The Future of the Music Business: Soulja Boy?

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Really?! That guy? It might be easy to dismiss Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em (DeAndre Ramone Way), the 18-year-old American rapper who has enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame over the past couple of years as a fad, or a flavor of the week, but that would be a mistake. Soulja Boy has actually laid down a pretty impressive blueprint for success in the ailing music industry by demonstrating a superior knowledge of how social media works and how to market to the web generation.

Today, at Billboard’s Digital Media Live event at the CES conference, Soulja Boy told a room full of music executives just how he orchestrated his rise to fame and how he plans to stay on top.

Starting in 2004 2005, when he was just 16 15 years old, Soulja Boy started uploading his music to Soundclick.com. The keys to his success, he told music execs, were the social media features of the site that allowed fans to tag his songs as favorites and spread them virally to other users, and then actively track the popularity of those songs. That made users feel invested in his success, and feel personally connected to his music.

Within a year, Soulja Boy launched a MySpace presence with the help of his cousin, just as the site was hitting its stride in 2005 and becoming the web’s main destination for music. Since, Soulja Boy’s MySpace page has amassed over 59 million views.

His real success came when he uploaded a music video to YouTube for his single “Crank That,” the polished version of which is one of the most popular ever on the site, as is a follow-on instructional video that teaches viewers the dance featured in the video. The young hip-hop impresario parlayed his massive Internet following into a deal with Interscope Records, and has since been nominated for a Grammy.

What makes Soulja Boy special, though, is that he knows how to connect with his fans. While most of the music industry has been focused on keeping fans from playing music where, how, and when they want to, Soulja Boy has done the opposite — he’s reached out to his fans in the very places they live online.

Likely because he’s a teenager himself, Soulja Boy realized early on that music is being played, traded, and discussed on social networks and via mobile phones. So that’s where he focused his plan of attack — YouTube, MySpace, Bebo, etc.

At CES today, mobile and music executives proclaimed that the only new money available for the music industry is in mobile, so guess where Soulja Boy is planning to actively promote himself next? That’s right, mobile, where he’s already building another network of fans.

His MySpace page prominently lists his new SayNow phone number, where Soulja Boy has amassed yet another huge fan base (he’s the site’s second most popular client right now). The phone number allows the budding music mogul to connect with fans via mobile phones (where Soulja Boy is actually already active, having sold over 5 million ringtones), and market directly to them with promotions and special advertising messages.

“I have 1 million subscribers right now, and I have had over 30 million calls from around the world,” said Soulja Boy today of his mobile strategy. “It’s in China, Italy — it’s all over the world… What that does is we have a way to capitalize revenue on that.”

Soulja Boy also recently launched a shoe line, a cartoon, and has a video game in the works. “Album sales are on the decline right now,” he said today. Soulja Boy understands that the economics of the Internet are pushing the price of recorded music toward free, but that there is still plenty of money to be made by establishing a base of “true fans” that will eat up other marketing message based around an artist’s personal brand. The rest of the music industry should pay attention: Soulja Boy’s method is the future.

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