Editor’s note: The
views expressed inside this editorial aren’t necessarily the views of
AllHipHop.com or its employees.Look: now, I ain’t going for the
This industry be trying to strangle Ni**as
in the choke/
Rhymefest Ft. Kanye West, More, Blue Collar, 2006.
The tragedy of bullies, it seems, isn’t
so much in the exhibitionism, violent escapades, or raucous endeavors
inevitably rendered, but in the refusal to admit the inescapable: impending
downfallimminent doom. And like all bullieswhether the larger-than-healthy
kid on the playground, the parent who fails to recognize a child’s humanity,
the nation too fool of itself to curtail world dominationthe music industry is
lapping up its last left spoils, even as all indicators suggest this giant is
crippled and wobblingmore importantly, from self-inflicted wounds.
Last week was one to remember. Very few
thought it possible, but, as history shows, the most widely discarded
possibilities almost always end up kicking dust in the eyes of naysayers.
On November 23, 2009, Scottish singer
Susan Boyle, of fame Britain’s Got Talent
(season 3), released her debut album, I
Dreamed a Dream. Three months prior to the set date, it had already become
an Amazon best-seller. And, sure enough, when the U.S. Billboard sales results
last week Wednesday, most were stunned, as the classically trained singer sold 701,000
copies in the U.S. alone. Other reports crowned her not only the fastest
selling UK debut album in history, and the strongest for a female artist ever (since
Soundscan), but, perhaps most meaningfully, the biggest opening weeks sales thus
far in 2009.
Dreamed a Dream
was in such hotcakes-like demand that
it smashed into bits and pieces the next four albums in line combinedthree of
whom, by industry standards, would be considered commercial collections. Not even American Idol runner-up Adam
Lambert, with his recent American Music Awards publicity stunt, came close (198,000);
neither did Rihanna, with her highly-publicized media blitzkrieg campaign (181,000);
nor did the clichéd Lady Gaga, with her many shock and awe-aimed antics (174,000). The only other redeeming
moment, beside Boyles triumph, seemed to be classical tenor vocalist Andrea
Bocellis 2nd place steal with 218,000 copies of his latest album, My Christmas.
So, what does all this say about the
future of an industry too preoccupied with commercial, replaceable, disposable
artistsand the music they make? A good deal. For starters, that the age of
gimmickry might be nearing its coffin hole.
When Susan Boyle shot up to international
acclaim 8 months ago, following an audition for the British reality show Britain’s Got Talent, it occurred to
some that this budding superstars success might just be the wakeup call needed
to jolter an industry hung over from self-supplied inebriation. Hip-Hop
producer Pharrell was one of them.
Speaking with Rest In Beats shortly after the finale of Britain’s Got Talent, Pharrell called
on record labels to return to the antiquated model of artistry over
attractiveness and skill over sensuality. It was Boyles musicianship, not top model-like qualities, that engaged
everybody, he said. And while manyin the millionspreferred to mock her for
whatever physical deformities they could convince themselves she possessed, he
saw things much differently: She is talented, and someone should be signing
her right nowbecause it would work. The world would want to hear that. He
went on to attack the aesthetic-fetish music companies have entertained for
the last 20 years, and argued that it was time to return to the days when fans
were treated with more dignity and respect than is currently the case: What
music wasand is going back tois, how talented is this person? And Susan Boyle
is exactly my point. [S]he was captivating. And that, to me, is star
who’da thunk it?
Obviously Simon Cowell (Syco) and
Columbia Records were much too smart to pass up the opportunity, but who says
Susan Boyle would have ever had a chance if she never swept up so many millions
of fans on YouTube, or wowed the audiences at home who put her in week after
weekuntil the last? Who says this
precious jewel wouldnt have been laughed at hystericallyif not directly
insultedby A&Rs and higher-up executives at the biggest and boldest of record labels if she had asked for an
opportunity to prove her worth at some indoor audition? And who says even after
this shake-upwhich Im sure will have far-reaching effects into the new
yearthe same suits responsible for the graphic decline in music sales the last
10 years would actually take into account the lesson Boyle is teaching them,
rather than engage in the same blame-the-consumer tactics most have turned into
noting that only 6% of Boyles sales were internet-based, with iTunes
accounting for a mere 40,000 downloads in total sales. The lesson cant be overlooked:
Fans are still interested in the physical
nature of musicbut simply prefer actual MUSIC, not machine-made mockery of
everything music should stand for. The implications
are obvious: In the last 10 years, album sales have declined 45%, while
digital downloads have bubbled. From 2007 to 2008, over a billion songs were
downloaded, accounting for a 27% increase. In contrast, only 361 million CDs
were sold in 08, down nearly 20 percent from 07. In the last three years
alone, CD sales have dropped from 90% to 84% to 77% of market revenue.
