Iamsu! Is Proof Independent Artists Can Thrive And Sell Music In The Streaming Era

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The clock is ticking, and there are only 15 minutes left until the doors of Ace Of Spades in Sacramento open for the third annual IAMSUMMER extravaganza, which is half IAMSU! show and half Summer Jam for his rabid fans and the followers of his Bay Area collective the HBK Gang. Fans have been lining up across the street for over two hours now, and the line is wrapping around the block, anxious to burst through the doors and rush to the spaces closest to the stage.

The 27-year-old Richmond, California native is still hard at work, checking every single detail and making sure it’s all up to spec. He bounces around gleefully, with the type of exuberance typically reserved for children less than half his age. He’s so happy with life he can’t possibly hide it, not that he would want to or that he’s trying even in the least bit. But even with all that glee he does mean business, and with the urging of his mother, he’s allowed each of his guests performers — who also double as his closest friends — to do their own individual sound check. He’s also been patiently waiting to get a look at the massive and remarkable video board he’s rented — for a handsome fee — for the two IAMSUMMER shows, the second of which will be in the legendary Fox Theater in Oakland on July 29th, and the 2,800 capacity there will make it Su’s largest headlining show to date.

“This is the norm,” Su’s mom, Ms. Harris, notes before reminding him how much time is left before the doors open. Then, in a motherly and endearing way, she calmly explains to the performers, friends and family in attendance who will go where once the show starts as they all listen attentively and slowly begin heading to the areas she directed them towards. “Sudan has always been hands on,” she says, calling him his given name like any mother would. “It’s the only way to make sure you look good — to do it yourself.”

This is the life for Su, where he’s as much of an all-seeing, all-doing taskmaster as he is a rapper/producer extraordinaire. And now, that DIY attitude and classic bay area hustler’s mentality has catapulted him into a successful independent existence, wherein he can cater to his fans directly, live comfortably, and thrive in an era where music is as abundant and free as it has ever been.

“I’m going to come clean,” Su explains backstage during a brief a break from his soundcheck. “I make money off music, I could not do shows if I wanted to, because my music sells.” Su’s success conflicts with current industry trends, where most believe music can’t be sold anymore and mostly serves as a loud flyer for the two major outlets for artists: Touring and merchandising.

Su does both, but after years of groundwork cultivating his fan base through networking and with a breakneck work rate and some cost-effective production measures, he’s been able to create an ecosystem where his fans will pay for music, even if he gives it away for free. Their willingness to do, and their constantly growing numbers have made him rich, all without the help of a major record label, and may have created a blueprint for independent success in the streaming era.

“That mentality comes from the Bay,” he says of his independent spirt. “Just seeing the blueprint that people like E-40, Too Short, Mac Dre, Messy Marv, Andre Nickatina and J Stalin. It’s a long list of artists that hard their own record labels and was putting music out, so it’s not unfamiliar territory to be from the Bay and be an independent artist.”

So, after working with the Warner Music Group subsidiary Alternative Distribution Alliance on his well-received debut album Sincerely Yours, Su decided to part ways and give it a go on his own, along with his crew of rappers, producers, photographers and videographers, and created a self-sufficient team full of talent and ambition.

“It was kind of like the deals they give artists now, distribution deals, where there’s a production company that facilitates that with your management,” Su says of the deal he had in place at the time. “I learned so much during that because I was funding all of my sh*t, like my tour bus to my promo runs, my digital marketing and all of that type of sh*t. I’m actually coming out of pocket paying for it, so every month I’m coming out of pocket like $30,000, including my staff and everybody that’s working for me, so I just learned hella sh*t and I’m like ‘Honestly, I could do this sh*t myself.’”

Su did entertain some label interest at the time, but never signed any deals after deciding he could manage the day to day work of his career himself. “I see a lot of people go the independent act and it go to sh*t because they don’t know exactly what they’re doing,” he says, clearly having learned from both his experience and the experiences of others. “I just soaked up all the knowledge and tried to improve my brand and engage my fanbase. That was my movement.”

And off he went, taking his act overseas for the first time and dialing up his work rate to keep up with the demand and build his dedicated fanbase even more. “I’ve just been staying consistent, for example this year I dropped three mixtapes and we’re halfway through the year,” he says of his recent output. “Hella videos, just trying to interact. Doing bigger looks and different things.”

