We should steal stuff from work. Not literally, this isn’t about the red stapler, but figuratively. We should steal skills from work and proactively apply them elsewhere. More of our jobs and experiences are transferable than we may realize.
El-P, currently one half of the progressive hip-hop duo Run The Jewels, worked for Tower Records in the 1990s doing distribution. His department loaded boxes with records, punched a code into a computer for a label, and shipped the packages off.
El-P’s friend and bandmate at the time worked the front end of the Tower distribution process. He did the order entry for what went into the boxes. The two soon realized there was a disconnect between ordering and what was shipped. If you wanted, they figured, you could actually ship anything anywhere on Tower’s dime.
Their first demos found their way to labels, influencers, and friends courtesy of Tower Records’ thinly monitored distribution department. (Side note: Ok, so this part is literally stealing from work, but stay with me because shipping and packaging isn’t the only thing they stole.)
When nobody knows your work, you need two things: exposure to a broader audience and a way to give them access to your stuff. Tower helped them hijack that process at a time when it was really, really hard. You might hear a song on the radio but never find a tape or CD. They learned a workaround and a system.
El-P would go on to found his own record label, Def Jux, in the years that followed. Def Jux was instrumental in changing the way underground rap records found their way to fans. Using paper mail-order catalogs and embracing the internet, they bypassed the need to be stocked at the Tower Records of the world and shipped direct to consumer.
As Christopher Lochhead says, “If you want to sell some bibles, you’d better make some Christians.” If you want fans of your music, they probably need to hear it first. El-P rewarded those who did the digging and discovered his artists with an easy path to get the music. No big labels, no big stores, just big connections with loyal fans who would buy direct. He built a network within a music scene.
When we look at El-P today, Run The Jewels have now released 4 totally free to stream albums to critical acclaim. By understanding the distribution process and the key ingredients of exposure and access, they’ve seemingly cracked the code. And lately, there’s been no stolen postage necessary.
We want to steal from work by learning our industry, learning the strong and weak points, and figuring out our way to succeed in the system. If we look closely, there’s something we can take and make better. When we find it, we have to take our shot.
*Listen to RTJ on The Bob Lefsetz Podcast for these stories and more.