Justin Boland Shares Insight on Indie Label Struggles & Being Creative
Justin, what are some things that you struggle with as an indie label owner?
Just money. The rest is enjoyable and educational: we make the art we love and we get feedback from fans on several continents, it's hard to really think of that as a "struggle," in any sense. We're fortunate to have been doing this a long time, it protects us from petty problems like jealousy. In other words, I don't spend much time wondering why other artists have blown up: they've worked harder, longer and smarter than we have. That's hard to accept when you're young and hungry for fame, but these days I am neither. We're playing a very slow chess game, but as long we're in a better position with each passing month, I can't be frustrated.
How do you make creativity work for you when you are financially strapped?
I'd say the biggest thing we've learned is this: you always have more assets and options than you think. Always. Even though hip hop is a cut-throat, all-out war for dwindling resources, that doesn't change the fact that your most dangerous and important opponent is your own mind, every step of the way. Frustration will kill your project before you can even get started. Pessimists always prove their case; it's easy to fail when you don't do anything to succeed.
When I talk to artists who feel stuck -- who perceive themselves as stuck, of course, this is all mental -- I always recommend Re-Brainstorming. Sit down with a piece of paper and list the concrete steps you can take to push your project. Then do the exact same process the next day. I guarantee you will not only come up with new ideas, you will start generating better ideas, too. Repetition works. There is a popular misconception that doing the same thing, over and over, and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. It is also the definition of "practice" and it seemed to work out okay for Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan and Jimi Hendrix.
I think the most poisonous lie we tell ourselves -- and I tell myself this all the time -- is "I've done everything I can." In my own experience, this has never been remotely close to true. Master P started a successful record label from the trunk of his car while he was holding down a job, going to school, and trying to start a basketball career. I try to keep that in mind when I start feeling sorry for myself.
Would you mind describing how your experience as an artist affects your day to day label work?
A few years ago I would have talked about how it helps me, gives me perspective, but I no longer believe that to be true. I would say that trying to juggle both responsibilities, realistically, just means that I have less bandwidth overall. That said, it is also necessary and non-negotiable. Most of the artists who still inspire me came to this same crossroads and made the same decision, I just need to learn how to walk this particular road with a little more grace and patience. I would recommend this approach to pretty much anyone. You will learn more, faster.
Are you currently listening to demos?
Always. In 2013 we found out our demo submission pipeline had been broken for years, and we missed out on a lot of really exceptional submissions in the meantime. We are not making that mistake again. Life is a complicated ride, so sometimes we'll have a backlog for a few weeks, but any demo submission gets checked out by at least two of us at World Around. Taste is arbitrary and ultimately emotional, so we make it a matter of policy to have two sets of ears on everything that hits our inbox.
What are your top tips for artists that want to approach a label for a release?
That's a well-phrased question, my friend, because it is amazing to me how often artists approach us without anything even resembling a "release." So that's definitely first: have something substantial ready. If your catalog is a single, no matter how impressive that single is, the best response you're going to get is "keep in touch."
If you're submitting a freestyle over an industry beat, we will definitely remember your name. So that we don't accidentally open your emails again.
Ideally, you're going to have a full package to present. You're going to have photography, artwork, a logo or two, a sense of your image and -- I shudder to type this -- your brand. As impressive as it would be to have all that lined up, though, it's not necessary if the artist has something much, much more important: a sense of who they are. We're interested in working with artists who are both assertive & mature enough to work with other creatives. As long as that clarity, that balance, is there, we can build the rest to suit. You gotta know thyself.
It would also be a rare breath of fresh air to receive a submission from artists who know something about the label beyond our email address. If you're submitting "HOES ON POLES [CLEAN EDIT]" to World Around, you've made a mistake. (That's also not a hypothetical submission. Inboxes can be depressing.) The bulk of what we see and listen to are kids who are just desperate to be "signed," period. Many of these kids are well into their 30's.
In the nightmare factory that is marketing, one of the few useful concepts is the Unique Selling Point -- Godin's proverbial Purple Cow, the details that make you stand out. Strangely, a majority of the emails we get from artists take the opposite approach: they will laundry list the artists they sound like. 2 Chainz has the 2 Chainz market cornered. Grieves is already reaching the audience that wants Grieves. There's not a lot of demand for cover bands, especially in this economy.
Finally, tailor your email. I am always stunned to get "submissions" where we're listed as one of a hundred recipients who all got the same email. That is exactly the same as emailing nobody at all. Now, we definitely don't expect to be the only label people submit to -- play the field -- but take the time to tailor your message.
I know it's not good business to wish for smarter competition, but I can't help it. We can all do better.