What Indie Filmmakers Can Learn from Kanye West

Today saw the iTunes-exclusive album release of Watch the Throne, a collaboration between rap megastars Kanye West and Jay-Z. What does this have to do with independent filmmaking? Good question. Regardless of what kind of music you listen to, I think there are some lessons to be learned from the career arc of Kanye West, as well as the digital-first distribution strategy the duo employed for today's album release. Caution: this post is not going to win any awards for organization or brevity. I'm going to ramble on here:

I've been following Kanye West's career since the release of his first album The College Dropout, but I don't feel nearly as qualified to talk about Jay-Z, so I'll focus on the former for this post. Let's start off with their innovative digital distribution strategy first, however.

Digital distribution and exclusivity

Everyone knows that over the past several years, as music distribution has moved from physical to digital, one of the foremost problems has been piracy. Specifically, leaks. I've said in the past that in order for piracy to be minimized, the experience of being a legitimate consumer must be equal to or better than the experience of being a pirate. When an album or film leaks before its official release date, this is impossible: the only way to hear or see it is through illicit channels. In the case of music, consumers who would normally pay for an album will often download it illegally, as it's the only way to hear what many others are listening to and talking about.

These leaks generally happen because there are hundreds of copies of the album floating around ahead of time in order for brick-and-mortar stores to stock them -- and for online music outlets to digitize and catalog the album (if critics are to publish their reviews as the album is released, they also need advance copies -- music's equivalent of film's advance press screenings). I'm a former employee of the digital music industry, and at Rhapsody we would digitize and catalog albums days or weeks ahead of their official debut. The same goes for dozens of online music outlets, and thus the number of copies floating around ahead of time drastically increases the chance of a leak -- in fact, it virtually guarantees it.

iTunes, App Store, iBookstore, and Mac App StoreTo combat piracy, Kanye and Jay-Z decided to release Watch the Throne with a staggered release schedule that is the inverse of a film's theatrical rollout. With a theatrical release, films are made available in theaters and then come to digital formats months later. Watch the Throne, on the other hand, was released today (August 8th) in digital format but won't be out in brick-and-mortar stores until Friday (August 12th). Not only did they delay the physical release (to prevent easily-ripped physical copies floating around ahead of time), they also made the album release exclusive to iTunes, further cutting down on the number of the digital copies floating around.

It seems to have worked. Released at 12:01AM today, the album did not leak ahead of time, making it the first major rap release in recent memory to debut via legal means.

This strategy, which may become commonplace going forward, is not without its detractors. Reacting to the news of the exclusive, independent record stores released an open letter protesting the move.

Something else Kanye and Jay-Z did was to make the iTunes exclusive a "deluxe edition," the concept of which is nothing new. However, the extent to which they made this edition deluxe is unprecedented to my knowledge: not only is the iTunes version four tracks longer (none of which are remixes of other tracks on the album), but the lead single, "H.A.M," is only found on the deluxe edition. They also priced the digital download of this deluxe version at a full $14.99, double that of most digital albums on, say, Amazon, and they can justify this by saying that it includes 25% more tracks than the "normal" version (and a digital booklet with all the lyrics). Think of this as a "Special Edition" DVD release. In a world of infinite shelf space, exclusivity is of paramount importance; I'd be willing to bet that because of the lack of leaks and the high price of the initial release, the duo (and their labels) will generate a much higher profit per sale than any other album this year. This makes Jay-Z's guest verse on Kanye's Diamonds From Sierra Leone, wherein he boasts, "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man," apt.

Will this digital-first strategy work to combat piracy for films in the same way? For film, the situation is different, and perhaps the opposite. A film playing exclusively in theaters (as long as there aren't awards screeners in circulation) is much harder to pirate than an album (which consumers can rip themselves). You've seen the camcorder-in-a-theater pirated copies that most viewers -- the kind that would actually pay for a ticket, at least -- will skip. Which is not to say that film distributors aren't experimenting with similar digital-first distribution strategies. The first example that comes to mind is the Natalie Portman-starring The Other Woman, which was available on VOD through IFC a month ahead of its theatrical release. This wasn't the first or last time that a film will be released this way; as an outsider to theatrical film distribution, my feeling is that this strategy makes sense for some films but not others. I can't help but think it would be a perfect strategy for a certain film project I'll be announcing next week, however. Stay tuned...

Kanye West's career arc

Now that this post is already much longer than I expected, let's get to what indie filmmakers can learn from Kanye West. This site focuses on DIY filmmaking, which often requires a filmmaker to learn nonlinear editing, DSLR cinematography, After Effects, or any other tool or technique that can help them bring their own vision to life without relying on others.

