Trapital founder Dan Runcie on hip hop and the rise of artists and content creators
I recently had an interesting discussion with Dan Runcie, the founder of Trapital—a hip-hop business media company that breaks down the moves artists are making inside and outside the music industry into digestible content.
He started as a writer focusing on all things popular culture and hip-hop and eventually transformed his passion into a business.
We discussed Dan’s pre-business days as a freelance writer, the origin of his interest in the business side of hip-hop (brand partnerships, how much money artists made, etc.), and his three years of work and community-building at Trapital.
He also shared his views on artists and content creators—where they’re headed and the intersection of TikTok in the mix. As a bonus, he also gave a mini crash course on brand partnerships inspired by his conversations with industry leaders and his own knowledge of the business world of hip-hop.
Dan’s freelance writing phase and the origin of Trapital
Dan entered the industry as an accidental writer. After graduating from school, he was looking for a job oriented around social impact. He was always interested in the business of hip-hop and how artists were making money through it, but he didn’t see many people writing about it.
When he saw a case study about Beyonce and her surprise album in 2013, which later became a Harvard Business School case study, he wondered why people weren’t writing more of these types of articles—and that’s when he stepped into hip-hop writing by starting an account on Medium.
What started as a hobby turned into something far more valuable as publications started approaching him to write for them (and paying him to do it.) Slowly, he started learning more about the niche,
“I saw where the opportunities were heading, and where digital media was going—especially when I saw people starting niche publications focused on a particular topic. This was even before Substack was a thing. I said: ‘Okay, there's something here, and there are enough tools out there to figure this out. Let me go ahead and take a crack at this.’ And that's how Trapital got started.”
Dan never really saw the career opportunities for something like hip-hop until much later. He was writing about the intersection of sports and the business behind things like the National Basketball Association (NBA) or the National Football League (NFL). Hr even wrote about college sports at one point.
But he found himself pulled towards the true essence of hip-hop, which also gave him a push to convert his passion into a business.
Dan’s friends highlighted his unique knowledge about a less-explored niche like the business of hip-hop, and pushed him to turn it into something big. Slowly, he started researching independent writing and how other people were doing it.
It was more of a gradual progression, but with him he was able to turn his hobby and passion into a full-fledged business.
Community-building and content at Trapital
The core of the content at Trapital was community feedback. Dan used the feedback that he got from his community for the initial few content pieces to inform the audience about what the brand was and what it could become. This served two purposes:
- It strengthened the relationship with the community, and
- It made the content better, as it was directly influenced by what the readers wanted to read.
This was how one of the first pieces he wrote went viral, and he noticed more people signing up for Trapital content—especially names in the industry he recognized, had worked with, and looked up to as inspirations.
As Dan created more content, he wanted to take Trapital to the next level.
About a year into business, he started a membership program at $10 a month or $100 a year. People could join in, access freemium content, and get invited to an exclusive Slack group to discuss things within the business of hip-hop.
“The group led to some great connections where people had their own meetups. Like, oh, you’re in New York, too? Let’s connect. Around that same time, I hosted a few regional meetups in New York, LAm and Atlantam too.”
Later, Dan made some changes and had to take a step back because, at that time, Trapital was essentially a solo team with a few freelancers. But he still wanted to have an opportunity to bring folks together, so he hosted webinars where people could connect in the group chat and build connections online.
Today, the content that makes up the empire of Trapital includes:
- Weekly memo newsletter, which covers past week’s happenings in the hip-hop world or something new brewing in the industry.
- Essays that address evergreen topics—timeless content that the audience can always go back to and cherish.
- A podcast that includes conversations with the leading executives in the business of hip-hop. These include executives of streaming services, major record labels, and hip-hop artists themselves.
The influence of TikTok on artists and content creators
We couldn’t talk about content and hip-hop without mentioning TikTok.
Dan talked about how most record labels today invest in tracking tools to see how often someone’s music is used in other TikTok clips and how the analytics are looking. Through this, they analyze who they can ideally sign next.
“Last year, TikTok released a report where they said major labels had signed over 70 artists that came directly from TikTok. And just a few years ago, major labels had signed around 700 artists in total. So, you’re looking at 10% of artists from the platform for one year, which could increase more.”
Dan feels there’s a fine line between what makes someone a big success on TikTok vs. a record label. With labels, the goal is to sell records and albums. Creators doing well on TikTok have mastered the game, however, it’s not necessary that people will buy their music.
Divergence of fame and talent
While talking about the divergence of fame and talent, Dan gave an example of Meg Thee Stallion—one of the biggest TikTok stars of the past year. Every one of her songs, especially the big ones, became TikTok sensations, but when her album came out, it did not sell as well as you’d think for someone with that large of a following. However, Gunna released his debut album in 2020 as well, and it sold more albums than Megan Thee Stallion.
Dan thinks there are a few different dynamics at work here—people don’t necessarily buy music by women in hip-hop as much. Even so, Dan still thinks artists like her can be successful on that platform without selling many records.
What should brands do to align themselves with artists and content creators while signing partnerships?
While talking about brand partnerships, Dan mentioned three dos and two don’ts for brands to keep in mind while collaborating with artists and content creators for a mutually beneficial partnership.
- Partnerships should feel authentic where even though money is involved, people think the artist will use that product, or it relates to them in some way or the other. He explains this using Travis Scott as an example. He partnered with McDonald’s, which related with the people just the same as when he partnered with Playstation—both of the brands related to his image and what people think of him.
- The content should feel authentic and memorable to the audience, especially today where there’s so much noise, and it’s hard to connect with artists.
- The creator or artist should take the messaging and mold and tweak it to align it with their usual messaging, so it doesn’t seem off-brand.
- Brands shouldn’t manipulate the tonality of the artists. They have their own space and personalities, overlooking which can lead to saying the wrong thing or acting in a way that doesn’t feel authentic to the audience.
- Avoid misalignment in the values of the product, its price point, and messaging. What you’re saying should be the same as what you’re doing and representing.
Dan took Rihanna’s Fenty label—a luxury fashion label started by her in 2019,—as an example. The brand promised affordable inclusivity, accessibility, and acceptability with sizing and diversity, which was unique. But the brand stopped manufacturing within two years because the price point was relatively high, and there was a gap between what people thought Fenty would be and what it actually was—despite Rihanna being indexed as the most marketable celebrity in 2016.
While wrapping this massive value bomb regarding brand partnerships, Dan mentioned his top five hip-hop artists, before we closed the conversation:
- Lauren Hill
- Kanye West
- Lil Wayne
- Jay Z