The MixTape Marketing Formula: How to Make Money from Word-of-Mouth

January 6, 2011
By Gareth Rees

We reveal the FOUR LESSONS Hip-hop history can teach you about self-publishing

Back in the 1980s, if a rapper wanted to become known, he’d publish his own work. It was easily done. He took a backing track and rapped over it, recording the results onto a cassette tape.

He’d then pass the tape around as many people as he knew. Take it to parties. Hawk it on street corners. Even charge a few dollars for it. It didn’t matter to listeners that this was roughly recorded pirated material. People wanted to hear new fresh sounds and the mainstream industry wasn’t providing it. Besides, there was something exciting about listening to a distorted underground recording.

By the early ‘90s, hip-hop mixtapes had flowered into a variety of forms. You could get hold of compilations of rare tracks, continuous mixes of party music, or commonly-known instrumentals over-dubbed with new raps. Many were now on CD, files uploaded onto the internet. These were swapped and traded among hardcore hiphop fans or sold on street corners and in small music shops.

Rappers quickly realized that this form of self-publishing was the easiest and quickest way to build a reputation and an audience. They could then monetize that reputation with performances and record deals. This process launched the careers of Eminem, Jay-Z and Chamillionaire.

But it was 50 Cent in particular who showed how powerful word-of-mouth could be.

From a hail of bullets to 872,000 sales

In 2001 Colombia records dumped 50 Cent, or “fiddy” if you will. A small matter of him getting shot 9 times. They didn’t think it would do much for their reputation. A classic example of dinosaur thinking in the music industry.

Rather than look for a new deal, 50 Cent created a glut of mixtapes and spilled them out onto the streets. People listened, engaged with the story and passed the word round. His reputation soared. The result of this word-of-mouth buzz was a bidding war.

As a result, Dr Dre signed him to his label. Their first release, Get Rich or Die Tryin', sold 872,000 copies in a week.

Crikey. That's some conversion rate.

Since then hip-hop mixtapes have been widely used as a way of promoting an artist in advance of an official release or tour. Often the tapes are rough-edit samples of the material to come. In a sense, they’re low-priced, or even free, marketing tools designed to designed to sell a premium product further down the line.

Today, like most underground music forms, mixtapes are going down the freemium route. Sites like http://www.datpiff.com/, http://www.livemixtapes.com and http://www.mixconnect.com/ offer free mixtapes. You can listen to them. You can upload your own. You can share your favourites among your social network. And if you’re able to produce popular mixtapes, it’s possible to monetise them without needing a record label.

How to monetize mixtapes

Websites like Songcast allow you to sell your mixtapes on iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, Napster, Emusic and MediaNet. You pay a joining fee, after which you can keep all of your royalties. They give you free public store profile and links to your Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. You can also build a mailing list out of your buyers.

Another service called Mixaloo offers you free instrumental downloads which you can then turn into mixtapes. The idea is that you upload your music and share it with friends on MySpace and Facebook. You can even sell these mixes and keep half the profits.

These are just a few innovations that must be keeping traditional record labels awake at night.

Of course, you’re probably not a hip-hop artist. You may even dislike hip hop. You might consider it to be a steaming pile of self-regarding, testosterone-fuelled, jewellery-clad noise.

I can see why. Personally I shun the MTV gangsta porn in favour of the more intelligent beat poetry of outsiders like Edan and MF Doom, or the worldly turntable wizardry of Madlib. There’s lots of good stuff to hear out there.

But whatever your opinion on the music, there are four valuable lessons to learn from hip-hop history.

The mixtape marketing formula

1. Self-publish – even if you’ve got only a basic blog, a plain text email newsletter and no budget. Get yourself out there. Spread the word. People don’t mind lo-fi material. It’s all about the usefulness of your content. If you have something to say, that’s all that’s important. Don’t try and compete with the mainstream. Your content is underground, self-published and urgent – and people will love your for it.

2. Word of mouth is a currency – even if you’ve not yet monetized your blog, email newsletter or free content website, don’t worry. The important thing is to build a reputation. If your email list is growing and you’re gaining followers and friends through your social media activities, you’re on the right track. Money will come later. With enough of an audience, you have the potential to promote premium products, advertise other people’s products, or even start charging for areas of your content.

3. Share other people’s information – in the modern internet age, information is considered free, especially by the new digital generation. If you don’t have a mass of original ideas, or time to do research, then share the information out there already. Rappers used other people’s songs, samples and instrumentals. You can do a similar thing. We don’t advocate plagiarism. But these days you can create content by gather information from sources online, passing it on, and even linking to those sources. As long as you offer an opinion and give credit where credit’s due, the internet’s your oyster.

4. Make your marketing valuable and desirable These days many mixtapes are a form of free sample marketing. Listeners know they’re being primed to pay for something later, but still they love hearing the music regardless. Who cares if it's marketing? It's quality! Likewise your content should have its own inherent value, regardless of whether you’re using it to market something. It should be able to stand alone. As advertising guru Leo Burnett wrote about sales copy: "Make it simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read."

So there you have it. Rap marketing at its finest. If you have your own insights into this topic, we’d love to hear from you. Comments are always welcome.

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3 Responses to The MixTape Marketing Formula: How to Make Money from Word-of-Mouth

  1. Andi on January 10, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    I can't believe I never noticed the parralel, I got into early old school hip hop in the middle 80s then expanded out into the acid house phenomenon which grew into rave, jungle and hardcore that is around today. Each style implemented the same system making many small time DJs into wealthy well travelled superstars like Pete Tong, Judge Jules and Carl Cox to name a few.The world famous record label XL Recordings was started by a guy selling live recordings (mix tapes) from raves of D.J.s doing hour long sets from a stall on Camden Market, XL went on to sign and make stars of many D.J.s, eventually going on to signed The Prodigy and well, who hasn't heard of the Prodigy! Madonna wanted to sign the Prodigy to her Maveric label! Music culture and its stars have grown from the initial Freemium method. Stupidly, I never realised it's power, I just took it as the norm. D'oh

    • Gareth Rees on January 10, 2011 at 9:58 pm

      Absolutely. The rave scene is another great example. Promoters and DJs put on free performances and offered free bootlegs. Reputations grew. Recordinar starst appeared. Record labels were created. All from a cultural movement spread through word of mouth. Just imagine how much easier it would have been to organise and locate raves if Twitter had existed.
      Anyway, thanks for reading!

  2. lolapikis on January 13, 2011 at 10:24 am

    like this example; good illustration of getting your message out

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