Kanye West got his start as a producer. Similar to a DIY filmmaker shooting and editing their own projects, he taught himself to create the music himself. Quoting his Wikipedia entry, as a rapper, "multiple record companies felt he was not as marketable as rappers who portray the "street image" prominent in hip hop culture." Labels would not sign him because he was different -- he didn't boast of dealing drugs, and he wore preppy clothes. But his ability to create his own demo tapes, and his ability to create sounds appropriate for his own voice -- both aurally and artistically -- is what got him into the industry. He kept creating tracks for himself because he'd taught himself how, and this is how he found his voice and a career. Eventually he no longer had to produce everything himself, because he'd put himself in a position to succeed and had discovered who he was. Now he's the biggest rap-pop star on the planet -- one of the best rappers of all time, perhaps -- of all time! -- and it all started with a "no one else is going to help, so I'll DIY" approach.

He wouldn't be let into an industry because he was different, but now he's successful in that industry because he's different. Rap songs about Jesus and about mothers are undeniably different from the prevailing genre of coke rap.

Let's take a look at an example that contributes to my point about Kanye's career arc as well as the piracy issue discussed above. Here's Kanye performing a cappella at Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, CA. WARNING: if you don't listen to rap -- I happen to listen to all genres of music, but have been listening to a lot of hip-hop lately because it plays a prominent role in my feature project -- you may be offended by the NSFW language here. Kanye himself gives a disclaimer up front about his use of the N-word. You've been warned!

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Umjy314sQQ

We are the voices of our parents' bad choices
The aftermath of divorces
The kids of bitter
Split ups
And baby

How many other rappers do you hear talking candidly about how divorce affected not only their childhood, but their current life? About a lack of father figures -- or rotating cast of them? Few rappers wear their heart on their sleeve -- Kanye does, almost literally, at right.

Despite the inevitably offense that some will take to the lyrics, I picked this clip not only for its lyrical content, but also because it speaks to selling digital goods in a world of prevalent piracy. A studio version of the song above hit the internet a couple of months ago, but as it turns out, it was an unauthorized leak. Kanye's reps released the following statement:

An unknown party or parties got ahold of Kanye West’s vocal track and added their own soundbed to it, effectively and falsely releasing it as a Kanye West track... The result in no way resembles the final song Kanye West intended his fans to hear, and he is deeply disappointed that one of the most personal, meaningful and special songs he has ever written would reach people in this way.

This is the equivalent of a filmmaker having a rough cut leaked on the internet. Can you imagine what it would be like to have an unfinished film -- say, a rough cut with a temp score, no sound mix, and no color correction -- being downloaded and watched before you had a chance to finish it? Forget about the commercial impact of a rough cut leak (the Jamaican film Shottas was so widely downloaded in rough cut form that there was practically no audience left for its official release years later), it's a shame for any artist to have incomplete work released against their will.

So how does this apply to independent filmmaking? Frankly, it applies to any creative endeavor, but especially independent filmmaking, where making a lower-budget version of a Hollywood film relegates one to the Sci-fi channel or bargain DVD bin instead of a lauded film festival run (and hopefully an acquisition or successful self-release). To me, the goal of independent filmmaking is to do something new and different, and so indie filmmakers must think about the following questions: What are the themes of your life that aren't represented in movies today? How are you different from what's already out there? What can you bring to the table? And what can you teach yourself that will allow you to get your unheard, unique voice out there?

That which makes you different can make you successful. This is what indie filmmakers can learn from Kanye West.

Your Comment


That clip actually changed my opinion of Kanye. Very poetic.

August 8, 2011 at 5:33PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

James P

That clip? What a joke. If one clip of Kanye performing acapella can change your whole attitude toward him then you obviously had a very narrow minded approach towards him/his music to begin with. I don't understand why people give him such a hard time. The man has a voice and a sound that he supplies to the world. He has been creating timeless music for the last 10 years and it always surprises me when i hear someone say shit like that...like it was the first time they actually let his music near their brains. Heaven forbid you allow yourself to indulge into content that wasn't specifically "modified from its original version and formatted to fit your screen". ?
On a different note. Thanks Ko. You have once again allowed me to find visual inspiration from the sonic universe.

August 8, 2011 at 6:17PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Nate, lay off the agressive drama. Maybe James opinion was one of indifference and your rail against him is only showing your tendency to be overly vigilant to expect the worst of people.

