THE FEATURE LIFE
Is it wrong to use features as a platform? Because even though we all know that one needs to work hard on their own to get somewhere, sometimes it would be nice to be able to engage the market which that artist has… Is it different when there is a mutual understanding that personal gain is the end game rather than friendship? And if not, do you only feature with or on your friends work?
My short answer is no, it’s not wrong AT ALL. None of it. But sometimes it is.
I’ll expound on the whole “feature life,” though. I know it well. I also asked a couple friends to chime in.
There’s a few different philosophies when it comes to featuring, or having a guest spot, on someone else’s song. Some would call using a feature solely to expand your audience “selling out”, while others would call it wisdom and good stewardship of your talents. Most approaches are legit. The important thing is to walk into each unique situation knowing exactly what your end goal is so that you can appropriately adjust your expectations. It’s also important to note that some features are a BAD, if not TERRIBLE idea. Below I’m going to walk through all the GOOD, though varied reasons/approaches to doing a feature. Then, we’ll talk about the opportunities you should give the swerve to.
Also, the following only applies if your own work is QUALITY. If your stuff is sub-par, then no amount of features is going to help you, homie.
WHEN TO SAY YES
1. IT IS BENEFICIAL TO BOTH YOU AND THE OTHER ARTIST
This is self explanatory. Enhance a song with your work. Bring something fresh, make the song better. Make people happy to have you on their track. Leave a good impression, make it flow naturally with the track.
“First, make sure you are serving the needs of the requestor. Second, KILL IT.” – J Givens
2. CREATIVE COMMUNITY
I firmly believe that the best art is created in mutually-edifying community. I also believe in building up your local scene. There’s a long history of compelling art coming from artist collectives and city-specific movements. The camaraderie, encouragement, & refinement make the journey to the top a whole lot less lonely. Swapping a feature because someone is SQUAD is a no-brainer.
A word of warning— even with the squad, be clear if you are expecting something in return for the feature. Bartering is a GREAT way to pull your resources. BUT, if you don’t clearly state what you want to swap BEFORE doing something for someone, then you have no grounds to demand or even silently expect something in return. Neglecting clear communication leaves too much room for assumption & butt-hurt, & butt-hurt destroys the squad.
There is nothing wrong with being strategic with features. If a bigger artist has an audience that is the target you are looking to engage, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing so AND being open about it. Some more “honorable” people will say that this is too much of an industry approach, but practically speaking, why would you put work into music that won’t reach the people that might need to hear it the most? This is the beauty of having a “target” audience (which is not the same as being thirsty for a platform). I make music from the perspective of a person that struggles with a, b, & c. Those with the same struggles could benefit from the relatable message in my songs. If I don’t do what I can to get my struggle inspired music into their hands, then what are they besides odes to myself?
Expanding your audience, when done right, is an act of love towards those that relate.
On the other hand, diversifying your audience is also valid. Featuring on a song that’s outside of your typical “lane” is a great way to expand yourself.
“Doing features displays versatility, which allows me to be appealing to multiple audiences, in at least one way with said feature. Which, in turn, strengthens my craft. \x/“ – J Givens.
4. BECAUSE THEY PAID YOU
There is room for debate on this topic. I’ve charged for a couple features simply because I needed the money to buy more equipment to continue making music. I might get flack for it, but seriously… sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to keep the dream alive. Some artists expect you to drop everything and give them your best quality stuff for absolutely nothing. This might be snarky, but sweetheart, I want to make music too, and equipment isn’t free. There is NO shame in charging someone—especially if they are not in your network or you know for a fact their label has a budget for that stuff. On a related note, making sure you get credit on a song and receive the proper royalties.
On the contrary, you might get to a place where you don’t need the money, or if you do, it doesn’t sit right with your conscience. That’s okay too.
