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Mello Music Group Interview

Illustration provided by Brett Affrunti

Describe Mello Music Group's ascension over the past few years.

We try not to think about that too much, just keep our head down and enjoy the work.

Your label has partnered with a variety of blogs to premier music. What are your thoughts on exclusive content?

Here are my thoughts on exclusive content after a good deal of trial and error. So, you’ve got to understand your goal when sending out press releases. In some cases the goal is to simply break into a publication/site/blog that you want coverage from for more or less the brand association. For example, when you have records that you are trying to work to retailers and they want to know why they should give you placement – whether that’s front page iTunes, or a listening station in Zia Records – you have to provide a list of bullet points showing what promotion you’ve done.

In these cases clean and neat is the way to go. What I mean by that is, they don’t have time to read and click a lot of things, they want an impressive list of coverage that shows you’ve reached a standard audience or market in a simple one page list. So, maybe you want your dream campaign list to consist of a post at SPIN, a video on VIBE, a review with HipHopDX, an interview in OkayPlayer, a couple posts at 2DopeBoyz and so forth. Well in that case offering exclusive content and driving traffic to that one site is worthwhile. Everyone should be happy. But there is another thing to consider.

So, the second style is actually the one that generally applies more often, though most artists will fight you every time. See, artists want that brand association – that prestige of saying “Noisey/Vice” debuted my new video. And I get that, I feel that way too sometimes – these are high profile, incredible outlets. But what no one is telling artists is how much traffic they are going to pull from that one post. What artists don’t realize is that it is your job to drive traffic/fans to that site that posted your content.

Sure you get some of their loyal fans from the exposure but here’s a hard fact: A great post may get you 500-1000 hits – and that’s great – I mean most big sites are still talking 100-500 hits. So the alternate route is to go for broad coverage and to push traffic to each of those sites throughout a couple days. In this case, exclusive content kills you. So non-exclusive coverage at 10 or 20 places is getting more exposure than the one site with a name. Also, I find the niche sites have readers who more often act upon something they read. This is valuable. When you trade that 24 hour exclusive content, you’re killing your chances of getting broad exposure. Also consider that you probably don’t know your audience as well as you think you do – I mean you might think you are perfect for MTV Hive, and then they post you, but the truth is their audience may think your shit is meh. But with the broad non-exclusive content, you can test the waters and see where you actually get love, who your audience really is.

So it’s two fold, if you’re pitching your campaign upwards in direction (distribution, retail, wholesale, etc…) then go for exclusive content at premier brand sites. If you’re at a stage where you are focused on expanding your audience and learning about your market position, then you go non-exclusive in a shotgun style. The key to both methods though is to make sure you work hard to drive traffic to anybody who supports you – especially if you like their coverage. I personally love it when a good writer takes time to listen, think, and apply their tradecraft to our music – it’s pull quotes for days – but besides that, it is a pleasure to see something grander than reposts. So when a quality music journalist like Max Bell, Jeff Weiss, J. Edward Keyes, Chairman Mao, or one of the many other great writers, takes time to pen something on your work – you gotta bust ass for weeks to make sure people read it.

A plethora of Mello Music Group releases can be found on Bandcamp. What was the rationale behind hosting your catalog on Bandcamp?

Bandcamp is a great for a lot of reasons. I mean, we push people to iTunes, Amazon, Emusic, Spotify, UGHH, Dusty Groove, Amoeba, everywhere, but some of the unique tools Bandcamp offers include the ability to give free downloads and the ability to let people play the whole song. We know that if people listen and like your music they will buy it. So, Bandcamp allows us the opportunity in our album campaigns to give away free songs, to showcase catalog songs, and all the while if people want something they can purchase it directly from us. But again, it is one great tool, we like to use them all. A lot of people, and industry types get very possessive and b/c of big business’ focus on market share (in relation to stock prices) they want 100% loyalty. I’m the type that is glad to see a thriving industry with a variety of interesting ways to reach people.

We all like to consume in different ways, we all like to listen and browse in different ways, so all these sites are amazing. What we often do is stream something on Soundcloud to allow that audience to preview an upcoming record, then offer that song as a download when people pre-order records on digital sites like iTunes, Amazon, etc… Then we’ll offer free downloads of different tracks via Bandcamp so that people can have something to take home without purchasing – often they pick up music too though. Then we’ll push people to check the snippets on traditional store sites. It’s like having a variety of friends, be leery of the one who says you should dump the rest. I’m very thankful to the amazing functionality of Bandcamp, the great service provided by Soundcloud, the library like resource Spotify provides, the clean, easy to use download ownership iTunes offers, the subscription discounts eMusic has – and that’s all before I hit the record store or online cd/vinyl spots.

Also, why spend a ton of money building a propriety player for your site, when there are incredible ones out there to be used already. You’ll also find, unfortunately, that iTunes and Amazon don’t allow fans to search by label – our fans like Mello Music, they want to check it all out, not just one name. So having the ability to let people search through our catalog in one locale is great.

