Did D’Angelo do “a Beyoncé”?

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It had been nearly 15 years since the iconic album Voodoo came out. Everyone knew a new album was in the works and had been for a long time. D’Angelo started touring again 2 years ago and played new material here and there. But the release of a new album was only expected for next year by hopeful fans. A song appeared on Soundcloud last Saturday.

Suddenly, on sunday, a really private industry listening party was organised by Red Bull Music Academy (they’re everywhere!) and by the end of the day, Black Messiah was available on iTunes. CD copies were available in stores as soon as monday. And it’s everything we were hoping for! Another Soul lesson by one of the masters, singing on infectious grooves with a fat bottom end expertly delivered by the likes of Questlove, Pino Paladino and Chris Dave. None of the traditional month-long promotional rollout had been done prior to the release. Only a mysterious 15 seconds teaser was posted on Youtube last Friday, reminiscent of Columbia’s announcement of Daft Punk’s last album. Only they had done it a month or two before release in order to create buzz and an important demand.

So is this a Beyoncé-inspired surprise release strategy by RCA Records? (The superstar had released her self-titled visual album with no promotion at all last December). Absolutely not . In a insightful article, the New York Times told the story behind the release and confirmed many people’s idea that the album was dropped early in response to the current protests happening across the US. The piece explains how a month ago, D’Angelo, shocked and troubled by the decision of a Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict the cop responsible for unarmed Mike Brown’s fatal shooting, called his manager Kevin Liles : “Do you believe this? Do you believe it?” At this point, the singer and his record label decided to rush the release of the album. Black Messiah is not a fully political album, but it does contain a certain social commentary. It was then natural for the singer to decide to release it in this context of social tensions and protests.

D’Angelo himself explains it best in a statement provided to the listening party’s guests: “Black Messiah is a hell of a name for an album. It can be easily misunderstood. Many will think it’s about religion. Some will jump to the conclusion that I’m calling myself a Black Messiah. (…) It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decided to make change happen.”

Future Business Models: When brands go beyond endorsements. Part 6: Guiness Amplifiy

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Not just another brand jumping on the music bandwagon, Guiness launched this year an exciting program for young musicians thirsty not only for stout, but for success too. The beer giant put together an exciting program in multiple steps to boost emerging talent in their beloved country of Ireland. Guiness Amplify (which was also organised in two big asian markets, Malaysia and Indonesia) aims to aid these talents gain exposure and reach their full potential with several activites: concerts, studio time, workshops and masterclasses with industry specialists and established artists.

Similarly to Converse, they opened applications online and selected hundreds of Irish acts. Acting as a massive booking agency, they then linked up with hundreds of pubs accross Ireland and organized Guiness Amplifiy Live nights in all these venues, with tens of simultaneous gigs across the country every week during September and October. As a special treat for the pubs and their patrons, several of these events had surprise established headliners such as Bastille, Disclosure, Rudimental, Ellie Goulding, George Ezra and many more. Pub managers, like Paul Boyd couldn’t be more delighted: “What a night! When we heard about Guinness Amplify we really wanted to be part of it, as it benefits both the musicians and the pub but we never thought we’d end up hosting two of the biggest names in music! Having Disclosure, Duke Dumont and Daithí was a very special experience that we will talk about for years to come.”

Guiness Amplify’s panel of music professional then also selected the strongest acts and offered them free professional studio time. All applicants could also all sign-up for workshops and master classes. Finally, in February, the projects best participants will be showcased on some of the countries most iconic venues.

This ambitious operation undoubtedly offers great support and opportunities for emerging artists. The only downside to it is that the young talents supposed to be discovered through this are totally overshadowed by the guest stars on the brand’s Youtube video content, a non-negligible channel when it comes to gaining exposure. Music lovers have to find their way to the Guiness Amplify website to discover the flood of talent. Hopefully, the traction gained to the Youtube channel through the special guests videos will be used to showcase the best talents due to play on the big stages in February.

Future Business Models: When brands go beyond endorsements. Part 5: Converse Rubber Tracks

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Like Hard Rock and Red Bull, Converse have recognised the marketing power of partnering with musicians. The century-old shoes and clothing brand are also offering their support to rising artists in a humbler (yet just as welcomed) way than the other two companies: in 2010 they built and opened the Rubber Tracks Studio in the hip neighbourhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

You will have guessed it, it’s free of use for any band who successfully goes through the application process on their website. Trying to accommodate as many young musicians as they can, the Converse Rubber Tracks team select the best applicants every week and invite to them to records for 1 or 2 days with a professional team of sound engineers. Recently, the brand has also started touring a pop-up Rubber Tracks Studio in several cities across North America, with the same application process.  Even though artists used the facilities for free, they own any master recording made in the studio and are offered the option to authorise the use of their music on Converse’s website and social media profiles.

