The digital realm of where your music lives evolves on a near-daily basis, and new trends are constantly popping up. Here are five things that you need to know as a rising hip-hop artist to make 2016 your best year yet.
1. Keep a close eye on the evolving streaming landscape
SoundCloud, Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Audiomack, Google Play. The number of available streaming platforms makes it easier than ever before for fans to access music. Some options are free, while others require monthly fees for extra cool privileges (no ads, mobile use, etc.). The evolution of the streaming landscape is a topic that's covered on music and tech websites just about every day. And while we would all like to profess that we know which of these platforms is going to reign supreme as the primary music listening destination, the truth is that no one knows for sure what the future of streaming holds. The one certainty is that fans have a consistent need to rapidly consume music at an affordable rate, and their intake won't keep pace with the amount you earn from streaming royalties.
The streaming war won't come to a resolution in 2016, but we will receive further clarity and insightful indicators as to which platforms are destined for future success, and what consumers are willing to invest in order receive an ideal listening experience. As music communities such as SoundCloud and streaming giants such as Spotify continue to evolve, you need to keep tabs on the news revolving around the industry in order to ensure you invest wisely and have your music available on the right platforms.
2. Consider whether this is the year to build your team
When just starting out, you should attempt to manage your career on your own, because the experience will teach you lessons that will be quite useful as time goes on. But once you get to the point where you have so much going on with your social media, booking, etc. that you can't handle it all on your own, having a team in place will help you unlock your full potential and grow at a faster rate. While you should always be the person responsible for the direction of your art and the daily creative process you live by, having other trustworthy people around you who excel in marketing, social media, and content creation (all while having a great ear for music and innovative ideas as to what the future holds) is a huge advantage.
The independent scene is filled with artists who are supported by homegrown teams, and the results have been consistently successful, with personal branding being at the forefront of success for artists such as Chance The Rapper and Joey Bada$$. Bottom line: strength lies in numbers, and that includes not putting the entirety of your artistic career on your own shoulders. The power of teamwork will continue to prevail in 2016.
3. Reevaluate your barometers for success
People define success in different ways, and it's no different in the world of indie hip-hop. It's a natural feeling to desire coveted blog placements and hundreds of thousands of SoundCloud plays on your songs; these goals are completely understandable and usually lead to massive waves of recognition. However, just because you land a Complex or Fader premiere, it doesn't mean that you're set for life and will be financially solidified for years to come. If you take yourself seriously as a hip-hop artist, you need to approach things with a big-picture view and understand that the road to prosperity isn't always a viral process.
Developing a devoted fanbase and mastering your art takes time. Planning out an approach that measures the results of actionable methods of increasing your exposure requires a great deal of thought. Take a day or two to evaluate 2015, both the things you achieved as well as expectations you didn't quite match. Be honest with yourself during this self-reflection, and put care into the idea of what you consider to be "success." Write out what you want to accomplish and how you're going to do it. Once this is done, you'll have a much easier time focusing on the right tasks on a daily basis, and the goals you have for 2016 will have substance behind them.
4. You don't have to be from a hip-hop city to shine
There used to be a time in hip-hop when it was rare for an artist outside of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Atlanta to maintain a high level of national exposure. Those days are long gone – and have been for quite some time – but the past few years have proven that there are independent hubs of hip-hop talent that are based in places you might not expect. Cities such as Boston and Milwaukee are flourishing from an independent perspective, and there are countless others throughout the country that will earn recognition from the masses as the concept of regionalized hip-hop continues to become less defined.
Certain cities will always have their inbred sound, but don't try to hop on what's trendy simply because of the popularity of major markets. Stay true to your artistic identity, and never lose hope because you aren't from a place where hip-hop isn't fully accepted or respected. Believe it or not, 2016 will mark another year which proves that it doesn't matter where you're from. As long as you have talent, a hard work ethic, and a message that strongly resonates with people, you're setting yourself up to receive the recognition that you deserve.
5. You need more than just great music
Now that we're in 2016, you need to realize, now more than ever, that making great music is simply not enough in a musical climate which gets more crowded by the day. This may seem to be contradictory to the last sentence of the above paragraph, but the "message that strongly resonates with people" involves much more than a 12-track collection of songs. You're competing for the attention of fans who are bombarded with new music on a daily basis.
So whatever you do, please don't release music and simply expect things to happen. The thought and care of your music as a full-fledged product is just as important as the detailed musical elements you pride yourself upon. Indie artists who have made a national impact in 2015 have done so not only because they are talented, but also because they were creative with their presentation and implemented a meticulous marketing approach that hit the right buttons at the exact right times.
Think about what makes you interesting not only as an artist, but also as an individual. Focus on your character traits as a person, how they relate to the music you create, and what makes your story worthy of capturing the attention of a fan who has never heard your name before. Take your time to figure out how to make your music appealing to the masses – not by changing who you are, but by staying true to your purpose as an artist. The artists who will succeed in 2016 are the ones who have the full package, and that goes beyond the music.
Eric Bernsen is a marketing/public relations professional and music journalist who specializes in the genre of hip-hop. You can find more of his work at HITPmusic.com (where he is an editor/writer) as well as HipHop-N-More.com, where he contributes album reviews. Follow Eric on Twitter @ebernsen.