August 8, 2011 at 6:39PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I've really only known of West through tabloid coverage (I don't think anyone can convince me that diamond teeth are anything other than ridiculous), his stage hogging at some awards show and South Park skewering him. I remember him somewhat apologizing for his bad behavior but I had always wrote him off as another self aggrandizing idiot in entertainment. This quick video also gave me a new perspective on him and changed my opinion of him. As in, now he doesn't seem like a total lunatic from my limited perspective, just really good at being an idiot sometimes (which is also how I categorize myself if anyone were to ask). Timeless music and all the rest is meh to me. My tastes In music is very different and It certainly isn't because of formatting to fit my screen or any such rubbish.

As to the blog entry, thank you Ko, for showing me something that otherwise I would not likely have seen. I think I understand well the lesson and it was illustrated well with Kanye West.

August 8, 2011 at 8:35PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Definitely an interesting strategy in terms of promotion.

Re: Kanye though, never been a fan. Sure, he "wears his heart on his sleeve" on occasion, but other rappers have been writing and performing better "meaningful" songs than Kanye for literally decades. Kanye has been successful because:

(1) He is a very talented producer, and
(2) His gigantic ego, and people's fascination with it, makes him perpetually the center of attention.

As a lyricist, I'd say he ranges from absolutely awful to mediocre, with occasional brief moments above that. As a performer, he's decent. But without his production skills (and his attitude), he'd be nowhere. Of course, lucky for him his production skills are incredible.

Nate: from the perspective of a longtime hip-hop fan and an artist myself for over a decade, I can tell you a lot of people dislike Kanye because he frequently gets credit for "pioneering" things that people were doing a decade, or two decades ago. And I'm not even talking about underground stuff. Listen to something like 2Pac's "Dear Mama" ...or "Changes" or "Unconditional Love"...mainstream rappers were doing this stuff two decades ago, yet people somehow give Kanye credit for "pioneering" emotionally honest rap music. If you want an example of someone doing this kind of music today who is better than Kanye, look no further than Lupe Fiasco. Lyrically, it would be sort of mean to even compare the two of them.

But if you really want something powerful, listen to something like "One Life" by Last Emperor and Poetic, or "Always Coming Back Home to You" by Atmosphere, or "Stepfather Factory" by El-P, "Water" or "You Got Me" by the Roots, basically any song by Spoonfull (hard to find but worth the search), Etc. etc. etc. These are just off the top of my head; there are probably lots of better examples.

Now, I'm not saying these songs have the commercial appeal of Kanye's music -- most don't, although "You Got Me" was a decent hit for the Roots. But in terms of lyricism, they're far beyond anything I've heard from Kanye. So why haven't you heard of most of these people? Because when they finish a recording, they don't spend the next five months screaming about how genius they are to everyone within listening range.

Now, you can talk about the merits of being ostentatious as a promotional strategy -- there are many. But it also has a downside, in that some people will find you obnoxious. Lots of people feel that way about Kanye's personality, and it's hard to get too excited about most of his music.

Now, this is not to say that I hate Kanye. But, for example, on my playlist of the best rap songs, with 520 songs total, only three of them are Kanye songs. And one of those is only there because Mos Def had a verse on it.

Also, I agree with Clayton -- autotune has been done to death and Kanye (as well as everyone else in music) should stop using it unless there is actually a reason to.

That concludes my unnecessarily long comment.

August 9, 2011 at 7:26AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Thanks for your words. I'm thinking the same way.
He is a very good producer, but one of the most arrogant people in the music business. I've seen several interviews of kanye and his huge ego....

August 10, 2011 at 2:22AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Did you listen to the new Lupe Fiasco? It's kind of terrible.

Does this mean Lupe is terrible artist? Not at all. But it's a tough industry and, as he demonstrates with his latest, it's pretty easy to lose yourself and succumb to the pressures of fame, labels, etc etc etc. You can certainly fault Kanye for his massive ego, but throughout his career he's maintained a level of self-awareness that sets him apart. I agree that his abilities as a producer are a huge part of his career (that was kind of the point of the post), but I also think that the other important aspects of being an artist -- knowledge of your own identity, storytelling ability, sustained introspection -- are often overshadowed by the dumbass comments he makes in public.

That said, as a storyteller I happen to like flawed characters -- they're so much more interesting and human. Especially in an era where everything is triple-checked by publicists.

August 10, 2011 at 10:05AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Ryan Koo

@ Koo: Yeah, you're not wrong about Lupe's latest album. However, my impression is that the album was released over his objections; he didn't like it and didn't want the label to release it. I could be wrong though, I wasn't following it that closely. But there was definitely some drama between him and the label over that album.

