I’ll admit it– being caught up in the NY music business game, it’s a little bit surprising to find out that the industry is being reinvented somewhere in Kansas City.

Luckily, I have those of you who regularly read this blog, one of whom was able to clue me into the Tech N9ne phenomenon, which frankly, I had completely missed. In a response to one of the blogs, Arthur Fischer had cited TechN9ne as an example of a massively successful independent artist who had escaped the need for radio play and expensive promotion. Interestingly, only a month or two later, I opened Billboard to find a full article about TechN9ne’s groundbreaking business model. It’s worthwhile reading for any independent musician in any style…

Check out the Billboard , July 4, 2009 issue.

The interesting thing is that there’s really nothing that groundbreaking at all in Tech N9ne’s operation. It’s Business 101. Only in the fantasy land that is the entertainment industry could the ideas of “every dollar invested needs to make two dollars” and “everything is driven from the fan’s point of view” be considered innovative. In fact, the beauty of TechN9ne’s operation is that it’s rooted in the basic ethos of hard work and common sense. And most importantly, they actually execute it.

In general, Strange Music, which is the company controlled by Tech N9ne and his business partner Travis O’Guin, is the model of a 360 entertainment venture, which is housed in a 18,000 square foot facility in Kansas City, and includes a label, publishing, merchandising, booking and touring business. All of it is built upon the music and touring that have made Tech N9ne one of the least exposed, but most profitable rappers. The Billboard article revealed that in 2008, Strange Music earned more than $11 million dollars.

How does he do it? Touring is certainly the cornerstone– he does more than 200 dates a year. Just the way the textbook outline says it should, the touring drives the record sales– which are significant, with over 1 million sold on 2008′s “Killer”. Then there’s the merch, the licensing, and the publishing on top of all that. Sure– it’s impressive. But not exactly something that’s never been done before. By now, most of the independent artists out there are probably asking themselves “What has he got that I don’t?” Here are four things that Tech N9ne has learned, that many artist/entrepreneurs have not:

1. Patience
This is not a fast road to success. The journey of a successful independent artist is a very long and winding one. Tech N9ne survived two major label deals, numerous failed independent ventures and abandoned business partners. Not many businesses get their plan right on the first try. You have to be willing to come back again and again, learn from failure, reinvent the model and keep moving forward. Tech N9ne is 37 years old, and just hitting the prime of his career. Pretty unusual for a rapper.

2. The Ability to Get Reactions
As a self-described “weird rock alternative warlock with crazy hair, a painted face, who raps backwards”, Tech N9ne makes a strong impression– and that’s something you can build a business on. You can not build an independent business on music, performances or artist identities that are passive– to which audiences have no great emotional reaction, either positive or negative. There are thousands of bands that play 200 anonymous dates a year, and have for twenty years. And every night, the audience applauds politely, and immediately forgets about them. The only way the indie model works is when the music and imaging are so dynamic, or at least so perfectly in tune with a very particular audience (“jam bands” being a good example), that they inspire a passionate response. If you’re playing 200 dates a year, but your myspace site has 200 friends and you’re selling 1000 records, you’re not reactive.

3. A Place To Call Home
Tech N9ne’s success is strongly rooted in his core market within the Midwest. Very wisely, he built his following in a place where the competition was less challenging, and where he could get a foothold in the larger marketplace. His strength in one part of the country allowed him to bring a success story to other, more difficult markets. Too many artists think that being outside of a major market means they need to relocate. In fact, that small local market may be the best asset they have, provided that they are able to build a strong core audience there. Likewise, too many major labels spend a fortune in promotion costs trying to take an unknown artist and break him or her nationally, in every territory at once. Find one region that works, and then spread it out slowly.

4. An Ability to Control Costs
The other advantage to basing a business in a place like Kansas City is that the costs are a fraction of what they would be in a major market. Eleven million dollars a year in earnings is very impressive, but it doesn’t pay for the Universal Music office in midtown Manhattan. One of the major problems of the music industry is not that lack of earnings, but the fact that the costs are outrageously, and unnecessarily high. There is no inherent need for major labels to be housed in the center of the most expensive cities in the world. But that’s where they are, and consequently, they find it almost impossible to make money.

In the same way, many independent artists are seduced by the idea of trying to give the impression of power and success, and wind up wasting alot of money on unnecessary offices, too many employees, or inflated production costs. Tech N9ne’s business runs on inexpensive office space, interns, street team promotion, and careful control of the finances. If the music is reactive and you’re building on a solid local following, there shouldn’t be a need for huge expenditures. All it takes is patience and follow-through.