In order to keep up that pace, which he believes spurs the growth of his fanbase, Su has relied on an unusually self-sufficient production cycle. He makes his own beats, creates nearly every facet of his content in-house from his artwork to his visuals and records as efficiently as possible. “I save a lot of money because I know how to make my own beats, and I’ve been really smart with my studio time,” he says. “I’ll take like two or three days and do a whole mixtape, because I got my beats already, so I just go in there and kill that sh*t and come back.”

In the system Su has created, he can churn out music at this pace and quickly make recoup production costs almost instantly. “The expenses are the cover, and then I have to get it mixed and that’s like maybe three [thousand],” he says, going over just how much it costs to create every asset of an IAMSU project. “I shot like three videos for Boss Up 3, so whatever that costs. So, it might be like five or six thousand (to fund an entire project), but then I’ll drop it and make it back like that (snaps). Like as soon as I drop it, I’ll make it back a week later.”

This frugal approach also includes Su making his beats without any samples, a lesson he learned after being burned with fees for his sampling on his debut album. “They came back and asked for money and that’s actually the reason it’s not up on iTunes,” he says of the sampling woes from Sincerely Yours. “That was a high earning album so that was irritating, I made my money off that and we’re going to get it back up we just have to go through the proper procedures.”

He also packs light, flies Southwest and shares a room with his DJ when he travels, all cost-cutting measures to keep the HBK Gang and IAMSU empires as lucrative and efficient as possible. Much of that frugal mentality comes from his mother, who serves as an advisor and all-around sage for the entire operation. “I wasn’t involved initially, I came in and cleaned up a few things, organized a few things and just made it more efficient,” she says of her involvement. “They did a lot on their own, they were popping, having a good time and making it happen, but I think in order for them to make real careers off of it you’ve got to tighten up the business side and hold onto more of your money. Now we’re partners.”

And Ms. Harris is a natural and valuable partner, with a background in entertainment that includes a BA in dance from California State University, Long Beach, and a family history that dates back to segregation and the famed Chitlin’ Circuit in the 1960s. “My grandparents had a restaurant that was on the Chitlin’ Circuit, where all the black people would have to perform during segregation, so they would go to certain black spots and they called it the Chitlin Circuit,” she explains. “We kind of go back a little bit with the whole music industry on the business side and the music side. My dad played trumpet in his college band, so I’m kind of seeing everything come full circle.”

Momma Su’s involvement has become her day job, and allowed her to retire from her life as a teacher for twenty-five years — she actually once was her son’s teacher as a child — to oversee the operation full time, but that doesn’t mean it always works without hitches. “He’s not always receptive,” she says while laughing. “That’s a mother and son thing. But he listens. We bump heads all the time, but in the end, we prevail. Like, if we have a good knock down drag out, he’ll be like ‘Mommy, do you want something to eat?’ You’re over it because that’s your son. You’re over it and you figure out what it’s really about. So yeah, we’ll have a good one, and then we keep it moving.”

When it comes time to sell his music, Su uses Tunecore, a host site/distribution outlet used by fellow independent pioneers like Nipsey Hussle and Mozzy to deliver their music directly to fans though various outlets like iTunes and Amazon. “I make money off that every month, like $30,000 every month,” he reveals. “And my older catalog is (distributed by) Empire, so that could be like $7-8,000 a month off old sh*t. So, I’m straight. Doing shows is cool, definitely, don’t get me wrong, but I think music still sells and if I had a bigger marketing budget for my music I think it would sell even more.”

When he does do shows, he even does that efficiently, relying on analytics from his accounts on streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify along with the data from his Soundcloud and Tunecore to zero in on his fan base and the best areas for him to hit whenever he hits the road. “I see my top fifty cities, my top countries and different places,” he says of his approach towards live shows and touring. “I do a lot of college dates, fall-fest, spring-fest in these different cities all over the country and my reaction was great. I think it’s just the demographic that’s there. Then I’ll do shows up and down the west coast and out the country and wherever my specific markets are it is where I will pop up at.”

One thing the IAMSU brand will likely not feature anymore is CDs or physical albums of any sort. “Physicals are dead, for me. I did it, but I still have Kilt 3 CDs left, if you can believe that,” he says. “I put it in the stores but I made $700, I’m like ‘That was a waste of time.’ On Christmas last year I gave away 2,000 CDs and I’m just like, I’m not making CDs ever again. It’s old school.”