“Me personally, I’m at a stage in my career where features worth doing I don’t need to be paid for. And features not worth doing, you couldn’t pay me enough to do.” -Propaganda
5. FOR THE SAKE OF ART
This is a shout out to all my eccentric-types. I don’t care if the audience isn’t the same, if a world renowned experimental tabla- player asked me to write a song with them while hanging upside down inside a sensory deprivation tank in the middle of the Amazon, I’d be on the next plane there. Some people just challenge you creatively, and because you’re an artist you’ll take the risk.
WHEN TO SAY NO
1. WHEN YOU HAVE BEEF WITH THAT PERSON
If the air is not clear between you and them, you need to address it before you pull a “frenemy” and collab. Not doing so is passive aggressive and weak.
2. WHEN SOMEONE’S TRYING TO HOLLER
Bizness and dating are like oil and water. You need to see yourself as a professional, and there’s a reason HR offices across the nation frown upon co-worker coupling. Occasionally, it’s meant to be (see Pam and Jim), but unless all signs are pointing to boo-ness (and the path there isn’t fraught with drama and poor communication), it’s best to set your crushes aside and focus on the task at hand.
Hear me. Listen to my face. Listen to the words coming out of my mouth. Do NOT squander good opportunities on what might be a false-ideal fueled temporary attraction to someone. It’s easy to crush on other artists because they are magical and creative and probably have majestic stage presence, but let wisdom and discretion be your guide. If your case is meant to be an exception, then the bruh will be clear with his intentions and he will do his best to be a gentleman.
3. WHEN YOU’RE BEING SELECTIVE
Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “don’t just be the hip hop hook girl.” I did so many that people only saw me as “that hook girl” rather than an artist in my own right. Being selective is the sign of someone who values excellence. Use the selfie rule—- less is more. But none makes you seem cold & distant and possibly a catfish. I am a little bit more open on the “selective” matter, but one conversation with Hillary Jane pretty much tilted me over to the “I’m never writing a hook again” side. Thanks, HJ! See what she said below:
“I made an intentional decision to not be the hook girl. Be rare and be mysterious. You want to make sure you fit the song, that you sound good, and if the song is a good song. If it was a bigger artist I probably wouldn’t turn it down because that helps in a business perspective. There is no shame in saying “I’m doing this because it will help me.” There is no shame in doing something for personal gain. You want to grow as an artist. I don’t do features because I want to gain, I don’t want to be the hook girl, and to me- that’s gain. For me, I don’t do things for money because my brand is worth more. I have to ask myself, do I need $500 or do I need a brand that’s strong and consistent?” -Hillary Jane
4. THERE IS NO CREATIVE CHEMISTRY
Sometimes, it just doesn’t click. Don’t force it. If you’re not feeling the track, don’t do it no matter how big the artist is.
5. WHEN IT MEANS SELLING YOUR SOUL
Only you can tell when you’re about to sell your soul. For me, it would be working with someone whose work is misogynistic/ about other things I don’t agree with. For others, it would be working with someone who is too mainstream and/or wants them to change their style. Don’t compromise on your convictions.
In culmination, my strongest advice is to think over your choices carefully and be a pleasure to work with. That means finishing a track in a timely manner, staying professional, absolutely killing it every time, and knowing when to say no. There’s also an art to asking people to feature on your stuff, but I will leave that for another post (in short, ask politely).
Hope this helps,
If you would like Catalina to answer your questions submit them to Catalina@ForthDistrict.com or head here to get more “Art Like A Lady.”
Catalina Bellizzi, AKA CATAPHANT AKA Ms. BZ (to her students) is a visual artist, inner city art teacher, singer/songwriter, and occasional music producer from Chicago. She frequently collaborates with artists of all types and has learned many things the hard way. You can find some of her vocals on tracks from Humble Beast, Mellow Orange, & Illect artists, with her own EP on the way. Inspired by the glass ceilings over women in music, she founded YOUNG LADY (www.youngxlady.com), a creative brand that gives grants to women in hip hop. BZ earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts with an Emphasis in Art Education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has experience as an art school admissions counselor. Trust me, she can help you get your art together.