Derrick Ashong On Going Viral

Whether in the role of front man for world-music band Soulfege, hosting an award-winning TV show, or creating a better business model for independent artists, Derrick Ashong is just trying to communicate.

Derrick Ashong has a knack for being in the right place at the right time—and for seizing the moment. He became a YouTube sensation during the 2008 presidential campaign, as an unusually passionate and articulate “man in the street” supporting Barack Obama. No stranger to a spotlight—Ashong has fronted a touring band since the late 1990s and scored a part in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad—he parlayed the attention into high-profile gigs hosting programs on Oprah Radio on SiriusXM and on the Al Jazeera English TV network. Now, with his group’sMillion Download campaign, he is trying to crack the model for monetizing an open-source model of music distribution. Here, he discusses the evolution of social media, guerilla self-marketing, and the importance of embracing the unexpected.

FAST COMPANY: What do you say when people ask what you do?

DERRICK ASHONG: People say, you do all these different things, but what I’m doing is communicating. Everything I do is about leveraging new ways to reach people. I started as an artist, a musician specifically—trying to interpret the world around me and communicate that in a way to get at some kind of truth or beauty—but that’s evolved into what I call “music plus,” where now I’m exploring open-source music and the kind of business models we can build in a new era of music.

The music industry has gone through a massive shake-up over the past decade or so. Has anyone really figured out the new model for making a living as a musician yet?

Lots of people have figured out lots of different things, but no one has figured out an easily replicable model and can comfortably say, “This is the new way of doing things.” With the Million Download Campaign, we’re trying to get 1 million people all over the world to download Soulfege’s latest album, Afropolitan, free. Partly, this is a promotional tool for the band—in the first four months, we got 50,000 downloads. That’s more than a lot of artists do in four years. We encourage people to take the music, remix it, and share it with people in their own language. We’ve had volunteers translate the Million Download blog into 10 languages so far. That’s one of the benefits of open-source culture—I can’t do that on my own.

So how do you start to monetize that?

Everyone knows artists don’t make money on records; record labels do. I want to expose the fact that that’s not where the opportunity is. What artists need to do is leverage present-day technology to enhance and build their brand. Every artist is paid—whether that’s in tickets, T-shirts, or endorsements—in proportion to the perceived value of their brand. Jay-Z is making more from Rocawear than from Roc-A-Fella. An independent artist doesn’t have the engine to do that kind manufacturing, but we do have the technology that makes it easy to share music, to share and build the business. The high cost of entry used to be a big barrier in music. It’s not anymore.

Sounds sort of like the Grateful Dead model of making the music free and making money from playing shows. But what about when you’re older and don’t want to have to play live all the time? How do you make a living then?

I think you take time when you can and build the opportunity around the brand so you can make money in a variety of ways. There are a couple of interesting things artists can do. Companies pay people a ton of money to represent their brands. You can get Lady Gaga, or get someone you’ve never heard of, like the Progressive Insurance woman. I think there’s an opportunity in the middle, where you can have someone who has a relationship with the target audience, who is a known quantity, but not well known. You can start out as a middle-class artist, not a superstar.

As an independent artist you have to think more creatively—no one has a systematized a way of doing that. If I give away a million free downloads, I can start building deep relationships with partners and build different revenue streams. By empowering people to spread the word guerilla-style, we’ve had all kinds of unexpected things happen. Lufthansa wanted to license a song of ours because somebody emailed our link to someone, who emailed someone, who emailed someone at Lufthansa who liked it. We’ve given ourselves two years to identify a funding model that’s viable, and if we can do that, maybe I won’t have to go on tour to pay rent went I’m 50. We’re hoping to get other artists involved, too.

You became sort of a YouTube star during the 2008 Presidential campaign when a clip of you spontaneously talking about your reasons for supporting Obama went viral. Now there are professional marketers whose job it is to make things go viral on social media—do you think this is still an authentic way of communicating with people?

Now everyone wants a piece of the power of social media. The cool stuff will still go viral, but there’s a lot more out there that is programmed to succeed. Four or five years ago, a higher proportion of content that went viral was organically distributed. Some of the professional stuff is cool and interesting, too, but once professional marketers take over using a certain tool it does gets harder for underground elements. You have to keep finding other tools for getting stuff out there.

You recently finished up about a year hosting The Stream, a new show on Al Jazeera that looked at events like the Arab Spring through a social-media lens. What did you learn from the experience, and why did you move on?

I had a great time doing it. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse—to do something that’s never been done before, at the intersection of broadcast and new media, for millions of viewers worldwide. It was exciting every day to go to work and have to kick ass because you know the world is watching and a lot of people want to see it fail. We won a Webby award, a Royal Television Society award in England for most innovative program. It was arguably on the most critically acclaimed shows on Al Jazeera. When they decided they wanted to move the show to Doha, Qatar, where Al Jazeera’s headquarters are, I thought about it—I grew up in Ghana and know Doha—but I’m not that company man. I believe in this day and age, you really need to build your business. So I decided to focus on that.

Did moving around a lot growing up help make you more adaptable? Did it make you more confident jumping into new challenges in your career so far?

I lived in Ghana till I was almost four, then in Brooklyn, then Cambridge, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and back to New Jersey. I didn’t have the expectations of stability that a lot of people have. There’s a false perception about the world some people have that if you do certain things, you get to go onto this or that. When those expectations aren’t met, it’s like, Oh my god. I don’t see things that way. I used to go to school with a gas mask. I don’t believe the world is operating according to some beneficent order. You have to hustle, be smart, and be honorable. Integrity is something you can control.

If you recognize that change is a constant and you’re keeping your eyes on a higher prize, it’s cool even when stuff shifts and doesn’t go the way you expect. I’m not that brave, but when I’d achieved what I thought I could doing a radio show on Oprah’s satellite station, I wasn’t afraid to leave it and try something else. But people couldn’t believe I’d do that. The Stream was in planning in fall of 2010, long before the Arab Spring—I’m not so wise that I saw that opportunity coming, but I was open enough that I saw a way a show like that could work.

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