The growing DYI approach to the music industry is not for everyone. Many artists try it, only to find that it’s more work than they ever thought or that they simply don’t have any of the skills they need to run their own business. Without a doubt, it is extremely labor intensive, challenging, slow and decidedly lacking in show biz glamor.

But it’s not a mystery. There’s no secret method that Tech N9ne used to build a successful business. It all comes down to making smart decisions instead of self-indulgent ones, caring for the customer rather than the corporation, and pulling in fans, one by one, show by show, every time you play. “We’re Wal-Mart”, Tech N9ne has been quoted as saying. “There’s no Warner Bros., Def Jam or Sony in the Midwest, so we had to build our own.” Good thing he did.

    Most inspirational article I’ve read, and so true. I’m been talking with my producer about such a model for the last two years now, but we have not put in the time to execute. There was a time when I was focused on my artist career, and we were connecting with fans on MySpace, one by one, and cultivating that artist-fan relationship. But we never built momentum because I did not perform on a regular basis, and I was not even putting a little money into it. At 23 now, I’m refreshed, and enlightened. To get back to the way we used to do things. I’m helping another producer/artist with his first release currently, because he has more time to tour, and make things happen. I’m spending a lot of time working, and with family, so putting out something myself is not right for me at this time. But I fully intend to continue to write for the artists I’m helping to develop, the ones that do have time to get out there, perform, and build their brand.

    Another important item you mentioned is that the music has to be reactive. Can’t just be what we are used to hearing. Needs to have some “edge” to it (as you’ve mentioned in your new book which I’m reading now). So I hope to continue to heed the advice from examples like Tech.

    Very informative, and I really liked the ending line about “pulling in fans one by one, show by show” because in acuality, that is the exact truth. And having a good business sense in the way of not spending more than you have, or keeping profits high and costs low is as remedial Business 101 as supply and demand. Too bad I just play, and leave the numbers to others!

    Good story Eric, That is quite the revenue-generating indy act. Wow! I think you hit the nail on the head with the “reactive” qualities of an artist being essential. I am not an immediately reactive artist as our friend tech here… now does this mean I need to call myself B. K33L3ZEL and play a one string upright bass while dawning a platinum grill, maybe…haha. It’s all about knowing your target, it seems rappers can really get followings quickly as outright promotion is expected, hype if you will. The Adult Contemporary / Singer-songwriter field takes a little more…it could be called long-tail approach or passive (I like to call it nuturing and starbucks-y). But in essence same theory about the customer, just different audience. Although I do have to say, I may have to put an upright bass on order in case this whole starbucks-y approach doesn’t pan out.

    - Brandon Keeley
    http://www.brandonkeeley.net

    Eric,

    Good eye ! I love the recognition you’ve shown to a true indie hip hop artist. Tech N9ne is one of my favorites to listen to and watch business wise. He has achieved success practicing business models that personally work for for his schedule and life style. Can’t believe you made this post before me ! Actually I can, great work as always.

    My respects,

    Ryan Liechti

    Well what can I say. Thanks for the shout-out and big ups to Tech N9ne :) By far the most underrated rap artist ever. My fav hiphop act of all time. Undeniable skills, out of this world. Underrated or not: he doesn’t care at this point of his career. he outshines the regular urban artist anway. profit wise and artistic wise. he has the last laugh!

    What can I say, great article once again! I heard about Tech and his business model some time ago through the aforementioned Arthur F. :) Much respect to Tecca Nina – incomparable rap style, lyrics and persona plus business savvy and absolute persistence! And Travis O’Guin: he’s a guy who fully understands Tech’s musical intentions and doesn’t set him any creative limits. one of the keys to his success. as you mentioned, sometimes you gotta be patient until you find the right partner, label, situation etc. He’s made the right moves and now he’s eating major artists ALIVE! ;)

    I first heard about Tech N9ne six years ago up in NorCal, where he had caught the attention of my roommate. He always was one step ahead of the trend. So right there, your grabline caught my attention.

    I am a married, dad to four, living in Worcester. I currently play bass in a garage band. I am passionate about music and would like it to be my career someday.

    I love the fact that you took the time to pinpoint, and highlight the acheivements of one of my all time hip hop artist.I am an underground rap artist myself. I have opened shows for larger acts, I have a good fan base, and I’ve put out a few cd’s.I haven’t come close to what Tech N9ne or Insane Clown Posse has done.
    Psychopathic Records, and Strange Music are both proud examples to underground artist as well as fans of what hard work is.With neither ICP or Tech N9ne having any radio and/or Video play, they pull in millions of dollars a year.Each faction having a very large fan base, not just in America(world wide as well) they prove to aspiring artist that it can be done.
    All a young, and talented artist needs is the willingness to work, a superb work ethic, and something about you that will endear you to the audience you are striving for.

