Lesson 8: How Mixtapes Taught Me Content Marketing

By January 25, 2016 No Comments

Before I started playing in terrible pop-punk bands, I was very much a fixture of the Seattle Hip-Hop scene. I was fortunate to have grown up in a time when skateboarding videos featured both rappers and hardcore bands (usually of the Christian music variety, but I digress), so both genres were allowed to coexist, even if only a small handful of my friends understood this appreciation.

Since I was 13, I wanted to be a DJ and when I entered high school, after inheriting two very crappy Sony turntables and a Realistic brand mixer, I was making mixtapes and selling them to fellow students. Little did I know that selling homemade tapes, with songs by other people, would help me in developing key skills for content marketing and strategy. How?

Understanding your audience

It was 1996 and I packed my mixtapes full of popular rap songs from 2Pac and tha Dogg Pound, but also weaved in lesser known, regional artists. It was a good format to hear your favorite current rap songs and discover some new talent who would otherwise be looked over. That said, I sold many a mixtape to guys wearing Karl Kani or oversized Nautica and Hilfiger pants. Clearly, I wasn’t going to sell hip-hop mixtapes to a kid wearing a tattered Smashing Pumpkins shirt from Sam Goody. Sometimes they would approach me, but it was few far between.

Finding the appropriate audience is where I began to build my fundamental understanding of target groups. Why would I waste my time trying to convert someone who very clearly dislikes Hip-Hop when I had a niche audience that would buy every tape I made? I would later discover that there was some overlap (thanks, Juggalos), but I pushed for people who would care about the new Biggie freestyle.

Content creation

These days, mixtapes are a dime a dozen and even the very art of it is all but dead. Instead of well-crafted blends, exclusive freestyles, and white label songs, they are mostly used as a way for artists to release songs that don’t have to go through the legal waters of sample clearances and licensing rights. That’s just the evolution, though.

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In those days, mixtapes boasted the aforementioned exclusives, all hosted by a singular DJ. It had to be unique in order to stand out. I have three particular tapes from 1998 by three different DJs that pretty much have all the same songs. These were from internationally known DJs, but they a) had their built in audiences and b) their approach was slightly different to stand out. This is also similar to how digital mixtapes work these days. The content is unique, sometimes previewing an album, but most times to whet the core fans’ appetites. I can’t stress how important it is to stand out but whether it’s DJ Babu or Drake, there’s the inherent need to take a chance and roll with it.

Two different mixtapes, almost all the same songs

Two different mixtapes, almost all the same songs

Hustle and distribution

By the time I was a senior in high school, I had graduated from selling mixtapes in the cafetorium to putting them out in skate shops. I made decent money from them; not like rent money or anything, but to a 16 year-old kid, getting a $100 every few weeks was certainly appealing.

The build up was about 6-8 months. I started connecting with other local DJs, started filling in at shows, posting on message boards (it was 1998!), and really worked hard to get my name out there. I made tapes the whole time, but I started taking my time with them and instead of putting out monthly tapes, now they were every 3-6 months. My frequent appearance at breakdancing competitions and local rap shows created a (albeit small) demand.

The artist in his natural habitat

The artist (me) in his natural habitat

The whole time, I was driving out to stores all over Seattle and Vancouver who were interested in carrying my tapes. Occasionally on consignment, but thanks to a friendship with a well-known DJ, a few stores would buy them outright.

In content strategy, it’s incredibly important to tell your team or client that a successful campaign requires a build up. That’s a huge misconception about social media and digital advertising. There’s a preconceived notion that everything will “go viral,” but it won’t. If you look at streetwear brands, they’ve all built themselves from the ground up and, in many cases, have taken years to create the demand.


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Final thoughts

There’s more that I can get into but that would require a TED talk. These three points are cornerstones that I continue to find myself using as the basis for every campaign that comes across my desk. I find that it’s easy to forget the fundamentals, particularly if you live off the adage “it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.” But remembering those building blocks will help you keep sharp and properly active when you’re planning out for your brand.

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