Living in Batesville, Mississippi more than a decade ago, a young DeAndre Cortez Way couldn’t have predicted a self-released song and dance would lead to his first million by the age of 17. Nor could he have guessed that his early adoption of social media as a marketing tool would make him a pioneer of the web-age fame model.

Batesville was hardly a music industry hub, but that proved to be of little consequence because Way was hardly your typical aspiring rapper. His meteoric rise occurred during a time when the ailing music industry was just beginning to realize its own dinosour-esque structure.

Record labels were contending with not understanding the the web generation, and exploring what streaming music services meant for their artists. Way was one of the first to bypass the traditional route to stardom and instead leverage intuitive digital marketing to brand himself and jumpstart his career. He’s adapted the model — venturing into television, retail and other business ventures over the years — but still adheres to the core principles to this day.

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After his family relocated to Mississippi from Georgia, Way’s father built a home studio where the neophyte rapper wrote, recorded and produced his own music. The trickier part was catching the attention of a label from the grips of a town that boasts a current population of 7,463. Way’s solution came in the form of SoundClick, an online music community that had steadily acquired members since its launch in 1997.

He uploaded his first song in 2005, two years before SoundClick launched its own social network. The social aspect would become pivotal in spreading Way’s Grammy-nominated outbreak song “Crank That.” Much like MySpace, SoundClick provided usernames, profiles pages, blog posts, curated playlists and even ranked music charts. More importantly, Way’s fans were able to tag, share and repost their favorite songs, and they did so with gusto. Even before “Crank That” became a sensation on par with 1993’s memorable, “Macarena,” Way established himself as one of Soundclick’s top 10 members. One of his first uploads, an Mp3 of a comedic song called “Doo Doo Head,” rose to number one on Soundclick’s user-rated charts after only a few weeks.

Way promptly leveraged the increase in page views to boost his presence on other platforms, specifically MySpace, where he opened an account with the help of his cousin. He also linked his MySpace, YouTube and SoundClick to keep traffic and drive clicks between his pages. In a 2008 interview with Vulture he shared, “Really all my MySpace views came from SoundClick and my YouTube views came from MySpace; they fed off each other.” With the rise of the blogger and the social media influencer, such a small step is now considered intuitive, but back then, Way was the one of the first to truly understand this blueprint.

In only a few years’ time, Way’s MySpace acquired over 86 million views which vastly increased his visibility with promoters who reached out to book him for shows, as well as talent scouts, producers and industry executives. Internet fame also placed him in the unique position to be among the first to successfully monetize a social media presence. After “Crank That” reached a million plays Way negotiated a deal with SoundClick and began to sell his songs for $1. Though 50% went back to SoundClick, the enterprising emcee still cleaned up, making over $100,000 from an average of 19,000 downloads per day.

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Way also displayed incredible ingenuity when it came to promoting himself as an independent artist. Without no publicity team to back him, he converted his fans into his personal publicists. Through frequent multi-channel engagement he positioned himself as a friend figure who allowed them to take part in his everyday experiences, and to share their own experiences with him. He heavily relied on free services like SayNow, which directly connected him to fans through voice and text messaging. During a 2009 interview Way revealed that he had over a million subscribers and received over 30 million calls from all over the globe through SayNow alone. Way also used the platform for direct marketing and to share special promotions; this early attention to mobile saw over 5 million ringtones sold and downloaded. Way’s prescience concerning new social  innovations was also displayed in his early adoption of YouTube; his very first video was uploaded a mere three months after the platform came out of beta testing.

Even now, the low-quality, near-intelligible upload shows a gregarious, young character who was  v-logging and creating comedy shorts before it became a popular career aspiration. The many shorts of Way and friends doing regular old teenager stuff shows his early grasp of the power of engaging viral content. For instance, in addition to releasing “Crank Dat” on SoundClick, Way also published an instructional dance video to YouTube. The video went on to generate more than 20 million views and spawned thousands of homemade response videos and song remixes. The prevalence of both the song and dance helped catapult “Crank That” to viral fame, a phenomena that also went on to be reflected on Billboard’s Top 100 chart where it landed at number one. Way also leveraged the high traffic to close an ad-sharing deal with YouTube, effectively creating yet another stream of revenue outside of music.

His online reach was so powerful the Wall Street Journal crowned him “king of social media” in 2010. Though many are still quick to dismiss Way as a bit of a clown character one only has to look at the contemporary rappers who have landed record deals from internet buzz to see the resonance of his formula.

Chief Keef, Bobby Shmurda, Desiigner, Lil B, Fetty Wap and many more all used free music services, video platforms, and the internet in general to transition from independent to label represented. Even the songs that first brought them attention follow the Soulja Boy method– they feature simple lyrics, catchy beats, and more than a few even have dedicated dances. These days everyone wants to be internet famous so the competition is certainly a lot stiffer, but with a little patience and a touch of luck, the blueprint still works.

For more from Soulja Boy, check out the real numbers behind his supposedly $400m deal.

Words by Stephanie Smith-Strickland
Contributor
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