The Root’s ?uestlove On Marketing Music Careers By Building Music Movements

image from In 2008, Derek Jennings interviewed The Roots' ?uestlove in a wide ranging discussion that included a section about building a movement with other musicians that has stayed with me ever since. ?uestlove described how big acts in popular music had always been part of larger music movements so that's what he and Roots' manager Richard Nichols decided to try to create. It's an interesting perspective that one sees echoed in the building of local scenes, musician collectives and even festivals yet one rarely hears music marketers encouraging musicians to build community beyond one centered on the musician in question.

?uestlove recounts:

"When we were out there on The Chronic battlefield, from '92 to '97, me and Rich…were racking our brains on how to escape from the pack, how to matter…we looked at every successful artist. We pored over charts in industry magazines going back decades, looking for commonality. And what we found was that anyone who was successful was not isolated. Besides a couple of one-hit wonders in the '60s…every big act was part of a larger movement. The Beatles were by no means by themselves. The British Invasion also meant that you had the Stones, the Kinks, The Who…"

"Once Illadeph (Illadelphia Halflife, The Roots' third studio release) came out, me and Rich were like, we've got to get a movement. We weren't trying to be the Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer of this. So around '97 or '98, when we went to Geffen, we told them upfront that the only way this was gonna work was if we could be like Noah and bring a bunch of other complementary artists on board with us. We told them about Common. Blackstar. We tried to get Slum Village. Instead, they gave the late J Dilla a label."

Clearly ?uestlove and The Roots had an understanding of who should be in their movement and succeeded within the limits of Geffen's approach. And certainly we often see a community building effort coming from specific labels especially when they're founded within the context of an emerging movement such as punk rock which championed both individuality and community at a grassroots level.

We can also think of such collectives as the Wu-Tang Clan who took a unique approach to building their own movement, in part, through the master plan of RZA who pushed members towards different labels for the combined effect of an industry takeover. Local scenes have also produced movements, such as Athens, Georgia from which groups like REM and the B-52's emerged. Though such formations may not have lasted over time, they all helped launch individual acts that went on to sustainable careers.

Given such history, it's rather surprising that one doesn't hear music marketers encouraging artists to build movements with other artists more often. Instead, the focus tends to be on building a community around an individual act, to network ceaselessly on one's own behalf rather than on building a bigger pie for a movement of artists. Such an absence is particularly surprising when the Web has actually increased the potential to build such movements beyond geographical boundaries.

Given the reach of the Web and the ease of publishing on blogs and social networks, it's also surprising that more artists don't focus at least some of their energy on boosting movements of which they are a part. Sure, artists often share their eclectic interests, bloggers exist focused on locale or subgenre and a variety of indie label sites boost related artists, but I found it surprisingly difficult to come up with examples of sites created by artists to build movements.

Okayplayer, which ?uestlove described in the same interview as a "sort of a life raft or safety zone, just in case there was some sort of tsunami in the future", is one possible example, though the content is not created by the artists themselves. More often one finds well-designed sites for individual acts that seem to exist in a universe that features only them. Yet many artists show their respect and love for other musicians in interviews and at events.

What most surprised me while searching for musicians' websites that focus on building movements was that I began to see even well-made sites focused on single acts as rather shallow and self-centered. Looking from a different angle cast some really nice sites, like that of NIN, into a negative light. And I speak as a fan of Trent Reznor both in art and business.

It's understandable that musicians and marketers might shy away from focusing huge amounts of energy on building local scenes or creating music movements from scratch, especially given such phenomena as the "crabs in a barrel" mentality that often undermines such efforts. Yet I believe that making a regular effort to build the reputation of kindred spirits would ultimately result in one's own brand being strengthened. And I'm hoping that Hypebot readers will have some compelling examples of this process in action.

Hypebot contributor Clyde Smith is a freelance writer and blogger. Flux Research is his business writing hub.

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  1. Thank you Clyde. From a music lover’s perspective, ?uestlove has got a very good and valid point there.
    Such a “movement” is akin to a musical style, a subgenre if you will, which can become a trend in the marketplace.
    Examples for these are the Seattle scene from the early 90s with their Grunge music, and the Bristol scene with their Trip-Hop and BigBeat music. It’s about time a new musical style becomes a trend again. (It would be even better if I actually like it 🙂
    The big labels used to dig into the development of musical scenes but at one point in the early 00s, they stopped that almost entirely to cut down costs, focussed on Idol type TV shows and the promotional outlet for new musical developments from the DIY music labs around the world just ended.
    These “movements” tend to happen across the boundaries of parent companies, however, so once a local scene and several independent labels get one off the ground, others will pick up the trend and spread it further.

  2. Oh, and to add to that, I think producers, maybe even big name producers who already have fans, can help building such a development.

  3. Thank you for this. I’ve been re-tweeting and sharing other local bands’ shows. I’ve also considered using my band’s website to promote the local scene in addition to my band.
    I was on the fence about using my blog in this way because I was thinking it might dilute my own brand. But after reading this post, you’ve inspired me to go for it and concentrate on building a community.

  4. This is crazy. Just this morning I was thinking about this concept. I don’t like saying “Hey, Look at me” all the time. I just started putting together some shows promoting local musicians, other than myself, and working on redesigning my site to incorporate some album reviews and other things.
    Thanks, very cool!
    Aaron Gibson

  5. Cool- some golden nuggets here that as a marketer I can take away. Thanks for sharing! Building a community definitely seems to be the way to go.

  6. I’m building a new arts-funding model that I’m hoping will turn into a movement. It’s called the Patronopolis, and the idea is for individual artists to build communities of donors — patrons — to help them do their work. The old-school idea of patronage was that one wealthy person or institution “kept” an artist, like a mistress almost. But with current social networking and crowdfunding tools, we can develop patronage communities, where everyone gives a little, and everyone gets to feel some pride and ownership in whatever the artist they’re supporting creates.
    You can read more about the Patronopolis here: — I’d love your thoughts!

  7. This needs to be the first lesson for young artists looking to make it in music. The bigger the label, the less they care about who you are, where you’re from, what your associated acts are. Once you’re signed, the ultimate goal is to Bieber-ize you. It really is a primitive mentality. Why not try to blow up an artist along with everything that has made them who they are, thus creating a new music wave to cover a larger audience…

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