When Kevin Gates stepped out of jail in 2011, he was surprised to discover that his fan base had spilled beyond the borders of his hometown of Baton Rouge, La.
The 27-year-old had toyed with rapping but didn’t take it seriously until freed from a three-year prison stint for drug and firearm charges. He is now managed by Young Money Entertainment and owns a label, Bread Winners Association, partnered with Atlantic Records. His first album, “Stranger Than Fiction,” debuts this week at No. 37 on the Billboard 200 with 8,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
“Rap was more of a release for me, a journal,” Gates says. “I suffer from deep depression, so my only release is music. I didn’t know I had the following I had. Once I came home from jail, that’s when I saw my following and that’s when I took it serious.”
Before jail, the rapper had released four mixtapes, earning a grass-roots following that drove his “I Don’t Know What to Call It Vol. 1” mixtape to No. 1 on the Heatseekers-South Central chart, attracting the respect of many, including Lil Wayne.
Gates’ following moved from word-of-mouth on the streets to YouTube, where 64% of teens now listen to music, according to Nielsen’s “Music 360” report. Gates and his team previewed 10 of 14 of the tracks off “Stranger Than Fiction” on his YouTube channel (40,000 subscribers since February 2012) a day before its iTunes release on July 16.
“The focus wasn’t to sell so many records,” Atlantic Records online marketing manager Rahim Wright says. “We were trying to get the music out there and show that there is a market that enjoys Gates’ music and will buy it.”
The videos have brought more than 1.15 million views to his YouTube channel since their debut, a 103% increase in the amount of traffic Gates normally gets in a given week. Each video was viewed roughly 40,000 times.
On Twitter, Gates’ mentions also increased the week of release. More than 15,000 people tweeted about him the week ending June 21, a 93% increase over his normal weekly average of mentions. (His handle is @Kevin_Gates.)
“People are going to find the music either way, by whatever means, so why not just give it to them ourselves and also give them notifications, reminders, links to purchase the music they’re enjoying?” Wright asks. “We trust that people will support.”