Independent artists have greater freedom and control over their output and business thanks to the internet, according to BAFTA and MOBO Award-winning hip-hop artist, writer/poet and historian Akala, who spoke to The Bookseller ahead of his keynote address at this year’s FutureBook Conference (4th December).
Akala will follow Springer Nature chief scientific officer Annette Thomas, Pottermore chief executive Susan Jurevics and Faber chief executive Stephen Page as the fourth morning keynote speaker at what promises to be a ground- breaking publishing conference that will challenge delegates to reimagine publishing in a broader digital and social context.
Akala is a record label owner and social entrepreneur who fuses unique rap/rock/electro-punk with fierce lyrical storytelling. In 2009, Akala launched the The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, which reinterprets the Bard for a modern audience. He has also published a book of short stories and a graphic novel, and is currently working on an audiobook project, A Conversation to Freedom.
Akala said the internet had revolutionised the world of music, giving artists greater access to their fanbase: “It’s a really exciting time for artists. The nature of the internet has given a lot of artists the opportunity they never had before—I could never have built my career like I have 10 years ago. You couldn’t have sold 500 tickets as a UK rapper when I was kid, now I can sell 6,000 tickets in three hours. Some of my tour dates in Australia are outselling those in the UK, and yet I’ve never officially released a song there.”
Akala, who has never signed with a record label, has 75,000 Twitter followers, 100,000 fans on Facebook, 12,500 subscribers to his YouTube channel, and he tours regularly. He also sells books and related products via his website and at tour venues. “The music fanbase will pay a premium for products by artists they love that are not music— including vinyl box-sets even if they don’t have record players. Books, if you can write, are another place to create a new form of merchandising. I’ve looked at other avenues because of what I want to do and what I want to say, but I can do this because I have built a fanbase that believes in the brand.”
He stressed that innovators—in whatever field they work—needed to show determination but also an understanding of the different forms: “My mother treated the word ‘can’t’ as a swear word: when I think about doing something I don’t feel daunted by the prospect of failure, I just get on and do it, but with respect for the form. There’s a certain level of integrity that I can’t compromise in whatever field I am working in.”
He said the music business was slow to pick up on the implications of digital, and musicians took time to realise that they could build careers without being dependent “on the usual channels, such as radio or a major label”. He added: “The internet changed everything, but it also means that Apple now sells 75% of all the music sold on planet Earth, because it saw and understood the digital wave in a way music publishers did not. Music publishers fought the digital wave and now there is no record business, and what they really depend on is their artists going on the road. I’m not saying these computer companies are perfect, but artists can use them as intermediaries, and they have given artists a lot of freedom.”
He said he was resistant to the kind of “360-degree deals” the major music publishers now offered to musicians, but said the book business allowed artists more room to manoeuvre and greater freedom. He added: “I would consider signing a book deal, because I would still have the freedom to do what I do. The good thing about being an artist and having a following is that I would be able to command a different kind of deal.”
Akala also stressed that there was a strong reading audience outside of the mainstream that would benefit from different approaches. “Publishers underestimate who is reading: I have a young inner-city multicultural fanbase, and I look at my friends, and they all read, but they are under-served and that is publishers’ loss. There is a way of servicing that audience in a wholly different way, not just in what you publish, but how you market, including what events you put on. And as the demographics change in the UK, if you don’t cultivate that demographic, then you are not going to have an audience in 30 years. That is a general challenge across a lot of industries.”