In between his three albums, rapper Asher Roth has released several mixtapes, including 2011’s Pabst & Jazz and his The Greenhouse Effect series. The third entry in that series, The Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3, hit streaming services on September 3, 2021.
But there’s something about his latest mixtape that makes it unique from every album, EP, and mixtape he’s released so far: It was a collaboration with his online community of fans and supporters.
As Asher contemplated making music during the COVID-19 pandemic, he came up with an idea: What if The Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3 was “entirely produced by fan/friend/follower submissions?” He set up a Discord, and off they went. He’d post acapellas – audio clips of only his vocals – and community members would produce song submissions, which Asher would review live on Twitch. The project would adopt a narrative story, adding guest verses from the community, too.
With the mixtape out, Asher stops by to talk about the collaborative process behind the release, the tools he used, and the community building lessons he learned along the way. One of the great things about this story is that the creation of this mixtape has helped birth an active online community, which Asher hopes will foster further collaborations between members.
Asher and Patrick also discuss:
- How guardrails help encourage sustained creativity
- Why Discord?
- Now that it has achieved its first big goal, what’s next for the community?
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Why the RetroHash Discord might put a cap on member count (10:42): “With these [major social media] platforms, they’ve grown so big. They’re almost essentially black holes eating themselves. It’s really hard for you to garner any attention without being extremely controversial. … Getting away from the biggest, best, largest, and fastest, and just concentrating on who’s really paying attention and who cares seems to be working [for the RetroHash Discord]. Keeping it to a volume that is adaptable and able to move with the times is important.” –@asherroth
When you’re starting an online community, it’s easy to get discouraged by the big numbers of other platforms (13:22): “When you look at YouTube views, if that gets sucked up into the right portal, you’re talking about hundreds of millions of views, if not a billion. When you’re comparing your online community to something like that, of course you’re going to be like, ‘This is never going to work.’ … [But] if you think about it in real world numbers, if you’re doing a show, and there are 1,500 people there, that’s a lot of people. … [Conversion and retention rates are the] kinds of things I’m a little bit more interested in than the grand scheme, final tally. Those numbers are being a little bit gamed.” –@asherroth
When you’re starting an online community, it’s easy to get discouraged by the big numbers of other platforms (25:01): “The easiest way to integrate other artists [into the creation of The Greenhouse Effect, Vol. 3] was to give them challenges, give them direction, and give them a role instead of just leaving it open for interpretation because that allowed me to really filter down who did this challenge the best.” –@asherroth
When you’re starting an online community, it’s easy to get discouraged by the big numbers of other platforms (37:33): “[On the RetroHash Discord], I would love to start to focus on specific artists. Artist development has always been something that I’ve been fond of. It’s kind of disappeared. The music industry is pretty vigilant about getting young talent. You have a lot of these kids who are getting into the game at 16, 17, 18, 19 years old. They’re pretty green and naïve to the ways. I’ve always been more than happy to be somebody that says, ‘Look out for this. If you see this, this is what this means,’ etc. [We can use] the Discord to focus on artists and use the producers, tools, and people who are there to help.” –@asherroth
About Asher Roth
Asher Roth is a rapper who first achieved mainstream success with his international hit, “I Love College,” and his debut album, 2009’s Asleep in the Bread Aisle. His most recent album, Flowers on the Weekend, was released in 2020. Between his albums, Asher produced a run of critically-acclaimed mixtapes, including 2011’s Pabst & Jazz, and his The Greenhouse Effect series. The latest edition in that series, The Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3, available on September 3, 2021, came together through an online collaboration with fans and supporters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Asher releases projects online under the brand RetroHash.
- Sponsor: Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community
- RetroHash, Asher’s website
- The Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3, Asher’s latest mixtape, created through collaboration with his community of fans and supporters
- Asher’s Discord server
- Sunflower Philly, “a community-based, nonprofit organization focused on providing access to art, music & sustainable resources through a curated series of events and programs in North Philadelphia,” that Asher is creative director of
- Asher on Instagram
- Asher on Twitter
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thank you for listening to Community Signal. We’re joined by rapper Asher Roth, who has just released a new mixtape The Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3, but there is something big that sets this apart from his previous albums, EPs, and mixtapes. In its entirety, the release is a collaboration with fans and supporters with Discord and Twitch serving as the meeting places. The mixtape project has birthed an active community on Discord, and we get into the nuts and bolts on this episode.
Our Patreon supporters are an amazing group that finds value in the show and contributes financially to its production. This includes Heather Champ, Marjorie Anderson, and Aaron H. Thank you so much for the support. Visit communitysignal.com/innercircle to learn more.