Long Tail (2006), Wired
editor-in-chief Chris Anderson spoke more eloquently to this trend: Sales fell
2.5 percent in 2001, 6.8 percent in 2002, and just kept dropping. By the end of
2005 (down another 7 percent), music sales in the United States had dwindled
more than a quarter from their peak. Between 2001 and 2005, the music
industrys total sales fell by a quarter. But the number of hit albums fell by
nearly half. [Anderson, Chris. The Long
Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. New York:
Hyperion, 2006, p. 32.]
As assumable, the repercussions have
been grave for the big fourUniversal Music Group, Warner Music Group, EMI, and
Sony BMGwhich in 2006 scrapped up net sales of $11.5 billion, compared to more
uplifting, less dreary, times like 1996: $14.5 billion.
Rather than engage the larger fan-base
like normal human beings would, or submit to national listening tours to find out firsthand the causes that
provoked such immitigable effects, record companies have sought out three
options: 1) Litigate against illegal downloaders (even if, as
a recent study suggests, they happen to buy the most music. 2) Bind artists
to 360 deals. 3) Pursue, unscrupulously and unwisely, avenues which once
functioned as unofficial, but sanctioned, bellboys for labels.
In the last decade, since the advent of
Napster (the N-word),
labels have been unleashing high-priced attorneys on middle-school students,
high-school students, and college studentsmost of whom know no betterto
retrieve some kind of payback for the billions lost these last few years. Those
charged with illegal music downloading or file sharing on Peer-to-Peer sites
have been sued as high as $675,000 and $2,000,000. Per song, defendants can
be charged up to $750 – $150,000. Of course the cowardice of the industry
hasnt had much effect on students, as a recent
University of Reading study found 75% of the 10,000 students polled prefer
downloading music to buying hard copies or even streaming. These crackdowns on
teenagers, which many believe to be useful or legal or responsible, is akin to
the bully who, once knocked down by a bigger bully, searches fervently for the
smallest kid around to redeem his/her pride through.
Labels have also unfurled another trick
up their sleevesmake mandatory the 360 deal
(multiple rights) for any new artist signed. The 360 is essentially
the musical contractual clause equivalent of the Patriot Act. It effectively
robs the artist of any and every opportunity to make money
independentlywithout the major labels claws deep into his/her pockets. What
it says, with no attempt at equivocation, is, You work for us. Your blood, sweat, and tears are ours. We own you.
Now, pay us! It ensures labels profit from every venture an artistno
matter how slick or savvyis involved in. The 360 is a perfect avenue through
which labels are able to reclaim their pride by reminding artists not only of
whos boss but whos king.
And if brow-beating teenage music loverswhove
been forced upon (against their wills) disposable, downloadable music for
yearswasnt enough, and gagging artists didnt cut the check, labels are
increasingly getting tough on mixtape DJs, club owners, and even dance
non-for-profit organizations who play music without*wink-wink*their consent.
On January 16, 2007 the Atlanta-based DJ
Drama and DJ Cannon, along with 17 others, were arrested on
racketeering charges and accused of selling mixtapes illegally. In the
stunning raid of offices where both produced their well-received mixtape
series, SWAT teams seized over 50,000 CDs, computers, recording equipments,
cold-hard cash, bank statements, and vehicles. The Hip-Hop community was, understandably,
shaken up. For years, mixtapes were considered a vital part ofif not
inextricable link tothe artist development process (which, as we all know, is
a thing of the past). A&Rs understood how important a Hip-Hop artist
had to nurture a street fan base that could help multiply demand with
word-of-mouth. And the easiest, if not cheapest, ways about this was through
mixtapes. Most DJs made no money off the mixtapes, but ended up with label
contracts, exclusive releases, or production gigs for their hard work.
Recently, however, labels have become much too weary with DJs, whom they accuse
of making fortunes off the backs of their
artists, and stealing the thunders from executives who do the real work of marketing and promotion.
This convenient amnesia, fused with self-delusion, would only be laughable if
it werent so serious. It gets worse. This misinformation campaign is
successfully dividing artists and DJsinstalling chips on the shoulders of
artists who once could never establish a career without successful mixtape DJs
willing to take chances on them. Lil
Waynes misguided, expletive-riddled
rants against mixtape DJs a year and half ago is a sobering example.
But even this apparently doesnt quite
fit the bill. Increasingly, industry executives, and their high profile
Jay-Z, are suing bars for playing music without permission. The labels, it
has been reported, send spiesoperatives!to
bars to check out what songs are being played, and report back to headquarters.
It gets even worse.
The Society of Composers, Authors and
Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN)which, unlike an organization
concerned with the affairs of its members, is actually driving a wedge between
artists and concert promoters, between artists and bloggershas
begun demanding that non-for-profit dance studios or gymnastic clubs pay
tariffs for any songs played in practice sessions, no matter how small the
audience participating. And, under its Fitness
Activities and Dance Instruction category, such organizations must pony up
the average number of persons per week per room multiplied by $2.14.
When an 11-year-old girl is
being bullied by big industry hitmen
you know something is wrong. But the tragedy of bullies, it seems, isn’t so
much in the exhibitionism, violent escapades, or raucous endeavors inevitably
rendered; rather, in the refusal to admit the inescapable: impending