    Tech N9ne is truly an inspiration to Indie artists everywhere. Even if they’re not hip hop artists, they all have something to learn from what he does. I’m from the midwest, but didn’t hear about Tech N9ne until I lived in California. Right after his album “Absolute Power” broke and he was starting to build steam. I’ve worked as a Street Teamer for Strange Music, and they do great amazing things.

    I thank you for your article, because it really speaks volumes for Tech and the work the Strange boys put in. They’re outstanding. Thanks again.

    I’ve been listening to Tech N9ne for a good 9-10 years. As a musician, Strange Music is an inspiration. My favorite label by far.

    Tech and Trav have showed the world that with hard work and perseverence, you can do anything.

    “We checked the Mil / Yes it’s real / through Strange I don’t need your major label record deals…” – Tech N9ne

    TECH N9NE IS THE BEST THING IN MUSIC. NO OTHER CAN EVEN MATCH OR SURPASS THE MAN’S PERSONALITY TOWARD HIS FANS OR OTHER PEOPLE. HE’S GOT FANS BECAUSE HE’S A PERSONAL GUY…. AND SOMEWHERE IN THE 10 OR MORE ALBUMS HE’S PUT OUT… SOMEONE HAS FELT THE SAME AND BEGAN DIGGING WHAT HE’S SAYING. NOWHERE IN A CD WILL YOU HEAR “MY WHIP, MY CHAIN, BITCHES AND HO’S”, ETC. YOU GET TECH N9NE BEING TECH N9NE. HIS SHOWS ARE AMAZING. GO ON YOU TUBE… TYPE IN “TECH N9NE LIVE 2009″ AND JUST SCAN THE VIDEOS. IT’S ALLLLLLL IN HIS WORDS…. NOT THE VIDEOS CUZ HE HAS ABOUT 5. THATS ALL. HE’S THE TIP OF THE DIRTY NEEDLE AND HE’S BRINGING HIS PEOPLE WITH HIM LIKE A DISEASE. (KRIZZ KALIKO AND KUTT AND BIG SCOOB) BASICALLY, HE’S THE FACE OF HIS OWN COMPANY AND HE’S NOT BEING A CONCEITED ASS…. HE’S PULLIN THE REST UP WITH HIM AND HELPIN EVERYONE. VERY UNIQUE STYLE IN EVERYTHING HE DOES. THATS WHY HE IS THE SHIT AND THE NUMBER ONE RAPPER AND DESERVES ABOUT 100 GRAMMYS AND EVERYTHING ELSE. AND SOME BIG TIME FAME. TECH N9NE!!!!

    Tech N9ne is my undoubted favorite rapper and the reasons u specified are y i like him he grinds non stop and ignores everyone who tells him he couldnt blow up look at him now sickology 101 is one of the sickest albums ive ever heard in my life

    Tech is an inspiration to most of us underground artists, and definitely a business model. Although it would be in poor fashion to ignore similar models, aka Psychopathic, Suburban Noize and Uncle Howie, Strange is hands-down the leader in this type of marketing.

    Our label, One-Hour Pharmacy (1HRx) Records has learned from this model and it has helped a ton. Independent artists can’t rely on, well, art. We didn’t turn a dime until we started diversifying (Mastering, promotional, print and booking services) and you’re right about the “boring” artists not doing much on the friend-request call-back tip.

    It’d be shameless to plug our own stuff on this article, but if anyone wants to see how we copied (or attempted to copy) some of this model, hit up 1HRxEnterprises.com or 1HRxRecords.com. And for being 37, Tech sure can rap circles around most of the younger cats so age is not exactly a handicap here.

    Great post. One point not mentioned though is Strange Music’s collaboration with Psychopathic Records and Suburban Noize Records. The three labels have put their talents together in a very large number of concerts, albums, and free collabo songs. I know Strange Music has gained thousands if not tens of thousands of fans by working with Psychopathic, and I bet Tech knows it too.

    [...] business model. It’s worthwhile reading for any independent musician in any style…” Click here to read the entire [...]

    thisishow theindustry should be.all indie.100%control of our own product.strangeandsic, wit it ruthless and to every other lesser known atrsit owned and opperated labels,KEEPGRINDIN.

    Might not have to wait long for that. With the way the label business is going, and the court decision on the new Eminem case regarding digital royalties, the major labels could soon become a distant memory…

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