By Elizabeth B. Christian
What’s a headstrong, creative musical artist to do now that the music industry is in freefall, and record labels prefer signing easily moldable youth who can be pre-packaged and marketed to a mainstream audience with a ready-made profit margin? Singing talent is optional as long as you look like a star and will do as your label commands. In fact, labels often balk at originality in a marketplace increasingly based on the bottom line rather than the message in the music.
The music industry of the 21st industry reminds me of a 1973 episode of the iconic sitcom The Brady Bunch in which a record producer offers Greg the role of rock star Johnny Bravo because he “fit the suit,” not because of any musical genius.
Perhaps this type mindset is part of the reason for the epic fail of the industry, suggests Christian Clancy, former Interscope Records executive and co-manager of one of raps’ rising stars. Clancy told Billboard in March that the new business model is one in which artists come from a place of authenticity—and you can feel it in their lyrics and see it in their imagery. They may not produce No. 1 hits overnight, but in time this brand of artists will garner lasting and loyal fans.
Enter: Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA), a group of 11 alternative hip-hoppers who skate, create and debate what direction they want to take their artistry in next. Led by a 19-year-old known to fans as Tyler, the Creator, OFWGKTA is much more concerned about the group’s authenticity than airplay. Thanks to catching the ears and eyes of superstar Kanye West in the summer of 2010, however, airplay and Internet attention have followed.
Clancy, co-manager OFWGKTA, believes the group’s genre-bending, real-world branding is the wave of the future of music. The group formed in 2009 and released its first self-produced album Bastard on its website, oddfuture.com, near year’s end to little fanfare from hip-hop media. The group gave out free albums and recorded and posted a music video for its song French. People started talking and tweeting and Tumblring.
Kanye and Soulja Boy then publicly endorsed OFWGKTA, leading to an appearance in February on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and the release of two iTunes singles, Yonkers and Sandwitches, thus far the only two songs available from the group for retail purchase, selling 12,000 and 6,000 units respectively within the first month.
That, however, is about to change with Odd Future’s Tyler, the Creator’s second album due out May 10, distributed by XL. What most definitely is not going to change, Clancy said, is the group members’ commitment to staying true to themselves and not some corporate music magnate.
To say Odd Future is rough around the edges would be an understatement. The group voices profanity as often as many of us take breaths. They rap about committing violent and sexual crimes, use homophobic and misogynistic phrasing, and have no respect for anything or anyone with whom they disagree. Still the message resonates with many in the younger, urban generation. And the creativity of the group--profane words notwithstanding--cannot be denied. No other twentysomething musical artists out there can boast of writing and producing their own music, marketing it, doing their own promotional material, and creating and choreographing their own music videos and shows.
It’s a powerful package—headstrong youth whose motive isn’t profit or political correctness.
Now, if this secondary placement of profit after authenticity catches on in the music industry, it would most certainly be an odd future.
Elizabeth Barfoot Christian is assistant professor of journalism at Louisiana Tech University and the editor of Rock Brands: Selling Sound in a Media Saturated Culture.
Next blog: The political branding of country music: 10 years post 9/11