The result: A platinum album, a growing national reputation as the South rises on the rap map, and a new opportunity for a wireless carrier to endorse Mr. Jones and help launch other new artists.
In 2001, Mike Jones was hitting the Houston streets, selling songs he wrote for strippers and marketing his music directly to the city's DJs. Amid the clubs' throbbing din, DJs would ask whose work he was pushing. "Mike Jones," he would say. They would reply: "Who's Mike Jones?"
|Mike Jones credits his cell phone strategy for much of his success.
Frustrated, he took a suggestion from his grandmother. Each time he was asked who's Mike Jones, she told him to repeat the phrase, “Who? Mike Jones. Who? Mike Jones.”
As his music was played and his underground success began to build, Mr. Jones encountered another problem he was concerned had the potential to undermine his reputation with his fans: He believed that fans were often given incorrect information about the times and places of his appearances, causing them to show up at a club when, in fact, he was not on the bill.
His grandmother came through with another solution -- to give out his cell phone number and let the fans call him directly to find out if, in fact, he was scheduled to perform. As a result, Mr. Jones passed out and sold T-shirts that said "Property of Mike Jones" and included his phone number. He even put his number on his first album, Who Mike Jones? from Warner Bros./SwishaHouse/Asylum.
As his popularity grew outside Houston in cities like Cleveland and other parts of the Midwest, his hometown embraced him. "I came from the bottom," Mr. Jones told Madison & Vine. "The love did the 360 and came back to hometown."
At one point, all that love produced a Cingular Wireless bill hitting $3,000 or more a month from the thousands -- some say anywhere from 5,000 to even 20,000 -- of calls flooding into his phone every day. Eventually, he dropped the Cingular service, switching to Nextel and a Blackberry 7520, Mr. Jones said.
The unusual marketing tactic and self-promotion paid off.
In its first week of release in April, Mr. Jones’ album debuted at No. 3 on Billboard’s 200 Chart. The CD sold more than 60,000 units its first day and topped out at more than 180,000 at the end of the first week. The CD was also No. 1 on Billboard's Top Rap and Top R&B/Hip-Hop charts, and served as the top-selling CD on Apple’s iTunes.
Now with his mobile devices ringing constantly with calls from all across the globe, he surprises the lucky or the persistent when he picks up. "I answer as much as I can," he said. The reaction is often a "scream when they see it's really me," he said. His classic close: "You be faithful and keep doin’ what you doin’."
Mr. Jones isn’t concerned about alienating fans who don't get through. They should not expect to get him every time they try, he said, just as not all callers get through to radio talk show hosts. If a fan complains about how difficult it was to reach him, he said he diffuses the situation by noting, "You through right now."
Although Mr. Jones' grandmother died before his career took off, Mr. Jones has proven he has inherited her marketing DNA. Today, Mr. Jones is part of the new Southern "Screwed & Chopped" style of rap that uses slowed-down audio. His album features two versions of song, a regular and a Chopped & Screwed remix. He also developed a style where he repeats lines from one of his songs in another, perhaps a tip of the hat to the cognoscenti, or simply a reminder to buy another single.
Aside from his artistic innovations, he's made the phrase “Who Mike Jones?” his trademark, incorporating it into his performances in a back and forth with the audience, with him yelling, "Who?" and the audience responding, "Mike Jones." In his album, he mentions his name more than 150 times, in effect, turning his art into a virtual infomercial for none other than himself.
As for his lingering cell phone bills, Mr. Jones has a solution for that, too.
At a time when companies such as Starbucks and Delta Airlines’ Song have embraced the music industry and have made moves to help launch new artists, Mr. Jones’ situation has provided major wireless carriers with ideas of how to use their devices to do the same thing and go beyond simply serving up ringtones and ringback tones.
At the March meeting in New Orleans of the CTIA, the telecom industry trade association, Mr. Jones said he met with several carriers to work out a deal for promoting a wireless service. He hinted that even Cingular Wireless, where he has had a billing dispute, might be a contender. A Cingular spokeswoman did not respond to queries by deadline.