Interview: Did the Marketing Department Kill Hip-Hop?
Weve arrived at a point that calls for
some serious reflection.
Hip-Hop art or vaudeville?
artists have any sense of dignity and integrity?
what cost does Hip-Hop culture remain a central commodity?
did biting become acceptable - even chic in
the Hip-Hop community?
much longer are we prepared to tolerate the current onslaught of
These, and many others, beg desperate
Hip-Hop artists, once leaders and
trailblazers, pioneers of cultural inventions, designers of rhetorical
expressions, have morphed into caricatures of one anotherreplicas of the
But this I, Robot generation of artists cant be blamed for all the ills Hip-Hop
today suffers from. When listeners begin to find out more how powerless their
favorite artists are, and have been for quite a while, the perception is sure
to change. Theyll find out that the artists are mostly left out of the
decision making process that determines the types of productsbrandsold to a,
seemingly, insatiable public.
Artists see once-giant record labels now
crawling on their knees, struggling with the bills, hustling to find the next
hitwhich, in most cases, sounds so similar to the last one. They get word from
A & Rs about what kinds of songs the labels marketing department believes
is destined for Top 10 Billboard Hip-Hop/R&B territory, and arent interested
in paying the price of protest.
And so, even if youre a, say,
14-year-old Keke Palmer, the labels still want you singing sultry
urban musicmusic you contend is inappropriate for you and your age
groupand when your CD tanks, for lack of promotion effort by the labelrepercussion
for refusing the pimps offeryou get a call informing you that the poor sales of
your CD is disappointing, which will likely result in it being pulled from
the shelf, entirely.
is a game, and youre their specimen.
The marketing departments of record
companies have had undoubtedly the most lethal effect on the images, visuals, values,
and ideals Hip-Hop artists have been used to sell the world. It is in the hands
of these noble and distinguished fellows of good intent that talented artists
are convincedcompelledcommandedto shun substance over style, to promote
promiscuity over principle, to dump decency for delinquency.
Recently, I interviewed a former record
label executive who lasted nearly two decades in the halls of marketing. In his
years, he worked for a couple of the big 4 record companies and many other
major labels. He was good and successful at his job, regarded a star-maker. But
for a man with a conscience, success never suffices in the face of ignobility.
He became part of practices that
offended his principles. The job-preservation sensibility he saw growing in
the big skyscraper offices he once worked at troubled his spirit. One day he
had had enough, and walked away from it all. He prefers his identity disclosed,
so, for the sake of this interview, hell go by Vinnie P.
In what follows, Vinnie drops science,
math, and secrets about his past experiences, but also addresses the direction
he sees Hip-Hop taking in the next decade.
Artists, fans, A & Rs, executives:
pay very close attention:
for joining us, Vinnie. You worked in so many fieldsartist development, distribution, marketing, etc.so you know quite a bit about what the music
industry once was like and what its become today.
Absolutely. Ive been across the board.
I pretty much had a finger on every pulse of the businessfrom 1993 till today.
My first job was with ''''''''''''''', in 1994. After that, I did a brief stint at '''''''''' ''''''''''
and then on to '''''''''''''''''''''.
couple of weeks back, I read an article where Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest) was lamenting the
loss art of artist development.
Can you share some of your prior experiences in the artist development field,
and juxtapose it with the reality nowadays?
For sure. Back then, you actually had
departments referred to as Artist Development. It basically entailed
thatdeveloping an artist. So, for example, with the first record, there werent
these exorbitant benchmarks in terms of record sales the label wanted to
achieve. The first record was more like a grassroots activitycatering to the
So, youre basically doing everything at
a mom-and-pop levelindependent stores, urban radio, High School tours, College
tours, etc. And, if its truly a talented artist, you have benchmarks to meet,
as far as development is concerned.
There wasnt this 200,000 or 300,000
sales benchmark. If you did 30,000 with your first record, that was legitimate,
because youre still a developing act.
you got the rough draft of an artistone you saw some potential in. How long, on an estimate, did it take you
to development the act?
