It was back in 2012 when I first heard them. I remember the moment a friend showed me the video clip from the song Guillotine (Grips, 2011); blasting it through his less-than-ideal laptop speakers. I sat on a folding chair, while watching an angry tattooed black man, I later got to know as MC Ride, scream-rapping in a car with a white-noise backdrop. Even though it was amateurishly filmed and edited, it had this strange aura to it. It spoke to an intrinsic tribal emotion I had in me. A clear definition of their sound is hard to pin down due to their varied discography, but the thing that ties most songs together are dazzling industrial drum loops and an animalistic, aggressive rap performance. This article will focus on Death Grips’ rise to cult status and how they used the internet as a paradigm for a rather artistic and unique business model.
The Origins of Death Grip
Even though it took a while for the bigger chunk of the internet to take notice, a few years after Guillotine dropped the first reaction videos started to pop up. This was after the fact that 4chans' small cult following were already calling them things like meme grips, due to their excessive use of ‘memeable’ lyrics and aesthetics (sonic as well as visually). Up until this day, Death Grips remains relevant in internet culture and turned out to be a powerhouse in abrasive, forward thinking, yet catchy song writing. A big part of their success is also due to their adapt way of using the internet as a stepping stone for their careers.
Since Ex Military (their first LP), Death Grips has been an enigma. They come and go in an attempt to remain relevant. They leave fans in the dark about what to expect next. There are countless examples of how they are achieving their status as an enigmatic band, as I will mention below. When their first album released, Zach Hill (the drummer) was still the only known member of the band (Hill, 2011). After their second and third album hit in rapid succession, a sudden radio silence followed. While the fans held their breaths strange videos got posted on YouTube, one of which was called “No Hands”. Other examples of getting attention would be Zach Hill refusing to go to a concert but instead drum with the band through a Skype video-call (Martins, 2013), or the band not showing up for a concert but instead decide to play a CD with pre-recorded songs (Staff, 2013). It is needless to say that actions like these stirred heavy debate on music forums like /mu/ (4chan) and Subreddits like /r/Music and /r/Hiphopheads.
Artistic Expression or a Business Model?
The artistic intent of Death Grips has a symbiotic relationship with their marketing. Therefore, I think it is very important not to view them as separate paradigms. Death Grips seem to be directly responding to the ever growing landscape of instant gratification provided by the internet and have a punk-rock attitude by directly critiquing this phenomenon. In a time with online oversaturation (treeshavesouls, 2014), content-draught can definitely be a marketing strategy. You could say that, in a way, Death Grips make clever use of the scarcity principle (Lynn, 1991) which predicts that the less there is of a product or object, the more the demand and value for the object or product will heighten. Death Grips applies this principle by being as unpredictable as possible and leaving their audience and fans wanting more - they are very present in one moment and then disappear in the next. A merit both strengthening their artistry as well as their online presence.
As mentioned above, Death Grips shares a symbiotic relationship with their artistry and marketing, but the same could be said about the internet and their online following in relation to their brand. Every aspect seems to fuel the other - the band's actions lead to uproar online which in turn increases the band's visibility. 4chan quickly developed a small cult following and the (now famous) Anthony Fantano from the YouTube channel The Needle Drop became a meme on the website after excessively praising their LPs with high ratings (Fantano, 2012). On top of that, the Icelandic artist Björk memed herself into one of their albums by providing them with vocal samples (Fitzmaurice, 2014). It is outlandish moves like these that stir a lot of conversation online. A rather unusual but artistic approach to garner views. Beyoncé and Robert Pattinson have also openly admitted being fans of Death Grips.
Picture starring Death Grips with Beyoncé and Robert Pattinson
Online Visibility to Offline Revenue
But are their efforts successful from a business standpoint? Let’s find out.
Because of their obscure and enigmatic nature, it is hard to know their actual success. This, along with the fact that it is hard to estimate all their sources of income due to their convergence of many different platforms. Their success can come from many different sources- Ticket sales, merchandise, streaming numbers and YouTube views. For now I will focus on their online numbers.
It is clear that they do not make any revenue from their YouTube channel. Even though the video clip from Guillotine went viral in the underground scene (7m views), a lot of their more obscure videos have strangely been removed and after turning off my add blocker I did not seem to get any advertisements of any of their videos. This leads me to believe that they have not partnered with YouTube—perhaps principally. Socialblade seems to back this claim, because their main channel cannot be found on the platform (Socialblade, n.d.). However, Death Grips' Spotify page does seem to be a source of income. With 360.000 average monthly listeners and Spotify paying 0.00397$ per stream (Sanchez, 2018), this would mean that their three headed band would make about 1.400 dollars a month from Spotify alone. This leads me to believe that their content does not stand on its own by streaming services only. In today’s musical landscape ticket sales and merchandise is what makes a living. This is why I strongly think Death Grips uses their viral tactics not to garner views, but rather acquire fans to go to their shows.
Image taken from: Death Grips - You might think he loves you for your money but I know what he really loves you for... (Music Video)
The viral success of Death Grips
Before pinning down their rate of success we must first understand their reasoning and their definition of success. However hard it is to measure their income or understanding their existence, it is almost certain that they do not make high amounts of money. Certainly enough to get by, but no true mainstream success. However, I strongly believe this was never the point of Death Grips. They have managed to garner a status of viral success by directly deconstructing the very platform they are using—the internet. I think this is why they do not monetize their videos on YouTube, to adhere to a form of artistic honesty. Due to their abrasive nature, I strongly believe that Death Grips exist solely because they want to create content on the internet. In this sense, I think Death Grips is a huge success. They are successful because of their refusal to sacrifice artistic intent for commercial success. But by being this uncompromising and refusing to follow internet trends, they in turn distinguished themselves and paradoxically became commercially viable. They are pioneers in truly meming themselves into the spotlight.
Fantano, A. (2012, 04 20). The Needle Drop.
Fitzmaurice, L. (2014, 06 13). Death Grips - Niggas on the Moon.
Grips, D. (2011, April 26). Death Grips.
Hill, Z. (2011, 07 27). Death Grips, The First Interview. (unknown, Interviewer)
Lynn, M. (1991). Scarcity Effects on Value. A Quantitative Review of the Commodity Theory Literature, 2-6.
Martins, C. (2013, 03 20). See Death Grips’ Disorienting Head-Cam and Skype-Shot ‘Lock Your Doors’.
Sanchez, D. (2018, 01 16). What Streaming Music Services Pay.
Staff, B. (2013, 03 08). Death Grips Fans Turn Violent After Band Skips Lollapalooza After Party Appearance.
treeshavesouls. (2014). Let's Talk Music.