How hip-hop label Top Notch stays at the top

Denis Doeland
Sep 13 · 6 min read

Dutch hip-hop from the street is a digital business

Hip-hop is one of the most popular music genres among young Dutch people. It is striking that rappers such as the controversial Boef, bragging Lil’ Kleine and the maturing Ronnie Flex already have millions of streams on Spotify and YouTube views, even before they were discovered by radio and TV hub Hilversum. ‘New Wave’, the album that Lil’ Kleine and Ronnie Flex worked on, among others, is the most streamed album of 2015 on Spotify with 60 million listens. It has 80 million plays on YouTube. This ultimately led to the Pop Award for Lil’ Kleine and Ronnie Flex. What can we learn from Boef, Lil’ Kleine and their peers?

The fact that hip-hop is here to stay in the Dutch music landscape is not palatable for everybody. There was even some commotion when Lil’ Kleine and Ronnie Flex took the Edison Pop Award on behalf of rappers collective New Wave in Groningen. The room would have emptied, because people were disappointed. Interesting detail: rapper Lil’ Kleine later stated that he had no idea what the Pop Award was: “I saw you hating on the Pop Award / but I don’t even know what that is or what it looks like.”

Hip-hop in the Netherlands

Hip-hop did not always enjoy such mainstream success in the Netherlands. A quick history:

  • Osdorp Posse rocked Lowlands in 1995. In the same year Extince scored the first top 10 hit with Dutch language rap track Spraakwater;
  • In 2000, Def Rhymz became the first rapper hitting the number 1 position in the Single Top 100 with Schudden.
  • In 2002, Brainpower scored the first number 1 hit in the Top 40 with Dansplaat. Ali B scooped a huge hit with Marco Borsato with the track Wat zou je doen? in 2005. Opgezwolle rocked the underground with their BuitenWesten tour.
  • Eigen Wereld, the highly-rated, most recent CD from Opgezwolle, reached fourth place in the Album Top 100 in 2006. This is the highest chart position for a Dutch hip-hop album. At least, until 2013, when super group Great Minds (with Opgezwolle members Sticks, Winne and Jiggy Dje) reached second place.
  • 2015: Lil’ Kleine and Ronnie Flex smashed record after record with New Wave and their smash hit Drank & Drugs.
  • On 9 December 2016, Sticks, Rico and Typhoon gave the biggest Dutch hip-hop concert in history when they sold out the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam.

Top Notch market leader

How much can change in 20 years? If it concerns hip-hop in the Netherlands: a great deal. Nowadays, it often occurs that one or more releases on hip-hop record label Top Notch feature in the top 5 of the GfK Singles Top 100. At the end of November 2017 that was, for example, Vervloekt by Frenna & Diquenza, two Broederliefde singles, and Rockstar by Post Malone (Van Stapele, 2017).

Top Notch is the largest hip-hop label in the Netherlands. It released records by Ronnie Flex, Lil’ Kleine, The Opposites, Gers Pardoel, Opgezwolle, Sef, Broederliefde, Lange Frans and De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig, among others. Artists that sold out venues, had hits and had enjoyed huge mainstream commercial success, where they also work with the biggest brands in the world.

Kees de Koning’s company developed into more than a record label. For example, it was involved as co-producer of the film ‘Rabat’ (Golden Calf winner 2011). It also collaborated with Lebowski, where it jointly produced James Worthy’s bestseller of the same name. Recently it signed vlogger Ismail Ilgun, to assist the vlogger to develop concepts, such as documentaries in deprived neighbourhoods.

Popular thanks to digital

20 years ago, Top Notch not only responded to a new music style, but has always been conscious of new technologies to communicate with fans or customers as well. Now the label’s own YouTube channel has a million followers. This reach was used to recommended the unprecedented ‘Joardy Film’ to his followers, showing the label is aware of the impact that it can have. This also became apparent from a recent podcast with Kees de Koning, hosted by rappers Faberyayo and Sef (both signed to Top Notch).

It is not only the label that focuses on new technologies — Top Notch artists themselves are aware of reaching their public via YouTube, Spotify, Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. Moreover: these channels and artists now determine what the regular media report on. It is not without reason that Saul van Stapele wrote in the NRC newspaper: “The pop stars of a new generation first reach their public online; only then does the traditional media follow.”

Middle man removed from the process

“According to a trend report from Google, Top Notch artist Ronnie Flex (577,000 Instagram followers) already had the most streamed video clip of a Dutch pop artist on YouTube in 2014 with his single Zusje. Just a year later he broke through to the mass media with number 1 hit Drank & Drugs. Rapper and vlogger Boef (466,000 YouTube subscribers) reached his success (his album and single Habiba entered the charts at number 1 this year) without utilising much regular media”, states Dutch newspaper NRC.

That is good news for musicians: the ‘middleman’ has been cut out of the process and the music industry has become a lot more democratic. Thanks to the broad, on-demand and online range, more people can listen to more of the music they want. And the regular media inform about what music is popular, because streaming and YouTube figures do not lie and cannot be ignored (after all, the media would then no longer know ‘what is up’).

Beyond freestyle

De Koning states that he wishes to do more with the reach of a million followers on the YouTube channel: “With one million YouTube subscribers you start to think: what does that make us? We can potentially reach just as many people as RTL Late Night and De Wereld Draait Door. Why don’t we broadcast a talk show live every Friday from the kitchen in the office?”.

A talk show from Top Notch seems nice and interesting. But there is still much more to do with such a large following. It is now time to take the next step. This means that the label must monetise the reach by creating insight into which connections exist. Specifically: who are my followers or fans — and which characteristics do I know they have?

More than a label

Top Notch is increasingly approached by marketers, states Marketingtribune. They ask whether an artist can do ‘something’ with their brand. Has the record label not actually become an advertising agency? De Koning explains in the article. “I recently developed a creative team to create order in all requests.”

De Koning is actually constantly busy making creative decisions with Top Notch. The requests ‘come flooding in’, he states. “The creative team that will have to work with this consists of an account manager, art director and a creative person. From the article it appears that much is done on gut instinct alone. “I notice that marketers would still prefer to go to an agency with a cupboard full of awards, as it’s safer than a record label. But if only they could think beyond that …”

Supplement gut instinct

Top Notch’s gut instinct must be supplemented with a proven data approach. As an organisation you can develop new revenue models or improve existing revenue models. That new revenue model can of course be a talk show. But maybe it turns out that there are hundreds of thousands of Top Notch followers which require a certain product. You only discover this if you make smart use of data.

The framework offers a solution. This helps the label, but also its artists, to work in a data-driven way, to gain more control over the organisation and allow everyone to work on predetermined, joint objectives. These objectives are needed to grow the operating capital, the relationship with the (potential) fan or customer.

Top Notch is well on the way to building that operating capital, but can glean more from the fan data. This fan data will work for you. It is a great accomplishment to become the biggest hip-hop label in the Netherlands. The challenge is to develop it further — and in depth. To conclude with Lil Kleine: with the Business Acceleration Framework, Top Notch develops its business operations from freestyle to a flow which will go gold.

>>> Go to the next chapter

Digital Assets by Denis Doeland

In order to get started with digital change, it is important to realize that this change consists of three fundamental core elements. Force, Power and Potential. Learn through this publication to make optimal use of of the digital capacity of your organization.

Denis Doeland

Written by

Author, Blogger, Disruptor, Maven, Numerati and Transformer. Check more on:

Digital Assets by Denis Doeland

In order to get started with digital change, it is important to realize that this change consists of three fundamental core elements. Force, Power and Potential. Learn through this publication to make optimal use of of the digital capacity of your organization.

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