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Feb 10, 2009 | Comments

Lil Wayne is everywhere (via peasandnuts):

Popular domination in under 18 months. What happened? Like Obama, he ignored all of the rules and used the Internet to distribute content and engage the masses.

10,000 hours? Check.

Lil Wayne did things differently to achieve success, but it’s worth stressing that he’s also talented. Lil Wayne was 12 years old when he was signed by a record producer. At 15, he joined a hip-hop group. At 26, he’s spent nearly 50% of his life in a recording studio. In short, he has 10,000 hours under his belt in a short time period (“10,000 hours rule” is a concept from “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, claiming mastery in a subject requires 10,000 hours of practice).

Internet Marketing 101: release great content, quickly and cheaply

Lil Wayne had some success in 2005, but nothing close to the impact he had in 2008. Why? For two years (2006-2007) Lil Wayne saturated the market with collaborations and mixtapes. He redefined the idea of mixtapes, releasing several free albums worth of music, freely distributed, continuously testing the market’s response for each song (similar to the micro-experience, iterative process that works so well on the web).

At the end of 2007, without ever releasing any official content for two years, he was “Hottest MC in the Game” and “Rapper of the Year” from The New Yorker.

Explosion

After two years of mass collaboration and distributing free music, he released his “offical album,” Tha Carter III. It sold one million copies in its first week. In an era of file sharing, Tha Carter III is the first platinum album since 2005, (50 cent, 1.1 million).

Why it Worked

The economics of free are constantly debated–no need to adjudicate whether giving away music for two years was fiscally responsible. But one thing is for sure–it created a ton of excess demand and buzz. Often without Lil Wayne’s consent, there was a constant stream of mixtapes (content) distributed so widely that “fans would sing along with mixtape songs at concerts.”  Serious rap fans downloaded the mixtapes like fanatics–conversations and engagement occured that would never be observed with paid-content (i.e., the music can not be distributed as easily). Further, after each mixtape (~every 3 months), Lil Wayne could guage his fans’ reactions and tweak accordingly.

The record label was very worried about the mixtapes, nothing like it had ever been done, “The mixtapes were obviously very concerning to us…it goes counter to what we would like our artists to do.” The standard practice for record labels (or any product/company) is to methodically control the distribution of music (i.e, release a new album every 1.5-2 years).

Record labels (and again, any product/company) equate success with scarcity–let anticipation slowly build toward each rare release. “But between the installments of ‘Tha Carter’, Lil Wayne has been ubiquitous, embracing saturation rather than scarcity” (via NY Times).

It’s almost too simple–Lil Wayne used the Internet to continuously distribute free content, testing the market, revising his product, and achieving saturation. Finally, when he released paid-content, fans were craving “official” music so deeply that Tha Carter III became the music industry’s only success for the past three years.

Perhaps “free” works after all.

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  • Hiphop loves mixtapes--but two of my favorite mixes, The Gray Album and Gnotorious (Jay-z/Beatles and Gnarls Barkley/Biggie), were both suppressed by the media companies. Perhaps this is a conflict of old media not understanding the music culture.

    Regarding freemium, I havn't researched it enough to make an opinion. At best, anything that can be copied will drive towards zero cost, so you have to assume something will give. LiveNation has an interesting business model--perhaps this is the pot of gold for the industry.

  • Something to consider is that hip-hop music culture has always thrived on the "mixtape," even in the early golden days. If you can't sell it, you push out of the back of your truck until you can.

    It's a culture of hustle, which is represented in the music. I agree freemium is where the music industry HAS to go (no other choice), but will the freemium model keep the artists afloat? I admire Lil' Wayne (and the marketing folks responsible for the majority of his moves), but will freemium work outside of hip-hop?

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