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Russ seems to have cracked the code on indie music success. The New Jersey-born, Atlanta-bred rapper has ranked on the Forbes list among the world’s highest earning entertainers, obtaining monumental success with platinum self-produced records and a lifestyle business portfolio poised to rival those of icons like JAY-Z, Diddy, Rihanna, Beyonce, among others, all before turning 30 years old.
Coming from humble beginnings, Russ moved around the country as a child with his family in support of his father’s career. In a candid interview in 2018, he recounted his experience as he began to blow up and rake in the big bucks under his parent’s roof. The artist remembered the odd dynamic that came about when he became the sole provider for his family from his digital royalties. He would finally move out at 24 years old, but not until he felt confident that he could leave his parents in a healthy place in their finances.
Just four years later, Russ has crafted a dream rap career, amassed a fan base over 5 million social media followers, and earned millions of dollars by owning his masters, diversifying his investment portfolio and controlling his own career.
This Financial Literacy Month, REVOLT exclusively got some money-making gems from the star. Peep below.
You’re known as the “DIY Pioneer” because you write, perform, produce, mix, master, engineer and publish your own music. How did you first get into the game?
I always feel like music kind of got into me and I was just always around it in my house, as far as my dad was always singing and there was always music being played, but he didn’t play any instruments. So, he didn’t like pass that down to me, but his dad — my grandfather, taught me guitar, and that was kind of the door opening into the whole music world for me. A tangible thing. Because before that I was listening to Hip Hop and I had written my raps when I was 7 or whatever, but I hadn’t really experimented with instruments or any sort of music-making. So, him putting the guitar in my hands, my grandfather, is just that led to me learning piano and then drums and then making beats, and it all kind of just snowballed from there.
The term “starving artist” comes from the notion that the creator is too connected to their art to actually sell it. When did you first come to realize your passion for music as a business?
Interesting. That’s what starving artists means?
Well, that’s my definition (laughs).
I think — because, I was never doing it for money and I’m still not — but there was a time: 2014. This was around the eighth mixtape that I dropped, and there was like some little spike on my TuneCore from one of the songs called “We Should All Burn Together,” and I think from January through like April, I had gone from making like $30, $40 a month to a thousand, $1100, $1200, $1300 like, ‘Holy shit! This is crazy.” I was buying purses for my mom and like Tiffany jewelry and whatever, like just spending all that money. Cause I thought it was… forever. I was like, ‘Oh. Well, I’m about to just get this every month for the rest of my life,’ and it tailed off, obviously. It went back down to whatever it was, a couple hundred a month. But during that little spike, I was kind of like, ‘Oh, you can actually make money off of this.’ Like real money, you know?
You have well over 10 albums. How do you nail marketing as an indie artist? Especially with so much noise and everyone becoming a rapper.
Well, when I was coming up, the best marketing tool I had was music. So that’s why I did a song a week. The best promo for the song I put out this week was the song I put out last week just because they got people to constantly be on my SoundCloud at the time. I was constantly bringing people back to “my home” of where my songs lived. So maybe if you didn’t hear the song I put out two weeks ago, you do now because I put out one this week that you like, and now you’re on my SoundCloud [where] you see the other ones. Back then, and I still think it’s true to today, the best marketing is always going to be good music and a lot of it. There’s a quote: The best way to have a clever idea is to have a lot of ideas. So yeah, that was just kind of my philosophy.
Talk to me about your decision to leave Columbia Records. You were signed, but you’re independent again. Why that decision?
It was just time to leave because I didn’t feel like the juice was worth the squeeze as far as I didn’t feel like they were doing anything for me that I couldn’t do for myself. So, at that point I was like… I outgrew that relationship. Prior to me leaving and being signed, I didn’t have a radio connection. I didn’t know certain things about the industry. So, it was a good experience because I gained a lot of information and I met a lot of people that I still work with today.
What did you learn from that experience that made you a better businessman today?
There were pros and cons. It made my mind super corporate when I’m looking at music because you’re in those meetings and not constantly on the text with the guys who tells me what the burn rate is on these songs, and the collection, and the this, and these numbers, and that number at this level, and playlisting. It just makes music very corporate because you get to kind of peek behind the curtain. And I like looking at all the analytics and stuff like that. It helped because I kind of feel like if and when I start a label the future, I have a better idea of what’s actually necessary.