At least 5 years. Ill give you an
example: Look at Beyoncé. Destinys Child came out in 1997. If they came out in
2009, there will be no Beyoncé today. Period. Destinys Child was a very
influential developmental story. In their first 5 years, they were signed to
Warner. And, then, they changed their name and signed to Columbia [Records]. I
was a part of the artist-development procedure for Destinys Child. It took
them like 5 years to catch traction. And, now, Beyoncé is arguably one of the
biggest acts in the world. But if Destinys Child came out in 2009, they
wouldnt be herethey wouldnt last. Theyll put out an album, hit moderate
sales, and be finished.
the truth, because we dont have any new Superstars. And, as one who worked in marketing, can you tell if putting out these disposable artists, as opposed
to grooming Superstars as they once did, the labels are making more money?
Thats an interesting question. But
heres the scenario: Basically, which Im sure you knowbecause Ive read your
material and youre obviously well-versedthe one thing consistent with all big
4 companiesthere are 4 now, but theyll soon be only 3the one thing that
sustained them through all these years is catalogue musicclassic musicclassic
Thats how the business model is
sustainablewith catalogue artists that, as you said, have been cultivated over
the years. And, unfortunately, the labels have gotten out of the business of
doing that. And, in 2000, which was the premium and pinnacle year in the music
businesswhen everybody was making big moneythey started getting careless,
creating these huge radio hits, and selling albums based on those hits, which
almost would handcuff the consumer. The decisions being made became solely
predicated upon revenue share.
They started cranking out these pop
groups, which they thought would force the consumer to still buy the album.
But, of course, technology had kicked in [by then]. Nobody wanted to address
this new thing called, Napster.
Well be in marketing meetings, mapping
out strategies, and you couldnt say the N-wordNapster.
Right around 2001 and 2002, the labels got
completely away from artist development, and really, like you said, creating
and nurturing the artists through the pipelinewhich would be the catalogue
artists of today.
Think about it: How many artists that
came out after 2005 would be here 10 years from now? None of them! Theyre
Record labels are now making job-preservation decisions, which
sacrifice the creativity of the acts that come through.
that pointjob-preservation. Can you describe some of what you witnessed, in
the marketing meetings, which conflicted with your visions and intentions?
Thats a great question. I never felt
like I had a job, until 2005. And I have nothing against the South, but the
first time I began questioning what the hell I was doing was when we had just
signed Lil Flip. They (A & Rs) came into the meeting and put his single
on our table: This Is The Way
They put it on my desk and said we have
to come up with a marketing campaign for him. I heard it [the song] and thought
it was horrible! It was not Hip-Hop. It was waffle
house. And Ive lived and breathed Hip-Hop since I was 5-years-old.
So I asked, Why are we signing him? We
signed him because he had SoundScam
numbers. And I use that word strategically: S-C-A-M. He had a very strong
I remember going to a meeting when we
were trying to come up with a marketing campaign for Ginuwines 100% Ginuwine. Usher was hot at the
time. And so, our whole thing was to piggyback off Ushers success. They said,
Lets pattern what Arista is doing with Usher. And this would happen all the
timewhen we would get acts and try to pattern them off somebody else whos hot
at the time. I would sit in those meetings and ask, Why dont we come up with
something thats creative around Ginuwine, and make him genuine? But it was
all about piggybacking off whatever or whoever the flavor of the week was.
The whole concept around Hip-Hop isyou
dont bite somebody else. Thats what it was predicated on. And, somehow, we
got into a space where everybodys biting now.
you know, folks like myself, even some MCs, bash the artists for swagga-jacking, and youre suggesting that the blame should be pointed in the other direction, because the artists arent at the helm of their marketing
Without question. Kids coming up today
are just in The Matrix. They have no clue whats happening. And your point is
exactly right because, for example, lets look at Nas. I worked intimately on
all his projects, with the exception of Illmatic
and It Was Written.
Look at his I Am record. That was him trying to cater to what was hot at the
time, at the request of the label. So, if you look at You Can Hate Me Nowthats a Puffy
video. And thats because Puffy and Ma$e were hot at the time. So, I agree with
And the one thing that stood out for me
was that creative meeting for
Ginuwine, and the first thing he saysa White executive that has no clue about
the cultureThis is our Usher.
to your point about Naswhich fascinates me as a huge fan. How did you market him? And to the effect of I Am, which somewhat distresses fans like myself, what conflicts did you have with the
projectworking on it?
