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July 29, 2014

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CES 2009:

Teen rap sensation outlines success to CES crowd

18-year-old went from handing out CDs at school to worldwide stardom

Image

Justin M. Bowen

Soulja Boy (center) and his manager, Michale Croom (left), talk to Bill Werde, editorial director at Billboard magazine, about how they have used the Internet to build the Soulja Boy brand.

Soulja Boy at CES

Soulja Boy (center) and his manager, Michale Croom (left), talk to Bill Werde, editorial director at Billboard magazine, about how they have used the Internet to build the Soulja Boy brand. Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em has made millions marketing his music online and today the 18-year-old sensation told a room full of industry insiders just how he did it.

“I was never on the radio, was never on TV,” Soulja Boy said as he explained, step by step, how he went from burning self-made CDs and handing them out at school to uploading MP3s to Web sites using a super slow dial-up connection.

The discussion was part of Billboard’s “Digital Music Live!” series at the Consumer Electronics Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

“He’s the first one to really capitalize on the Internet,” observed Michael Collipark, who helped sign Soulja Boy to Interscope Records in 2007.

“It wasn’t just the music. It was the way he dressed … it was the whole lifestyle,” Collipark said. “He’s created his own world and he’s created his following.”

Soulja Boy, whose real name is DeAndre Ramone Way, developed his following from the ground up by first uploading songs to the Web site SoundClick.com.

“Within a couple of weeks I was topping the charts,” he said.

Through Sound Click he was able to sell 35,000 downloads a day for 99 cents a pop. This meant the then-15-year-old was making $17,500 a day, after splitting the profits 50-50 with the Web site.

But after discovering MySpace, Soulja Boy did something unexpected: He started directing fans away from profitable Sound Click and toward his MySpace page.

“It really wasn’t all about the money,” he said. “I knew it was a larger crowd on MySpace.”

When he found himself a manager, he put his agent’s contact information on the MySpace page. Within 24 hours, his manager reported receiving “a thousand calls” for live performances.

Soulja Boy independent release “Unsigned & Still Major: Da Album Before da Album,” was a huge success despite having no major label backing. As such, his legions of online fans were eager to hear him perform.

Before he could hit the stage, however, Soulja Boy had to convince his dad to let him.

“He finally agreed to let me do it on weekends because I was still going to school weekdays,” he said.

He was paid $300 for his first gig.

“After that I thought, man, I could get used to this,” he said. “I was working at Burger King at the time.”

Even the young rapper himself was surprised by how well his first show went. Despite having no help from traditional airwaves or MTV, “I performed and they were singing it word for word,” he said.

The Internet was working and the savvy teen knew it. Instead of new clothes, video games or other impulse buys, Soulja Boy used his check to further invest in technology.

“I took the money and I bought a digital camera from Wal-Mart and set up my YouTube page,” he said.

Using that camera, Soulja Boy filmed videos and posted them to YouTube. He also embedded his clips on his MySpace page.

When Collipark entered the picture, he helped steer the teen toward more traditional markets.

“He had all this stuff going on on the Internet but he had no idea how to get it off the Internet (and onto a major label),” Collipark said.

From there, the rest is history. Soulja Boy signed to a major label, re-recorded and released his record, filmed music videos and shot to the top of the charts.

His single, "Crank That,” enjoyed seven weeks in the No. 1 spot on the U.S. charts during the summer of 2007.

A project manager at Interscope suggested they create an instructional video for the dance moves for his hit, “Crank That.” They did and it, too, became an overnight sensation.

The video got 40 million online views, Soulja Boy said.

In addition to downloads, videos and traditional album sales, Soulja Boy also enjoys lucrative ringtone sales, a clothing line, his own record label and a new animated series that he launched on his Web site Tuesday.

“Really, you have to look beyond the music,” Collipark said.

Soulja Boy said ringtones have especially paid off for him. Literally.

“It brings in the checks,” he said with a laugh.

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