We’ve all got ideas in our heads of how our lives are going to play out. These ideas are almost always wrong. There are too many variables, too many random glitches that can change everything. In the blink of an eye, your whole world can get flipped. And it does.
When I first heard from Maq, a Toronto artist and frontman for a project called The Throwed, it was the typical conversation between a music blogger and an artist trying to get exposure. He’d usually hit me up on Facebook chat and ask if I had a minute to check out his new song. An important part of my job is to listen, and so I listen… a lot. Unless I was busy using my ears for something else, I’d press play and give feedback when I could. I never ended up posting any of it, but he seemed liked a nice guy, so I didn’t mind taking a couple minutes to hear what he’s up to.
This went on for months, until one day I got a message from Maq, sounding more excited than usual. He said, “I’m working on this new stuff… for Ciroc and Diddy… I know you probably think I’m talking out of my ass, but check Diddy’s Twitter and the Bad Boy blog” Sure enough, Diddy’s latest tweet was a link pointing to Maq’s new video. The video is up on the blog. Next thing you know, there are high budget productions with Ciroc logos plastered all over them, flights from Canada to New York City, talks with label executives, and promotion to Diddy’s millions of social networking followers. How did this happen?
Here is the story of one independent artist who experienced the highs and lows that come with having the attention of an industry bigwig.
It’s an exciting time for music, and when you read about it, most of the time you hear about how “easy” it is to get noticed. In a sense, it’s true. Anybody can make a video, upload it to YouTube, send it to blogs, promote it on social networking outlets, and reach an audience that 10 years ago would have been unattainable. The thing they don’t take into consideration? The competition. The fact that it’s so easy means everyone can do it. And they do.
When Maq first started promoting his music online (under the name The Throwed), he had a solid team that could put together video, do the mastering and production, and make a pretty well-polished final product. They also had a strong grasp of the internet and what was needed to promote their material. Still, it wasn’t easy. Maq explains, “We were posting everywhere: Tumblr, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Soundclick, music blogs, and on other forums, the whole nine yards. And we thought—we foolishly believed—that we were going to get noticed. We were under the assumption that it was going to be easy. I mean that’s the general perception. There’s this false belief among starting artists that if you just post your music or video on this magical thing called the internet, you’re guaranteed to get a deal, but that’s not the reality.” Frustration was at an all-time high.
And then opportunity reared its head. “When Diddy was promoting his album Last Train to Paris. He tweeted, ‘Whoever changes their avatar to the LTTP album cover, I’ll follow back.’ So I immediately changed my avatar and tweeted at Diddy,” Maq recalls. “Next thing you know, he’s following me on Twitter.” The team quickly evaluated how they could take advantage. “I knew that Diddy was promoting a new premium vodka called Ciroc, so my group members and I made a song called ‘Ciroc.’ Now we’re not into the typical “commercial sound” but I thought this was a good avenue for me to get some exposure. I thought I should put my artistic feelings aside and do a song solely to get exposure. I reasoned, naively, that I could always go back to making the music that I truly cared for once I got signed. So I recorded the song in a makeshift studio basement with my team Harry, Sok and Illy, and my brother, Manee shot the video for it with a budget of $150.00.”
Above is the video that started it all.
The Big Break
After creating “Ciroc,” The Throwed tweeted it out every day. After a month, Maq gets an email message via YouTube from a guy named Aubrey. “I don’t check it initially,” he says, “thinking it’s just the usual spam crap. I check the email a few days later, and as it turns out, Aubrey is the brand content director for Blue Flame Agency. Blue Flame reps Bad Boy. He say’s he loves our song “Ciroc” and the music video, and would like talk to me. He provides me his phone number and asks me to call the following afternoon. At this point I’m tripping out. This is what all starving artists want—a call from someone in the industry. At this point my mind begins to get ahead of itself. I start thinking about being signed and what all this could mean.”
He calls Aubrey the next day. The first thing Aubrey asks is what made The Throwed want to do a song called “Ciroc.” At this point Maq has to explain that he had never tried the vodka, that he doesn’t even drink alcohol, and that they did it strictly to try to get Diddy’s attention. The two share a laugh. Aubrey explains that he was trying out a new video/picture search and searched “Ciroc” and the first thing that came up was Maq’s tweet to James Cruze, Diddy’s manager. Aubrey said that he was “blown away.”