Asher Roth is a rapper who first achieved mainstream success with his international hit “I Love College” and his debut album, 2009’s Asleep in the Bread Aisle. His most recent album, Flowers on the Weekend, was released in 2020.
Between his albums, Asher has produced a run of critically-acclaimed mixtapes, including 2011’s Pabst & Jazz and his The Greenhouse Effect series. The latest edition in that series, The Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3, available on September 3rd, 2021, came together through an online collaboration with fans and supporters during the COVID-19 pandemic. Asher releases projects online under the brand RetroHash.
Asher, welcome to the show.
[00:01:41] Asher Roth: Thanks for having me, Patrick.
[00:01:42] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s my pleasure. I’ve followed your career for a little over a decade since I put together a conference panel that we were both on. I’ve always been impressed by the relationship that you cultivate with your fans and supporters. I know it’s a vague question, big question, but how would you describe that relationship?
[00:01:58] Asher Roth: I guess the first word that comes to mind is personal. I think that the business side of music and art, in general, is a strange relationship. It’s always been strange for me because I’m not a promoter. I’m not a self-promoter and all of those things. For me, I thought it was always a good idea to make sure that fans felt invested in me for other reasons than just supporting things financially. I think that we’ve reached almost the apex. We’ll see, but a good starting point, rather of fans really feeling like they have a stake in the creative process and the creation of music. That’s really where we’re at with The Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3.
[00:02:45] Patrick O’Keefe: On January 16th, you tweeted, “The idea would be to have Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3 entirely produced by fan, friend, follower submissions. Guest verses too? If interested, let’s start the convo,” and then you had a Discord link. When did you first start kicking around the idea of approaching the project this way?
[00:03:05] Asher Roth: It had honestly been a conversation or at least a thought for probably a year. Just in general of what I wanted to do with Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3. I always knew I wanted to do a volume three. It was just a matter of how. I had gotten to a point in my career and also the introduction of streaming. Like you had mentioned, we had gotten together about a decade ago.
[00:03:30] Patrick O’Keefe: 2010. [chuckles]
[00:03:31] Asher Roth: A lot has changed since then. It’s funny working in tech and working in music, specifically, you wake up and there’s something new every day, and you have to see what’s going on. When the pandemic hit, I think that really put it in overdrive of like, let’s really explore the idea of this Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3 and a collaborative project only because, touring, all of those things were out of the way now because they weren’t even part of the discussion. Around January of the New Year was when we really put it in motion, but I would say the idea of how and when started about six months to a year before that.
[00:04:13] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a lot like my wedding. We didn’t see it as being streamed in virtual [chuckles] until the pandemic happened and then we were inspired.
[00:04:21] Asher Roth: Absolutely.
[00:04:22] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s really interesting to hear and to watch how as you talk about the business of the recording industry. I’ve read a fair amount in a specific channel on your Discord about the business and how you see things as shifting. Just in the context of your career, starting with a major label album, and then moving a little bit more independent with RetroHash. One of the things you did with RetroHash that I always found really smart and interesting, and this was in 2014, I always thought that people should put their albums on YouTube and put their songs on YouTube because other people would. It was always such a messy process.
Now, people do that all the time. It’s part of the standard licensing. It goes to Spotify, it goes to YouTube. You search for an artist, an album that’s just released, it’s going to have a YouTube album, the cover will be there. They’re monetizing that. They’re receiving whatever the share of ad revenue is. With RetroHash, you had the whole album up there at launch, every song, full song in a way that you could control.
I always thought that was really smart and even a little bit ahead of what people are doing now. Can you talk about that? I don’t know if you thought about that at the time, if that was something that your distributor made a decision on, but can you talk about the accessibility of your music and how you view that process?
[00:05:29] Asher Roth: That’s really it. Let’s try to make it as accessible to everyone as possible. YouTube is the largest streaming platform of music, whether people want to admit it or not.
[00:05:38] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, there is something like the third largest search engine too by search queries. People go there to search for answers like they would Google.
[00:05:44] Asher Roth: Yes, exactly. I think what aids me in these decisions is that they’re not financial decisions. They’re for the audience, they are decisions based on getting the music to the widest audience I possibly can. With that being said, it was just logic at that point. When you start dealing with major labels, there’s a little bit more red tape in your decisions, you’re asking for permission.
Getting away from that right around 2013, 2014 and making my own business decisions, it was more just so about how can we get this music to people? Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but for the most part, it’s just, “Let’s get this to as many people as possible and the chips fall where they may.”
[00:06:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Did you start the Discord when you had the idea to make Greenhouse Effect Vol.3 this sort of collaboration or had you already started it?
[00:06:32] Asher Roth: I was kicking around with Discord for a little bit beforehand a couple months, and I didn’t really understand the power of it so to speak until I got into the collaborative side. Really, initially, it was about communication. We were using it for fantasy football, gambling, sports betting, things of that nature.
