Building a home for the business of hip-hop

When I first meet Dan Runcie, the walls in his home office in San Francisco are bare. The room is relatively empty aside from his desk, computer, white board, box light, podcast mic, and piano keyboard. 

Dan and his wife moved to this apartment last year and are still putting the place together, he explains. But a week later he posts an Instagram story showing three shrink-wrapped CD’s: Whitney Houston, Usher, and Kayne West. He adds: “Gettin’ ready to decorate the office.”

iaac-dan-runcie-side-2Dan has loved hip-hop since he was a kid in the 90’s, enamored by Bad Boy, Puff Daddy, Biggie, and Mase while growing up just outside Hartford, Connecticut.

“They were on top of the world,” he remembers, and seeing how many other people knew who they were too helped him feel “just how strong the culture was.”

It also meant a lot to see men who looked like him at the top of their industry—creating great music and great businesses.  

Dan has always been fascinated with numbers. He grew up watching his mom, always finding the best deals. He learned early and clearly: money affected almost everything. So did how you handled it—no matter how much or how little you had. He wanted to know more. 

So after college, he pursued an MBA.

It wasn’t coming from this place of wanting to be rich. I just felt like money was the backbone of how we made so many decisions.

He thrived in his MBA at the University of Michigan, where the academic tradition included discussing and debating real business case studies from massive corporations like Apple, IBM, or Coca-Cola. 

But in his second year of business school, one case study changed his life.

“There wasn’t enough of this.”

It came from Harvard Business School, but this case study wasn’t about the standard blue-chip corporations he’d grown accustomed to studying.

iaac-dan-runcie-side-12This case study was about Beyoncé.

And unlike traditional media that covered her music, personal life, or brand, the case study covered her business, with her at the center as the chief executive officer of her company, Parkwood Entertainment. 

The study chronicled the business and artistic decisions that led to her surprise album drop in December 2013. 

Dan was floored: “This is something that I’ve literally been interested in my whole life.” He’d always wondered about the business decisions his favorite artists were making, and now he realized how beneficial it could be for that information to be gathered and shared. Not just so others could glean business insights, but also so these moguls could be recognized for the business prowess they possessed in equal measure to their artistry.

Dan loved the Beyoncé case study but also realized that something like it shouldn’t be rare:

There wasn’t enough of this.

When there are business stories about people in hip-hop, it’s more likely to be the surface-level things: who are the people making the most money? What is this deal? But the why and the how, that was fewer and farther between. 

We can learn as much from Rihanna as we can from Elon Musk.

Dan graduated with his MBA in 2014 and got a job in education, but on the side, he started writing about the intersections of business, culture, hip-hop, and sports on his own Medium page.

iaac-dan-runcie-full-7People responded. It turned out there was a real hunger for the kind of content he was creating—analyzing “the why and the how” of hip-hop mogul’s business moves. 

Readers connected with his personable writing style as well. While he had the education and exposure to write in the traditional academic case study style, he wanted to bring something different to the table.

 People can get stuck that B2B or any type of corporate style communication has to be stuffy, and it doesn’t need to be. Because at the end of the day, people working in B2B are people.

And this is hip-hop and it is culture. This is something that is very personal and resonates with people. Music makes people feel something.

Dan’s analysis struck a chord with his audience because he was able to merge his business acumen with his true fandom and respect for hip-hop.

While his early writing covered a range of subjects, he soon focused on hip-hop, partly because he saw the opportunity there, especially with how many people were responding and hungry for more, but also because it was truly what he loved.

Maybe he could really be the one to create the content he saw missing from the cultural conversation. iaac-dan-runcie-full-11

“It was hard to really build a following without an email list.”

And yet, he freely admits that his first blog posts weren’t all that good: 

I wouldn’t want to go back and read them myself. I’d probably be embarrassed.

But you do a few more, then you get a little bit better, then you get feedback.

Soon, publications started asking (and paying) Dan to freelance for them. Dan enjoyed that, but then he realized:

iaac-dan-runcie-side-5It was hard to really build a following without an email list, because even though I’m being commissioned to do this piece, it’s the other company, the company I’m writing for, that’s gaining the response or gaining the followers.

He wondered: what if he built his own media company and connected directly with his own audience?

In March 2018, he started his own website, Trapital.co, and started an email list:  

It changed the game. And I realized that from the beginning, because I started the announcement for Trapital with a landing page that said “Hey, coming soon, here’s a blank box to put your email address.”

I didn’t get that many subscribers. Maybe 130 or so. But it was still more than enough to get things started. 

I think sometimes it can be easy to underestimate the connections and network you have.

iaac-dan-runcie-full-12While his audience wasn’t huge, it was made up of a lot of incredible people, many in the music industry. His first emails spread because of those first 130 loyal subscribers. 

He was still working his full time job so he couldn’t always write as consistently as he wanted, but he kept writing and sending newsletters whenever he could, and was surprised and delighted when he’d get newsletter replies:

In many ways that felt like a novel thing because that wasn’t the case before. I could write articles that were on the front page for some of the biggest tech publications and I got less people reaching out as opposed to emailing 130 people.

That’s when it stuck with me and I was like, ‘No, this is the way to do it.’

Now he just needed to find more time to write. 

“The most powerful music executives in the world were paying me the same amount that my mom was.”

By August of 2018, Dan was still working full time and putting out his email newsletter dissecting the business of hip-hop.

