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Rapper charts, thanks to Web fans

Hoodie Allen's EP draws on Twitter followers

Hoodie Allen is giving the music industry a lesson in social media tactics after the rapper translated blog buzz into a top-10 debut on the Billboard Album Chart despite virtually no media coverage or radio play.

Allen’s self-released EP “All American” shifted 27,000 copies for the week of April 28, putting it in the No. 10 position on the chart.

What’s more, the 23-year-old Long Island native isn’t riding on the coattails of a major single or any prior Billboard chart history. Instead, he’s built his name one fan at a time, creating a word-of-mouth ripple through the Twittersphere and handing out free songs for the past three years.

“I don’t know anyone else who has even attempted to do this, or pretend like they are,” Allen says of his constant social media presence. “I think it has formed a real fandom.”

The rapper, born Steven Markowitz, says he tries to answer every message from fans and critics, an effort that has helped him amass more than 51,000 tweets since 2008.

It’s a social media success story many artists have attempted, but few have mastered, though marketing “All American” involved more than just answering fans: Allen’s degree in marketing from the U. of Pennsylvania helped him craft the careful strategy behind his success. “I always liken music to a new product, and with any new product, you want to create as (few) barriers to entry as possible,” he says. “That really was the foundation of the philosophy.”

Interest in Allen’s music took off in 2010, when he was creating tracks while working a sales job at Google. His first taste of viral popularity came when the song “You Are Not a Robot” soared to the top of the charts on Hype Machine, a Web barometer of the music blogosphere.

Fans discovered his website, Twitter and Facebook accounts while downloading his songs for free. The growing attention convinced Allen to quit Google and focus on his fanbase and on massaging the relationship he’d generated with music bloggers.

“He’s essentially the embodiment of the modern do-it-yourself artist,” says Dev Sherlock, one of the operators of Hype Machine. “When a blogger receives a new Hoodie track, it’s coming from him and not from a publicist, so there’s a level of personalizing there that I think people appreciate.”

Allen and manager Michael George, a former Atlantic Records intern who contacted Allen after hearing some early buzz about him, saw personal interaction as a mainstay of their strategy, and wanted to get Allen’s mixtapes into the hands of potential fans, pronto.

They decided to use a distribution model that emulated other independent artists, like Lil Wayne and Drake, who were online sensations in their early days. But they also strayed from the model, concluding that some artists discouraged downloads by forcing users to register, or jump through other digital hoops.

“We wanted it to be one step: You click the button, you get the record,” says George.

The instant-gratification strategy on Allen’s website began to capture the attention of Internet-savvy teens and college students two years ago, and Allen drove the momentum into early 2012 with a constant flow of new-media to keep people talking.

He debuted a musicvideo for his first single, “No Interruption,” on YouTube, racking up more than 1.4 million views. Less than two weeks later, a video for his single “No Faith in Brooklyn” was posted a few hours before his EP went live on iTunes, priced at $4.99. George says the strategy aims to upsell listeners who might buy a single track for $1.29, and then realize it’s only a few dollars more to get the entire eight-song EP.

Many of those loyal fans appear to have bought in, if the first-week chart position is an indication. While it remains to be seen whether the momentum will continue, Allen is confident in his interactive business strategy, and says he’s turning to streaming-video chat services like UStream to keep in touch with demand, hosting the weekly “Hoodie Allen Mondays,” where he chats directly with fans en masse.

“It’s really all about personalization,” he says. “If you are able to create a real fan, the monetization of it won’t be a problem.”

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