He slows his delivery to let the words sink in, the message marinate.
“I give my heart to all the disenchanted,” Ekoh rhymes, addressing frustrated musicians, as he decelerates from a verbal velocity level suggestive of an overcaffeinated auctioneer. “You’re not the only one the industry has left abandoned.”
The song, “Freeverse 3,” begs the question, what do you do when you’re on the outside of the music industry looking in?
For Ekoh, the answer was to become the industry.
He no longer has a day job because of it.
With no record company, no manager, no publicist, no booking agent, blue-collar rapper Ekoh (Jeff Thompson) has taken advantage of the music business’ shift to streaming platforms and reliance on social media in a game-changing way.
He’s done so by essentially cutting out the industry’s middlemen in a way that wouldn’t have been possible not long ago.
Online success story
Thompson scored his biggest hit recently when “Freeverse 3” surpassed a million streams on Spotify, a remarkable feat for an unsigned artist.
And it doesn’t end there.
Thompson’s top five songs on Spotify have tallied nearly 3 million streams combined, and with a trio of full-length albums and myriad singles available on the site, he has the catalog to continue to generate significant numbers among his nearly 100,000 monthly Spotify listeners.
He’s also developed a strong video presence, filming a new clip for each single he releases. The video for his song “Daudrie,” for example, has surpassed 3 million views on Facebook.
While plenty of musicians bemoan the challenges of monetizing their art nowadays — no one buys records anymore! — Thompson represents the other side of the argument: the unprecedented power and control that artists can wield when they build their followings on their own, outside traditional music industry structures.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be able to not work a job and make enough money just doing music,” Thompson says, sitting in a southwest valley Starbucks, clad in a maroon ball cap, black T-shirt and camouflage shorts. “It’s been crazy.”
A scene veteran, Thompson has been among the city’s top hip-hop draws since he dropped his first full-length in 2013. But a little more than a year ago, he changed his approach after getting mired in creative doldrums.
“For a while, I was working with certain producers and my career was kind of being controlled by other people,” he says. “I wasn’t able to make what I wanted to make, when I wanted to make it. I wasn’t putting out songs, and when I was, it wasn’t stuff I was super stoked on. I finally just started doing what I wanted to do, trusting in myself, building my own brand. I wanted to grab people like me.”
Who is Ekoh?
In person, he’s an engaging, slightly anxious presence with the photogenic looks of a boy band heart-melter.
A self-professed comic book nerd and former skateboarder, Thompson was more into punk rock than hip-hop as a teenager. But during a stint in rehab, he began writing in journals, therapeutically expressing himself in poetry, which led to doing the same in rhyme form over a beat.
Ekoh was born.
In the years since, he has had to develop his name without any record company backing, but the flip side is being able to do so without any outside input.
“I feel like if a label had gotten behind me and kind of molded me into what they wanted me to be, even if I did gain a massive following, all the followers would be people I don’t relate with,” he says. “But since I’ve done it myself, these are people who get me, know what I’m talking about, like the same (stuff) I like. The connection’s everything. If you make something that sticks with people, then that’s how you get repeat listeners. It’s not like I have a million different listeners. I have a handful who listen a lot.”
Thompson caters to those listeners obsessively, working six days a week — he takes Mondays off to spend time with his girlfriend — constantly updating his social media accounts, releasing singles and videos — he’s dropped five this year alone with three more ready to go — continually honing his online ads and marketing strategy.
“It’s a grind, man. It’s tough,” he acknowledges. “Consistency is key. And patience, setting things up the right way, really caring about what you do. I used to write songs in a couple hours. Now I write songs in a couple days.”
Taking the reins
Thompson is a hands-on kind of guy: He wrote, produced and mixed his latest record, “The Detour,” which cracked the top 35 of the iTunes hip-hop chart despite being self-released.
His success has been gradual, the turning point coming roughly a year ago when “Freeverse” was released, the first song he issued after ditching the producers and following his own muse.
Despite all the streams he has garnered, Thompson is not getting rich just yet: Spotify has reported that its average royalty rate ranges from $0.006 to $0.0084. At that rate, a million streams would equate to $6,000 to $8,400.
Still, Thompson is making it work.
When we first caught up with him five years ago as he was releasing his debut, “Zzyzx Road,” he was juggling three jobs to make ends meet.
Now, his occupation is Ekoh.
“It’s a lot of work, ” he smiles. “But I’ve got the time.”
Contact Jason Bracelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.