[00:06:50] Patrick O’Keefe: March Madness. [chuckles]
[00:06:51] Asher Roth: Yes, exactly. A lot of my buddies they’re using it for stocks and different things like that. For the most part, I was doing the voyeuristic kind of thing of just popping in on other people’s and seeing what was happening. Then it was just the same way with my creative process is once it clicks, you just keep going. One day I just woke up and decided, “Let’s run this thing through Discord.”
That’s when that tweet that you had mentioned was sent out, and it was all trial by fire and really fun. Just a learning experience for myself, and because that was the case, because it was so open for interpretation on so many levels, that the audience feels a little bit of an ownership over the Discord as well, like with a suggestion box, what else do you think that we should do, et cetera?
We’re a little under a thousand members, so it’s still a malleable and that there’s a way that we can talk to everybody there. It hasn’t gotten out of control where there’s 15,000, 20,000 members and it’s just not personal anymore. There’s a personal feel to the Discord as far as building this community is concerned. I think that it’s strange; It’s almost like a village as well.
A lot of my time in Philadelphia, the larger macro ideas are around cities. The development and the conversations in Philadelphia about, “What can we do in an urban development and all of these things to help the city of Philadelphia run a little bit more smooth?” These online communities aren’t much different.
The larger they get, the harder they are to maintain, and you need cooperation on a lot of levels, but right now we’re in such a good place as far as the amount of members, the respect level, the communication, a lot of that is still intact. It’ll be interesting to see what happens as it grows.
[00:08:35] Patrick O’Keefe: Would you want it to stay accessible? If you talk to a lot of people who do the work that I do, the prevailing wisdom from those folks will be that a lot of the best stuff happens in smaller groups. When you get to a certain size, it becomes harder to maintain the culture that you built up. Not impossible, but like, Twitter is a platform, not a community, a lot of people would say.
Maybe there are some communities on it that use it to gather in smaller groups, but Twitter itself is a platform that makes platform decisions. When you talk to the average person who’s been in online communities and they talk about their favorite memories of online communities, great things that they did, relationships they build, friendships, they’ll often talk about a specific community, and it’s not usually on Twitter, it’s this group of people they meet with. That’s a long way of saying, “Do you want it to grow endlessly?”
Is there a point where you’re going to quiet it down a little bit and maybe not allow people to join because it’s getting out of hand? Is the small-batch community stuff the stuff you’re going for?
[00:09:26] Asher Roth: I think the small-batch community stuff, realistically, is what I’m going for. Obviously, the ego side of things, you want to have the biggest and best community. I think for the most part, realistically, as far as getting real work done and the communication side of things and the collaborative side of things, we’ll probably cap it I would imagine around 1,500 seems about right. Just because I look at that as well as my core audience.
When people talk to me about my core audience, I would say, “5 to 50,000 people genuinely care about what I’m doing. Regardless that something has a million streams, you’re not talking to those million people all the time.” It’s a creative community, it’s a place where we’re encouraging people to share their work, get genuine feedback. Obviously, feedback is an enormous part of the creative process for myself and other people. Obviously, I have a handful of people that I’ll go to and say, “What do you think about this?”
Through this experience, I think a lot of the artists and the producers who were a part of it, they acknowledge the fact that the feedback that they were getting within this community was if not the most valuable part of being a part of the process, specifically for producers. With the internet and with these platforms, they’ve grown so big. They’re almost essentially black holes eating themselves. It’s really hard for you to garner any attention without being extremely controversial, whatever it may be.
You have to stoop to lowest common denominators in order to garner attention because these platforms have become so big with everybody hanging out on them. Straying away from that, getting away from the biggest and best and the largest and the fastest, and just concentrating on who’s really paying attention and who cares seems to be working right now and keeping it in a volume that is adaptable and able to move with the times is important. That’s where we are right now and I would imagine keeping in that way, it would be in my favor.
[00:11:26] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting, when I was putting together that panel, another person that I talked to was Ryan Leslie and when I was talking to D.A. as well, and then D.A. Wallach is how we connected. Ryan was big on this idea of like a thousand true fans or your primary core audience, so to hear you say 500 to 50,000 and acknowledge and see that number as true supporters as not being 10 million or not– We all want things, but not wanting it to be nine figures or eight figures, and that sort of thing has only become more important I feel as the web and the platforms have sort of become more decentralized.
Whether you look at things like Patreon or micro-transactions or Discord communities or Twitch supporters, or all these sorts of things, you have 500 to 50,000 or 500 to a couple of thousand people who really support your art, then you’re earning a living, and for a lot of artists, that’s the goal. When you really get past a number of things, that’s the thing they want to do most is make a living in creating art.
