and I’m still undecided about what I think of it. I’m pretty sure I’m a bigger fan of his earlier LPs Black on Both Sides and The New Danger (there, I said it!), but that’s not the point. The point is that Mos Def’s acting abilities didn’t hurt, and probably helped, his album promotion.

TV commercials provide artists with another marketing tool, either in voiceovers (like MC Lyte has done) or personal endorsements (like a bunch of people have done). I find these commercials to be a strange and awkwardly executed strategy, though. There’s something about a celebrity personality endorsing a random product that never sits right with me. Like, Dr. Dre’s commercial tying a well known soft drink to the good Doc’s skills as a deejay. 

I don’t see how being a success or an expert in one field, such as rapping or deejaying, translates into a learned opinion about food, soft drinks, weight loss, automobiles, or any number of products we see advertised. These kinds of commercials always strike me as kind of goofy.

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