Jack Carenza - February 23, 2023

Taiyo Talks: Artist Development Best Practices (Interview, Pt. 3)

Taiyo Coates’ accomplishments in artist development and bylines speak for themselves.  A seasoned hip-hop and R&B journalist/editor, he has published over 250 articles, playlists, interviews, and live music reviews.  Most notably for Variety and HotNewHipHop.  From his vivid review of Kendrick’s ‘The Big Steppers’ Tour to his unbiased coverage of Kanye West, to last year’s write-up on Saba’s Few Good Things (our selection for AOTY in 2022), Taiyo’s measured, concise style captivates readers searching for the essence of the music they love.  

“If you are in the same lane as a certain mainstream artist, you need to be writing at or above their level if you want to make it.  Even if you’re doing it on a minuscule scale compared to those artists, you need to be starting to plant the seeds so you can do what they do, as well as they do it.”

Also an experienced artist development consultant, Taiyo has worked directly with over 500 artists at varying career stages to improve their sound, strategy, and public image.  

As important as his prestige as a journalist and artist whisperer is Taiyo’s passion for advancing culture.  He consistently identifies and challenges shortcomings in music journalism and the industry as a whole. Frequently offering actionable solutions to long-standing issues. 

We were lucky enough to speak to Taiyo about his experience in the space, breaking our conversation into three distinct sections.  

  • Responsible Journalism & Black Art
  • Music Industry Hiring/HR Practices 
  • Artist Development  

Over the next three weeks, we will release a segment at a time in this three-part interview.  Today’s topic will focus on Artist Development, specifically how emerging artists can push their careers forward by modeling the success of industry outliers.  

Today’s Hip Hop: So Taiyo, the last topic we want to focus on is your experience with artist development.  I would define our era in music now as a time where quick-hitting movements and trends ultimately drive streaming and revenue.  How can an artist stay true to their story and artistic identity at a time when the opposite seems to lead to success?  

Taiyo Coates: I feel like adaptability is the first thing you have to learn as an artist, in my opinion. And I feel like a lot of artists don’t learn that from the start, I feel like their managers or their teams don’t really realize how to adapt. I think it starts with not studying music enough outside of the mainstream.

When it comes to the mainstream, the outliers are what I think people should be studying. The Drakes of the world – I’m not even a huge Drake fan all the time as far as his moves outside of music.  

THH: I feel that, I’m not a Drake fan personally, but I respect what he does and that’s a big difference.  

TC: For sure. It’s undeniable.  I’m not going to say I don’t like what he does, it’s just not all of his music hits home.  But I understand why he does what he does, and he does it correctly.  See, the reason the Drake model works is if your intention is numbers and also still making good music, that’s the blueprint.  Drake will have a so-so song and do numbers, then a great song that does numbers.  So studying the line between the two and why they both go big is a really big deal.  

THH: And Kendrick and Cole’s model?  

TC: Kendrick and Cole do the complete opposite.  They focus on quality first.  And shift what they’re doing to fit modern times in a positive way without losing who they are.  N95 is a great example of that, Kendrick taking the Baby Keem model and running with it.  Kendrick and Keem reference each other a lot.  They work together on their writing.  Together, they know what sounds are popular.  For Cole, his story is so poignant and people care about him so much personally, that he doesn’t have to adapt to the times as much as other artists.  

So, there are multiple ways of going about it.  You just have to study other artists that are already doing it, and a lot of artists skip that step.  They study those quick-hitting, mainstream artists, versus the upper echelon of consistency and longevity.  

THH: The shit J.Cole did with that producer this week is a great example of his character keeping him relevant, no?  

TC: Yeah, the “type beat” right?  He has such a unique way of playing on people’s emotions in different ways.  And it comes across so genuine, to the point where you can’t even question how genuine he is.  He’s already made it.  He doesn’t need free beats.  He doesn’t need to blow up anymore.  At the most, he gains more appreciation from something like that by people saying, “wow, that was so real.”  But that’s his entire point.  And a great example of adaptability.  You can do things differently than everyone else.  That’s why you need to study the outliers.  Cole’s an outlier.  Kendrick’s an outlier.  Tyler the Creator is a massive outlier.  And Drake.  He is what the mainstream is.  He’s the reason music sounds the way it does.  So studying the outliers while you craft your own sound is the fastest way to get numbers.  While keeping your story true to yourself.  

