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The New Source: Why Record Sales Don’t Mean Sh*tPosted by Adriel Drizzletronius on 01/15/10 | Filed under Top Stories, Features, iLL-Literacy
When I was introduced to hip-hop, the first piece of literature given to me was an issue of The Source. This was in the mid 90’s, far from the days of Benzino vs. Eminem beefs and awards show stabbings...you know, the Ja Rule days, but before he started wearing shirts. At the time, hip-hop magazines were rare, and hip-hop websites were virtually nonexistent. Being so, no one really questioned The Source. If it put you on the cover, you were the most important person in rap that month. If your album got 5 mics, you were an instant legend. During this period in history, record stores were beginning to sprout "Rap/Urban" sections, Puffy and Ma$e were blowing up Benzes, and sales for The Source were only outnumbered by the amount of times Master P groaned in I Got the Hookup. It was a good time for The Source, which meant that it was a good time for hip-hop. Then one day, another source arrived. Much like The Source, it began in the lowest of the underground circuit, mostly catching attention from music nerds and obsessives, and gained a cult following almost overnight. Its name was Napster, and it was about to jack hip-hop like an iced-out chain. Sho'nufffffffff.*
For a long time, the two co-existed, ignoring each other much like Foot Locker and Champs in the mall (awwwkward...). But as Napster grew – soon joined by the likes of Kazaa, Morpheus, ShareBear, BitTorrent, Limewire, and an ongoing dynasty of filesharing platforms – the idea of “music, culture, and politics” that The Source had spent years cataloging was vastly shifting, and everything that it represented was slipping through the cracks. Soon blogs and Myspace music pages came to the surface, and as more and more underground writers, musicians, photographers, and artists gained public access, the less relevant a spot on The Source's cover seemed. People shifted their eyes from the “Unsigned Hype” section, and just hopped online to search for new artists. Magazine sales plummeted, staff members rotated, and The Source was selling ratings mics like stolen VCRs at a traffic stop. Nah riiiiiiiiiight?**
All of this is is not to diss The Source (even though I'm sick of seeing that same Jermaine Dupri and Bow Wow cover that's been on shelves since June), but more to illustrate how things that were once considered pillars in hip-hop – and in music in general – are giving way. As record stores close down, labels fold, and music increasingly becomes a free entity, all of this can only mean one of two things for artists – an opportunity for evolution, or certain demise.
Remember back in '98 when Busta boasted about going "uranium?" Nowadays a well-established artist is considered fortunate to even go gold. And it most definitely has to do with filesharing. We who engage in this most diabolical of crimes known to the Men in Black as "pirating" like to dazzle ourselves with excuses like, "the artist never gets paid off sales anyway," or "I blog about it so I'm paying the artist through social capital," but it doesn't take Madonna to tell you that people don't buy music anymore BECAUSE NOW THEY CAN GET IT FOR FREE. This scares the hell out of artists, for some reason. As an artist myself, I panicked a bit too, until I stopped to think about what a decline in record sales actually means for the artist's wallet. Most recording artists' relationships with record sales gravitate towards one of the following three:
• Hi, I'm a musician. I'm unsigned. However, I have devised a perfect 1-2-3 punch business plan. When my album comes out, I'll stand outside of record stores and ask people to buy my album for $10 even though they've never heard it before. Then I'll go on Myspace and send out friend requests and bulletins to promote my online sales. Lastly, I'll use all the money I make through these tactics to pay for weed to inspire me for the following week of straight up hustlin.
• Hi, I'm a musician. I'm signed to a record label owned by an artist, and that record label is a subsidiary of the larger record label that the artist who owns my record label is signed to. And that label is a regional Rap/Hip-Hop chapter of an even larger label that is running out of money. When my album comes out in eight years, I'll get 7 cents from each album sold, which I'll be able to use to chip away at the debt I've incurred by spending my entire record advance on milk chocolate from Belgium.
• Hi, I'm a musician. I control two record labels, three clothing lines, two reality TV shows, a cologne, four daycare companies, two ostrich farms, three scented candle factories, and the color red. When my album comes out, I'll appear in a multitude of media and television appearances, including a CGI-inserted feature on an old episode of Three's Company. Then I'll Tweet something that makes everyone Tweet that I Tweeted it, and more people will buy my album. Lastly, I'll use the money I made from the album to pay for weed to inspire me for the following week of straight up hustlin.
So as musicians right now, we're in a weird place. We know that a career through the major label route is only lucrative for a tiny tiny fraction of those who pursue it. But at the same time, we understand that major labels have a tradition of helping some artists sell records. But now no one's buying records anyway, and labels are freaking out and telling us that if people don't buy records then they can't sign new acts. But being signed to a record label doesn't mean you'll get paid off of the record sales they say they need anyway. So...what were we worried about again?
