Sunday, January 10, 2016

Four Entrepreneurial Takeaways From J. Cole's 'Forest Hills Drive' HBO Special

Rapper Jermaine LaMarr Cole, or simply J. Cole, wrapped up a five-part HBO special on January 9 that gave his fans a behind-the-scenes look into his life on the road and the days leading up to the release of his third, now RIAA-certified platinum, album 2014 Forest Hills Drive.

Shortly after graduating from St. John’s University, J. Cole inked a record deal with Jay-Z’s newly formed label, Roc Nation. The deal was finalized in 2009 and even though Cole was the first artist on the label’s roster, it would take a number of years for them and their artist to find common ground. Nonetheless, in 2014 it was evident that the North Carolina native had finally found a way to prove that major-label affiliated acts do not need a formal marketing plan that consists of radio singles, constant social media presence, and press.

Though Cole has achieved a high level of commercial success, he knows what it’s like to be an artist hoping to get his shot (he once stood in the rain for hours to hand Jay Z a CD of his beats, only to be turned away by Jiggaman). If one pays close attention to each episode, Cole serves up a few tips for the up and comers.

Embrace the humble beginnings

In 2009, J. Cole tweeted “Yo I got 502 followers! Probably not a lot for most of these other rappers, but I am thankful for each person who hit that follow.” In the years to come, Cole would embark on a rigorous touring schedule, re-appoint songs that were meant for his first album into a free mixtape, and struggle to find his place on mainstream radio.

On past occasions that pre-date my contributions to Forbes, I had the pleasure of speaking with concert promoter and artist manager, Sascha Stone, an honoree of FORBES 30 Under 30: Class of 2016list. He freely shared the experience of booking J. Cole at a small venue in Austin, Texas in 2010. After his performance, Cole was blown away that people not only showed up, but were rapping along.

Fast forward five years, and the Forest Hills Drive tour sold approximately 565,000-575,000 tickets according to Cole’s booking agent, Rob Gibbs. The tour induced multiple sellouts, including the 18,000-capacity Madison Square Garden, and grossed over $16 million from July to September, according to Billboard.
You can run a business with your friends

Friend-turned-manager, Ibrahim Hamad, met J. Cole at St. John’s University some 10 years ago. It was by a semi-accident that Hamad learned of Cole’s passion for rapping. In a recent interview with Rap Radar, Hamad states that at the time the two were in school together he was “just doing whatever I could do to help out…I was like ‘Yo, you’re dope…let me at least start playing this for people’ and then we went from there and put a mixtape together.”

From lending an ear to last-minute recordings, to executing the annual Dollar and a Dream tours (a string of live performances offered to fans for $1 on a first-come-first-serve basis), Hamad is the reason that Cole can worry less about day-to-day logistics. To add to his resume, he also serves as the president of their 2007-established entity, Dreamville Records, and shared responsibility for the label’s partnership with Interscope Records.

Cole further proves that he can hire friends who knew his government name before his stage name. Childhood friend turned stage manager, Cedric Brown, executes the technical arrangements for each tour date, including the star-studded live performance that features Drake and Jay Z in the final episode. Though the groups of tour mates are seen cracking jokes in their off time, they make a habit of over-communicating with each other when show time nears.
Formal marketing plans aren’t always applicable

Normally a pre-release checklist of no lead singles, guest features, or marketing plan doesn’t meet the requirements for a platinum selling album. “This new model that exists now of [artists] dropping [albums] out of the blue, building their own buzz…that didn’t exist back then,” Cole says in Episode 3. “[The label’s] whole style was ‘this is what we know: sign an artist, put him in the studio, when we feel like he has the single then spend money at radio, sell the album and see what happens.”

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