[00:12:19] Asher Roth: Yes, it’s definitely important. Obviously, living in the society that we live in, you just have to get money and survive, but for me as well, controlling the narrative, I think a lot of the time in my experiences with major labels and again, asking for permission and these, whether it be festivals or even just venues where you’re playing a show, if it wasn’t the money doing the talking or the powers that be that were behind you, it was maybe the relationship would come in third. For the most part, you are on their agenda.
For me, it’s always been, well, I’m just going to build my own then. That’s similar, building a mailing list, building your own community. People speaking directly to your audience allows you to control the narrative and build your own thing. It’s a slow-growth though and I think it’s troubling for a lot of artists and disheartening in a lot of ways. I think you hear about it a lot on Twitch and you hear about it a lot in online communities because the numbers are so big.
When you look at YouTube views, if that gets sucked up into the right portal, you’re talking about hundreds of millions of views, if not a billion views. When you’re comparing your online community to something like that, of course, you’re going to be like, “This is never going to work.” Even right now on Twitch, we use Twitch to give the visual representation of the A&R process, or using the submissions, going through them together, you could see my face, et cetera, what it may be.
Even still, I probably have about 500 followers on Twitch, which is like comparatively, it’s like, “Oh, man, this is never going to work.” Then also if you think about it in real-world numbers, if you have a show, if you’re doing a show, and there are 1,500 people there, that’s a lot of people. Some of those things, some of the more important numbers that I would look at, if you did look under the hood, I don’t do it often, but conversion rates, how many people are sticking around and listening to what’s going on, those kinds of things, I’m a little bit more interested in than the grand scheme, final tally, those numbers are being a little bit gamed as well.
[00:14:35] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s pause for a moment to talk about our generous sponsor, Vanilla.
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One thing that used to always frustrate me, because I am a big Bad Boy Records fan and I used to write a blog about Bad Boy, and one of the things that would always annoy me as someone watching the release cycle play out and also having some knowledge of online communities, online marketing, building audiences over time is how the cycle of promotion was always release-based, not artist-based.
As you know, I’m telling you something you already know is it used to be, and in some cases it still is, very much around the album release: What we do, how we spin up the machine, how we use the mailing list, what we’re promoting, what we’re building. In the gaps is where you build the strong relationships with long-term listeners and fans. That’s something that major labels used to struggle at, I think, to some extent, still kind of do but have gotten better, and artists always exceeded.
There was a time when artists couldn’t fill that gap or wouldn’t or didn’t because you expected the label to know your e-mail list that have your e-mail marketing, to own that whole experience with you having no visibility. When it came to a year-passed album and you wanted to connect with those people, you either had to beg the label and hope they let you send that e-mail out or do nothing, and they wouldn’t wake up again until your release came out.
What you’re talking about is long-term retention of, in a business sense, you would say customers, in this case, you would say fans, supporters, people who support your art, like what you do, and keeping them in the loop when you’re not maybe feeling like making music, when maybe you’re doing something else that you find interesting.
[00:16:32] Asher Roth: Yes, retention is important. To your point about Bad Boy Records, or just album cycles, in general, how many of those people are coming back after a year? Who knows? I’ve seen it, for sure. Given that my initial release in whatever it may have been, 2009, and then the struggle of getting out of the spiderweb for two years, detrimental or not, we did lose some people who might have been interested in what happened with Pabst & Jazz, or might have been interested in what happened with G.R.I.N.D. and things of that nature.
Almost, in a way, the business got in the way. It’s good and bad. There’s two narratives, for sure. You have to keep the balance, so to speak, because, at the end of the day, independent music doesn’t necessarily pay well. You have to be paying attention to a lot of details, but most important, at the top of the list, I would say, when you’re doing it independently, outside of all the tricks and the numbers and stuff, is the relationship with your audience.
[00:17:34] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s talk about Discord. I was going to ask you why. You explained that you were using Discord as an observer and you enjoyed the platform, so you built on it. We’re about the same age, so ’80s baby, ’90s kid. The types of platforms we use, for example, one of the first really interactive experiences I can remember online is Yahoo! chat rooms in the mid-’90s, and there were some BBSs and things like that, but Yahoo! chat rooms were really the first thing.
When you think about Discord, you’re thinking about, in my opinion, I see chat rooms. I see more layers on that. There’s more multimedia, it’s easier to insert media. There was text only, there wasn’t any insert of images in ’95 Yahoo! chat rooms. It’s a vague question, but there is this cycle of online interaction. I think we see a pendulum swing from time to time. It goes toward the big platforms, people want to be on Facebook, they want to be on Twitter, they want to be on YouTube, they see the value in that, and then there’s a swing back.
