The secret to hip-hip duo Run The Jewels’ success? Their music, of course. But there has also been some canny marketing going on around the band’s rise to cultural prominence.
Today at Midem, manager Amaechi Uzoigwe from Monotone, and marketing agency The Other Hand’s Zena White discussed how Run The Jewels have made the most of various marketing channels.
Uzoigwe gave some of the history. Killer Mike and El-P have been making underground hip-hop for a couple of decades, winning plenty of respect in the process. When they met, Run The Jewels was born. “It was like a bromance! They’d been waiting their whole lives to meet each other. They just hit it off,” he said. “It’s been a pretty interesting ride ever since! It’s anomalous, especially in rap, to have two guys aged 40 make their breakthrough.”
“What’s important is the music, the fans, and making sure you’re compensated fairly for the work that you do… If you don’t have good content, and if you don’t have an audience that cares about it, what’s the point? So for us, that relationship with the fans is sacrosanct… their fans are everything. And so long as you give your fans something of value, they’re going to repay you.”
Including releasing music for free. “I said ‘what the fuck is wrong with you?!” remembered Uzoigwe, while stressing that the fan response to Run The Jewels distributing their music for free has been the key driver of their career since.
White talked about the strategy around all this, and the way a traditional label deal has been replaced. “All you’re taking away from a normal structure is another entity that takes more money out of the record revenue. But in terms of the team and the way it’s structured, it pretty much has all that skillset there,” she said.
“The number of arguments we’ve had about giving the music away for free. ‘Why should Spotify prioritise the editorial? It’s available for free. Why should Apple get behind this? It’s available for free.’.. But actually just because it’s free doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. The free record we found was a way for people to come to the music, and then they’d stay. If that meant they were buying tickets or t-shirts or vinyl… or even buying it on iTunes as a download, even though they can get it for free. Because they want to pay for it.”
Uzoigwe said that this strategy won’t work for all artists. “We’re in an industry where everyone just follows like sheep. ‘Someone’s doing free music? We’ve all got to do free music! Someone’s doing VR? We’ve all got to do VR!’,” he said. “People mistake tactics for strategy. There are tactics all over the place. ‘We can do this! We can do this!’ Sure you can, but what’s the strategic underpin to your gameplan?”
Run The Jewels just launched their own craft beer. “It makes a lot of sense. The brewery doing it was one of my first interns. He ended up running my label for 10 years, and then left to become a craft brewer,” he said.
“The guys wanted to do a beer because they know their audience are of drinking age, and they love to drink beer!” And the band are about to do a ‘Run the Jewellery’ line. “Because they love gold chains! So we’re going to drop Run the Jewellery, and one of their wives is the jewellery-maker. We do handbags for women now, which I know sounds preposterous. But EL-P’s mom designs handbags.”
Uzoigwe said the process of building a team around Run The Jewels has been iterative, according to the skills that are needed. “We try to keep it lean and mean. We like money! We want to keep ALL the money if possible,” he grinned.
“It’s not about the fame and being on TV. Who gives a fuck? It’s about being paid correctly for the work you do… We work with Apple, we work with a lot of great brands, but we work with them on our terms. Because they [Run the Jewels] have earned the right… If there isn’t a proper value exchange, what’s the point?”
White added that a number of Run The Jewels’ team wear several different hats, while marketing agency Motive Unknown works digitally across the band’s entire business: not just the music, but live, merchandise and so on. “It works better than any other team I’ve been a part of, where people are pulling in different directions,” she said.
“Everyone is so used to being provincial or siloed… why not join forces, and it will be better for everyone?” agreed Uzoigwe. “It’s easy for these guys, because people want to do it for them.”
Was the ‘cool factor’ of label Fool’s Gold important in the early days of Run The Jewels? “It was a super-cool label, and he let us do what we wanted to do. It was a vehicle for Run The Jewels to do things their own way. They didn’t have an issue with free albums or anything else,” he said. “It’s really fun to work with people like that.”
“We get the music out there in any ways possible. Sometimes people come to the music not through the music. They may see Killer Mike on television doing an interview about politics… they may see the artwork,” he continued. “We try and keep the ball in play always. Visually, because especially young people, they listen as much with their eyes as their ears these days, so you’ve got to make it interesting.”
Music Ally’s Midem 2017 coverage is supported this year by Music is GREAT, the British government’s campaign to promote UK music exports.
The UK and British Music are represented through the British Music at Midem stand, with the Department for International Trade joining forces with music industry associations AIM (Association of Independent Music), BPI (British Phonographic Industry), MPA (Music Publishers Association), PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited) and PRS for Music.
Together, they will support over 150 UK music businesses and member delegates as they seek to pick up on the latest trends, connect with international companies, sign deals and develop trading and export opportunities.