Nappy Roots returns to Belly Up Aspen
If you go …
What: Nappy Roots & Blackalicious
When: Friday, Jan. 8, 8:45 p.m.
Where: Belly Up Aspen
How much: $25
Tickets: Belly Up box office; www.bellyupaspen.com
There are challenges and rewards that surface after severing ties with a major record label, but after a decade of independence, Nappy Roots have managed to navigate the sometimes-turbulent waters of the music industry and come out on top.
They’re celebrating the milestone with a new album, “The 40 Akerz Project,” fourth in a string of independent releases that followed the commercial success of their platinum-selling debut, “Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz,” in 2002, and their sophomore offering, “Wooden Leather,” in 2003, both on Atlantic Records.
“Because of that success, we were able to do a lot of things that most people coming from Kentucky or the South weren’t able to do at the time — sell that many records early on, Grammy nominations,” said Nappy Roots’ Skinny Deville. “The accolades in our early career were kind of an awe-inspiring thing for us at the time.
“We got smart and decided that being an independent artist would be better for us because of the size of the group, having more of a say in our career path. In 2005, we got off Atlantic Records to go independent.”
Price of independence
Without the promo money from a major label to “throw at the wall” for new projects, Skinny said Nappy Roots’ fame has dropped off a bit, but the group — which plays Belly Up Aspen with Blackalicious today — is cool with it because the tradeoffs are significant.
“We don’t have to tap dance,” he said. “When you’re on a major label, you have to appease your stuff to many different offices — you have a marketing department, A&R (artists and repertoire), finance — and you have to win all these people over to get to the next level of the game, which is coming out and selling a record.”
The process is grueling and can ostensibly take the music out of making music with all of the “do this, do that” to sell the album or get radio play, he said.
“It’s going outside what you normally do as an artist, you’re creative, crafty and clever,” Skinny said, adding that since going independent, the group no longer has to mess with the mechanics. “We deal with the distribution company, none of this powwow of we need to make this thing a success. We have control of our budget and money; we’ll make our music through the grassroots way, hand to hand and fan to fan.”
Adapt to fan base
Word of mouth has been Nappy Roots’ best asset, but in order to stay in the music-making game, you also have to adapt to the way consumers find and access your work. When their first independent album, “The Humdinger,” came out in 2008, featuring the single “Good Day,” CD sales were continuing a decline that began shortly after the group formed in 1995.
The shift had begun from compact disc to the digital arena. Skinny said it was visible with “The Humdinger” and grew with the release of “The Pursuit of Nappyness” in 2010. Downloads and streaming were the new “flavor of the month,” he said, and Nappy Roots was seeing nearly a 50-50 mix of CD sales and digital plays. The demographic of their fan base also was evolving.
“They aren’t buying music anymore,” he said of the original group of “Nappy Heads.” “They have families and bigger things going on than going to the store and buying CDs, or even listening to music. … You don’t have the disposable income you have when you’re a teenager when you’re 30-plus and sending kids to private school.”
The new crop of fans prefers to stream music rather than purchasing physical albums, Skinny said, so it’s now important to have a presence on Internet stations such as Spotify and YouTube and also put a heavy focus on touring and selling merchandise and CDs on the road. Promoting Nappy Roots through diverse outlets has become paramount.
“It’s not just selling CDs or digital media,” he said. “We have to look at all of those avenues and figure out how we can independently squeeze the juice out of each avenue.”
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