Artists always wonder what it takes to get noticed by someone in the industry. For Maq and The Throwed, it was combination of things. “Well for me, it had a lot to do with me seeing an opportunity, being prepared, and a little bit of a luck. Guess the saying is true: luck is where the crossroads of opportunity and preparation meet.”
Diddy Takes Notice
During the phone call with Aubrey, the first thing Maq asks is if Diddy saw the video. “Not yet,” Aubrey answers. Diddy was in France on business, but Aubrey promises to pass it along to him. He asks Maq for an edited version of “Ciroc” with no swearing, the two hang up, and The Throwed immediately gets to work.
Later on that night, as Harry and Maq were working on finishing up the edited version, Maq’s phone starts blowing up. He’s too focused to check it, but as they’re wrapping up he gets a phone call from Aubrey. “Diddy saw the video. He loved it. He just tweeted it out.” Maq’s mind goes into warp drive. “My first thought is that this video is going to go viral. I mean, Diddy has four million plus followers, so I’m going to get at least a quarter million views. I started thinking about Kanye West tweeting Tyler, The Creator’s music video, and how his video went viral. Prior to Kanye’s tweet Tyler had only had a couple thousand hits on his videos, after Kanye’s tweet, he had a mill plus. I think the same thing is bound to happen to me. I thought that if I didn’t get as many views, I would definitely get signed to Bad Boy, after all Aubrey, told me that Diddy ‘loved the song and wants more’ and that ‘Bad Boy’s got us.'”
The next morning, Maq checks YouTube and expects to see his video racking up huge numbers. Instead, the video only has a few more hundred views. “I soon realized that Diddy’s Twitter doesn’t hold the same weight as Kanye West’s tweets.”
All Expenses Paid
“The next time Aubrey and I speak is a few days later. I’m advised that Blue Flame, which also reps Ciroc, wants to gain more ‘ground level viral exposure.’ I’m told that since my previous songs and music video looked and sounded “high-end” but cost a fraction of what typical music video cost, Blue Flame wants us to work with them.” From here on out, Blue Flame would be financing the music videos, as long as the videos and songs meet the following requirements:
1) The songs need to be about drinking Ciroc.
2) The songs need to be “commercial” and be “club bangers.”
3) All the videos need to have the Ciroc intro and outro.
The Throwed gets right to work on the club bangers. Maq starts penning songs, and he brother comes up with concepts for the videos. It’s not the kind of songs and videos that they like to do, but they grind it out and hope it pays off.
“Within the next few weeks, we go down to New York to meet up with Aubrey in person. My brother and I meet him at a sushi restaurant near Times Square. We show him some of the stuff we’re working on. He’s impressed. He gives us the go ahead for the concepts that we show him, and he asks that the “Ciroc” video be re-edited with the intros and outros. Once we had those in, he’d get the video posted it on Worldstar and other sites.”
The Throwed heads back to Toronto, feeling closer than ever to their goal of being signed. “We started busting our ass off making club bangers and shooting the typical main stream music videos (like “Jet Lagged“) with girls and bottles of alcohol in almost every scene and verse.” Now, before you start judging Maq and his boys, here’s a little bit about them outside of music: Maq has a full time job and is in his third year of law school. His brother works full time as a creative executive. The other members of his team, Harry, Illy and Sok, all work and go to school. These aren’t a bunch of slackers who got a lucky break. The guys have work ethic. And so they went to work, hoping that if they deliver what was asked for, there was a chance that they’d get a deal, or at least get some serious exposure.
But that wasn’t the case.
The Throwed shot three videos, signed stacks of waiver forms, uploaded the videos, and nothing came out of it. Diddy tweeted the videos but they never took off. Soon afterwards, they stopped hearing from the Blue Flame/Bad Boy camp. “At that point, it was a pretty devastating blow,” Maq recalls. “We shot three music videos in less then a month. I mean, we put in a lot of hard work, hoping that something would come out of it. What we hadn’t realized is that people can see past all the marketing schemes and hype. Audiences have become super efficient in filtering out all the marketing B.S. The sooner up-and-coming artists realize this and stay true to their vision, the sooner they’ll be able to garner a fan base and gain real and meaningful exposure.”
Rock Bottom And Looking Up
The Throwed felt that they had hit rock bottom. They sacrificed their own artistic vision for a chance to make it big, they put in the work, they had their goal dangling in front of their faces and then pulled away without warning. “I guess when you hit bottom, it’s only up. So instead of giving up, we became even more determined to continue on, however this time on our own path. We decided to move forward and do songs that we truly cared about. I didn’t want to do songs anymore just to get exposure or for marketing purposes. So we turned away from the ‘club bangers’ and focused on songs that we felt more accurately reflected us.”
