How Soulja Boy Tell 'Em built a fortune on the Internet and a new guide for pushing product for the music industry
By: DAMIEN SCOTT
Illustration: MIKEY BURTON
WHEN JAY Z SAID A set of “new rules” were in effect after the release of his 12th solo album, the Samsung-sponsored Magna Carta… Holy Grail, he wasn’t grandstanding without merit. Shawn Carter influenced the Recording Industry Association of America to amend its rules for determining an artist’s commercial success, allowing Hov to go platinum before fans heard a single bar. While a major coup, Jay’s business move was less a revolution than an evolution of the digital disruption caused nearly a decade ago by serial flosser Soulja Boy Tell ’Em.
Soulja never persuaded a multinational conglomerate to underwrite his art, but the current musical marketplace—one in which labels push artists to create a catchy, sellable single, and artists are expected to pull themselves up from the straps of their Air Force Ones by releasing a deluge of free music and videos over the Internet—was heavily influenced by DeAndre Way. Before Lil Wayne flooded the Internet with hundreds of free songs in the early 2000s, a 15-year-old Mississippian armed with Fruity Loops production software released his music where all his friends were: on the Internet.
Nowadays, musicians and labels cast their online net as wide as possible as to make sure everyone has access to the music they’re promoting. Whereas before labels were too analog in thinking to release songs for free, in any capacity, on the Net, labels like Def Jam now have their own SoundCloud pages where they post new songs available for streaming from most artists on the roster. Soulja Boy was doing that back in 2006 when he joined a site called SoundClick that allowed artists to create pages where they could share and sell their work pre label recruitment. In a 2010 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Soulja explained that after he signed up for Myspace and linked that page with his SoundClick page he began to average 19,000 downloads a day and raked in over $100,000. It’s not the $5 million Jigga pocketed from Samsung, but for an unsigned teenager it was a great bounty.
However, Soulja Boy’s greatest revelation may have been the power of a then new site owned by Google called YouTube. Now clocking more than 1 billion unique visitors a month, YouTube has proved to be one of the premier launching pads for new artists. Would Justin Bieber have recruited a cast of rabid Beliebers had his mother never uploaded his videos? Would South Korea’s prodigal son Psy be known outside of South Korea if his “Gangnam Style” video never hit the site? The odds shrink.
Before most artists knew what YouTube was, Soulja Boy had his own channel, where he posted his modest videos. One of them was for an instructional dance song called “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” which went on to spend seven weeks at the top of the Billboard’s Hot 100 charts and sell more than 3 million copies. YouTube is now seen as such a force that video views are used by Billboard as a metric when calculating artist’s chart position. That sounds like a new rule to us.