BY DAN GARCIA
Watsky, known best for his raps made famous on the internet and his spoken word poetry, is much more than a rapper/poet. A man who constantly pushes his own limits due to his fear of being pigeon-holed, George Watsky is an artist who cannot be put into just one category. Watsky and I sat down shortly before his performance for a sold out crowd at The Metro in Chicago to talk about a number of different topics, from fellow Bay Area rapper Lil B to more deep topics within the music and entertainment world, specifically his views on the price of music (which has been a hot topic in music for the past month).
Ask 100 different artists what the price of music should be, you may get 100 different answers. Throughout his career, Watsky has held an especially unique method of marketing his art. While giving out free mixtapes is nothing new to the post-internet rap community, Watsky takes things several steps further. After a number of free mixtapes, Watsky released his Nothing Like the First Time project, following the success of his ‘Pale Kid Raps Fast’ viral video (which reached over ten million views in 2011). The unique thing about Nothing Like the First Time‘s promotion was that Watsky sold the project on his website, but let fans ‘name their price’ and pay whatever they want, also giving the option for fans to download the full project for free. Another way that Watsky puts money back into his music is through selling meet and greet packages for his concerts. What makes this approach also unique is the disclaimer fans receive before purchase:
“NOTE: WATSKY WILL, AS ALWAYS, BE DOING A 100% FREE INFORMAL MEET-AND-GREET AFTER EACH SHOW FOR EVERYONE WHO COMES TO THE CONCERT AND WANTS TO STICK AROUND.”
While studio time, music videos, hiring a band and traveling venues throughout the country all costs money, Watsky makes every effort before taking money from the people who enjoy his music the most. Even during his set last night, Watsky gave a big shout-out to his opening act (Anderson Paak) and guitarist (Kush Mody), telling fans “they both have new albums out that are available at the merch table. Don’t waste your money on my album, go buy theirs.” While such an approach has its benefits in various ways, Watsky’s model is especially humble and I could not wait to hear what he had to say about the price of music, an issue that has been brought to light again through Taylor Swift pulling her music from the free streaming service Spotify.
When asked about the price of music, Watsky told us:
“I think there is two ways to look at it. One is from a human perspective, and that’s that (giving affordable options in music) is a good thing to do for people and the other is the business side of things. And it just so happens that both of those things are in harmony in my mind with each other. The way that the climate of music and entertainment is now, it’s so competitive, it’s so hard to get noticed. Even when you are giving stuff away for free, you need establish your value before you can get paid and before you know what you’re worth. And it’s the same with music, if you haven’t established that you’re valuable to a person in your life, then why are they going to pay you for what you do when they have a million other people who are willing to take your place for free. It’s why when you are first starting the tour you keep your ticket prices rock bottom. You want to let people know that you can put on a show and it’s not about making money, it’s about establishing that you’re an important part of their life.”
Watsky then shared when he thinks is the right moment to begin making money off music:
“…when you feel like people want to support you and when they want to see you make money, and for me I always had the option so that new fans that are just discovering my stuff, they can find 70 YouTube videos of mine for free if they want, four mixtape projects and still come to my show and meet me for $20 if they want to. But for those people who have been around for longer, for whom I’m a more important part of their life and they know that I’m not making millions of dollars on this, they have the option to really support me in a bigger way.”
Finishing on the topic, Watsky shared with us that “once you have really put in the work, the people who are your die hard fans, they want to see you succeed and that includes financially.” His perspective on the relationship between art and money was especially insightful. All too often you hear musicians say that it isn’t about the money, which often comes off as fake and unsupported. Such is not the case with George Watsky.
We also spoke to Watsky about a few lighter topics, such as fellow Bay Area rapper Lil B and what it was like working with comedian Bo Burnham and Chicago’s own Jim Belushi. Talking about Lil B, Watsky had nothing but praise for the hilarious and colorful rapper, although he was disappointed that the rapper didn’t accept Watsky’s submission for Lil B’s Girl Time on Twitter.
“I think Lil B is funny, man. He is hilarious. That guy has got such crazy charism and work ethic. He’s just a true original. He is able to connect with his fans in a way that I haven’t seen from anyone else. He’s totally himself. He’s another one of the rappers that has been able to harness what the internet gives you, which is the opportunity to be an individual and be unique and have people love you for who you are.”
We also spoke about the video for Watsky’s track ‘Whoa Whoa Whoa‘, which had appearances from comedian Bo Burnham (made famous by his hilarious raps) and actor Jim Belushi. While Watsky said it was fun to work with both, they were certainly different experiences.
“Working with Bo, was more like hanging with a peer, but working with Jim Belushi was more like seeing somebody doing it for so long and who knows when they have their angle, their take, they don’t want their sitelines crossed, he is just such a professional experienced actor that we were a little nervous around. But it was great, I was seeing a master at work.”
Watsky also told us that while nothing has been recorded, him and Bo have talked about potentially doing a song together. Watsky told us, “we have been talking about it for awhile. I am definitely intending to try to make that happen.” While on the topic of new music, Watsky also revealed what’s next.
“My plans are just to keep my plans open. My life has been so heavily scripted and planned out for not even just the two and a half years where we have been doing music touring but even the five years before that and when I was in college and school. I am hitting a period in my life where the first time in a long time I truly have no idea what is next. I am not going to stop creating art until I am dead but I don’t know what form it is going to take yet. We finish our tour in India in January, I have a one way ticket there and I am going to stay abroad for awhile. I am going to work on new material, I am going to travel the world for pleasure, and spent time with my family and try to gain some new perspective before I write anything new.”
Don’t view this news as a hiatus however, as Watsky will always be creating, telling us “It is in my blood to want to work hard and do new material, I have too much of a chip on my shoulder to just completely quit. It is more so just a recalibration and trying to make sure that I don’t just go back and write the same shit that people have heard from me a million times before. I want to grow as an individual and an artist.” When I followed up with a question about the struggles of writing new music, Watsky shared how he strives to not get too comfortable with things that have been successful in the past.
“With the fast rap stuff stylistically, they (fans) want a 16th note chopper song and for me I always recoil from that. I hate to be pigeon-holed. And so if I have something that is successful, I’ll put $30,000 into a song called like ‘Let’s Get High and Watch Planet Earth’ where it’s one verse and it’s super slow and melodic and even if my core fans don’t love it, it’s about not being a hack. I don’t want to go down as someone who just figured out the formula and stuck with it, I don’t think that’s interesting.”
If you are not already a fan of Watsky for his intelligent lyrics and rapping ability, you should also be a fan of his message and how he views his own craft. There may not be a perfect answer to what the price or value of music should be, but it is hard to disagree with Watsky’s model. You may not hear Watsky on the radio every day but he has obtained a good solid fan base over the years. He drew fans in through his fast rapping YouTube videos, but he kept those same fans by giving back through free music, affordable shows and a genuine showing of appreciation to those who allow him to tour the world.