Released on Jan. 18, without fanfare or much hype, rapper Kota the Friend's latest release, Lyrics to GO, Vol. 2, managed to land the No. 3 spot on Spotify's Top 10 USA Album Debuts. Quite the feat for the DIY artist from Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, who writes and produces the bulk of his music, and for a project without any featured artists. But Kota isn't your typical rapper; though he can boast A-List cameos from stars like Lupita Nyong'o and Lakeith Stanfield on his 2020 album, EVERYTHING, his success can't be attributed to celebrity co-signs, crew affiliations, or being a media darling. His has been an organic, incremental climb to the top that, as of this date, has earned him nearly 3 million monthly listeners on Spotify.
Over the past half-decade, since the release of his first solo project, 2016's Palm Liquor EP, the 28-year-old has cultivated a dedicated following by making honest, confessional, and warm hip-hop that eschews bravado for emotional expression. His formula resonates with his loyal audience, with 42% of his streams on Spotify coming from listeners' own playlists and libraries.
Kota has built this impressive fanbase and successful music career all while unsigned and self-releasing his music. Speaking to Okayplayer last year, the fiercely independent rapper revealed why he has chosen not to sign a record deal thus far. "I realized every time I had to rely on somebody to do something, it wasn't going to get done," he said. "Everybody's really kind of selfish with their support and it just didn't make me better. So the only way that I'm going to get it done is if I get up and do it [myself] ." In another interview with DJBooth from 2019, Kota The Friend said that he'd spent the year meeting with labels and getting an understanding of the industry, finally realizing that he works best on his own terms.
Editorial playlists have been an integral part of his success on Spotify; tracks like "Pomegranate," "Long Beach," and "Colorado" have proven to be fan favorites after listeners discovered them on playlists such as Mellow Bars, Good Vibes, Mind Right, and POLLEN. With his newest project, To Kill A Sunrise, a collaboration with lauded DJ/producer Statik Selektah dropping on Mar. 19, we spoke to Kota about the role playlists have played in growing his fanbase and furthering his career as an indie artist.
How do you think that remaining independent has really factored into your success as an artist?
I think it's given me the freedom to release music when I want to, keep the momentum going and not really have any rules or anybody telling me that I can't drop something whenever I want. I think that has created a strong relationship between me and my fans. The people that listened to me have become really loyal and they're always looking out for new music. They're ready to hear more because I've just been so consistent over the past few years.
When did making music become a full-time job for you?
When I realized that I was making money. I checked my TuneCore account one day, and there was $8,000 in it. And after that, when I realized I was making real money off of music, I put everything into it and I stopped doing everything else. I realized that if I can make this $8,000, then we can turn it into $18,000. Then $28,000. We can build on this.
You're really self-sufficient; you write and produce your own music and film your own videos. How have you invested with the money you've made back into your career? What are some of the practical purchases you made?
I bought one of the best microphones that's out there for any kind of music, which is the Neumann U87. That's one of the first things I invested in when it was time to put my studio together. I [also] have a 3x3x3 booth that I record in. I have a regular keyboard, a MIDI keyboard, and a nice computer. I have invested in [session] musicians too. Every time I do an album, I really put my all into it. Every dollar [I spend on equipment] comes straight out of my pocket. We've never had anybody come in and give us money for anything. Whatever I get from music, I put it back into the music and I make sure that it's going to be quality. We never half-step on that.
How did you feel when you first made it onto your first Spotify playlist?
It was the best feeling in the world because for so long, you feel like you're hustling alone. At that moment, I felt like, wow, like we're getting support, we're actually on a playlist and by the time we got on it, I had already done millions of streams on one of my songs. And so that extra boost from Spotify was like, all right, now I feel like we're not doing it completely alone. There's actually somebody listening, somebody that is saying, "Yo, this is dope." And that, it meant a lot.
You're on a ton of playlists now, such as Mind Right, Good Vibes, Mellow Bars, and Pollen. Which would you say is your favorite?
I love POLLEN because there are so many different types of music on the playlist. I love Mellow Bars, and I listen to a lot of different ones when I'm in the car. I switch it up but I think those are the two that I listen to the most.
Now that you're featured across so many playlists, what kind of advice do you have for artists who are also trying to get playlisted?
Utilize the pitch tool. Keep it coming with the music. Do anything you can to get your name out there and figure out how you can give yourself more opportunities to connect. Once it does, it makes it easier to connect again.
What advice do you have for artists who are discouraged because they haven’t been playlisted yet?
If you're not getting playlisted, it's all about your grind. It's about the content you're putting out on social media and its cross-pollination. You have to market your music on other platforms, so you can get streams on Spotify. I definitely did that early on before any of the playlist things. And we saw significant streams from that, but obviously, there's nothing like getting playlisted because that just takes it to a whole new level. But as much as you can do on your own, you should be doing so that you make it work. At the end of the day, even if nobody playlisted me, I would still have to work for my career because it's all about you.
What advice do you have for artists trying to expand their presence across social media right now?
I can't say that I really know how to give the best advice when it comes to social media now, but I think in [terms of the] age-old answers. Mine is that content wins. You have to have content, you have to create content and you have to make content that you feel will connect with your audience.
What playlist haven't you been on yet that you'd like to get on in the future?
I think, for any hip-hop artist, they want to get on RapCaviar. I think that's a big one for me, just because I know that for the first time, people are going to actually hear about me that have never heard about me. For any artist, I think the most important thing and something that has driven me all these years, is being able to inspire a whole bunch of people. And for people to be just listening to you, I think, for an artist, that's even more important than money.