I think that swing back means smaller places, but it also means a different sort of identity, more, not anonymity, pseudonymity, which means you have this ID, like RetroHash. You might go onto a place with the username RetroHash and people know it’s you, but it’s RetroHash. You’re not Asher there, you’re just this username. People don’t want their parents, brothers, sisters, friends, work colleagues seeing everything. They want to have these places that are just for them to express their interests and their passions.
Again, a roundabout way of asking this, but does Discord recollect in you something deeper, does it bring you back to a different time, do you connect with it on that level, or is it just a new thing in its entirety?
[00:19:04] Asher Roth: What I’ll say is this. To your point about– I’m always bad with this word, anonymity?
[00:19:08] Patrick O’Keefe: Anonymity, yes, you got it.
[00:19:10] Asher Roth: Being anonymous on the internet is why we were all attracted to it in the first place, but also, text-based communication. A lot of us go through our lives, for the most part, we’ve shied away from the telephone, sometimes FaceTime as well. This is rare for me, having sort of a face-to-face interaction. A lot of us have moved towards text-based interactions.
I almost prefer it sometimes, depending on what the communication is. If it’s just casual with fans, for sure. If something tragic is happening or if you have to break bad news to someone, you should probably pick up the phone. When it comes down to just casual back-and-forth, chat rooms and IM and all that stuff– I remember being really into instant messaging. At the end of the day, it’s really about communication.
Yes, it’s analog, and, yes, a lot gets lost when you’re talking real communication, but as far as just banter, online banter, a place to hang out, not necessarily being strapped to a headset. It has mobile capabilities, so I can do it while I’m on the train. It’s not necessarily something I have to be sitting down and doing like gaming, like the gaming communities are, you’re playing a game. You’re seeing it a lot obviously with people that can use specific platforms whether it be Instagram, Twitter, those things while they’re watching TV, or essentially doing something else.
Discord allows for a lot of that. For instance, we’re just texting back and forth for the most part with the community throughout the day. It can be rather instantaneous, but then it also allows for me to jump on, share my screen with my buddy in Ireland and bet on some Irish horses on a Friday. It has capabilities that allow us to be creative. Obviously, sharing files and all those things makes it easier as well.
With its base rooted in text-based communication, I think it allows for that volume and that activity to be continuous rather than etching out real-time or taking real-time of your day. That’s two, three hours at night when you just want to sit, play your video game, or whatever it may be. Those things in my life aren’t necessarily priorities, but staying in touch, communicating with friends all over the world, those are priorities to me. Discord allows me to do that.
[00:21:21] Patrick O’Keefe: I want to get into the nuts and bolts of the mixtape. I know you had a process you followed for putting each track together. Can you take us through that process?
[00:21:27] Asher Roth: The process for Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3 is interesting because typically the mixtapes, one and two, are pretty freeform, word association, just having fun. There’s no real theme. Actually, Greenhouse in about Week 8, Week 9, and Week 10 started to pick up on a conceptual album. Now as a story, we integrated characters and all those things, but it started out with just releasing acapellas. Week 1, I released an acapella of probably a 24 to 30 bar verse. This would be on a Wednesday.
Each Wednesday an acapella would be released and then the submissions would have to be in on Sunday. You let the producers tell it, that structure really helped them. They had the structure. They had guidelines and it reinforced the idea of let me do a little bit every day. That’s what I try to coach with essentially just when you’re doing stuff or trying to learn something or get better at it, just a little bit every day really helps. Wednesdays we’d released the acapella, and then on Sundays, we’d have everybody drop their acapellas in the production channel.
Then we’d head to Twitch, a hangout, all hang out on Twitch, and we’d go through the submissions together. Obviously, it’s democratic in a way where people would say, “I like this,” or, “I like that.” For the most part, I was the deciding vote. About probably three or four weeks in I stopped telling people which one I thought was the best. At the end of the challenge, essentially, I wanted it to be a surprise who got chosen. For the first few weeks, I was telling everybody, “This is my favorite one,” and I’d run it back. Ultimately, once we’re a month or two into the process, I started keeping it a little bit more of a secret. Those Wednesdays to Sundays that structure, that schedule stayed the same and we did that for 20 weeks.
[00:23:13] Patrick O’Keefe: Wow, and you created some space for people to actually jump on the track vocally as well, right?
[00:23:17] Asher Roth: It’s tough obviously as a rapper and songwriter myself, and when you’re crowdsourcing in a way, you don’t really know what you’re going to get because the way we had put it with some of my friends, not all of us are going to go to the NBA, right?
[00:23:30] Patrick O’Keefe: Right.