What he has found out is that even though they’re cheap for him to manufacture, CDs just don’t entice his fanbase. There is a way, however, that he believes he can capitalize on that market, by doing something that has taken hold all the way up to even the biggest artists: Specialty items. “I just feel like it needs to be presented in a different way, like if it’s a fan experience where when my project drops you get my t-shirt, you get physical that’s signed or something like that is something I want to explore,” Su says of a new approach to physical copies of albums. “But just having my CDs on my website? Nobody is buying that sh*t because they’ll just listen to it. But if I make it an experience or something with some value I think it’ll sell more.”

That is Su’s mentality in a nutshell, quietly understanding what’s working and carefully plotting ways to still turn that into a net positive with some adjustments to the strategy. Yes, it’s meant to make each and every revenue stream more lucrative, this is, after all, his liveliness, but the adjustments are also meant to increase the fan experience and continue to build that relationship he has forged with them.

“My stuff is kind of like, niche-market music,” he says honestly and matter-of-factly. “So, I’m just understanding it makes more sense for me to do these pop up shows I can promote for two months on my Instagram, get the hype there, drop the music and do things that engage the fans. As opposed to I have X,Y,Z,Z,Z and I can’t promote each individual show properly to get the best output and turnout.”

But at the end of the day, Su isn’t settling for that existence, no matter how successful it has been. “I want to fill in those gaps,” he says. “Because ultimately, I want to see my career be as plentiful and big as it can be. So, it’s just about learning the best ways to market yourself.”

And he continues to find new ways to market himself by utilized the tools and technology that are available to every artist, he just does so more effectively. “Soundcloud is what I view as the flyer, because that’s the demographic of people that be up on music early. So, I’ll put my music on Soundcloud, a lot of times like two weeks before my mixtape will drop online, and then people will listen to it and start hella talking about it,” he says. “But not everybody is going to go and download the app and do what they do with Soundcloud, they’ll wait for it to be on sale.”

This all comes with Su’s understanding of just what works and what he needs to rely on when it’s time to sell product to his fans. “As far as promotion, social media is everything. Everything,” he says. “I’ve been trying to be more vocal when I see people in real life, just because I don’t want to be a weirdo but social media is everything. My Instagram sells my tickets and sells my music so it’s just about growing that now.”

Su’s growth includes and increased emphasis on merchandise, which he designs himself and sells on his online store. He has come to realize that means he’ll have to rock his own gear more. “I’m a person that likes Supreme, I like Bape, I like sh*t like that and I’m not always trying to wear my own sh*t,” he says bluntly. “But now that I understand that I have a brand, and the only way people are going to see it is if I wear it and believe in it more than I believe in anything else, I’m just now getting that. I need to wear my sh*t before I wear some Nike sh*t, which is f*cked up I got this Nike shirt on now, but I’m going to change and put my “It’s Only One Way” shirt on before I hit the stage. So, it’s just understanding that I need to value my brand more than anything.”

True to his word, by the time he hits the stage he is no longer decked out in Nike Swooshes from head to toe, instead he’s outfitted in his sold out t-shirt (he’ll tease a restock on Twitter just hours later). For ninety minutes, Su received he type of adulation reserved for national stars, and got it as a regional legend still trying to fill in the gaps nationally. Yes, his hometown is less than two hours away, but Su was showered with the type of love that is typically fleeting, and he received it endlessly. After the show, a crowd forms near the not-so-secret, “secret” back exit for artists at Ace Of Spades. He poses for pictures, signs autographs on shoes and shares the experience on social media.

But even with all of the love he receives on this special night, Su wants to do more, and feels like he has plenty of work to do and higher peaks to reach. “I want my merch to be in stores in the mall, I want it to be on the most popping people in the world,” he says about his aspirations for the future. “I want to have a crazy resale value for my clothes, like how somebody will buy a Supreme hoodie for $1,000, I want my stuff on that level. I want to put out some more music, some more solo projects of my own and I want to produce. I want to produce crazy and get like, a Rihanna single or get an Ariana Grande placement or something like that because I feel like I have that potential.”

With all he’s done on his own so far, that’s all not only possible, but likely.