August 12, 2011 at 4:17AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


"Now, I’m not saying these songs have the commercial appeal of Kanye’s music…" and that is entirely the point.
The artists you mentioned, along with numerous brilliant underground artists work in a framework that is hip hop in it's purest form (although The Roots are arguably more popular now). They are not part of the pop landscape (and I doubt that's what they work hard to achieve). Kanye is a a pop star/idol. That requires a different set of rules — because the context is different. He's playing to stadiums and arenas; he's playing within the extremely limited guidelines of commercial radio; his interests go beyond 'production' to fashion, gadgets, and marketing. And, he's fairly accomplished in all of those areas.

Kanye IS a talented lyricist, think not, then check his freestyle with Mos Def You Tube. He's also an artist that makes commercial, popular music. That's the territory he works in, not the underground venues for the backpackers.

But, in regards to the article — good thoughts, Koo. Is film in a similar distribution condition to the music industry?
Think of it this way; multinational conglomerates control both industries and determine what music/films are deemed most profitable, based on projections and expectations. That leaves very limited and exclusive means to distribute using traditional channels. The Clear Channel monopolistic strategy seems to mimic the film industry of old; look at the top radio stations (I'm talking about the USA here), they operate using extremely limited and formulaic playlists, that revolve around the same songs over and over. The Hollywood film industry seems to offer the same ideas over and over. This is not a coincidence —they are salespeople.

What's interesting about the Kanye/Jay Z strategy is it's similarity to the Polish brothers and their movie "For Lovers Only". Both used iTunes, to launch their work and in so doing made people aware of the viability for an established artist to succeed through non-traditional channels. Mind you, Ye and J are superstars, and the Polish brothers have a well known reputation. But, the question is can this be translated to the developing artist, who doesn't have an established fan base? The internet strategies of Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, ect. as exciting as they were didn't incite a wave of similar successful imitators, but we've seen a number of people utilize those examples and gain an audience and even market share. Look at Freddie Wong or Soulja Boy Tell 'Em* and we can see evidence of how successful strategies can work.

Again, great discussion Koo. This comment is way too long so I'll cut it here.
(Also, check out Lupe Fiasco's Jedi Mind Tricks mixtape. Dude's skills are unreal.)

*note — I'm talking about marketing and distribution strategies, not quality or quantity.

August 10, 2011 at 3:48PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Sure, I agree Kanye works in a different venue. My point is that venue doesn't tend to reward lyricism. Kanye is a talented pop artist; one of the most talented depending on how you define what a pop artist's goals should be. But he's a decent-to-bad lyricist. Are you talking about this freestyle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GE2SmfSm878 ? If so I would say Mos Def's verse was about 1000x better. I doubt either of them were actually off-the-top freestyles though.

Mos Def vs. Kanye is another unfair matchup in the lyricism department though. Mos's first album is one of the best rap albums of all time, lyrically speaking and also just overall.

August 12, 2011 at 6:42AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Good Post!

August 8, 2011 at 7:37PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I've been of a fan of Kanye since (lamely enough) his single Stronger, mostly because of the video's homage to Akira (and my Daft Punk love). He drifted out of my notice until Power, which I mostly ignored, but the video for All of the Lights made me finally go out and buy My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy.
I listened to that album straight thru, I've never really been as touched by hip hop as I was by the musicality of it. His music is made with more thought than pretty much anything else out today. If you have any doubts about this just watch Runaway, his short film/music video. The video is one of the best produced I've seen since Michael Jackson used to do narrative music videos (or music cinema?) for his singles.
If you have any doubt of his talent just watch the SNL performances he did on youtube.
Thanks Koo for this insight and I can't wait to see what you're coming out with on your own as well.

August 8, 2011 at 7:38PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Great post Koo, the producer route to independent success is not often mentioned.

August 8, 2011 at 8:25PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Great article Koo, I really enjoyed it. Looking forward to reading about your feature project.

August 8, 2011 at 8:47PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Nice article!

About the whole debate above - I'm a big Jay-Z fan, but to be honest I can't stand Kanye ever since he started singing. I love his early stuff when he was rapping though. Overall, I'm a little disappointed in Jay-z for this album. In his song death of the autotune on his last album, Jay talks about how rappers are singing too much, t-paining too much. The whole song is about getting rid of autotune - which I can really relate with cause I hate it with a passion. So I push play on track 2 of this new album and there's kanye with the friggin auto tune on! I just about lost it. I really can't stand autotune and I can't believe Jay-Z would do an album with Kanye and his autotune. Unless I'm missing something and there's a plausible explanation for this - cause I only have listened to the first two tracks so far.