[00:23:31] Asher Roth: It’s very similar with music as well. For the most part, it’s safe and beautiful as a hobby. When you start to turn it into something that you want to be your job or career or profession, things change drastically. There are a lot of ambitious kids out there who have dreams of wanting to be a professional musician or performer or entertainer. With that being said, I did open it up to freeform at first. Then when the story started to take place, and we were using Discord, and that activity was going back and forth on a daily basis.
We were able to pick up on different users, their personalities. We were able to pick up on who they were, what they enjoy doing. I believe there was a kid by the name of Marcus Smith who was one of the first people I had tapped to be this impatient kid because he was always like, “What can I do? I want to rap. I want to do this.” We started talking about growing pot. That was essentially what we started to root the story in was this professor of horticulture at the University of College and he was teaching his students about plants.
A couple of the students asked the professor if they could grow pot. Actually, let me step back for a second because it was these three kids who were integrating themselves into the community, the quickest and friendliest, and we tapped them first with a challenge that says, “I want you guys to reach out to other members of the community. I want you to write a rap, so to speak, a back and forth rap about questions about the class and all this thing.”
I might be able to pull up the exact challenge, but that was I think the easiest way to integrate other artists was to give them challenges and give them direction and give them a role instead of just leaving it open for interpretation because that allowed me to really filter down who did this challenge the best. I think it was when he first got Harbyn, Tracee [Shade], and Pow, they did their little collaborative discussion around, do we want to keep this class, this class is weird, maybe we should drop it, maybe we’ll actually learn something.
When I got that verse back, I was like, this is really special. What’s happening right now is really special. Not only was Harbyn from Montreal, Tracee was from Buffalo, Pow from Boston, these three are all collaborating using Discord and using a theme, but it was really good. What I noticed specifically with these artists was how valuable it was to give them a theme and a character, and how well they were able to do that. I think that when we had talked about it as well as your identity on the internet, not necessarily wanting it to be true to form, it helps in the music world as well, giving somebody a character to play really helped, rather than asking them to write about whatever they want to write about.
That was the coolest way and I think the most productive way to integrate the other artists and songwriters and not necessarily producers was here’s a theme, here’s the character, send it back and let’s see what you got. They did such a good job. I can’t wait till people get to hear the project.
[00:26:34] Patrick O’Keefe: You went Wednesday to Sunday, track by track, and after how many months do you have a finished or semi-finished mixtape?
[00:26:42] Asher Roth: It took six months. It had gotten to the point where around Week 10 was when I really leaned into what was happening conceptually. From there, it went chronological because it was just like writing a script. Once we had some of the characters in place and once we had some sort of idea of where the story was going to go, I started piecing the scripts together, sending it back. Now, again, some of the characters and some of the members of the community, their personalities and the characters that they developed and starting to show themselves so it took us six months without being too frivolous.
It was a pretty efficient project. That’s 20 weeks with some of the stuff that happened on the Discord, they got released as well with Snazzy Kat, the three-piece of just rap. Pretty efficient process, 15 tracks in 20 weeks. I always wanted to keep it concise, not too much filler. It’s really one of those meant to be projects. I’m very happy with how it turned out, completely exceeded my expectations.
[00:27:47] Patrick O’Keefe: There are some interesting themes here around creating guardrails, creating structure for folks to contribute within. It’s like a lot of other relationships. For example, when I’m working with someone and they say, “I need this thing, this project,” I want to know what the goal is and when you need it by. [laughs] You give me that structure, you give me that guardrails that I can create, but I need some structure. The same is true for– It’s why I and why a lot of other folks love focused online communities.
We’re here for a purpose, we’re here for a reason. There’s this thing that we’re all passionate about or interested in. I run a martial arts community that I’ve run for 20 years now. Me the whole time. 20 years straight. It started in 2001. People know why they’re there, they know how to talk to one another, they have this really strong societal norm set where it’s to the point that, gosh, if someone comes into that space and does something not so great, they self reject.
Yes, I’ll take care of it when I’m there next or a moderator will step in and grab it, but as a community, they don’t want this thing. They know it when they see it and so they will ignore it or just not give it attention and then we can step in and take care of it. It takes work to set those guardrails to set those standards to create that sandbox so that you can have that baseline where you can all contribute on an even playing field where the expectations are clear, where you know what you’re going to get out of it, yes or no. Not every submission is going to be accepted, but if you talk about that plainly, there’s this baseline.
[00:29:11] Asher Roth: Yes, it took a little bit of time for me to learn that in a way, only because my style– This might show up in parenting as well. I’m not a parent, but I would assume that people have different parenting styles: disciplinarians, a little bit more laissez-faire, whatever it may be, but I let people be who they are. It’s been nice to have other members of the community step up in certain occasions and they’re self-policing, self-regulating in a way. I’m sure not to turn it back on you, but you probably see that in your own communities where other members step up and say, “This is how we do things around here.”