Im a huge fan, myself. I think, at the
time, he was very confused. When he came off It Was Writtenwhich was his first commercial successI think, for
one, he had a lot of pressure on him to fill the voids from Tupac and Biggies
deaths. And Nas was one of the few respected cats.
Originally, I Am was supposed to be a double album.
The decision was made to put two albums
out in one year, like DMX did in 97. On the album, he got off doing Nas, and began doing Puffy. And the marketing campaign
we came up with was very bad for the content of the album. We went straight to
mainstream. There was a very aggressive MTV push at the time (we figured B.E.T.
would fall in line). And we didnt nurture his core base. We didnt do the
fundamental outreach that made Nas respected and appreciated as an artist,
because we were trying to ride the Puffy wave.
talked about the pressures Nas faced. What kinds of pressures did labels put on
artists, to bend their will?
Its really simple. The A & Rs get
whatever producer is hot at the time to produce a record similar to the current
radio hitback then, everything was radio-driven. So, theyll bring that
familiar sound in the studio to produce your first single. So, an artist would
have no say-so, because, once youre signed, the labels have their own formula
And, at the time, producers were making
anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 a track. Not to mention that the producers
are in bed with the A & Rs.
Well, the A & R has his constituency
of producers for the artists he signs. So, the A & R is given a budget by
the labels, he brings on the producers he has a relationship with, and the
producers also give him kickbacks. So, if he chooses a producer who receives
$100,000, then the producer might get $90,000, and the A & R would get his
how powerful are the A & Rs?
In the 90s, the A & Rs ruled the
game and called the shots; but, today, youre just as good as your last bat.
And thats why everything sounds the same: They pick similar artists because
the artists have to hit a certain bar of radio play, and thats how they keep
their jobs. The decisions are being made predicated on job-preservation.
of the more assuring stories this year was Canadian Rapper Drake signing to Young Money. And he was smart enough to get a good deal. How can artists who still want to get signed to major labels, or are on the verge of being signed,
make the right choices?
He owns the rights to his Masters. In
this climate, thats almost unheard of.
it is; and it shows that if an artist can develop a great independent buzz, the labels would respond appropriately to your demands. But lets be frank: Drake is one-in-a-million. Most other artists dont have the intelligence or following he has. So, what advice do you have for those unlike him, to ensure theyre not
Well, I think its really basic. At the
end of the day, talent will shine through. If youre good, itll shine through.
But, from a business perspective, create a demand. If you create your own
demand, you can sell Raid to a roach. One thing artists always have to keep in
mind: labels are like psychopaths. They dont give a sh** about how talented
you are. They dont care. All they care about is whether or not youll be
generating revenue for them. And the way to find out is by the demand you have
created for yourself.
What Drake did is create a demand for
himself. To be honest, Im not even a big fan of Drake. I think the bar is so
low in Hip-Hop that this dude is being appreciated like hes that guyand hes ok to me.
funny because I share those same views. I heard his 2006 mixtape, Room for Improvement, and thats about the only thing Ive been
impressed by so far, as far as lyricism. But, obviously, he has something other
artists dont have, and some of it might be intelligence
I agree; its intelligence. But, again,
I just feel like the bar is so low, and, as far as timing, the urban industry
is yearning for something to gravitate to. There has been no artist, in the
last 5 years, with the exception of 50 (Cent), that people have had the
opportunity to gravitate to and yearn for. So, people are hungry for something
This is my personal opinion: I think
hes a nice guy; Ive watched his interviews, and I think hes also smart and
humble. I like that. But part of what makes cats hot in Hip-Hop is natural
swagnot a premeditated swag.
Like Jay-Z had.
Jay-Z! Jay-Zs swag is visceral,
internal. I could be wrong, but Drake seems like one of those guys in front of
the mirror, whos making sure his hand movements are on point, his feet
expressions are right. So, I think hes an actora good one.