From your perspective, what is the role of a record label in 2021?
The role of a record label in 2021 is to be a bank and to get [artists] industry acceptance. That’s what I would say.
So, the bank is obviously just like, “Here’s a bunch of money that we thought you were going to make anyway, which is why we’re giving it to you.” And then the industry acceptance is things like Grammys, or various PR type of looks. It’s like those types of things are really the only things I could say a label could offer that you can’t offer yourself. But, the thing with the industry acceptance stuff, it’s like, I feel like once again I kind of cracked the code with that by getting with the right PR agency, which labels provide… My PR agency now has gotten me way more opportunities than the PR division when I was with the label.
You have a cannabis line called CHOMP. Talk about that decision to move into the cannabis space.
I just see a lot of artists do things with brands that they don’t own, which is cool, ‘cause it makes you look like you’re important and famous… but, I’m like, man, I’m 28 about to be 29. I’m approaching my thirties and I’m trying to own shit. That’s it. I’m not trying to do anything I don’t own. So, I don’t want to go get paid a million dollars a year or whatever it is to promote a shampoo line. No, I’ll just make my own. Same thing with the weed. It’s like anything I do in my life naturally, I should just make it and sell it.
Me being me, I wanted it to be authentic, meaning I didn’t want to just slap my name on something and sell it. It had to be really what I’m going to smoke in the studio. So, it was a year-long process, but we created something that I can stand behind for that environment, which is a studio. And I’m excited about it just because I liked the idea of contributing something to the world outside of music that is still authentic to me… I think it’s really cool for me, it’s fun for me. And then from a business perspective, I think being an owner is always the wave. It’s a longer road sometimes, but I think it pays off in the end.
Why is ownership so important in the music industry?
Because ownership is why people in the music industry are rich. People really need to really think, they need to realize labels have never done a show. Ever. Labels have never toured. Ever. And they are billionaires. And it’s because they own the music. So, that’s how important owning music is. Because this narrative that’s been created in the music business that, ‘Oh, well touring’s really like the artist’s bread and butter.’ That narrative has been created because we’ve just accepted the fact that, ‘Oh, well, you’re not going to make any money off the music. Of course not. Ugh’ and it’s like, what?! What the fuck are y’all talking about?
Look what just happened in the world. The whole world got shut down. No shows, no touring, no nothing. So, if you don’t own your music, then you don’t have ‘mailbox money.’ The thing with doing shows, it’s not a reliable income because it’s dependent upon a venue, traveling, cities — you must get up and leave. That’s not a real boss. A real boss doesn’t have to tour. That’s crazy. That’s the most ‘get up and go to work’ element of the music business… Being a boss is me sitting here, I haven’t left my house for two years, but I’ve made $10 million. The narrative that touring should be your bread and butter and all that is a narrative that’s been pushed by a music business who has already decided that artists don’t need to own the music. So, I don’t buy into the narrative because it’s created by a business that isn’t for the artists.
I never looked up to anyone in the industry who wasn’t a boss. I like the JAY-Zs and the Nipseys and you know, shit like that. Now you see Kanye just completely through the roof with the CEO boss shit. That’s what I always looked up to.
Talk about the importance of financial literacy.
I think financial literacy is — without it, you’re going to get into a lot of trouble with money… It’s funny how glamorized making money is, but financial literacy is not normalized. We all love the idea of making money, but no one wants to learn how to keep it or make it in a smarter way. So, I think without financial literacy, you’re going to learn the hard way. You’re going to be like, ‘Wow. I shouldn’t have spent all that money.’ Or ‘I should have been putting money aside for taxes.’ And ‘You mean when I get a million dollars from a label, I don’t have a million? It’s really $400,000; $250,000?
I think that’s like, step one. You got to get a good business manager and good people around you who know what’s up.
What are some of your long-term or short-term business goals?
I want to be a billionaire and I will be a billionaire because I simply demand it from the universe, but I want to be a billionaire so I can help more people. That’s kind of just been my thing with money… It’s not like I need a bigger house or I need more cars. I just want to get more money, so I can help more people and help out more of my friends. That’s my long-term business goal.
My short-term business goal is to put out this beauty line that I’ve been working on and developing for over a year. And this app that I’ve also been working on for two years. Like I said, contributing to the world with things that I naturally do, and owning it.