[00:29:48] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, that martial arts community has a great, great group of volunteer moderators, some of which had been with me for 10, 15. We just celebrated one who’s been with me for 15 years in a row. It’s amazing. I’ve been around a bunch of people who build online communities for a long time, and to have someone who’s there pretty regularly for 15 years, who is so well known in the community, so respected, and so willing to step in and help maintain this thing they love, it’s a beautiful thing. That longevity there, just the amount of time and just the amount of people that they touch. I was trying to figure out realistically how many people has this person touched through their 28,000 posts and through their moderation for 15 years?
I’m thinking through like search through direct members, it’s got to be six figures. It’s got to be hundreds of thousands of the people who have found their posts through Google or through somewhere else, read them, found value, taking them off, and lived their lives, hopefully, live long happy lives, and found value in them. Online communities, the amount of stuff that volunteers and people who really enjoy the space and want to give back, the amount of value they create, it’s off the charts.
[00:30:50] Asher Roth: Yes, it’s pretty special. For me, I think about larger scale a lot. I think about living in the city of Philadelphia. I think about cities. I think having this experience and running an online community and also with Sunflower Philly, which is our real-world social experiment of nurturing, caring for, developing community, it’s also not all easy. People have their own wants, desires, and how they think things should be run. Communication, and like I was mentioning before parenting styles, it’s a very delicate process, but when done well and done with a group of people, to your point, real work can get done and real influence. It’s powerful but delicate, for sure.
[00:31:30] Patrick O’Keefe: I like to say my mom taught me empathy. My dad taught me attention to detail, and those two things are who I am- [laughs]
[00:31:36] Asher Roth: There you go, that’s great.
[00:31:37] Patrick O’Keefe: -as a community builder. You’re collaborating with supporters on artwork and visuals as well, right?
[00:31:42] Asher Roth: For sure, Yes. This one specifically has been collaborative all the way around. Just a call to action with due dates, et cetera. It worked out really well. Again, people need references and just a little bit of a starting point, but it’s similar with the production. I didn’t want to give some hard nose, “This is how we’re going to do it.”
[00:32:01] Patrick O’Keefe: You don’t want to prejudice people?
[00:32:02] Asher Roth: Exactly. I want to let people use their imagination. Obviously, with the covers and the artwork, I wanted the album artwork to at least pay a little bit homage to the first two covers. It wasn’t like something completely different, but that was about it as far as the guidelines were concerned, but then same thing with the production, some of the producers wanted a reference track. I did that probably one or two times, but I found that the production, the music that was coming back sounded a lot like the reference track.
You had already put like, “Okay, here’s what it’s supposed to sound like. It’s going to sound like this.” When I took that off and I decided no reference, we were getting ideas all over the place. It was so much more fun, so much more of a rewarding experience without the references. With the album artwork and stuff, you always want to give people a starting point, but for the most part, allow them to be creative and do what they do.
[00:32:54] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve talked about this with the guard rails and even you saying, “We can’t all make the NBA.” [laughs], but by the nature of a project like this, you’ll have submissions that you don’t use, people who won’t be able to be a part of the project, and you know that can be a disappointment. Obviously, on average, I’m guessing the folks who have participated probably aren’t experienced producers, that are used to trying to secure placements and often not securing placements, used to that emotional process.
It’s not just a business, as you’ve said several times here. These are your supporters. I know you to be a thoughtful guy so I’m sure this was on your mind as you cultivated this process, but how did you go about responding to the submissions that maybe didn’t get selected and at the same time trying to preserve those good vibes with the people behind them?
[00:33:35] Asher Roth: For sure, it’s a difficult process. It’s always funny hearing the other producers talk about it because they started to pick up on social cues or body language. That was pretty obvious that I wasn’t really necessarily feeling it, but there’s constructive criticism and feedback that you can give to everybody. There’s always going to be something there that you can pick out on, and again, that lends itself to communication.
For me, there were definitely a couple of beginning producers or even just people who were just doing it as a hobby.
They had no other intention or any other desired outcome outside of just being there and hanging out and they were submitting just to have some fun. For the most part, I was just being honest, being transparent in my feedback. I found that in my life being non-confrontational in a way, sometimes I’d withhold or sugarcoat things. As I’ve gotten older, and a little bit more comfortable with confrontation, I’ve realized that honesty goes a really long way and people do appreciate it, maybe not in the moment, but down the line.
