Natalie Robehmed, Forbes Staff
West Coast rhymer Dom Kennedy’s second album is currently at No. 4 on the R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart, behind new releases from Drake, Justin Timberlake and Pusha T. Like his peers, fans can buy Kennedy’s album in Best Buy or on iTunes, but unlike hisBillboard chart mates, Kennedy has done it all without a record deal or marketing team.
Dom Kennedy at the Forbes office (via Instagram, @natrobe)
Kennedy’s free 2012 record, Yellow Album, was downloaded 800,000 times. Now he is hoping his latest offering, Get Home Safely, will match or exceed that near-platinum number. So far, so good: It entered the Billboard Top 200 at No. 23, selling about 12,000 copies in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
While the figures may seem small – Drake’s recent third release clocked the biggest first week sales for a rap album since 2011, shifting 658,000 copies, according to Billboard – they’re actually remarkable for an unsigned artist of Kennedy’s stature. The comparative 2011 sophomore effort of Schoolboy Q, a rising L.A. rapper whose record was not backed by significant advertising, sold 4,000 units in its first week.
Kennedy, who started rapping seriously in 2005, says he’s achieved it all by “just not taking ‘no’ for an answer, I guess.” Modest and laid-back, more comfortable in a hoodie than a button-down, Kennedy’s L.A. heritage and West Coast nonchalance oozes through his conversation.
“I recently found out Tha Dogg Pound album that came out on Death Row [Records] was an independent album,” recalled Kennedy. “I didn’t know that at the time, I assumed it came out on Interscope like everybody else.”
One need only think back to Jay Z’s debut,Reasonable Doubt, for one example of of independent hip-hop’s rich history. Jay Z sold an estimated 380,000 copies out of the trunk of his white Lexus, building up so much buzz for the record that when he got signed it shifted over 420,000 units in its first year. Then there’s the Strange Music empire of Midwestern mogul Tech N9ne, who pulled in an estimated $7.5 million this year from his independent ventures.
Despite courtships with record labels – and nearly signing to Interscope this year – Kennedy says he ultimately chose to stay independent to retain creative power, and favorable margins.
“The type of deal I was looking for just wasn’t available,” said 29-year-old Kennedy. “The business structure we wanted and the control; that’s what it really came down to.”
With the help of Interscope-intern-turned-manager Archie Davis, Kennedy has now graduated from being an unsigned artist – one without a record deal – to an independent artist – one who has chosen not to take a record deal.
“We have proof that we have fans and they [Best Buy] were willing to take a chance,” said Kennedy. “We didn’t even have any music at the time when they was talking about carrying this album, but they just believed.”
Considering about 10% of Kennedy’s 120,000 Facebook fans forked out $11 for a release, compared to the 2% of Drake’s 31 million Facebook fans who bought his album in its first week, Kennedy’s doing alright.
Navigating independence has not been without false starts – Best Buy started selling Kennedy’s album a week before its scheduled October 15th release, essentially leaking it and killing much-needed buzz. Still, Kennedy stays optimistic:
“Where every other door has been closed on the business side, the fans have opened up every other avenue for us.”
Kennedy says he would take a record deal if it meant a fair partnership with his imprint, Other People’s Money (OPM.)
Certainly, label support would impact Kennedy’s top and bottom line. The marketing dollars of a record company translate into radio airplay and advertising on a level arguably impossible to reach as an independent artist. While his records might gross more, it would mean less profit for Kennedy – signed artists make about $1.50 an album sold, with the rest going to the record label and distributors.
Nowadays, most acts make the majority of their cash on touring, merch, and other endorsements. While Kennedy’s core fans are loyal, it’s time to expand his fanbase by playing shows with other artists, and cash in on his popularity by growing alternate revenue streams.
Whether signed or unsigned, Kennedy says he’ll stay focused on the music.
“All great songs are about the same things,” said Kennedy. “Love, friendship, pain, poverty – it’s not so much what’s going on today, it’s what’s been happening forever.”