You probably haven't heard of A1 MoufPiece. But if you're not careful, you might accidentally listen to his music.
Born in Northern California under the name Aaron Richardson, the 32-year-old rapper is a digital pioneer, of sorts. Since 2008, he's been using a brazen, gutsy, and transparently sneaky way of fooling people into finding his songs. He exploits the crappy search functions inside iTunes and Spotify.
In other words, he's a musician who has staked his career on search-engine optimization. And he's not the only one doing it.
"[M]arketing purposes adapting with current times," is how A1--who has a new album out this week, called I'm My Own Movement--described his strategy during a long Facebook chat with me. "[N]ever bothered me," he added, saying he had "NO REASON TO FEEL uncomfortable" [sic].
The process is simple. A1 will record a song about something--how much swag he has, how great he is at sex, or what have you--and then post it to iTunes and Spotify. But here's the catch: About half of the time, he'll give that song or its accompanying album a title that's just a popular musical search term. The song will have absolutely nothing to do with that term--it's just there to make him accidentally show up in a search.
For example, he has a song called "Kreayshawn" and one called "N****s in Paris." He has an EP called S.K.R.I.L.L.E.X.. He has a track called "Lil Wayne," as well as one called "Fuck Lil Wayne."
Regarding the latter, A1 has this to say: "LIL wayne is 1 of the best rappers alive. ---like i said b4 song titles are named for marketing purposes only."
A smattering of A1's derivatively titled tracks on iTunes.
This strategy is the brainchild of A1's manager, a childhood friend named Jay Cofield. Cofield is nothing if not confident about the choices he's made.
"Eighty to ninety percent of the people on the Internet are dumb," Cofield told me. "That's what it boils down to. Ninety percent of the people on the Internet are dumb, and they don't know what they're logged on for."
Those statistics are up for debate, but a surprising kind of online dumbness is definitely involved in this approach--the dumbness of search algorithms on two of the most important pillars of the online music industry.
"Some of the newer search engines, like Spotify and iTunes and the other really horrible Apple search engines, don't really know what the best results are," Steve Wiideman, a longtime search-engine optimization (SEO) consultant, told me.
In other words, from an SEO perspective Spotify and iTunes are sort of stuck in the Stone Age.
The cover of I'm My Own Movement, A1's latest album.
Spotify and Apple both declined to comment for this article, but Spotify may have gotten wise to A1's tactics. A few days after I contacted a representative in order to get an answer about whether this violates the company's policies, all of the A1 MoufPiece songs with other artists' names disappeared from Spotify. Cofield and A1 did not respond to requests for an explanation on their end. However, the tracks remain on iTunes, untouched.
Here's the trouble for the companies, the artists who are being mildly ripped off, and the users being duped: Cofield and A1 are in an odd legal gray area.
On the one hand, "the First Amendment protects artists and other creators of noncommercial expressive works from being found liable for trademark infringement, including for titles," said Lindsay Bowen, an entertainment litigator at the law firm of Jenner & Block. "But not if the title has no artistic relevance to the work at all, or is explicitly misleading as to as to the source or the content of the work."
However, given that these songs aren't listed as being by the artists in question, the "explicitly misleading" part is tough to determine or prove. More importantly, beyond the legal question, music promoters say A1 is just doing a hyper-refined version of a piggybacking strategy that permeates the hip-hop world.
"Soulja Boy mentioned having done [what A1 is doing], on an industrial scale, back when Soulseek was a going concern and claimed it got him tens of thousands of downloads," Justin Boland, who runs a music-promotion site called Audible Hype, wrote in an email. "Since then, we've gotten a lot of emails from artists (and disgruntled freeloading pirate scum) about the practice, and while I'm happy to tell folks this kind of 'promotion' is a waste of time, nobody ever asks for advice because they actually want it."
"Jump in My Jordans," one of A1's songs that isn't titled after a popular search term.
"It reminds me of the reason that a lot of people do remixes," admitted Morgan Young, a manager at Velour Music Group. "There are more unofficial remixes than there are official remixes, these days. You could say it's more artistically credible, but it's not fundamentally different from what A1 is doing, on some level."
Or take the work of indie hip-hop superstar Lil B, who is famous for releasing songs about people who are showing up in the news, simply titling them "Charlie Sheen," "Paris Hilton," and the like. (However, his tracks actually have lyrical content about those people.)
New Video: Lil B "Charlie Sheen": wp.me/pzXrp-uTe RAP RADAR!!!! - Lil B— Lil B From The Pack (@LILBTHEBASEDGOD) April 12, 2011
A tweet from Lil B, who's been known to record tracks titled after popular search terms, though with somewhat more artistic legitimacy.
Young even drew a comparison to Danger Mouse's landmark copyright-infringing, Beatles-and-Jay-Z-mashing masterwork, The Grey Album.
"I mean, you take the biggest hip hop artist and biggest rock band of all time and make a career of it. No one knew anything [Danger Mouse] had done before that, and now he's producing the Black Keys record," he said. "It'll be tough for A1 to turn the corner, but it's like, obviously Danger Mouse turned the corner."
That, of course, is the rub. A1 is still, by his own admission, only playing to crowds of about 250 people and rarely traveling outside of Northern California. And his digital strategy isn't exactly flawless: Ironically, his Google SEO is horrible, with a poorly organized Facebook page as the only semi-useful result for a search of his name.
A1, living the SEO life (photo via Myspace).
That said, he and Cofield claim to have sold more than 100,000 songs on iTunes. Who knows if that's accurate, but the two men seem to think they're on the right track, and show no signs of turning around.
To wit: I confronted A1 with a user review for one of his iTunes tracks, entitled "Tha Carter IV" (titled, presumably, for Lil Wayne's 2011 album of the same name). It read, simply, "They jus tryin 2 get paid off Wayne name wit this ignorant bullshit."
I asked A1 what he'd tell that user. "i wud say- SORRY YOU FEEL LIKE THAT,preview the music before you purchase it," he wrote. "thts like me walking into a PIZZA restaurant ordering a pizza and leaving with a Burrito eating it then complaing after."
When I pointed out that a restaurant patron might still be angry for receiving a burrito after ordering a pizza, he elaborated: "NAH --- I WUD KNO ITS A BURRITO......i wuddnt eat the burrito SMH i kno what a pizza looks like IT COMES INA SQUARE BOX."
Overall, A1 said his marketing strategy is pretty airtight.
"its just an easier way for my music to b heard and seen and i stand behind it 110%," he said. "IT GOT U INTERVIEWING ME."