Very few people can say they've made six figures while only working about 20 hours a week. Even fewer people can say they accidentally had a No. 1 song in Vietnam.
But Robin Wesley can now say both thanks to one red-hot industry: the business of beat selling.
A beat is the rhythmic and melodic backbone to a song that much of modern music is built from. It's what rappers rap over and songwriters compose over. In an age where becoming a recording artist requires little more than a decent laptop and a quiet closet, the demand for crowd-pleasing beats is high, giving music producers a brand-new opportunity to turn their passion for music into profit.
Wesley is one of these producers. His career as a beat maker started organically in 2012, experimenting with recording equipment out of fascination and posting his work on the internet.
"I was making music and I started getting more traction online and from local artists and I was just looking into ways to monetize that," Wesley said. "And that's how I came across the concept of beat licensing."
Wesley found a home for this passion for music in online beat-selling marketplaces Airbit and SoundClick. In 2013, his first year on the job, he made a mere $500. Two years and a lot of learning later, his annual revenue passed $30,000.
He's not alone. Airbit CEO Wasim Khamlichi said producers have earned over $32 million on his platform alone with a few producers making six-figures every year selling beats.
"I believe the desire of musicians to have independence in the music industry has been the most influential in the rise of online beat-selling," Khamlichi said. "An artist can become an overnight success by topping the charts or getting on the right playlists, completely independently and without the need for a record label."
In September 2017 a little-known Vietnam songwriter named Chau Dang Khoa purchased a non-exclusive license to one of Wesley's beats for around $100. Little did he know the finished song would be catapulted into the public ear only a few months later.
"I was getting messages from other customers that I have in Vietnam," Wesley said. "They were saying like, 'Hey, I recognize this beat of yours. Isn't this one of your beats? This song is blowing up here.'"
The song skyrocketed to No. 1 on the charts and now has more than 180,000,000 views on YouTube. Wesley was able to negotiate publishing royalties for the song after its success.
The musical phenomenon "Old Town Road" came about through similar means, with Lil Nas X buying the beat online for only $30. The producer, a Dutch 19-year-old who goes by YoungKio, signed to Universal Music Group soon after the song's success.
Daniel Jimenez, who produces under the name DVNNY BEATS, does not want people to underestimate the level of work becoming a good producer takes. His urban journey started his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame when his ears caught wind of Kendrick Lamar's "DAMN.," the rapper's fourth studio album.
"Everything changed when I heard that album for the first time," Jimenez said. "This made me appreciate the sonic aspects of the music more than I ever had before and fueled an obsessive curiosity. At that point, I realized that beat-making was going to be my lifelong passion."
The road wasn't easy, though. From the time he made his first beats — which he now admits were "garbage" — Jimenez estimates he put in between 3,000 and 4,000 hours of work producing, watching tutorials and reading books on the subject.
"I'm sure that if I hadn't done that [much practice], I wouldn't feel as comfortable doing it as I do now," Jimenez said. "It's crazy because when I started, I thought I could watch one tutorial, slap some drums on a melody and call it a day. But as I dove more into the subject, I realized that there's so much more to it. It's pretty much a science in my eyes."
However, Jimenez has found monetizing his music has been much harder for him than actually making it. Wesley, who co-founded Urban Masterclass to help advise beat makers, said many of his students have this same problem because they underestimate the importance of strong marketing.
"Spend equally enough time on becoming a better producer as you are in becoming a better marketer," Wesley said. "Balance your time out and stay focused on both sides."
He is also urging young beat makers not to be afraid to invest in themselves. Although producers can enter the game with just a laptop and less than $500 in equipment, Jimenez said investing in advertising, access to online marketplaces and additional learning materials can pay strong dividends.
With the right amount of dedication and practice, Wesley and Airbit CEO Khamlichi both agree that the business of turning musical passion into profit through beat-making works.
"Buying and selling beats online allows music makers to have a career in music without having to leverage a label or other types of investment and making it so that you can live anywhere in the world and still have the ability to reach a worldwide audience," Khamlichi said. "It makes for a community that can support each other and collaborate for a common goal: to sell music."
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.