Theda Sandiford – Hip-Hop Innovator
It’s hard to imagine a recording artist without a website, but it wasn’t always that way. Theda Sandiford, AKA Theda Dot Com, remembers a time back in 1999 when she was at Def Jam fighting to get their artists online as a form of promotion. It worked. In fact it really worked. No longer with Def Jam, Theda is working on a number of projects right now, including one with Russell Simmons, and is constantly on the move from NYC to Atlanta to LA. I caught up with her this week to talk about how online artist promotion has grown and changed over the years, what’s next for the new media world, and what advice she has for aspiring artists.
Adam Bernard: First off how you earned the nickname Theda Dot Com?
Theda Sandiford: Ja Rule was the person to call me Theda Dot Com. I was the person at Def Jam that was the Hip-Hop evangelist for online. I was always in the meetings talking about “we could do that online.” So I was the person around the office that was building websites for the artists, teaching them how to interact with their websites, actually buying them computers and teaching them how to get on the web.
Adam Bernard: What were some of the initial hurdles you encountered?
Theda Sandiford: At that point there was this whole discussion, which is kind of funny now, called the great digital divide. It was perceived that if you were black you didn’t have a computer and you didn’t know how to use it.
Adam Bernard: Wow, that’s quite the generalization.
Theda Sandiford: Yeah, and I was like uuuh, it’s Hip-Hop, of which 80% are white suburban kids and they have computers and they’re online. The whole college market was online, they didn’t think that. There was a lot of resistance from mainstream media sites to put Hip-Hop on their sites. There was a lot of fear that records were going to be leaked early. There was concern that no one was really looking at this stuff. People didn’t understand page views versus unique users.
Adam Bernard: What was the initial artist reaction?
Theda Sandiford: There were artists who, in the early days of BlackPlanet, used it to hook up with groupies after the show. It was an easy way to pre-screen people. There were a couple people who will remain nameless that definitely used that and it was one of their favorite parts about being online. What I loved about online was the immediacy. You would put a listening party up, attach a message board to it and people would listen and give you instant feedback. That was great information for me to bring back to the radio department and to the A&R department. We’d also be able to notice regional beef coming up because people would be talking about it so we could be careful on how our artists were positioned in those markets.
Adam Bernard: A few years ago you went from working at Def Jam to going the indie route. What sparked the move and what have the major differences in working styles been?
Theda Sandiford: At Def Jam I had a staff. I had like six people because we had Def Jam, Def Soul, Murder Inc, Rocafella and about fifty to sixty artist sites. When the architects and the original people who were running Def Jam were about ready to move on to Warner Music Group I decided to leave. It’s a different company now, a different point of view, it’s much stronger on the R&B side and for me, I had pretty much done everything I could do within the context of the company at that time. I moved on to launch Def Jam Mobile as a brand extension in the mobile area.
Adam Bernard: And now you’re working with a lot of independent artists.
Theda Sandiford: I love doing independent things because one of the things that I enjoyed the most about my job at Def Jam was working with young artists that people didn’t know. When I started working with Ja Rule no one knew who he was. The same can be said for Beanie Sigel, Christina Milian, Musiq and Joe Budden. There were a lot of artists no one had heard of that I worked closely with, many times six months before the album came back. I’m also very proud of my work with LL Cool J because when he came with the G.O.A.T. record that was his first number one debut and he attributed that success to both his press presence and his online presence. He was one of the hardest working artists I ever had. He did every single interview. There were high school kids running websites that he talked to. It was very exciting to see the power of the internet build buzz and develop artists which is why I love working with independent artists because if they have great music, an excellent work ethic and great management a unique marketing campaign might be the one thing that gets them noticed to the point where they start to get heard on the radio.
Adam Bernard: Have any of the artists you used to work with called you up on some “listen, they’re not workin my record right.”
Theda Sandiford: I’ve gotten those calls but I wouldn’t want to blow anybody up. Their managers mostly will call me wanting to complain about something and I’ll give them some suggestions on how they might be able to do thing they’re concerned about themselves.
Adam Bernard: Is there a "next" in terms of artist promotion, or at least a "next" that you can share?
Theda Sandiford: I don’t have a crystal ball, but one of the things that keeps me entrenched in the new technology field is that every six months there’s a different way to approach it and go about it. You also have to look for new ways to monetize the old way of doing business. Two years ago people weren’t looking at MySpace and now MySpace has reached critical mass but it is a very difficult site as a marketer with a large brand to manage. You have to manually accept your friends and it’s nearly impossible to update your top eight once you get over 1,000 friends. I think we’re going to start seeing people move to something new. Back in the day I would promote to 20 to 30 different Hip-Hop sites and now that there are 200 more, but realistically now more people are reading blogs, so there may be five or six Hip-Hop sites that really matter, five or six mainstream music sites that you would want to be on, and then fifteen or twenty bloggers that you would want. Back in the beginning publicity people did not talk to online people, but now a lot of the major magazine writers are from online so there’s a lot of share there now where there wasn’t before.
Adam Bernard: Is there any one general piece of advice that could apply to everyone?
Theda Sandiford: Yeah, research and preparation. Know your audience, know your target and know how they live and lead their lifestyle, then design your campaign. People take that for granted and they miss the opportunity, they try to go wide and they shoot a buckshot. They need to be target shooters.
Adam Bernard: What should all the MySpace artists consider before sending out all the friend adds we get on a daily basis?
Theda Sandiford: What is making your message so unique? If you’re sending me a bulletin saying listen to my new music and give me feedback, my answer is “why?” Realistically what makes you so much more special than the next person? And if your first song does not catch me in the first thirty seconds or your page has so much stuff moving on it that it takes more than 15 seconds to load, I’m out of there.
Adam Bernard: Who are you looking forward to working with in 2007 and beyond?
Theda Sandiford: I’m working with Russell Simmons right now. I’m building his personal website, which is going to be a multimedia blog where he can express all his interest and his causes. He’s got a book coming out in April so I’ll be working on the promotion for that using the internet. I’m also building, with a team of people, a very exciting web property that will be launching probably at the end of March which will change the way people aggregate news and information and any kind of content that they’re interested in on the web and actually express themselves through that. It will really change the way people interact with content. I’ll send you the link as soon as it’s up.
You can contact Theda Sandiford at myspace.com/thedasandiford.