How to blow up without a label
© Mihnea Ratte/Red Bull Content Pool
You don't need to be signed these days to hit it big. The team behind breakout rapper AJ Tracey share the secrets to making it without record label backing.
In 2019, there’s no better example of how to blow up without a record label than AJ Tracey. Fully independent, the anime-loving West London MC has grown from a young pretender to king of the scene, with a Top 3 album, hit singles and huge sold out shows under his belt.
On September 26, AJ offered thanks to his fans on Twitter. Nothing unusual about that, the rapper is frequently tapping out messages and posting photos for his followers. Only this time, he was expressing his gratitude after the second of two shows at London’s Alexandra Palace in November – that’s 20,000 tickets – had sold out.
“No label. Didn’t announce new music,” he wrote. “Somehow you guys helped me sell out two Ally Pallys. Thank you, I’m gassed!”
No wonder. AJ is following in the footsteps of Skepta and Krept & Konan onto Alexandra Palace’s stage, and the shows come as part of a lap of honour as the MC closes out the year. After spattering SoundCloud with songs under his old aliases Looney and Loonz, AJ got serious, breaking through with Spirit Bomb in 2015. From grimy beginnings, he expanded his palette through EPs AJ’s Stocking Filler, Lil Tracey and Secure The Bag, which made the Top 20 in 2017, offering the first hint of his knack for cracking the charts all on his own.
His self-titled debut album hit No.3 upon release, filled with neon-bright, genre-straddling rap joints that soundtracked 2019. Garage banger Ladbroke Grove has passed 600,000 sales and spent the summer lodged in the Top 5, while AJ tore up the festival circuit.
He and his team have made every step of the journey as an independent operation, free of the interference and influence of a record label. While there are obvious plus points to the arrangement – total control, freedom and autonomy – what of the downsides? Has AJ suffered from missing out on the manpower, reach and extra financial support a label deal can offer? Not a bit of it.
Here, team AJ Tracey reveals how to blow up without a label…
DO YOUR RESEARCH
First thing first, aspiring artists should know what else is out there. It’s no use taking on the competition if you don’t know it inside out. “It’s really useful to pay attention to how other artists are doing it,” says Andy Musgrave, a Bristol garage head who manages AJ Tracey through his company Supernature. “Look how they’re connecting with audiences on social media and pick up little tips that way. Be patient and be willing to work on this without any success for a long time, before it pays off. It’s not going to be quick.”
Be patient and be willing to work on this without any success for a long time... it’s not going to be quick.
At the beginning, breaking through can feel pushing a juggernaut up Mount Everest, but Musgrave says AJ has proved anything is possible with a clear head. “A lot of artists see others have a come up and achieve some success and think it’s overnight, when really there’s been five years of graft in the shadows that doesn’t get publicised,” he says. Stay tough, is the message.
CONFIDENCE IS KEY
While Musgrave says it’s “second nature to value other people’s opinions over your own” he advises wannabe stars to nurture unbreakable confidence to shut out the outside noise. “The more you put your art out there and realise everything is subjective, the more you learn to realise people’s opinions come and go,” he says. “Confidence comes over time, that’s crucial to weathering that difficult early doubt stage. You can’t do it without an element of self-belief.”
GET ON THE ROAD
Thanks to her work with an array of talent including Skepta, Wiley and JME, scene OG and music agent Rebecca Prochnik has legendary status in the UK. Prochnik added AJ Tracey to her roster at Earth Agency early on, and says the best thing a new independent act can do is get out and play.
“Many of the artists I've worked with over the years don't have a label or barely do, and in terms of financial support it's always been pretty negligible since I’ve tended towards artists from the independent sector,” she says. Having music out in some format is the main tool from which to start the rest. “Just making music isn't enough. Having a natural response to what you put out into the ether, even if it's small, is the momentum needed to start things up and live is important because it's the 3D visceral persona for fans to really grasp.”
COMMUNICATE LIKE YOU MEAN IT
As anyone who follows him knows, AJ Tracey has always been a vibrant presence on social media, and, according to Prochnik, this “genuine direct marketing” is the principal tool an independent artist needs to cut through. “What really counts now is an artist’s connection with their fanbase, AJ communicates directly with his fans and there’s no one who could do a better job,” says the agent.
AJ now has more than a million followers across Twitter and Instagram, and Musgrave backs up the importance of social media, too. Good communication, he says, happens when, “You see an artist making themselves visible, making themselves unavoidable and doing it in a way that’s personal and not annoying and not just reposting every single bit of praise, but replying to fans and being open and available.”
Treat your supporters well. Some artists make the mistake of trying to act all bouji because they think that’s what being an artist is about.
The manager underlines the importance of incubating your followers from day one, that way they’re primed to jump on every new song or ticket on sale date. “In the early days when the fanbase is small, it’s your responsibility to look after and appreciate that small group of people in the hope that they’ll tell a friend and they’ll come to the shows and maybe buy some merch,” he says. “Treat your supporters well. Some artists make the mistake of trying to act all bouji because they think that’s what being an artist is about. When you’re at a low level you might get one or two tweets a day saying ‘I love this song’, say thank you, reply to those people and make sure they’re appreciated.”
NAVIGATE THE BLOW UP WHEN IT COMES
Perhaps the most important thing in breaking through as a fully independent artist is not to strive towards a specific blow up moment, but to be so well prepared and confident that you’re able to maximise whatever moment may be round the corner. “Something I really believe in that I try to instill in my artists, actually any artist I come across, is don’t strive for some sort of blow up moment,” says Musgrave. “The real success is to establish yourself in a middle ground where there are no hard spikes, because usually a hard spike is followed by a quite hard fall.”
So what’s the key to building on a breakthrough when it occurs? Musgrave uses AJ Tracey’s tactic of wrong-footing the audience by confounding expectations to explain how. “Artists will have one big song then really struggle to try and recreate it and not do it very well,” he says. “If AJ has a big song, one that performs significantly better than anything before it, we’ll make a point of coming back with something that goes the opposite way. We’ve got to let people know, don’t always expect a hit.”
The most important trick, though, is to look beyond the blow up. “It’s important to let artists know that the real win isn’t a blow up, it’s establishing yourself at a level of success that can sustain a whole career,” he says. “One moment might sustain you for a year, it might get you a record deal that will keep you eating well for five years, but that’s not a career, that’s not 20, 30 years.” If he keeps going like this, AJ Tracey is surely in this for the long haul – independent all the way.
Now watch what happened when AJ Tracey teamed up with Mumdance live in Red Bull Studios.
Mumdance x AJ Tracey modular session, live in Red Bull Studios