At the time, Maq was going through some things. Not only had the Diddy thing fallen through, but he had just gone through a rough break-up. This is when he got the inspiration to do a cover of Lana Del Rey’s “Blue Jeans.” With the cover came another big break.
“I’m a big fan of Lana Del Rey, so once she released ‘Blue Jeans,’ I decided to do a cover of it, my own interpretation. Doing that cover became a cathartic process for me. I recorded the song in two days and shot the video in a day. I put more in that cover then I did for all four previous Ciroc marketing songs.”
Watch The Throwed’s “Blue Jeans” cover below:
When The Throwed finished the mix for the “Blue Jeans” cover, Maq felt content, and confident that if other people got a hold of it they’d like what it too. He uploaded the video. By the end of the day it only had 15 views and one download. And that one download was his friend, Sham.
But then something weird happened.
“To my astonishment, the following day, my Blue Jean’s cover went up 20,000 thousand views and had 220 downloads. I thought that was kind of odd, but thought that maybe people were looking up for Rey’s “Blue Jeans” and by chance coming on to my cover.”
That wasn’t the case.
What had happened was that Lana had found the cover and posted the video for it on her Facebook. Maq and the guys from The Throwed didn’t even realize it until their friend called and told them that he just saw their video on Lana’s Facebook page. “I was stunned, not only did that mean she liked our cover and video, but it also meant that she thought that our cover was good enough to share with her fans. It just confirmed to me that we were moving in the right direction.”
“Since we’ve abandoned the commercial club banger route and began to make music that truly appeals to us, we’ve generated more exposure than with all the times Diddy tweeted us. Just recently a local university promoter heard the ‘Blue Jeans’ cover and asked us to meet him. This February we played our first live gig, and we’ll be doing a small university tour. For the first time we have views on YouTube in the thousands.” Here’s one of The Throwed’s latest videos:
The Moral Of The Story
A Tribe Called Quest already let you know the deal. The music industry can be a shady business, and when you mix art and money, passion and greed, artistic integrity and forced compromise, things end up swirling into some ugly situations. Somewhere, deep inside all of us, there’s that kid who can’t stand to see his favorite artists “sell out,” but we grow out of that. We learn to say, “good for them.” We realize that in a world full of product placement and image control, becoming popular usually involves some level of sacrifice. Maybe it’s as simple as wearing a certain shoe in your video, maybe it’s as complicated as becoming a whole new person. Whatever it is, it’s there, and it’s very real.
But there’s a side effect to all of this, and Maq learned this the hard way: consumers can see through the bullshit. We’re so used to being bombarded with the stuff that half the time we don’t even care. “Okay, okay, we get it, B.o.B and Adidas have a partnership. Big deal.” But it takes time to get to this level. Wiz Khalifa might be balling in Bing commercials now, but if he started off as “the rapper from the Bing commercials,” things would have played out much differently. That’s not how it happened, though. Wiz built up one of the most loyal fan bases out there—legions of kids willing to shout “Taylor Gang or die” at every show—and when he progressively moved into a more mainstream realm, where pop hooks and marketing campaigns rule all, he had already earned his acceptance.
Selling out before you’ve earned acceptance is a dangerous path. Just look at what happened with Lana Del Rey. Not to say that she “sold out,” but if people—more specifically the early-movers and the “tastemakers”—even get a whiff of some kind of marketing scheme in the early stages of an artist’s development, you’ll see the sharks come out. It’s tough out there. The internet has made some things easy, but it’s made other things exponentially more difficult. Standing out has always been a challenge, but it’s getting damn near impossible when every kid with a Tumblr account and 300 Twitter followers wants to get famous and has a decent understanding of how to take the first steps to do it.
In some ways, The Throwed is an exceptional case. Most artists will never get retweeted by Diddy. Most artists grind for years before they get a chance to partner with a brand. Most artists won’t get flown to New York and have money thrown at them based off of one video. In other ways, The Throwed is what a music upstart in 2012 is all about—a few motivated guys who set out to make it big and ended up catching an ugly glimpse of the ruthless record business. Over the past few years, the industry has changed a lot, and we’re still in the middle of a transformation that’s impossible to predict, but one thing remains constant: when art and business collide, things will always get complicated.