With my constructive criticism, you don’t necessarily need to Simon Cowell and be like, “You suck, and you’ll never have a career in this.” Just focus on some of the things done well, maybe bring out some of the other producers that are doing something well that that other producer isn’t, and have them talk to each other and collaborate. Those are the things that I would do when giving feedback. For the most part, it was just being honest with myself because I think when you’re not people can pick up on that, they can see that you’re dancing around what you’re really trying to say. As an observer of life too, I can witness when somebody’s not really saying what they mean. With this process, I just tried to be honest with my feedback, and ultimately, I think the audience and producers appreciated that.
[00:35:14] Patrick O’Keefe: You don’t want to be Simon Cowell where it’s like, “Asher said I didn’t have a future in this industry, and I released an album and I proved Asher Roth wrong.” You don’t want to be that guy. You want to be the constructive criticism, like helping you to your destination guy.
[00:35:28] Asher Roth: Some people do appreciate. I know they talk about it, athletes talk about it all the time, haters, doubters, those things, let me prove these people wrong.
[00:35:35] Patrick O’Keefe: You don’t have to be Michael Jordan’s high school coach.
[00:35:37] Asher Roth: Exactly. I’ll tell you what, man, when you tell people just to keep going– There’s two instances specifically in the project where a young member of the community reached out and it hadn’t been picked or given any real distinguishable feedback in the six weeks or whatever it may be. He reached out, he’s like, “Hey, is there anything that I’m doing wrong, anything that you can tell me that would allow me to secure a spot on this tape?” There was nothing I could tell him because the submissions were great, they just weren’t my favorite of the week.
My main feedback for him was just, “You just keep going. Just keep going and keep doing it and do the little things every day.” They just snapped after that. I think they won the next week. They were one of the few producers that got two placements on the tape and the same thing happened with an artist. My feedback for a lot of the time when somebody is having trouble, you just got to fight through it and you just got to keep going.
For me, it’s the same thing. I’ve had multiple moments in my career where I’m like, “This is a wrap. I’m done here. No one cares what I’m doing,” but I just keep at it. I think once I stop, that’s when it’s over, but I’m just keeping at it. I think that this is probably the most fulfilling and fun experience that I’ve had in my career in quite some time.
[00:36:51] Patrick O’Keefe: When this is out, when this podcast is released, The Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3 is finished, it’s out in the world, but you have this new, beautiful thing. You have this active Discord community that still has plenty of people joining every day. I’ve been spending some time in there as I’ve been preparing for our conversation, and there’s a lot of activity. What’s great is it’s not centered on Asher Roth. That’s not an insult. [chuckles] I’m sure you take that as a compliment too.
My communities that I build, if I need to be there, I always think that’s means I haven’t done enough yet. I need to get to the point where I don’t have to be around. You have this beautiful thing now. You have this garden, this plant, however you want to view it. A lot of people joined for this mixtape. They’re sticking around. The mixtape’s out. Where do you think it goes from here, the Discord?
[00:37:32] Asher Roth: For me, I would love to start to focus on specific artists. Artist development has always been something that I’ve been fond of. One because it’s kind of disappeared. Whereas also the music industry is pretty vigilant about getting young talent. You have a lot of these kids who are getting into the game at 16, 17, 18, 19 years old, I mean, 22, whatever it may be. They’re pretty green and naive to the ways. I’ve always been more than happy to be somebody that says, “Look out for this. If you see this, this is what this means,” et cetera, et cetera.
Artist development in general and I think using the Discord to focus on artists and use the producers and the tools and the people who are there to help. Again, we were able to teach some of these kids about publishing, about splits, mechanical royalties, all of those things, or a conversation happening in a back room, not to give away who was on the tape. I would say 60%, 70% of the producers had never had a placement before or they weren’t even registered with a P.R.O., so a lot of those conversations.
One continuing to build around the conversation of the music business, what to expect, keeping realistic expectations about the whole thing. Then also really honing in on some of these artists who might not have the resources at their disposal in their hometown or whatever it may be and be able to tap the Discord for production, art, whatever it may be, and help them elevate them to the next level. I think after this tape is out, we’ll probably do some, again, acapella stuff, some singles, a few of those things that were produced, and then try to get another full body of work focused on a different artist.
[00:39:16] Patrick O’Keefe: Awesome. It could be the University of College for a lot of people trying to learn about the music industry. [chuckles]
[00:39:22] Asher Roth: You got it, man.
[00:39:23] Patrick O’Keefe: Asher, always a pleasure. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
[00:39:26] Asher Roth: Pat, I’m glad we could catch up, man. Stay in touch.
[00:39:29] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Asher Roth whose latest mixtape, The Greenhouse Effect Vol. 3 is out now. Visit retrohash.com to stream it and follow Asher on Instagram and Twitter @AsherRoth. For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Until next time.
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