THH: So, once you get there, what would you say is the relationship between your craft and marketing, and when should an artist focus on either?    

TC: At the beginning of the career, it’s always music first.  No matter what.  You have to continue to get better at what you do.  That’s again, why studying music is such a big deal.  Kendrick sucked at one point.  Tyler was yelling on every album, straight up.  Like he was creative, but he was just yelling bro, he wasn’t getting better. So focusing early on improving will allow people to see your growth, which is what fans want to see from artists.  That’s how you get bigger.  People seeing you consistently growing artistically is how you grow your fanbase.  And that’s when it’s time for marketing.  

Once you make those improvements, you can market yourself as an artist that’s growing and getting better.  Your content can show your growth.  And then as you’re writing about better topics, new things, it gives you room to market more specifically.  Tyler couldn’t market himself as well before making Flower Boy-type music.  Kendrick did the same thing with good kid, m.A.A.d city.   As artists change, they are able to market a new sound.  Focusing on the music allows you to market with more precision.  And that leads to a real understanding of the correlation between the two.  Your music becomes the marketing, and your fans do the work for you.  

THH: That kind of connects with building a cohesive brand then, right?  Like I’m thinking about an artist like Noname.  

TC:  Yeah, Noname is interesting in that way.  Once you build a brand that’s extreme or unique, people align with it because the music is so great, and you’re making interesting points.  People who are genuine with their brand attract fans because they stand out.  

Artists like Smino and Saba who aren’t quite as extreme with their message benefit from that honest branding too.  Because they are so confident in who they are, and their fans stand by that.  Smino’s sound is the most specific, and authentic you can have.  He’s the coolest n*gga ever.  So people are going to listen to it.  And people feel that way about Saba too.  So building your fan base comes first when it comes to marketing.  Your fans will always be your market.  Your music is your marketing, so stick to the music and you’ll get your numbers.  Everything that you do has the potential to put you in the space where you want to be.  

THH: That all makes perfect sense, and those are great examples. On that note, what responsibility does an artist manager have to make sure all these things happen for their artist?  

TC: Managers are supposed to manage their artists externally.  The artist should have full control over their sound and aesthetic.  But a manager should determine who to reach out to, what songs an artist puts out at what time, etc.  An artist manager needs to ask the right people about how to get their artist more noticeable.  How to get their artists in better positions and then execute on that.  

You’re paying a manager to put you in the right positions, the right way.  To get you in the right rooms.  And in front of the people who can make a notable difference in your career.  

THH: And an Artist Development professional like you?  What is your role?  

TC: I start with a lot of artist study guides.  When an artist comes to me I look at their entire catalog.  A deep dive.  I see who they have qualities in common with, artists who have done it already in a massive way.  Find the model that works and find a way to input their unique flair on that.  That’s what every business in the world should do.  What every video game has ever done.  Every movie.  Everything’s been done before.  You just have to know how to put your unique flair on it.  

So I give them a rundown of where they are based on their catalog, and what it could be.  Most importantly, I preach that there needs to be a story in the music.  Whether it’s through the writing or through the connectivity of the sound. So using conceptual album outlines, I’m like, okay, cool. Here are what songs you’ve made that would make a great album. Let’s replicate that, but do it even better. You’ve already made this in your catalog, so you can do it.  Let’s run with that.  Let’s make something special.  

But that’s what I look for when I’m pitched certain albums.  They need to have a through line, a story.  So having that experience at the highest level writing for Variety, all the way down to working with smaller artists for HotNewHipHop.  I know what press and publications are looking for, and that’s what I always impress on the artists that I’m working with.  

As an artist development professional, I start from the ground up.  I take songwriting incredibly seriously. If you are in the same lane as a certain mainstream artist, you need to be writing at or above their level if you want to make it.  Even if you’re doing it on a minuscule scale compared to those artists, you need to be starting to plant the seeds so you can do what they do, as well as they do it.  Obviously, it’s a ridiculously high goal sometimes, but you should want to be your best because you know the best at what you do does exist.