Relationships matter. This is both good and sad.
There’s a guy I went to high school with who recorded some rap songs and pushed them suuuuper hard on our local scene. Like, the first six months after we graduated (in 2011, in case you’re wondering), he DM’d me eight times on Instagram to ask if I’d support his music.
I never answered him and I never supported his music. Mostly, that was because I’m a bad person, and partly it was because I knew he was messaging everyone from our high school with the same copy-pasted three sentences.
I haven’t thought about this guy for years. But he came to mind as I was writing this email, so I just looked him up on Spotify, and he’s still making music. Actually, he’s pretty talented; he produces his own stuff and it’s solid, and his flow is better (imo) than 90% of what’s on the hip-hop charts.
His top song has 13,000 streams.
I like this guy. I don’t know his whole story, but I know that he’s hustled – hard. I also know that a lot of my friends unfollowed him on Instagram to get away from his DM’s.
On the surface, it seems like he was the unfortunate pursuant of overly-sales-y marketing tactics – that he fell victim to the promise of promo, and his pushy approach undercut his (pretty good) art.
But there’s another guy I went to high school with who marketed his music in a similar manner – meaning, he was real pushy about it.
This other wanna-be rapper never DM’d me directly, but I can remember him posting what seemed to me to be an obnoxious amount of content about his music. He used to hawk his mixtape in the parking lot after high school basketball games; I can remember him literally yelling “We out here! Get your mixtapes here!” like an over-eager hotdog vendor.
I listened to some of his stuff back in the day. I actually thought it was kind of bad.
But I just looked him up on Spotify, where he’s released music under the moniker DJ Carnage, which he then rebranded to Carnage, which I think he’s now scrapped in favor of Gordo.
He has millions of monthly listeners and he just produced a bunch of the tracks on Drake’s latest album.
All of this begs a very simple question…
What the heck?
Like, why did pushing hard not work for one person (who I think is legitimately talented) – while it did work for another person (who I’ll conceded is pretty impressive now, but who really wasn’t in high school)?
The good news and bad news is that, from my limited perspective, it comes down to one distressingly simple thing:
After the first rapper graduated, he stayed home, bouncing around basements and bars while trying to build a following.
After Gordo graduated, he moved from Maryland to the West Coast to make music. I don’t know everything that’s gone right for him since then, but I do know that, pretty early on, he got into rooms with really powerful people, and he made enough of an impression with them to garner some legitimate support.
I always say that the only way to not make it in the music industry is to stop making music. In other words, I think consistency as an artist is the most important factor in success.
But I also think that, if you want to reach a lot of people with your music, at some point, you need connections, too.
If you want scale, eventually, you’ll need to open for an awesome headliner. Or be featured on some big act’s song. Or get a shout-out from a massive account on social. Or whatever.
Relationships matter. As I said at the top of this email, I think that reality is both good and sad.
It’s good because connections can be really beautiful things – at they’re best, they are a) fulfilling in themselves, and b) supportive of art in general. Rising tides lift all boats, and art is meant to be made in community.
But it’s sad because a) connections feel unfair, since we want artists to win solely on the quality of their art, and b) the advantages conferred by connections leads us to treat them as means toward our own ends.
Using relationships as means to your own ends is a poisonous way to treat people / live your life.
Where does this leave you?
Shoot, I don’t know.
If you’re friends with Drake, I guess it leaves you in a pretty good place.
If you’re an indie musician making music from your Muncie, Indiana basement, I guess it’s kind of discouraging.
Whatever your situation, though, I think it’s important to view connections healthily.
The truth is that, to get where you want to go with your music, you probably won’t be able to make the journey alone. Don’t isolate yourself in the name of artistic integrity; look for opportunities to build community with other artists.
Sometimes, connections will lead to commercial success. Sometimes, there will be no measurable benefit to being friends with someone.
But we’re social creatures and the whole point of life is relationship.
Don’t bug big-name people just to use them. But do look for opportunities to make connections with other music industry folks, because community is meaningful.
And even though it’s hard, stay hopeful.
Here’s wishing you good luck this week.
And here’s hoping my future friend Harry Styles finally returns my DMs.