Back in the old days you started with the product. There’s this song. The song is good. It’s by this band. Because you like this band’s song, you buy a magazine that has a story about them plus some photos in which they look cool and dangerous. You discover this band you like is playing a show in your town. You buy a ticket, then a T-shirt. You are now an emotionally committed fan. That’s the way it used to be. These days, though, the entire courtship process has been reversed. The smartest artists start by cultivating an emotional relationship with new fans in hopes that it will later, sometimes much later, lead to the exchange of actual money. Bands have essentially become like startups, cool ideas like Twitter or Foursquare or Pinterest, that have to be nurtured and sewn into the pop psyche before they pay off.
In recent years, there have been several already established artists in music (Radiohead) and beyond (comic Louis CK) who’ve showed they can adapt to the new model, using the pay-what-you-want sales model to sell their products. But it’s the groups that have gone from obscurity to notoriety that really reflect this shift. Das Racist did it. Lil Wayne did it. More controversially, Lana Del Rey did it. But the undisputed experts at this method are the members of Odd Future, who have been famous for the better part of two years, have released several albums worth of material, outfitted countless fans in everything from Odd Future coach jackets ($90) to baseball caps ($60), sold out several-thousand-person capacity venues around the country, and who, on March 20th, will officially release their first studio album for traditional purchase, OF Tape Vol.2 (of course, it’s already leaked online). On March 25, Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim will show debut their TV show, Loiter Squad. And most importantly, as the band begins their tour in support of the album, founding member Earl Sweatshirt, his generation’s reigning prodigy rapper and its most inventive marketer, a man who has been missing for the entire time Odd Future have been famous, is likely to return to the stage (he’s featured on the last track of OF Tape Vol.2).
In case you didn’t read Kelefa Sanneh’s mind-boggling New Yorker profile of Odd Future last spring, Earl Sweatshirt (real name Thebe Kgositsile) is an original member of this compelling hip-hop collective but he disappeared before they got any real attention. In the spring of 2010 he released a self-titled mixtape and accompanying video, a surreal, disturbing and totally compelling clip that showed the then-16-year-old Earl in a barber chair, mixing a toxic cocktail of pills and cough syrup with his friends, then heading out into the streets of L.A. (Video below, NSFW.)
The combination of these visuals with Earl’s hyper-literary, hyper-obscene lyrics and layered internal rhymes immediately established him as the most skilled voice in the Odd Future crew. And that’s when he disappeared. Complex magazine has since revealed that Earl has been for the last two years at a school for at-risk boys on the island of Samoa; his mother put him there. And Sanneh detailed his Oscar-winning biopic-worthy back story as the talented but troubled son of a famed South African poet and one-time U.C.L.A. English professor.
Though Earl and Co. probably didn’t orchestrate it, the rapper’s disappearance was the piece de resistance of Odd Future’s overall marketing platform and they did everything they could to capitalize on the intrigue his absence created. During the summer of 2010, the group’s Tumblr featured an arrestingly simple “Free Earl” graphic and one of their first shows included a flier with Earl’s name crossed out and the phrase “will not be there due to Mom” scrawled over it. Soon fans had taken up the cause and the “free Earl” message started appearing on T-shirts and other merchandise; without even trying the band had created an interior, exclusive subculture of insiders who became emotionally connected the idea of Earl and the band while providing them with free advertizing.
Odd Future haven’t had to do much to keep the Earl fervor alive. Early last year the Complex piece came out followed by The New Yorker profile. In the rare moment when Earl’s narrative began to lag, in swooped Tyler to stir the pot. Last fall, he taunted OF fans via Twitter suggesting that Earl was back and that the pair were in the studio. The claim vaulted Earl to trending topic status on Twitter, which Tyler found super amusing. “Thebe Is Trending? Sick! He’s Stoked Haha, Awkward For Him,” Tyler later Tweeted. When in early February of this year Tyler once again took to Twitter to suggest Earl was back, initial response was justifiably skeptical until Earl himself confirmed it via a new Twitter handle @earlxsweat.
In the end brilliant marketing alone is not enough to sustain a brand. “There are artists who spend an inordinate amount of time getting their social networking game just right, but have zero interesting music to back it up,” says Kris Chen, an executive at XL, which released Tyler, The Creator’s album. He went on to point out that Tyler is “incredibly smart and crazy talented,” and called Earl’s self-titled mixtape “real and thrilling and more exciting than most commercial releases of the last five years.” But in this day and age, where the command you have over your audience is considered tantamount to dollars in the bank, Earl Sweatshirt is rolling in it. “Nigga need followers,” he tweeted after snippets of a new song appeared online shortly after his return earlier this year. “Give me 50,000 [followers] and i’ll release this shit for everybody.” It took him less than three hours to reach his goal.