As one of Toronto’s premiere hip-hop festivals, ManifesTO never fails to make a splash with its annual festival. Most are familiar with the stage shows, which featured the likes of Isaiah Rashad, Ryan Leslie and Raury this year. For those in the industry, the real value in the ManifesTO weekend is its Sunday conference dubbed “The Summit”. The conference, made up of keynote addresses, workshops and panels, can be a valuable resource for aspiring artists and those with a vested interest in the music business. This year featured a keynote from Ryan Leslie and a conversation with Mister Cartoon alongside panels on the business of art, tour life and songwriting. Amongst tons of networking and interesting dialogue, key messages were extracted from the day for any music-minded individual to consider.
Make the personal connection
While social media is the current monster of mediums it’s interesting to note that being able to identify with a customer is a crucial element missing in its business model. Artist/producer Ryan Leslie spoke at length about the advantages of being able to have an almost personal connection with his consumers. To illustrate his point he asks, “How many of you actually follow Dropbox on Twitter?” Not a single hand rose. “So that means when Drew (Houston) as the CEO of Dropbox wants to reach you, if there’s an upgrade or he wants to give you some extra storage, you don’t go to Twitter. When he wants to reach you he just presses a button and everyone using the servers gets e-mail from him. He has 225 million users of Dropbox and I didn’t see a single hand go up for people that follow Dropbox on Twitter for updates.” This approach represents direct sales, direct marketing, or as he put it, “As musicians, as artists, as creators, the customer needs to be as important to you as to the titans of the Internet.”
One strategy doesn’t fit all
The disposable music market is exploding. Many artists have adopted the “throw anything at a wall, hope that something sticks,” mentality. As Ryan Leslie tells it, it’s not always that simple.
“My third album Les is More I thought I had it figured out and I initially put it out for free. I said I’m just going to put this out for free and monetize by tickets and merchandise, which is a common myth about how you should make money in the music business.” This is another interesting attack on tribal music business knowledge. While Leslie did end up putting the album out for sale and sold a decent amount of records it wasn’t a truly successful approach for an established artist.
Understand the market
“If you do the math, 800,000 albums were released last year. Full projects. Only three per cent of them sold more than 1,000 copies,” Ryan Leslie explains. “So that means you have a one in [24,000 chance to] sell 1,000 copies. But that doesn’t mean you have a one in [24,000] chance of making money or making a living doing what you love to do.”
“If you do the math, 800,000 albums were released last year. Full projects. Only three per cent of them sold more than 1,000 copies. So that means you have a one in [24,000 chance to] sell 1,000 copies.” – Ryan Leslie
Numbers always put things into perspective. Beyond the shocking data, Ryan’s point is poignant and it’s looks at the music industry in a different light – a light other than the spotlight. For example, Leslie shares that he invests in companies he really believes in like Amazon and still receives large publishing cheques courtesy of his work with singer Cassie. This serves as a valuable reminder that most of the money in music is made in the shadows.
Commit to your craft
“Given the choice to choose. Choose not to lose,” says dancer/choreographer Tre Armstrong during a panel marked The Business of Art. Moderated by Farley Flex, the panel featured Armstrong, Skeme Richards, Duane “D.O.” Gibson and Carl Cassell. So I made a lot of sacrifices, which also speaks to your discipline. My mother didn’t have to wake me up to go to dance. “If dance is what I loved then I’m going to dance. I’m not going to go out and play with my girlfriends.” The quote seems simple enough until you factor in some of Tre Armstrong’s achievements and the dedication it takes to be a professional dancer of her caliber. Every billionaire and self-made mogul says the same thing. He or she dedicates as much time as life will allow to his or her craft. Moderator Farley Flex exuberantly professed his admiration of Malcolm Gladwell; in fact Gladwell’s famous 10,000-hour rule was a consistent theme throughout this panel.
To follow a dream, or not?
There comes that moment when most people have to answer this question: whether to continue to chase their dreams or get themselves a steady 9 to 5. “Graduating university was, you know,” says Carl Cassell, owner of Harlem Restaurant in Toronto.
“I got a job, but I realized I didn’t function (in the mornings). I painted until four in the morning and that’s what I liked to do. My friend was like what are you interested in passion or pension?” – Carl Cassell, Owner of Harlem Restaurant
“I got a job, but I realized I didn’t function (in the mornings). I painted until four in the morning and that’s what I liked to do. My friend was like what are you interested in passion or pension?” While there’s no shame in choosing the pension, it’s far less romantic. In the end, regret is a choice and one that could haunt you for a long time.
The world continues to shrink day by day. In days gone past blowing up in your respective township was a rite of passage if you will. These days more and more of your favourite local artists are finding initial success on foreign ground. Canadian Idol judge Farley Flex – the man who got Maestro Fresh Wes’ career off the ground – knows about this all too well. “One of the things we have to be cognizant of is it’s always important to recognize, especially in these times, anything you do is global or should be global. To put all your efforts into one small geographic location makes absolutely know sense whatsoever.”
The argument for being a jack-of-all-trades or a master of one is a lengthy, probably irresolvable one. Perhaps the answer is to be both. Miss Info, who sat alongside Lola (of I Love Lola) and Ashley Outrageous on the Can’t Knock the Hustle: Women in the industry panel, is a prime example of someone who expanded her brand to supplement her initial mastery of journalism.
“You can’t really be any one thing, because then you’re leaving money on the table. There used to be a time when you would specialize in something and that would be rewarded, but now if you aren’t trying to build your skills in lots of different ways you end being a less rounded person.” – Miss Info
The success-driven individual must wear many snapbacks to compensate. “As everybody knows now a days we are living in a world of multi-hyphens,” she says. “You can’t really be any one thing, because then you’re leaving money on the table. There used to be a time when you would specialize in something and that would be rewarded, but now if you aren’t trying to build your skills in lots of different ways you end being a less rounded person.”
Business, never personal
“I do more favours than I ask for them,” Miss Info adds, later in the discussion. “Because of that I feel confident when I walk into a room and I have a conversation with any artists – they know here they stand. And the ones that don’t, you check them and say, ‘I don’t actually work for you.’” This is a poignant piece of advice for publicists and journalists – artists aren’t your friends. They generally come calling when they need a favour and it’s important to keep that line clearly marked in the sand: lest, you find yourself on the wrong side of an awkward situation.
Be open to opportunities
As the highly celebrated artist Mister Cartoon shared, although he’s never laid down a verse or received a royalty for a song, music has been a major door opener in his career. “I was in the music business, but I didn’t know how to play an instrument,” he says. “You never know when that opportunity is going to hit. I didn’t go to art school to learn how to do album covers. I kind of figured out as I went through them.” As much as Mister Cartoon is an amazing graphic artist, it is really his album covers and tattoos on musicians that he is most readily known for. Success comes in many forms.
The journey is far from over
The grind never stops and as massive as the goal may be, it’s important to break it down into little chunks, shares Mister Cartoon. “(People) didn’t see the years and years of practice along the way. I learned just try to improve yourself one per cent every day. I have all these things in my head, man. I want to change this, I want to do that, I want to do this better, but if I can just stretch a little bit each day, spend 20 more minutes on this tattoo, all of that goes along way.” Just focusing on completing one single task, rather than getting nowhere on a bunch of things is measurable success and is something that will became habit, he advises. Sooner or later, those little successes turn into success.
Photos By. Fitzroy Facey