But the bar is so low, and the consumers
are so unaware, that he can get away with it. Its not Drakes fault that the
consumers, the fans, dont know any better. I almost feel like there needs to
be degrees in Hip-Hop, where you cant buy or say anything, unless you have
knowledge about the historical events and benchmarks in Hip-Hop, because most
of these kids dont have a reference point.
an insider, what would you like to see changed? You talked about how when you first started, artists were looked at as human beings, not just disposable
products or ATM machines.
I think everything is cyclical. I
believe its going to come full circle again. I think technology has pulled the
curtain back, and you can see that the emperor has no clothes. And the labels
were the emperors at one point, dictating everything. And now, the consumer is
empoweredthey have choices. Kids dont listen to radio nowadays. The radio
revenue is so low right now because kids have found a different way to enjoy
Creativity will find its way back to the
forefront. I think labels are going to go by the wayside. If they dont change
their ideology, and I dont see that happening anytime soon, theyll be gone in
What youre going to have, instead, are
Music/Entertainment Firms that are all-encompassing.
Theyll be management firms, because, in
my opinion, the music will be free by then. Generally speaking, therell be
certain packaged music sold for purchase, but the primary configuration of
music will be free in about 5 years.
Today, if youre under 25-years-old, you
dont pay for music anyway, so artists would become lifestyle commodities. And, so, the music will be the lost leader
to persuade fans to buy the products. You understand what Im saying?
but can you elaborate on it for a second?
What I mean by that iswhen kids, today,
subscribe to an artist, its not just the music theyre into. Theyre digging
backstage and behind the scenes footage of artists. So, really, what youre
buying into is a lifestylenot just the music.
So, the firms would cultivate the
lifestyle of the artistsmarketing, shows, etc.their overall brand. And that
involves music as well. If you look at Jay-Z, he doesnt have to put a record
out, and hes still relevant.
To answer your question, the labels are
still in the record business, and the record business is done.
think you just provided three additional questions, based on the last point: 1). What would happen to the quality of Hip-Hop musicwill it still be as organic and potent as it was before the last decade of commercialism? 2). Will artists be getting paid just as much, if not more, as they were when music sales was still a priority? 3). And who will be controlling these firmsartists
or pseudo-record label executives?
Well, thats a great set of questions.
I thinkthe artists are now in a place
of empowerment. Read The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson. The labels
will not control it. The artists will.
I think the quality of Hip-Hop will
fragment even more. Its almost as though you need sub-genres in Hip-Hop,
because its so fragmented. So, artists need to be niche-drivenneed to know,
and then focus on, their core constituency. As long as theres a corporate
element to Hip-Hop, it will always be watered-down. But mainstream artists
would ultimately leave the labels in about three to five years, do exclusive
deals with big corporationslike Verizon or AT&Tand those corporations
would serve as the vehicle for the artists to get their message out there. But
the music would still be watered-down, because they [the artists] have to cater
to that brand. So, if Lil Wayne, for example, is doing a deal with Verizon, he
can only do so much; he has to be in line, because they have an image to
To your other question, the artists
never made money in the past. Im sure youve heard this saying time and time
again, and its very trueartists were nothing but h**s. Theyre like janitors.
The labels take their Publishing and their Masters. Theyre service workers.
Now, artists can completely control
their Publishing and the direction of their careers. They may not be
Superstars, but theyll be making much more money than they ever did at the
You can tell me your experience, but I
think a lot of younger artists are beginning to open up their eyes and do their
research about record label contracts. And, of course, AllHipHop.com is one of
the few sites that really does journalism. You understand?
Its not just sensationalism. I think
the site tries to stay away from sensationalismtheres some of it every now
and thenbut theres a certain integrity that comes with it. And I think that
the themes and stories [covered] on the sitethese kids can learn a lot from
it. Its a credible site.
And I wanted to commend you, too,
because the editorials Ive readyouve really done a good job of breaking
Im very grateful to you for doing this interview and sharing your wisdom about
what the future holds for this vibrant culture.
Thank you. Keep up the good work!
Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic and a columnist for BlackCommentator.com. He can be reached at Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.