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Naturally, most artist who were given to opportunity to record for free will be inclined to authorise converse to use their music. Moreover, appearing on a major brand’s online platform can only result in additional exposure. This provides Converse with an unlimited source of cool content to share on their Soundcloud and Youtube pages, helping the brand to tap into the indie culture and capture more credibility with the key young and cool demographic.

This act of music philanthropy, along with several other musical operations events involving already established indie artists (such as Rubber Tracks Live concerts), certainly has a greatly positive impact on the cool factor of the brand and has also arguably played a part in the recent radical growth of the company, which has seen its revenues jump from $ 205 million in 2002 to $ 1.4 billion in 2014!

Future Business Models: When brands go beyond endorsements. Part 4: Red Bull Records Act III

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We’ve seen how attractive Red Bull Records are to artists who want to benefit from a certain level of artistic control and have the tools and time to develop their sound and their career on a serious long-term plan. But on top of their amazing facilities and great artist development team, does the label actually have the power and reach to generate revenue for their artists? This was probably the weakest point in the case of Hard Rock records, which offers great financial support to their bands but ultimately doesn’t seem too interested in album sales.

As you’d expect, Red Bull went all the way when founding their label and the imprint has a complete offer for their roster. The releases are distributed by Sony Music’s RED Distribution in North America and EMI in Europe. The label handles everything: marketing, publishing, radio-plugging, sync licensing and so on. Due to the diversity of their roster (showcased yet again by their latest singing Itch) Red Bull Records has only decided to outsource Public Relations work.

It seems like the answer to the question above is a big Yes. Red Bull Records’ contracts offer the artists with the prospect of several revenue streams well managed and collected by the label, making it one of the most attractive record companies out there. Quietly growing, with a genuine passion for music that makes us forget that they are ultimately selling cans of energy drink, Red Bull Records is to be watched closely as it becomes one of the top independent labels in the world.

Future Business Models: When brands go beyond endorsements. Part 3: Red Bull Records Act II

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Red Bull Studios in London

If the successful team and artist roster of Red Bull records was not enough for you to see them as big players, let’s take a further look at their amazing offer. With their own state of the art recording facilites around the world, Red Bull allows a multitude of artist to achieve professional results. Spread across 4 continents, the 9 beautifully designed and equiped Red Bulls Studios are put to good use for up-and-coming artists through the multitude of music programs and competitions ran by the brand. And obviously, the labels roster benefits from unlimited access to the facilities, a luxury which other record companies may not always be able to offer. And that is another strong asset for the label’s strong culture of artist development, and a deal-maker for artists, as expressed by Aaron Bruno of AWOLNATION: “I wasn’t looking for a lot of money, I wanted control. I always wanted to produce my own record. Red Bull is the only one that came to me and said, ‘We like you and we’ll let you do what you do. We want to help your vision.’ Not to mention that they have a really great studio that I can use whenever they don’t have acts in there. I’ve had endless amounts of hours in that studio and it doesn’t cost anything for me to use it.”

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Red Bull Studios, Sao Paolo

With a focus on cutting-edge artists and the right facilities for them to develop their novel sounds, the label really puts music at the center of it all: “We look for artists who can have a cultural impact, who are left of center but ultimately have the potential to reach a larger audience,” says managing director Greg Hammer. “Our goal is to find artists that don’t sound like everyone else. We don’t aim to be a ‘niche’ label, but we try to find diverse artists musically, that are truly talented, but may take a bit more time and effort to find an audience.” Clearly the label isn’t worried by the same financial constraints as the rest of the industry. Thanks to the resources of the brand, and a budget that gives you wings.

Future Business Models: When brands go beyond endorsements. Part 2: Red Bull Records Act I

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When it comes to brands embracing music as a full part of their activity, it doesn’t get more serious than Red Bull. For over 15 years, the energy drink giant has been hosting music events and workshops, starting with Red Bull Music Academy and the Red Bull Music Labs. The company is no stranger to diversifying their investments in entertainment and lifestyle assets as they own several football teams, a Formula 1 team, stadiums, a mobile network and more! Therefore, it was a quite natural evolution for the brand to launch their own record label in 2007.

Red Bull Records was put together with several experience industry players including Greg Hammer, ex director of A&R at Universal Music and David Burrier, former vice president of marketing at Atlantic Records. But unlike other activities conducted by Red Bull, the brand and the label’s name itself are keeping a low profile and leaving all the spotlight for the artists. Or as Hammer put it: “The first rule of Red Bull Records is you don’t talk about Red Bull Records.”

The label started when Red Bull built a studio in Santa Monica and allowed small indie bands to record for free. Since then it expanded with Red Bulls records singing a roster of exciting acts including Twin Atlantic, Beartooth and Awolnation, who’s debut album on the label sold over 500’000 copies in the US and featured the platinum selling single Sail.

With a team of experienced A&R’s, Red Bull Records is probably the only brand label with such successful releases. The imprint is all about their artists and puts a strong emphasis on their development as Hammer explains: “we are in the business of building careers. It’s really about the artists. We purposely avoid blatant branding because it takes away from the music. We want our artists to be judged by their art, not by their label.”

