Hip-hop artist Hoodie Allen (aka Steven Markowitz W’10) is using the latest in social networking and the old-school marketing skills he learned at Wharton—minimize barriers to entry; provide speedy, individualized customer service; build brand loyalty—to conquer the music world.
BY JOEL SIEGEL
He was a young man living two lives.
By day, he was Steven Markowitz W’10, part of the latest wave of bright young graduates to descend on Silicon Valley. He was barely 22, four months out of the Wharton School, and working in a coveted job at one of the most successful companies around. As an account executive at Google, he was using his marketing smarts to convince companies to spend their advertising dollars with the web giant.
At night, he was Hoodie Allen, hip-hop artist. Every evening he retreated to his San Francisco apartment, writing rap lyrics and corresponding with fans. On weekends, he performed—even flying all the way home to New York for a weekend gig before flying right back to California to be at his Google desk Monday morning.
“I would wake up, go to work, come home at about seven or so, and I would try to ‘switch brains,’ to 2 a.m., 3 a.m., working on my music. And then I would go to sleep, get up, and do it again,” he says. “It definitely wasn’t healthy.”
He loved Google, but his hip-hop career was taking off, too. A new mix tape that he posted online was being downloaded thousands of times a day. Promoters were showering him with more offers to perform than he could squeeze into his schedule. And record-company executives were calling, asking to take meetings with him.
Hoodie Allen, or Steven Markowitz? It was becoming increasingly difficult to juggle his two lives. Four months after starting at Google, he flew home to New York and decided to roll the dice. He took a leave of absence from his day job to try his hand at being Hoodie Allen full time.
Barely one year later, the results are impressive: More than 100,000 fans on Facebook and nearly 60 performances across the country, including sold-out shows in Chicago, Boston, and New York, where he filled a 1,200-capacity hall. A new mix tape—the appropriately titled “Leap Year”—has clocked nearly 300,000 downloads; one of his music videos has been seen more than 2 million times. Type “Hoodie Allen” into Google, and the search engine responds with more than 10 million results.
Yet, he really hasn’t left his business career behind. Instead of selling Google products, he now pushes brand Hoodie, using the marketing skills he learned at Wharton to build his music career. And he’s doing it with a business plan that turns the traditional path to fame and riches in the music business on its head. Rather than seek a record contract, he has resisted efforts by record companies to sign him. And instead of selling his music, he has insisted on giving it away over the Internet. This new paradigm is a big bet on the power of the Internet and social networks like Facebook to build a fan base, reflecting the new economics of entertainment. And so far, it is paying off.
Now, as Hoodie Allen, he is trying to take the next step. In April, a little more than a year after leaving Google, he is releasing eight original songs for sale on iTunes, gambling that his fans are ready to purchase his music, 99 cents at a time. And he’s preparing for his biggest tour yet—playing 25 cities and larger venues. “We’re on the precipice right now. I feel we’re at the moment where everything blows up to the next level.”
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Photography by Chris Crisman C’03