Known to millions of hip-hop fans as Tyga (and to his mother as Michael Stevenson), the 18-year-old pop-rap artist from Compton, Calif., is charting an unusual course through the music business. His debut single, "Coconut Juice," became one the most popular videos on MTV this past spring, and even reached No. 64 on the Billboard Pop 100 chart, the index that ranks songs based on mainstream radio airplay, singles sales and digital downloads.
Who needs a label anymore?
But not only are Mr. Stevenson and his managers actually avoiding signing with a major record label, they're planning on giving away his next single in partnership with consumer brands, and using the very peer-to-peer networks normally usually used to pirate such new music.
So, too, with The Pack, the Northern California hip-hop act that just recently exited Sony BMG's Jive Records after a dispute over their plan to release music free of charge on peer-to-peer networks after partnering with, of all things, a lingerie company.
"The record label blocked it," said Anthony Martini, a manager with the New York based Crush Management, who handles both Tyga and The Pack, of the latter's recently aborted six-figure "sponsored album" deal.
(A Jive spokesman would only confirm that The Pack are no longer on the label.)
"They felt like if they agreed to do that, it would hurt their case -- I mean, they're suing all these people."
By "these people," Mr. Martini is referring to the hundreds of peer-to-peer piracy cases that the recording industry's trade organization, the RIAA, is currently fighting in courts across the nation.
New avenues to stardom
But Mr. Martini has been stirred by what he says is a new paradigm that doesn't leave nearly as much for the record companies to do.
"With Tyga, we have all the control," said Mr. Martini. "We don't have to go through the record label system."
Indeed, in recent weeks, a bevy of more established hip-hop artists have made deals to partner with brands or to offer music for free, but not both. For example, Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am (aka William Adam James Jr.) released his new single "One More Chance" on Aug. 18 with Research in Motion's Blackberry Curve heavily integrated throughout the video.
And for the past several months, to the horror of Universal Music executives, hip-hop artist Lil' Wayne (aka Dwayne Michael Carter Jr.) gave away most of the material on his current album, "Tha Carter III," for free, using internet leaks and mixtapes. To their relief, the Lil' Wayne freebies had the opposite effect of what Universal executives feared: The album sold more than 2 million copies since it was released last May.
But despite both the willingness of brands to sponsor music and the proven appeal of free music, record companies are still nervous.
Change is here
Marc Geiger, senior VP of contemporary music at the William Morris Agency, hailed the planned deals for Tyga's album and the aborted deal for The Pack as a sign of things to come for the larger music business, whether the record companies were ready or not.
"Any new model that goes away from the unit price model creates issues for them," said Mr. Geiger, the former CEO of Artists Direct. "It's depressing, because it's a good thing. It's part of a future model."
But what about the fact that pirates would finally be getting what they wanted all along?
"That freaks [record] people out, too," concedes Mr. Geiger.
For Tyga, going outside the record label system will mean finding a brand to underwrite his new album, and then finding a means to ensure it winds up in the hands of consumers. Part two is already taken care of, because Mr. Martini has found an unlikely ally in the pirates themselves.
Or at least, the people who're turning pirates into customers: MediaDefender Inc., one of the leading providers of anti-piracy services that stop the spread of illegally traded copyrighted material over the internet and peer-to-peer networks.
Last week, Santa Monica, Calif.-based MediaDefender (itself part of ArtistDirect) started a new division that will promulgate sponsored entertainment content on the very peer-to-peer networks that are usually used to steal that content.
Price is right for music fans
"The artists are ready and willing, and the file-sharing community has spoken that they want things free," said MediaDefender's founder and president, Octavio Herrera, pausing to ask, "Why not give them what they want?"
Mr. Herrera says that MediaDefender is in now negotiations with Research in Motion about distributing the new Will.i.am song featuring the Blackberry Curve over peer-to-peer networks in the same manner it did for Coca-Cola and Jay-Z in 2006.
(A call to Interscope records marketing president Steve Berman was not returned.)
That eight-minute clip of a Jay-Z Radio City Music Hall concert included promotions for Coke, morphing it from pirate video to viral video, but was a one-off deal for MediaDefender -- until now.
Mr. Martini says he's also in talks with Mr. Herrera about ways to blast Tyga's new album out in the same fashion as Jay-Z's Coke-larded concert video clip of two summers ago.
"If it's too hard to get legally, they're just going to get it illegally," said Mr. Martini of his decision to hire MediaDefender. "The way things are going, music is getting devalued. It's going to have to become less expensive and easier to get."
He points to Will.i.am's single and Lil' Wayne's gratis mixtapes as proof that quality product will find an audience if it's unencumbered by old business models and buttressed by new ones.
Lil' Wayne's big discovery
"Lil' Wayne proved that if you give things away for free, you can build a [fan] base. Before he did that, he was just a generic Southern rapper. But between his last album and his new album, he's become the hottest rapper in music."
He paused to add, "We're open to doing anything. We're not afraid to give things away for free."