Aloe Blacc on His Career Strategy (Interview)

Becoming an instant celebrity has turned into the life goal for millions. Being a celeb is a career presumably accessible to everybody through casting shows and Reality TV. It may happen quickly and sometimes does not even require any specific talent, it seems. The reality of becoming and staying a pop star over a certain period of time while expanding the own talents, however, looks a bit more laborious. Besides the talent and passion, it requires a huge amount of discipline, endurance and patience. Above and beyond, it takes a long time to get rewarded for what you do and only a small portion of artists gets international recognition and the monetary compensation that comes along with it. After 15 years in the business, soul singer Aloe Blacc seems to have reached this point of international recognition. 

I was grateful that he gave me some of his time after a very long day on the road and his performance at Zurich’s Kaufleuten to share some insights with me about his career-building strategies. I got the impression that his experience in the industry has taught him to stay a little suspicious of the business – a true professional. 

Despite your young age you are a veteran in the music industry, starting back in 1995. What was your main motivation and strategy to gain success in the music business?
I started when I was 15. A lot of the credit is due to starting young and learning the business at a young age and doing all of it on my own. I was writing the songs, recording them, mixing them, mastering them, duplicating them, creating the artwork, and finally distributing them. I was doing each piece of the work by myself. That was crucial, understanding the music industry and understanding how the value chain works and who to trust in handling the business. The latter one has become important because now I no longer have the time to handle it all by myself. That’s one of the hallmarks to my success.
I just got my first manager a few months ago. I also succeeded in being thoughtful about the people I meet, maintaining relationships, and respecting those relationships over time. The main thing is making good music. All that works without management. I’ve been an independent artist for many, many years. It is important to respect the mutuality of the relationships and honor the opportunities they give you.

How did you build up distribution schemes as an independent artist? To date, artists still depend on major labels for the sales side.
Eventually, after ten years, I got signed to Stones Throw, an independent record label. They have a network through which they can distribute music and it’s with the help of a major label. With this, we are able to distribute the music to a wider audience. When my new album Good Things, with the single “I need a dollar” took off, we had more chances to enhance this distribution. In Germany, Universal was willing to help. In UK, it was Sony Epic. If you have good music and there is money to earn, everybody is willing to hop on. It is a mutually beneficial relationship. They help me promote my music, which also means that I respect the press schedules, respect the contracts for my live shows, sell their products instead of bringing my own CD’s to sell them.

You changed from rapper to soul singer. How did your old friends and business partners react to your change of style?
I am still a rapper. It was a sort of bittersweet situation. Even though my closest colleagues appreciate my diversity, they really want me to continue to rap and be part of this group and culture, but I wanted to do more things with music. I wanted to expand my musical experience and experiment with melody as a vocalist. This is hard to do as an MC, because rap is not so much about vocal melody but about rhythm and words and I wanted to do words and rhythm and melody in a way that can be very powerful. I decided on this tour to focus on the album and see how people respond and not do any rapping, which I did before with my band “The Grand Scheme”. I’ll come around with an album of Emanon, my hip-hop group, and will strictly do hip-hop and then eventually blend the two after a while.

You mentioned your soul role models during the concert: James Brown, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder? What about your role models beyond music?
I like Martin Luther King and Gandhi for their political beliefs. I admire the Dalai Lama for his philosophy. There are also folks like Michael Jackson who from a musical standpoint is a big inspiration, but also from a philantropical one.

Apart from professional relationships, who helped you get where you are now?
Wow (long pause). I would say one would be my wife. My family is super supportive. My high school friend who is helping me sell merchandise is on tour with me. So I keep very close friends around.
You are a fabulous dancer. How do you keep fit?
Starting early with sports definitely helps. After a certain time, your body becomes conditioned and you can maintain a pretty conditioned body for a while if you just eat right and exercise a bit regularly. During the tour it is hard for me to do a lot of sports except when I’m on stage dancing, but I request good food from the promoters and I ask to get a proper set of meals every day. I have also cereals and fruits for breakfast on my tour bus, for example, because we usually get up too late for a hotel breakfast. When I’m at home, in L.A., I like to ride my bike and play tennis sometimes. I’m getting closer to the idea of not having a car. It’s really too much hassle.

Do you have a business plan?
Right now, I don’t have a specific business plan or strategy, but I have so many talented musicians and artists around me that I’m realizing the success that I’m having now. I can use this visibility to help them. So, I want to start developing a plan to extend my success to the people around me. That’s why you see on stage with me Maya Jupiter. She has her own music and records and I help her in performing with me. My band members of The Grand Scheme also have their own projects. So during my next tour, my guitarist Joe van Dyk, will probably be my opening act, and on the next tour, my drummer Te’Amir Sweeney will be my opening act. This way, I can give them an opportunity to showcase. With respect to me, building my brand is mainly making good music. Before I go into other ventures I need to prove myself as a musician and build my fan base that way.

Being famous today often means sharing your privacy with the fans. Some artists fail over this. What’s your opinion on the topic?
Am I famous? I guess so, but I don’t feel like being famous. I don’t pay much attention outside of my band and my music. I feel prepared for being famous and being recognized everywhere and am prepared to safeguard my family from the media; but there’s nothing much to hide. My life is completely immersed in my music.

How do you feel about using social media? I have realized that your twitter conversations are rather cautious.
(Laughs) Twitter is very difficult for me. I don’t know what to say. I don’t feel comfortable to say what I ate for breakfast. I would rather share my activities with people in terms of what’s going on with my music because this is relevant. If my fans want to know more they should check this interview or tweet this interview.