Most musicians aren't making a living off of selling records – whether it's the musician signed to a label but making nill from the sales, or the unsigned musician who makes all the money from the sales, but can only sell ten albums because of an industry that won't show you love unless you're signed to a label. And so a decline in these sales is merely felt retroactively by the diminishing prospect of being signed to Suge Knight and making billions of dollars as a result. Now, I do understand that I'm speaking from a very "record label focused" perspective, but regardless of how much a musician interacts with "the industry," we're all affected by it. It affects which songs are played on the radio, featured in magazines, distributed to stores, and ultimately heard by the world. But nowadays, while radios, magazines, and stores no longer have the same control over access to music, we're still stubbornly gripped to this major label infrastructure that continues to disenfranchise most artists. As artists – as creative beings – why are we still unable to develop a better method?
A Better Method
I am amidst a growing number of artists who have chosen their career path not because they were born with an innate gift of tearing up the mic, or because they were called onstage by Dr. Dre when they were 4, but because they were inspired enough by certain artists to do it, and disappointed enough by other artists to be confident that they can do it better. It's the way of the world, and shows development in our society. We don't call a plumber every single time our toilet's clogged, we don't hire a mechanic every time our tires blow out, and we don't go to the doctor every time we get a papercut. As humans, we learn how to do for ourselves what we can realistically accomplish, and leave the expert stuff to the professionals. So it was only going to take so many years of ringtone rapping and formula beats before a critical mass of music listeners realized that the people on the radio and TV might be professionals, but most of them definitely aren't experts. With that being said, perhaps the key remaining factors that divide independent and major label music are production quality and promotion resources. But now with advancing technology, homemade music can sound just as clean as studio productions. And with web promotions literally at our fingertips, we no longer have to buy a record every time we want to hear a new song.
I'm speaking, of course, of the Open Source (a.k.a. my dad's computer engineering side coming out of me). The Open Source comes from the school of thought that certain things can be free, and people will be empowered to make it even free...er. I'm partly meaning "free" as in "doesn't cost you anything," but mostly as in "FREE GUCCI!!"*** As in relinquished of ownership and open to being influenced and contributed to by others in a free world. Hip-hop, in its essence, has the makings of being an artistic device that people can witness in its full transparency. Unlike many other genres, hip-hop is never (and will never) be just about the music. It's also about the story – the neighborhood you grew up in, who you had to meet, what happened when you met them, and how you feel about it all now. It's the reason Kanye's candid retelling of his career through his albums has captivated the world, and why old school rappers can make fortunes off of reality television shows decades after their songs have faded from rotation. Follow the lyrics of the most popular hip-hop artist at any given point in the last 15 years and there you'll find a guide to living vicariously through them.
However, as much as hip-hop artists like to flaunt, one thing that has continued to remain a secret is the artistic process. Sure, Weezy will videotape how he can step into a booth and freestyle hit after hit, and A Diary of Nas allowed us a glimpse at him juggling endorsement deals from the inside of his limo. But somewhere along the way, hip-hop – which was birthed from a "do-it-yourself" stance – became a "did-it-myself (and no one can do it better)" stance. An artform that one could once master with old records and a piece of cardboard on the floor has become one of million-dollar-beats and impossible guest appearances. What was once centered around a park in the Bronx is now a worldwide spectacle of flashing lights. However, the thing that remains constant is that everyone deep down inside still wants to join the cypher.
When Napster came out, we were exposed to a slew of underground artists who, until then, were limited to how many mom-and-pop shops they could get their homemade studio recordings to. Myspace provided a more accessible outlet, and soon what was once reserved solely for TRL and 106th&Park features was open to 13-year-olds in their mothers' Arkansas basements. Many "professional" artists were appalled, demanding through clever battle raps to "leave it to the real musicians" or complaining that "everyone wants to be a rapper nowadays," and though Myspace might be filled with an infinite amount of poorly-recorded grunts and groans on the mic, the real threat being addressed was the fact that now there was an exponentially larger amount of people vying for a relatively rigid amount of record deals, sales platforms, and target audiences.
But once again, when the entire world becomes captivated in producing art, this creates a fork in the road where we can either remain in fierce competition over traditional methods of success, or utilize the massively-popularized interest and demand for the medium to develop new platforms for all to profit and prosper from. So where do we go from here?
