Why Death Grips sold drama instead of a copy of NO LOVE DEEP WEB
Photo by Jonny Magowan
The Music Industry is a weekly column that dissects local and national music-business headlines with the help of local industry professionals and music fanatics.
This month, dark lords of alt-hip-hop Death Grips emerged from the shadows to thrill believers by leaking their latest album, NO LOVE DEEP WEB, online. The album's cover features a very NSFW shot of male genitalia with the title scrawled on it in Sharpie, and inside, the record follows a sweaty band of punks from Sacramento as they commandeer the rap format and wipe the floor with their more commercial counterparts in the process.
Supposedly, their label Epic Records wasn't in on the decision, and they retaliated by pulling the band's website. Now, I'm a marketer by trade, and I can smell strategy a mile away. So, when casually interested bloggers and journos wondered timidly whether the Death Grips leak may have been a setup, I had to laugh.
Soon after, writers began to suspect the leak was a publicity stunt. They considered the obvious points, such as the legal ramifications of leaking an album against a label's wishes, the incessant promotional tweets after the leak, the announcement days later of an international tour, and the band's history of making their music available for free. (Note: The band's website is back online. It is still hosting the free album.) Stream it here, too:
Minneapolis rapper P.O.S., whose latest album We Don't Even Live Here hit stores last week, showed love for the act, saying, "I feel like Death Grips is going for and achieving something that I aimed at on a couple records and never really hit the way I wanted to hit. They hit so raw. There's nothing like that in rap. That's something that I strive for. "
I asked P.O.S. what he thought about this being an intentional leak. "You don't usually have an international tour without something that you're going to be supporting. But they already did put out another record this year [The Money Store], and then they canceled the tour, so that was pretty believable for me."
But what about the consequences?
"I imagine that if they put out that record without Epic's permission without having another record ready that had been Epic-approved, there would probably be some litigation right away. From what I know of majors, they're pretty sue-happy, especially when artists leak their own stuff."
For me, it's about expectations. I recall an episode of Mad Men in which Don Draper, when asked whether a colleague should make amends with his estranged wife, replied, "Is that what you want, or is that what people expect of you?"
Death Grips surely want to sell some albums, and who wouldn't? But that was the model of the '80s and '90s, when MTV and radio were still the gatekeepers and almost everybody was listening. Though comparatively few artists made it, those who did were virtually guaranteed reasonable sales figures and healthy name recognition. It was a time when distribution depended upon physical media, and cheap plastic cassettes and discs could be sold at high markups.
Today, those traditional gatekeepers are gone, impressive sales figures are more often in the hundreds of thousands than the millions, tracks are transferred digitally, and we enjoy instant access and more choice than ever before. The background noise is staggering.
Since neither Epic nor Death Grips can have exactly what they want in terms of sales or exposure, they've got to try to live up to reasonable expectations. Epic Records knows less-accessible artists like Death Grips, whose schizophrenic brand of hip-hop favors sore-throated lyricism and primal rhythms, won't sell Rihanna or Mumford & Sons numbers. In an industry climate in which leaks and free downloads have become a way to garner attention and sell concert tickets, Epic did a cost-benefit analysis. In this case, they decided the publicity was worth any losses incurred from giving the record away for free.
Explains P.O.S., "The major labels have clamped down. They offer 360 deals, where they make money off your shows, they make money off your merch, instead of just the record."
I can't tell you what a full-page ad in Rolling Stone or Billboard costs, or what YouTube charges to take over its homepage, but I can tell you that it cost Epic nothing to take the band's website offline. And, the page-not-found screenshot went viral -- it was a beautiful thing.
Leaking NO LOVE DEEP WEB wasn't just about good math. In the end, Death Grips and Epic Records chose drama because it sells. And because it's what people expect from the band.
The battle between artist and label reinforces the Death Grips image, one better represented by a middle finger than an open palm.
We know Death Grips have given away their albums before. It was recently reported that Death Grips are one of the most legally downloaded acts, that they provide their albums to BitTorrent for the public to share. Given their target audience, they're wise to get their music heard in as many ways as possible. But this means that simply releasing free music no longer generates sufficient buzz; it certainly isn't dangerous. P2P downloads and unauthorized leaks feel illicit, so we love them.
After all, we don't want to be handed the keys to the vault -- we want to break in.
Never mind that most bands today realize that the real money is made through touring and endorsements, and that a portion of music sales can be sacrificed if freebies generate new fans. We're willing to put aside suspicion, to buy the David and Goliath story, in order to have our heroes. After all, our artists should be rebels. They should be on our side, standing firm, whiskey in hand, ready to hurl shit at the suits in their ivory towers.
"It did seem a little stagey. Not in a bad way," P.O.S. says, who has plenty of anti-establishment rhetoric on his latest album. "I was happy with what was going down. I was excited. I downloaded it right away. It got me regardless of what it was, but I'm a fan, you know."
Update (10/31): Death Grips has responded to this story on the band's Facebook page by posting some screenshots that look like internal e-mails from Epic Records' Heath Kudler and manager Peter Katsis, dated October 1. In them, giddly captioned "treat bitch" and "HAHAHAHAHAHAHA NOW FUCK OFF." Kudler states that "This album will not count towards the Recording Commitment. As I am sure you understand, Epic will not be [sic] pay for an album that thousands of people have already downloaded."
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Update (11/1): Epic Records has released this statement:
Epic Records is a music first company that breaks new artists. That is our mission and our mandate. Unfortunately, when marketing and publicity stunts trump the actual music, we must remind ourselves of our core values. To that end, effective immediately, we are working to dissolve our relationship with Death Grips. We wish them well.
Death Grips. With Mykki Blanco. 18+, $15, 8 p.m., Wednesday, November 21 at First Avenue. Click here.
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