How Chance the Rapper Succeeded Without the Help of a Label

Chance the Rapper is a bona fide superstar these days, a status he’s reached even as an independent artist.

Without the support of a major label, he’s tapped heavily into the power of his fan base to market his music. That can only work because he’s developed a fantastic fan base willing to go to work for him.

So how has he inspired such a ravenous fan base and ascended to the top of the music world without the help of a label?

1. He makes great music.

This is obviously important if you’re going to become a hit musical act.

Chance’s first mixtape, 10 Day, earned him plenty of acclaim in the local Chicago circuit, and his next work, 2013’s Acid Rap, was a huge hit with music critics. Metacritic allotted it “universal acclaim” and Rolling Stone named it the best mixtape of the year. Pitchfork ranked it 12th on its list of the year’s top 50 albums.

Chance’s music has always spanned a wide variety of sounds, carving out his own place in today’s musical landscape by showcasing his unique ability to play with melody, rhythm and subject matter. It’s also got an infectious energy that has helped him build one of the most loyal fan bases in modern music.

“Chance is extremely charismatic and has an uncanny ability to connect with any audience,” said CAA super-agent Cara Lewis in an interview with Billboard. “You can tell his heart and soul is in it.”

If you watch him perform, you’ll come away saying the same thing.

2. He distributes his music for free.

Chance did initially make the much-anticipated Coloring Book available only to Apple Music subscribers, but the presence of a three-month free trial to the service meant the tape was still available for free. To this point in his career, all of his music has been that way, a fact that’s been crucial in building the hype around Chance.

People have always been able to listen to his music without putting down a dollar, helping him to increase his fan base and making it easy for fans to share the music with their friends.

The fact that he’s not charging people also increases his credibility as an artist who is about his music. By avoiding a price tag on his songs, Chance can continue to preach that his career is about more than profit.

“Why charge a dollar for [a song] when that’s not doing anything but making people undervalue music?” Chance said to the Wall Street Journal. “None of my songs are worth 99 cents. They’re worth a lot more.”

That sense of a greater purpose is a staple of Chance’s music. Check out this talk he gave at the University of Chicago recently.

3. He utilizes grassroots marketing.

Chance’s father, who previously served as a deputy assistant to President Obama, pushed his son to promote his 10 Day tape with an old-school marketing campaign. The younger Bennett posted flyers around Chicago and walked around handing CDs out of a backpack.

After releasing 10 Day, Chance continued to tap into the Chicago youth market with his “Save Money School Days.” He and manager Pat Corcoran, a fellow member of Chance’s Save Money collective, visited schools around the city to sell cheap show tickets and participate in meet-and-greets.

Today, he’s continued to embrace old-school marketing tactics with a little help from his fans. He launched a poster campaign for the release of Coloring Book, charging $20 for a three-pack of posters and asking his fans to upload photos of their marketing work on social media.

4. He takes advantage of merchandising opportunities.

Many rappers and other celebrities try to break into the fashion world as a sort of side project, but Chance has seamlessly incorporated clothing into his rap brand to elevate his marketing potential.

Chance said his merchandising exploits, which include everything from Socks to Styrofoam cups, are all about giving fans a chance to connect with his brand. In the past, he’s designed wildly popular White Sox hats that incorporate the logo for his musical group, The Social Experiment.

“A big part of music is being able to really show your fandom and have it in places other than just in your ears,” Chance said in an interview with Fast Company. “I like to do things that are unconventional.”

For Coloring Book, Chance rolled out a full slate of customizable merchandise on his website, an ingenious strategy that accomplished several goals: it encouraged people to visit his website, it allowed current fans to further their identification with Chance, and it provided free marketing in the form of merchandise worn by fans.

Chance the Rapper is at the top of the music world today, and he’s done it without the support of a record label. If you’re trying to make it without a label – or even if you are open to signing with a label – these factors in Chance’s success can help you succeed as well.

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Matt Cummings grew up in the Bay Area and now attends UCLA. He enjoys sports, music and comedy.

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