K’Naan and Nas: Two Ways to “Manage” a Music Career

From one hip-hop artist, a leaked email exposing the ugly, angry side of the struggle between artist and label. From the other, a frank chat at the end of a long tour about owning one's art and brand. Two very different leadership lessons.

The leak late last week of an angry email from rapper Nas to the folks running the label that may or may not be putting out his new record this winter, Def Jam (subject: "Put my shit out!" -- text below), is shocking mostly because it was leaked at all. You hear plenty of rumblings in the press these days about artists battling their labels (Lupe Fiasco's Twitter-fueled protest outside of his label, Atlantic, for example), but you rarely get to see the explosion up close. Then again, it's a volatile time. Labels aren’t making as much money, the musicians aren’t making as much money, and they scream at one another as they flame out. Or until the artist breaks free, a la OK Go or Nine Inch Nails—and still, with rare exceptions, doesn’t make the money they would have made under the old system.

There’s a third way to go, the compromise route, which is what Somali rapper K’naan is trying with his label, Octone A&M. K’naan has become friends with Nas over the years, but instead of dissing his label, he’s doing everything he can to work with it and, he says, guide it. “I’m probably the best marketer in our group,” he told me over dinner recently in Dublin, Ireland. He was at the tail end of a European tour, with little break between that run and his new American tour, which kicked off Saturday night at Webster Hall in New York.

K’naan’s best-known song is Wavin’ Flag, which formed the basis of Coca-Cola’s $300 million World Cup of soccer marketing campaign. The partnership between Coke, A&M/Octone, and K’naan put the singer in the middle of a bigger campaign than he could ever have imagined. After all, his first album, called The Dusty Foot Philosopher, has sold something like 20,000 copies in the U.S., while his second, Troubadour, has only recently edged over 100,000. So when Coke came calling, saying that they wanted him to create a song for the World Cup and tour the world supporting their campaign, he faced a real challenge: How to make this a K’naan moment as well as a Coke moment.

The first hurdle was his song, "Wavin’ Flag." While Coke execs loved its upbeat chorus, they couldn’t reconcile the song’s lyrics about poverty and repression in Somalia with their message of happiness and an exuberant soccer moment. So they proposed that he write another anthem. He told them no, that he’d rewrite "Wavin’ Flag." He made it much more poppy, much more celebratory, a song that truly fits its name—"The Celebration Mix of Wavin’ Flag"—and its video, which shows K’naan and many kids bopping around beaches and playing the beautiful game. “Writing a whole new song for Coke would have been a jingle,” he says. “By reusing 'Wavin Flag' I did a creative remix. It was the pop music version of my song.”

The World Cup campaign was one compromise after another, with a crazy 20-country touring schedule, 15 versions of the "Celebration Mix" created for specific countries, like the Mexican mix with David Bisbol, or the Chinese mix with Jenny Zhang. Throughout, K’naan did his best to manage between Coke and the label. “I think they followed my lead, I was the silent leader without showing that. Everyone kind of knew what I felt. There’s a difference between self-marketing and marketing an idea. I think they knew my belief in my music, and followed that.” He used Twitter to keep his fans updated throughout the whole tour, and is far more engaged in that than most other artists. (After he canceled a recent date in Vancouver, he went back-and-forth with upset fans so intensely that at one point he tweeted, “I may be a PR disaster.” He added, “but I prefer being that than being an inaccessible shell who doesn't speak his mind.”) The touring schedule during the World Cup and after was crazy, and by the time he hit Dublin he was so exhausted that he was talking about canceling dates and promotion. But ultimately, he says, because they fit his long-term goal: “I’m not into instantaneous gratification, instantaneous success. I wanted my audience to grow with me, so I’m on a label that is truly into artist development. It’s the only label I know like that.”

It’s not sexy to write about an artist who says stuff like that. But what’s forgotten in all the coverage of the music industry’s decline is that this is what most artists are doing: trying to create and perform great music while also trying to manage their relationship with the label—a corporate organization whose time may have come and gone, but who for now is still pretty much the only hope for any band looking to break big.

And then there's the Nas approach. Here's his e-mail:

From: NasTo: LA Reid, Steve Bartels, Steve Gawley, Michael Seltzer, Joseph Borrino, Chris Hicks

Subject: PUT MY SHIT OUT!

Peace to all,

With all do respect to you all, Nas is NOBODY's slave. This is not the 1800's, respect me and I will respect you.

I won't even tap dance around in an email, I will get right into it. People connect to the Artist @ the end of the day, they don't connect with the executives. Honestly, nobody even cares what label puts out a great record, they care about who recorded it. Yet time and time again its the executives who always stand in the way of a creative artist's dream and aspirations. You don't help draw the truth from my deepest and most inner soul, you don’t even do a great job @ selling it. The #1 problem with DEF JAM is pretty simple and obvious, the executives think they are the stars. You aren't…. not even close. As a matter of fact, you wish you were, but it didn't work out so you took a desk job. To the consumer, I COME FIRST. Stop trying to deprive them! I have a fan base that dies for my music and a RAP label that doesn't understand RAP. Pretty fucked up situation

This isn’t the 90's though. Beefing with record labels is so 15 years ago. @ this point I just need you all to be very clear where I stand and how I feel about "my label." I could go on twitter or hot 97 tomorrow and get 100,000 protesters @ your building but I choose to walk my own path my own way because since day one I have been my own man. I did business with Tommy Mottola and Donnie Einer, two of the most psycho dudes this business ever created. I worked well with them for one major reason……. they believed in me. The didn't give a fuck about what any radio station or magazine said….those dudes had me.

Lost Tapes is a movement and a very important set up piece for my career as it stands. I started this over 5 years ago @ Columbia and nobody knew what it was or what it did but the label put it out as an LP and the fans went crazy for it and I single handedly built a new brand of rap albums. It's smart and after 5 years it's still a head of the game. This feels great and you not feeling what I’m feeling is disturbing. Don't get in the way of my creativity. We are aligned with the stars here, this is a movement. There is a thing called KARMA that comes to haunt you when you tamper with the aligning stars. WE ARE GIVING THE PEOPLE EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANT. Stop throwing dog shit on a MAGICAL moment.

You don't get another Nas recording that doesn't count against my deal….PERIOD! Keep your bullshit $200,000.00 fund. Open the REAL budget. This is a New York pioneers ALBUM, there ain't many of us. I am ready to drop in the 4th quarter. You don’t even have shit coming out! Stop being your own worst enemy. Let's get money!

For more on K'Naan's unique path through the music industry, pick up the November issue of Fast Company, on newsstands soon.

[Image Flickr user manumilou]

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1 Comments

  • Johnnie at GentlemanREDUX

    I'm glad that you pointed out these two polarizing approaches to how some musicians are now going about dealing with their labels. I feel like the music industry is one of the great business conundrums of the past decade and will continue to be either until it is irrelevant or phases out. Seeing what these artists and their labels do to make any kind of successful strategy that compares to the glory days of that industry is both interesting and inspiring. Thanks for sharing.