An Opportunity for Evolution
It seems ridiculous that my following statement claims to provide any bit of new insight, but I'll say it anyway: When there's a sudden global movement towards creating, sharing, and promoting music, it doesn't mean that the music industry is dead. Hip Hop is not dead. Just because it doesn't look, sound, or act like it did in the beginning, doesn't mean that it died. To me, that notion is equivalent to a kid getting a tattoo and his mother telling him that now he's "dead to her."*****
If we can snap out of our major-label hypnotism for a second and view music as another earthly resource (no Avataro), we can see that when something moves a critical mass of people to self-produce, self-distribute, and do it all for relatively free, it's flourishing. As listeners, we understand that free digital music allows for easier and cheaper access, takes up less physical space, and opens up a plethora of opportunities for innovation. As artists, we worry about the fact that people won't buy our albums and we'll be poor. Or people won't buy our albums and our labels will drop us and then we'll be poor. But if we shift our focus away from the ever-present notion of "record sales" being the key currency of our world, we're left with a multitude of directions we can take music that will sustain artists, be agreeable to listeners, and push art forward.
Following the concept of music as a natural resource, the following are tips that can help any floundering industry, but that have been overlooked particularly in music circles:
1. Don't Sell a Dead Horse: Music's free already. Do you know how pissed off people would be if all of a sudden we had to go back to Sam Goody and buy a $16 CD every time we wanted to hear songs? There are so many things that used to not be free, and are now free, and that are better because of it. Like email, for example. Remember when we used to have to pay for an email address?? At this point, fighting free music is like fighting DVDs from replacing laserdiscs. You know people who are like that...they still refer to the South as the Confederacy.
2. Get With the Times: If people aren't buying records anymore, stop selling records! What are people still finding monetary value in? What do people still buy? Concert tickets? T-shirts? Gas? Laundry detergent? How is your art remaining relevant with the focuses of an ever-changing world?
3. Get Skills: Lawyers don't just develop the skill of arguing, and surgeons don't just develop the skill of performing operations. What is displayed as the end product is often just the tip of a self-built iceberg that lays the foundation for the skill you're recognized for. You know how to sing or rap, but do you know how to produce your music, play your instruments, mix your levels, build your websites, design your album covers, and get your work distributed? Now that Open Source technology has allowed for there to be a YouTube video guide to just about everything, you have all that you need to begin rounding out your talents and picking up new ones. It's not being a jack of all trades. It's being the master of one.
4. Have Multiple Hustles: A great way to develop a skill is to do freelance work. It involves networking, helps you sharpen your talents, and it often pays more than handing out CDs outside Target in the snow. Some musicians I know also do web design, or board mixing, or PR work. All of these are productive ways to make money while implementing a routine practice schedule towards a skill that contributes to your end goal.
5. People Will Always Buy Free Shit: And in the end, if the content's right and the marketing's on point there will be those who pay for things they can get for free. Like bottled water and oxygen bars. But the important thing to understand is that it's no longer bought as the sole means of obtaining it, like music was back in the days of vinyl and 8-tracks. People are buying it for the sense of connection to you, or the smart packaging, or the experience they connect to it in physical form. So by understanding that, shift your focus less on marketing your music, and more on marketing the product that encases it. By doing so, you're no longer chained to the confines of producing "marketable" music, and can just worry about marketable marketing.
So no, this isn't a guide to earning your year's worth of rent, but at least it's an option against the outdated, monolithic ideal of record sale fortune. And as we enter this new decade in the cosmos, I'd like to leave you with an ever-so-brief peek at history: If you can think back to the first time a human palm ever struck the flesh of a drum, through the village circles that beckoned the rain, the operas that were presented to the kings of burgeoning empires, the trumpets that cried war, Bach's epic symphonies, early American spirituals, and all the way to what music has become today (FREE GUCCI!!), we can see that music has been around literally since the dawn of humankind. The notion of music as a commodity is just a blip in its expansive timeline. We were born to make it, and we can't live without it. And just as music has continued to survive, grow, and evolve, so will those who take on the responsibility of cultivating it. We're in a great time right now. Technology is amazing. In seconds we can shoot sounds to each other across the world, speakers sound realer than life, and SADE IS ON TWITTER!! We can do such fantastic things with sound and music. Let's not hold ourselves back simply in the name of an archaic model of profit. And that's the last word.
Adriel Drizzletronius Luis is a writer, musician, graphic artist, and the president of a small Pacific Island. He is a member of iLL-Literacy, a hip-hop and funk band from Oakland that is developing an open-source method of music development called digit.iLL.Funk. His latest album with iLL-Literacy, iB4the1.1, can be downloaded free at http://www.ill-literacy.com.
*Yo, The Source...you know I'm still trying to get a feature one time though right?
**Don't sue me Eskay
***As in Gucci Mane, not Gucci on Main St. (FREE GUCCI!!)
****Mom, stop ignoring my calls.