Outsider Marketing & The Case Of Willis Earl Beal

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Willis Earl Beal didn't set out to be an Internet celebrity. But he's in the process of becoming one, though the next few months label XL Recordings seem focused on making him an offline star as well. As someone who might be pigeonholed an outsider artist, I'm impressed by the insightful treatment of the music publications that are currently featuring this powerful young singer online.

Willis Earl Beal was initially discovered via fliers he posted in Chicago and Albuquerque and songs sung over the phone leading to media coverage and small projects.  These then led to an upcoming release from XL Recordings' new Hot Charity imprint and a music video directed by Michel Gondry.

His trajectory to date illustrates that there are many marketing routes to insider status in the music industry.

Same Old Tears by Willis Earl Beal (Test Shoot by J. Harley)

Given the fact that Beal's art was initially featured on the cover of Found's Issue #7 followed by a box set from Found that included a 17 song album "Acousmatic Sorcery," one can see how Beal would seem to fit the label of outsider artist. You can currently order both projects via Found's web shop and click on the thumbnail above to see the cover.

But as more coverage has emerged, which I traced more or less chronologically over an evening online, a picture of a unique young visual artist and musician who's seen difficult times begins to emerge.

As quoted in an article by Evan Minsker for Pitchfork regarding the outsider artist tag:

"I'm glad I'm an outsider artist..I can do whatever I want to and people don't know what to expect."

Yet, as he moves towards the inside of the industry, he says:

"Now, I feel like I'm in a rut because I am not living on what I consider to be the fringes."

His route from the fringes to his current status as an emerging artist recently chosen as one of SPIN's 5 Best New Artists for February '12 (where I found him) is quite unique though his future may indeed become a rut of shows, media events and business deals. Then again, as a friend recently wrote me on Facebook about his current life:

"I'm loving my rut – it's fur-lined and soft and wonderful. It gives me free candy."

The flyer featured on the cover of Found Magazine in December 2009 is one that was posted by Beal in Albuquerque and passed to editor Davy Rothbart by a friend at a show. Rothbart started reading it aloud when he suddenly "heard a voice sitting a few rows back say, 'Hey, that's me. I'm Willis Earl Beal.'"  This chance meeting led to the Found cover and box set which led to the attention of other artists and musicians and some recordings with "jmhouse" of Albuquerque.

Beal posted similar fliers in Chicago. They include his phone number which, when called, often resulted in Beal answering and singing a song over the phone. He still does this and his current phone is listed on his new website

In Chicago, his flier posting led to the Chicago Reader article by Leor Galil that seems to have been the turning point for a local artist who then caught the attention of a variety of folks including J. Harley who shot the above test video.

It also led to the attention of Jamie-James Medina who signed him to XL Recordings' new imprint Hot Charity.

Now, with a team behind him, he's got his own website, a 7" on the way Feb. 21, a version of "Acousmatic Sorcery" on vinyl due in April and a tour happening in the spring. He's been featured on the websites of Okayplayer, Pitchfork and NME. Plus, he's got a music video on the way from Michel Gondry that was teased over the weekend.

It's an interesting progression that seems pretty clearly unplanned up until his meeting with Jamie-James Medina. The Found materials and other early projects, including "The Security Logs of Willis Earl Beal," established documentation and a back story but didn't break him in the industry.

Normally no one piece of media attention makes or breaks anyone but the Chicago Reader piece seems to have done the trick of getting his foot in the door and it may well have happened without the earlier attention. Leor Galil's article came about because of Beal's outsider flier art posted on the streets and his willingness to sing songs over the phone. But he wouldn't have a deal if he hadn't been pursuing his art all along and shown a unique talent when the time came to put up or shut up.

The reality is that Beal may never have imagined that posting those fliers and singing over the phone would get him this kind of attention but others have taken related routes more consciously. The best example I can think of is in the visual arts. Jean-Michel Basquit's early graffiti was often posted near art galleries with sayings and images designed to catch the attention of folks in the art world. In both cases, these artists got attention via street art in major cities, Chicago and New York respectively.

As we saw with the release of "The World's First Perfect Zine", doing relatively minor projects in big cities can still lead to outsized media attention. In the case of Willis Earl Beal, it's a reminder that marketing offline in the right settings can be as powerful as the impressive work done by many DIY artists on the web.

Hypebot Features Writer Clyde Smith maintains his freelance writing hub at Flux Research and music industry resources at Music Biz Blogs. To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.

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