August 8, 2011 at 10:14PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Maybe Jay-Z realizes that he can't make that call, "death of Auto-Tune," and an artist like 'Ye will do as he pleases (artistically). Just because audio enhancement falls outside of Jay-Z's cool-ness quotient, doesn't mean that others shouldn't make use of it if they're motivated to. Classic songs & legendary acts (Kraftwerk, Parliament-Funkadelic, Bowie, Frampton, Yes, Daft-Punk, the Beatles, and Art of Noise to name a few) have been making use of vocoders for decades. So yeah, Jay can't make that call...

Btw, excellent article Koo...as always you are an inspiration.

August 9, 2011 at 3:58PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


If you knew where to look, This album actually leaked about a day or two before its digital launch.

August 9, 2011 at 6:18AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


It's a little bit of a tangent, but what did you think about what Radiohead did a few years back? They put In Rainbows on a website free to download and only asked for donations. After the first million downloads the average donation was $8 a copy. Of course, something like that could only work with a band that has a reputation and following like Radiohead does.

August 9, 2011 at 9:00AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Adrian Jans

I think that distribution method is becoming more popular with established artists. Nine Inch Nails did that with the last few albums with great success. I'm pretty sure Daft Punk did something similar recently as well.

I love that these artists are putting the money back in their pockets, it's nice to see the artist profit without a big company swallowing up most of the money.

August 9, 2011 at 10:44AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I'd just like to go on record as saying that the original Shottas was better than the official release - go figure

August 9, 2011 at 12:33PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Pretty much every rapper talks about their lack of a father figure. Like seriously, all of them. And most rappers discuss how shitty their home life was, too. Actually most rappers wear their heart on their sleeve and discuss personal things. And most of them did it without mentioning "alien sex."

August 9, 2011 at 3:07PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


...wow..overnight this become the "I Love Kanye" website.

August 11, 2011 at 1:52PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Kanye IS NOT a talented lyricist.
Yes he is a talented producer & publicist, however I fervently draw the line at lyricist.
Any rapper who has been in the game long enough will tell you the same thing... he has no breath control, he frequently draws out syllables because of his inability to fill a bar with actual words. He may wear his 'heart on his sleeve', yet he continues to rap about the same things over and over again (obviously he isn't alone here). And whomever told Kanye it was a good idea to actually sing on a record must have been straight up delusional.
The College Dropout was an excellent record, as was Graduation, however the majority of Kanyes solid tracks feature other rappers (the previously mentioned Lupe FIasco) to prop up his weak lyricism - indeed the standout tracks on Watch the Throne - Otis, H.A.M & Why I Love You all feature Jay & Kanye tag teaming, as well as other rappers also.
No doubts he will be remembered as a Pop Idol, but never a Hip-Hop Legend.

August 11, 2011 at 6:46PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I can totally see why Jay-Z would be considering this type of release to combat piracy. When he first started to make it big after the Foxxy Brown collab, he was indicted on an assault charge, for allegedly stabbing someone he saw on the street that had his(Hov's) album for sale bootlegged. He beat the case and the ROC Empire began.
I love hip-hop...it was the soundtrack of my formative years. But seriously...almost all new stuff is recycled, an enormous problem in Hollywood these days, I mean really? Footloose...again? Fright Night? really!!!??? Star Trek was beast, cuz JJ changed the game...so I don't count that as recycled per se...but you see what I'm saying? With people like Koo out here doing it for the love of the medium..not the love of packing a theater.
You hear a new track these days and you think..this sounds like ______ (fill in the blank). I have to admit Jay's lyrics are ill, Kanye's....meh, the hooks are tight, but it's a rare track that has me saying. "man Kanye killed 'em with that!" A bar or too would pop..but greatest lyricist? Pffft. That pretty much disses all previous lyricists. Any one ever heard of Rakim? How about Chuck D? Anyone familiar with KRS-One or Ras Cass. Hell, even Q-Tip, Black Thought, Kool G Rap, Game, Ice Cube, Blowfly, Biggie Smalls, Ghostface Killah, Redman, Common, or either Andre2K and BigBoi. As far as the singing goes...check out BOB. His newer stuff is pretty commercial..something he said he never would do..but his mixtapes stay in my CD changer. There are just too many greats out there to say he is the greatest..especially since his career is still going.

Just my 2 and 3/4 cents.

August 19, 2011 at 12:47PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Such lengths to prevent consumers from steal. . I mean pirating music from those who feel that "traditional" moral values do not apply to them as artists. If you can say or do anything that comes to mind, don't expect your fan base to be exceedingly virtuous, or your critics to be kind.

September 6, 2011 at 12:53PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Russell Steen