Side Note: that’s one of my industry pet peeves – we live in a time when search engines make music digging incredible, yet retailers have failed to offers good search functionality to consumers. For example, I want to be able to go to a digital retailer and search by label, to search by genre & year, to search by sales volume, to search by sub-genre, to search by release date, to search by producer. I mean can you believe in this day and age, we can’t search by producer? I can’t go in and type Dr. Dre and find all the work he did? That’s crazy, it takes up no room metadata wise to offer this to people. This is one reason cds and vinyl still thrive, they offer liner notes. I mean you can do digital pdf booklets, but why not be able to search it? That or we need a Dewey Decimal like organization system that allows for genuine, intelligent music browsing.

Your roster is full of incredible talent. What do you look for when scouting for potential signees?

This is the hardest question because I don’t know. Music is still an exploration, a journey for me, so I allow each record to be an experience. Those experiences naturally lead me to the next one. So I’ll be checking out a record and the features, the producers, the label will lead me to other records. As I travel through all those sounds, I develop a current taste – nothing scientific just a trip I’m on musically. So I’ll let the trip lead me and when I hear something that moves me, that hits home and resonates with something inside of me, then it’s on, I gotta go out there and meet people and work together. The most frequent way this happens is through other artists I know.

For example, L’Orange may feature Open Mike Eagle on his record, and that verse (“I only know 5 songs and they’re ALL Gucci’s Lemonade!!!) may just blow me away for some reason. So I’ll realize, okay my man Has-Lo has been doing work with Mike Eagle for some time now. I’ve checked him out a lot and liked it, but for some reason this verse was a tipping point – maybe I was at the right point, or maybe they reached a level as an artist that was enough to capture my attention. Either way, I run with those experiences and then dream. So in that example, with Open Mike Eagle, I go out and talk with him to see if we might be a good home to create some stuff. I start dreaming on what I’d like to hear from him and see if that stuff intrigues him. In this case I wanted to hear an Open Mike and Murs record. It didn’t lead that way, but we ended with some other ideas we liked better, and Murs ended up doing some stuff with Apollo, and the whole network just blossomed in a very organic way.

Now if you want something concrete for the DIY crowd – I’d say, I want an artists who is way better than he thinks he is, who has cut his teeth both live and in the studio, who has friends doing this professionally, who knows how to put together an entire project. I think the biggest misconception is that we are looking for talent – that you have so much skill everyone else pales in comparison – that’s that “I killed him” attitude. But the truth is, that everyone in this industry is talented – that’s the basic requirement to enter the room. You better be able to kill it if you want in – thousands of people kill it. So then what is it? Then what makes you different? For us, it means artists who know how to complete an entire record, mix, master, and develop artwork.

Meet deadlines, stay in budget, make things happen. Someone who can understand how the music, the art, the photos, the album description, the marketing campaign, the physical product, the whole thing – they can see how it is all one big piece of art and that ultimately it is up to them to make sure is congruent. Oddisee is amazing at this – he can oversee art direction, sound, visuals, marketing, all of it. Apollo Brown is the same way – that guy is there for every step – not a control freak, just present and working to improve things at every step. Apollo will routinely be on the phone with me for hours going over graphic design, saying move that 1 click left, now try this. He cares and doesn’t pass off any responsibility, he owns every aspect of his projects. At the same time, the guy is secure enough to let me do what I do, to let PR do what they do, he watches, listens, contributes, but also lets it flow. That’s beautiful.

So for an artist who isn’t having good luck, I’d say do these things yourself for every single project:

  • a) write an album description
  • b) list your best press links and pull quotes
  • c) write treatments for two videos
  • d) write press releases for two singles
  • e) write all your lyrics out
  • f) come up with 2 actual locations and photo shoot descriptions including time of day, lighting, and aesthetics
  • g) write an interview with yourself asking good questions that are revealing and insightful
  • h) write a 12 week marketing plan with weekly strategies with assets
  • i) write a bio
  • j) list the retail and media placements you want
Do all that yourself. Then go out and pay someone to do it better. Find someone who does just that one thing all day everyday for money – it’s worth it. Pay for the best you can. Present your work to them and get involved. The product that comes from that process is bound to be growing with each release – and that’s all you can ever ask for, a better understanding and a better quality product each and every time out. You just don't know who is good or bad until you try it yourself though. The process of doing it informs you on the steps required and that will definitely help you in your quest for quality teammates. PA said it: Do the Knowledge.

What is the number one rule that has kept Mello Music Group afloat for all these years?

No one rule, but an approach: Love the music. Love the artists. Love the artists. Love the artists – they are people, they are your people. Love the work. Love the craft. Focus on developing yourself as a soul, as a spirit, as a person. Expect nothing in return other than the experience. Realize it’s a business. Always give more than you get and more than you thought you had. Give as much credit back to all the people you can who help along the way. Only speak on what you love (save the criticisms). Be true to what you like without having an attitude about something as ephemeral as taste. Stay open minded and enjoy the process, enjoy the labor, the work. Fuck the fame, fuck the money, do it because you love it and couldn’t imagine doing anything else – do it because you never went to bed, you fell asleep working, and you woke up excited to get back to it. I’m as hopelessly devoted to music as De La on Prince Paul's "Drama Queen".


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