Music is a muti-billion dollar business. That is a well-known fact. At one point in time, lets say between 1997 and 2002, Hip Hop especially basically took over the world. It began to permeate every aspect of pop culture, from clothing to movies to TV and politics. Me being from the Caribbean, it’s clear that this was felt and seen everywhere, not just the US. With the success of artists like Jay-Z, The Fugees, Biggie Smallz, 50 cent, DMX and Eminem, the major record labels began to catch the vapours in a serious way.
With all the commercial attention on Hip Hop, artists began making what some would call compromises. Whereas before, heads would look forward with relish to some bass heavy street bangers from their favourite MCs on BET’s Rap City, now they were getting dance ready pop hybrids. Apparently the labels had come up with a formula and were enforcing this doctrine on the creative processes of the artists. However, it was said that rappers were making more money and being more publicized than ever before. But were they? See when a label gives you an advance, that money is to be spent on the marketing and promotion of your music, not necessarily at your local Cadillac dealer or at Jacob the Jeweller’s.
Labels are basically banks from the point of view that they “lend” you some cash (the advance) and you contract to pay that money back from the proceeds of your album. How is it that it makes sense that you put all your time and creative effort into writing, recording, producing, mixing and mastering and then you hand that into the label (because, according to the contract, it’s theirs not yours), only to be able to make about 10 cents off the sale of each album? That’s utterly ridiculous. At the time of the Hip Hop boom, most artists weren’t seeing this and most aspiring artists were doing any and everything to get “put on”. They were basically requesting what I like to call, ‘Neo-Slavery’.
So everything was all glossy and attractive on the outside. Flashy ads and videos, exploiting women and promoting ignorance. Radio releases that were all dancey and pretty but perpetuated Black (African, Afro-Caribbean, African-American) stereotypes. Teaching children distorted images of manhood and backward social values in terms of their relationship to money and the global economy. You may say “but its just music” and “it’s up to the parents” but who are we really kidding? We all know music can and does have an intense and influence on society. So while rappers were being coerced into to pushing these lavish (but artificial) images of the good life, nobody was paying attention to the long run effects.
The labels knew that this was a transitory thing. Gimmicks and fads don’t last in music. Real art and soul does. Therefore, they milked it for all they could, regardless of the casualties. In recent years however, there has been somewhat of a music revolution. The Internet has become a righteous equalizer, if used correctly. Though sites like MySpace, Soundclick, Twitter, Facebook and ReverbNation, artists no longer truly need the structure of a major label. Today, an independent artist can record, produce, mix and master in his home studio (thank God for Pro Tools LE/M-Powered, Reason, Fl Studio and others), upload to MySpace or Reverbnation and network like crazy on Facebook and Twitter to get his marketing push going. There are thousands of artists who make a living this way, selling 10 or 15 thousand CDs in their home region and basically doing shows and being a hometown celebrity. With the affordability of compact HD video cameras these days, you can shoot your own videos and get on YouTube for even more promotion. Then when the buzz is at its peak, print some CDs or get your tracks on iTunes. It’s really is all right at your fingertips!
Artists have to change their mentality to capitalize on these changing tides. Gone are the days when it was okay to just submit demos and hope that an A&R likes you. Even the record labels are changing their business model to deal with the new environment. Nowadays, if an artist is making enough noise independently, a major label will get in touch with them and offer them a deal. There we see a shift in power. If they are coming to you it means you have something they want and its up to you to give it to them on YOUR terms. If the labels have seen the light, why haven’t the artists? Please do not be a ‘Neo-Slave’ in the age of freedom.