Future Business Models: When brands go beyond endorsements. Part 1: Hard Rock Records

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It is a well known fact that brands hold a strong place in the future of music. With traditional income streams diminishing, artists have already started turning to brands a while ago. Wether it is up and coming independent bands getting support from their local instruments store, or superstars Beyoncé and Jay-Z cashing in on tens of millions of dollars from Pepsi and Samsung, endorsement deals are now an integral part of any professional musician’s plan and are no longer considered selling out.

But in recent years, several brands have gone the extra mile in their offering to artists by building recording studios, festivals or even record labels. In this post we’ll have a look at the case of Hard Rock Records.

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The famous restaurant/hotel chain present in 54 countries around the world have launched there their very own label back in 2012 to which they initially signed only one act, Mississippi band Rosco Bandana. The southern rockers were chosen through a nationwide battle of the bands called Hard Rock Rising. Keeping in mind the state of the music industry, you would be excused for calling the Hard Rock Café management that this is the poorest possible choice of diversification of activity and revenue streams.

It starts sounding even more suspicious when you find out that essentially, Hard Rock Records recorded the band’s album, gave them thousands of dollars for music videos, provided them with a van, helped them get booked around the country and didn’t ask for a single penny in return. The band keeps it all! Well here’s the catch: the company sees this music philanthropy as budgeted marketed expense, hoping that they can help the band rise to success while boosting brand awareness and overall build a positive reputation.

Since then, they have signed London-based band The Carnabys along with three other acts and are hoping to scout three new acts each year (in no particular genre) as well as signing the yearly winner of their Hard Rock Rising competition.

Other brands have launched their record labels. And while this ultimate anti-360 deal offering from Hard Rock isn’t necessarily a highway to fame, it is definitely an amazing opportunity for new acts to find budget while keeping artistic control.

Future Business Models: Ryan Leslie wants to disrupt the music industry

Artists are creators by definition, but should their creativity end when the recording process is over? Harvard graduate and Grammy nominated singer/producer Ryan Leslie believes not! In an interview with mnfsto.com, the somewhat narcissistic yet smart hit maker argues that “for a new artist to ascribe to an antiquated business model, really to me is the antithesis of creativity. If you are truly a creator, then are you looking to extend and push the boundaries of culture and artistic contributions of our generation. Then it is imperative that you adopt a model that empowers future creativity.”

After having his big international break in 2006 with Cassie’s hit single Me & U, which he wrote and produced, Leslie went down the traditional route releasing two relatively successful solo albums with Casablanca Records (Universal). But in 2010, when Universal tried to reshape four-albums contract into a 360-type deal, Leslie decided to break the contract and try a different, independent approach.

In 2012, bypassing the traditional intermediaries, he independently released Les is More on his own music and media company NextSelection Lifestyle Group, partnering with RED Distribution (Sony). It was sold as a audiovisual album on his website and later released on iTunes as well. However, this would be his last affiliation with any major company. Leveraging the web technology, the entreprenartist, decided to adopt a fully direct-to-consumer model from then on.

His last album Black Mozart was released through his #Renegades fan club exclusively in digital form. The first big advantage is that the money goes directly in his pocket, avoiding a 30% fee by iTunes or an even bigger cut from a record label. Fans have to pay a fee to become members of his #Renegades club in order to obtain a free download of the album. This allows Leslie to know the details (including email address and phone number) of every single person who purchased his album. THIS is key to his new business model. The subscription also allows fans to engage directly with Ryan Leslie and his team via email or text message, with the artist claiming to manage his email account himself. The man therefore proudly declares himself to be in the data game, and it seems to be a fruitful approach.

Diminishing the importance of sales numbers, the model focuses on capitalising on the core and faithful fan base by establishing a strong relationship with them. Excessively active on social media, Leslie constantly shares his thoughts and activities with his followers, often encouraging them to come meet him at certain places. By engaging so personally with his fans, he gains their trust and respect which allows him to monetise his activities through more than just album sales. Rather expensive merchandise supposedly strongly contributes to his income, along with priced meet-and-greets, concert tickets (sold directly on his website, with VIP options) and special parties (the artist celebrates New Years in Vienna with his most faithful fans, with tickets options ranging from $220 to $1,700!)

Artists such as 50 Cent, Talib Kweli and Raphael Saadiq followed his advice and have released studios albums through their own music membership clubs and Leslie himself is set to release his new album on new years via his #Renegades club. Now, with his new management platform Disruptive Multimedia, the multi-talented musician aspires transform the industry by sharing his approach with other artists, established or not, educating them on how to earn a living out of music by keeping a strong bond with their audience and thus being able to make them pay for a variety of products, activities and exclusive experiences. Think of it as an ongoing Kickstarter campaign.

So is Leslie a visionary on the brink of revolutionising the industry? Where are the limits and weaknesses of this model? Personally, I’ll be keeping a close eye on it to see how it works on the long run. Let me know what you think in the comments!