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His email list kept growing, albeit slowly, but soon he started to recognize the people on his list: some of the same executives he was writing about were joining his email list. Some even replied with comments like “Hey, great job, love what you’re doing.”

He couldn’t believe the access his newsletter was opening up.

If this was the response he was getting when he was only able to work on Trapital on the side of his day job, he wondered: what would happen if he went all in? 

A few months later, with the help of some bonuses that came through, he quit his job. By then he had enough savings to pursue Trapital full-time for over a year without the pressure to make money right away; plus he was still getting some freelance gigs.

He’d read (and written) enough case studies to understand risk, and this was a risk he was willing to take. 

iaac-dan-runcie-side-10His first step once he turned his full-time attention towards Trapital was to turn his newsletter into a paid newsletter, charging $10/month. But after a year of that, he started to question whether that business model was right for him. 

When Dan takes me through his thought process on his paid newsletter, his response becomes a kind of meta-Trapital case study.

I get to see his analytical brain work in real-time, and how natural it is for him to filter creative decisions through the context of business analysis. It’s not forced or burdensome; it’s clear talking about business is his happy place.

But Dan wasn’t happy when he realized he might be capping his potential with his paid newsletter model, “where the most powerful music executives in the world were paying me the same amount that my mom was. When you’re trying to maximize things, it’s a tough model to work unless you’re operating at a pretty large scale.”

Dan wasn’t scared when he quit his job, he shares, but he was scared when he thought about sunsetting the paid newsletter to focus on another business model. 

He thought it was a good idea for the long term, but he was still terrified of what that would mean for the short term.

My biggest fear was that I would run out of money before I could figure it out.

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“They found a way to build and coalesce their fan base.”

But he took the risk and moved his paid newsletter back to free to focus on leveraging that audience for consulting and sponsorship opportunities. 

What helped him get past his fear of switching business models? Knowing he wasn’t alone: 

I was able to talk to many people that had been there before or made similar types of changes who were like, “Hey, we’ve been there.” 

iaac-dan-runcie-side-4He also wrote a blog post and sent an email explaining the change to his audience. By then he’d built a strong personal connection with them, and their reaction bolstered him. They were happy to be along for the ride, no matter what came next. They were there to follow him, not a business model. 

By summer of 2021, Dan started to make a full-time income with Trapital. He credits that to his focus on a niche but relevant topic, and building a direct connection with his own audience over time—both inspired by studying artists like Nipsey Hustle and Issa Rae:

I’ve really been attracted to the artists who have done something that wasn’t necessarily the biggest mainstream smash success, but they found a way to build and coalesce their fan base, [realizing] if I can control my distribution, then I can make sure I can reach my fans.

Even if I may not knock it out of the park every time with the content I put out,  the relationship and what’s built over time ends up becoming much more beneficial.

His email list grew from 130 to over 10,000 subscribers: “It’s the backbone of the business for sure.”

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There are many music and media power players on his email list, and many of the best opportunities he’s had for consulting, sponsorships, and media coverage have all come directly from replies to his newsletter.

That’s how Trapital was featured in places like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal

It’s also how Beyoncé’s dad, Matthew Knowles, became the first guest on Dan’s podcast

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“The barriers are lower than ever to create.”

A few weeks after our interview, Dan is featured in ​New York Magazine’s The Cut. Ernest Wilkins wrote: “Imagine if Ad Age primarily focused on the business acumen of Master P instead of Gary Vee. That’s Trapital, by Dan Runcie: a newsletter about the business side of hip-hop that bypasses all the fluff and b.s. and treats the industry with the respect it should have been getting for decades now.” 

Some of Dan’s favorite accolades come from the email replies he gets—not from music or media power players, but fellow creators who tell him how what he’s done with Trapital has inspired them to try something new, take a risk, or create content around a niche they care deeply about. 

Even though I’m not around people, being able to be a friendly reminder in their inbox every Monday and being able to offer that inspiration is really gratifying. 

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He also gets many lucrative inbound job offers—ones he says he would have jumped at a few years ago. But he turns a lot of them down, in favor of continuing to invest all his time and energy into Trapital.

Starting Trapital forced me to answer questions about what I want and don’t want out of  life. 

Pivoting his business model was a reminder that it’s never too late to keep asking those questions and making adjustments along the way, even when they’re scary.

Before Dan and I say goodbye, I have to ask: considering all the podcast interviews and case studies he’s done with the best of the best in the hip-hop world and his own success with Trapital, what advice would he give creators who want to make a living with their creative work? 

There’s so much content being created: in 2019 there were around 40,000 songs that were uploaded to Spotify a day. Now it’s 60,000. You’re in many ways competing more than ever, because the barriers are lower than ever to create.

If you want to reach people, you have to be thinking about “Okay, what is the niche? What is the lane I’m going to have and try to own?”

Secondly, how are you going to be creative about how you’re going to do that?

The level of creativity in hip-hop is just on another level from what I see from other areas of culture.

Whether it’s your rollout, your style, your vibe, how can you find ways to have your own unique stamp, so that if someone heard part of what you do, they would know immediately it was you? You want people to associate your style instantly with you so that your brand can permeate.

Don’t be scared to be super-focused in a particular area, because sometimes that super focus can help expand even further because people know you for that thing. The more you can tap into something unique and personal to you, the more you can hopefully find other people out there – the internet is a very vast place – who will resonate with that too.

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You can connect with Dan by subscribing to Trapital, or learn more at trapital.co.

 

The post Building a home for the business of hip-hop appeared first on ConvertKit.

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