The Death Of Record Labels: Artists: Take Charge!
Societies never know it, but the war of
an artist with his society is... to make freedom real.
should listen to Marco Polo & Torae more. On Crashing
Down, a prophetic track off the duos latest LP, Double Barrel, the hook goes:
do when the walls come crashing down?/
How you feel?/
Ask me, Im
whatchu gon do when the walls come crashing down?/
down they speak of is something record labels would rather not talk about,
rather not discuss, rather not address. But, as the 19th century
poet, Cullen Bryant, might inform, truth crushed to earth shall rise again.
This crashing down is the end and
death of record labels as weve known them. Total destruction. And this is no
time for melancholy. Indeed, its a time for celebration, a time for
jubilation, a time for exhilaration.
Theres a reason Hip-Hop was conceived
in the belly of South Bronx streets, and not midtown Manhattan skyscrapers/
Where former hustlers sign papers/ And do fu**ed-up capers/.
This reality, however, never really
mastered great impression on the minds of middle-age White executives, who, for
two decades, ran the Hip-Hop industry like a slave ship, holding artists
hostage; who, for two decades, ran the Hip-Hop industry like a plantation, dictating
to Black artists the conditions of freedom, and turning out once lyrical
masterminds into commercial cows for an uninformed publics consumption.
The artists were bound by deceptive contractual
obligations, forced to partake in activities that went against personal
principles. But they took the pain in silence. They carried the cross without
complaint, invested in hope of a day when their sacrifices would turn ripe the
fruits of freedom. Well, my lords, ladies and gentlemen, that day, that moment,
is upon us.
Tennessee rapper Young Buck understands
this better than most others. On Breach of Contract, a recent mixtape single,
he raps: We turn the cotton into marijuana fields/ Then work like slaves, just
to try to pay the bills/.
Rappers have, indeed, worked like
slaves to furnish the lavish lifestyles of record label executives. They tirelessly
tilled the grounds these suit-wearing plantation-owners reaped great harvest
But now, emancipation begins.
To put food on the table, many
mainstream acts signed their names to record deals that insulted the dignity
they were raised with. They did it not because of a desire to spit on the Black
faces that supported their careers from day 1, but because they understoodor,
rather, thought they didthe game,
and how it had to be played. These rappers poked out [their] a**es for a
chance to cash in,
and the [shady] record company people
made good use of it. Very few of these slaves
to their labelsowned their Masters.
Most were simply slaves. Period.
These artists knew they had to put on the
Blackfaceoften the only available escape from a past mired in poverty. For those
brief moments, the Blackface became more than an opportunistic cosmetic
supplementunlike Al Jolson in The Jazz
Singer (1927). It became a permanent feature.
So, for some, songs like Chain Hang
Low, Chicken Noodle Soup, Fry Dat Chicken, and Whip It Like A Slave,
didnt invoke memories of shame and sadnessreminder of a time when Black
actors and actresses were forced to work like dogs for chicken change. Not at
all. Those memories had taken up a new formreality.
New York Daily News
took note of this trend in 2006.
Errol Louis, columnist for the paper, noted the similarity between some of the
times most popular songs, and 200-year-old minstrel hits. St. Louis rapper
Jibbs 2006 chart-topping single, Chain Hang Low, was revealed, first by a New York Times music critic, to have
borrowed inspiration from Zip Coona famous minstrel hit from the Blackface
In mention also was 50 Cents diamond-selling 2003 album, Get Rich or Die Tryin, which, Louis
wrote, carried an unmistakable echo of a hit minstrel song from 1856 called
Root Hog or Die. The lyrics of the song, he explained, bore frightening resemblance
to the themes explored in Get Rich or Die
Tryin: Im right from old Virginny, with my pocket full of news/ I'm
worth twenty shillings right square in my shoes/ It doesn't make a dif of
bitternance to neither you nor I/ Big pig or little pig root, hog or die.
Louis continued: Its sad to see
musically untrained youngsters shucking and jiving for a bit of money and fame.
Most could never dream of succeeding in a serious artistic setting like a
church choir, dance ensemble or jazz band, places that require study,
discipline and hard work. Many would be swiftly laughed off the stage.
It is true that many of these, for a
lack of a better word, artists have
no talent or skill worth the time and money record labels spend marketing them.
No question. It is also true, however, that the record label executives have
been consistent in selling to the fans manufactured noise as music, undaunted
by the truism that for every action theres a reaction.
* * *
In its three decade commercial history,
Hip-Hop has undergone a series of stages, morphing from a spiritual culture of
resistance into an on-demand pill big companies see fit to digest whenever in
need of cultural authenticity.
But, besides the artists, the only victims in this tragic-comic tale, it seems,
are the fans of color.
Black and Brown fans have been told to
shut up, sit quietly, and watch the wonders of executive-thinking unfold. True
enough, everything went according to plan, but the outcome was farthest from
In return, we witnessed young artists of
no recognizable skill get placed in line ahead of veterans and certified
lyricists. What took flesh, as a result, was a torrent of talentlessness that
made many question the validity of Hip-Hop as a critical art-form.
This brand of label politics ensured
that highly-anticipated albumsalbums Hip-Hop needed so badlywere placed on
the back burnershelved and abandoned.
No other example yields greater
timeliness than Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
II, which is scheduled for release tomorrowafter a mere 3-year wait. Since news broke in 2005 that Wu-legend Raekwon
was prepping a sequel to his 1995 classic, fans have waited impatiently, only
to be disappointed, year after year, by reports of postponement.
Every Hip-Hop fan can, on demand,
recount similar experiences. From Q-Tip fans, to Papoose fans, to The Clipse
fans, to Saigon fans, the stories are no different.
This happened primarily because the
stupid executives, unprepared for the technological tidal waves Napster and
Apple had ready for launch, expected fans to remain adherenteven in the face
of blatant disregard. But the tables soon turned, and with the new millennium
came an age of free downloadingan age of choicean age of freedom.
And the recording industry hasnt been
the same ever since
Long Tail, Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine, details, amongst other things, the rise and fall of
giant record companiescrippled only by self-absorption. Anderson chronicles
the drop in CD sales from 2001 to 2005: 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 suggests that the shifted
emphasis from substantive compositions to hit-singles had begun forming the
now-decomposed carcass major label executives try as best to turn their
attention away from.
Watering down the music to appeal to
broader bases had less an impact than the labels aimed for, he concludes.
Instead of uniting diverse fan-bases, it fragmented them, creating a greater
need for genre/sound specificity.
The consumers, Anderson writes, soon
found out that the only way to maintain a consistently good enough signal
is if the filters get increasingly powerful. 
And so they began sending signals, but the rapacious executives pretended they
couldnt receive it.
Before long, fans discovered the indifferent
intentions labels had in mind, and turned their backs against them forever,
creating, as replacement, informal sub-groups of peers that could recommend
great music to each other and benefit from shared passion.
The consumers wanted music that catered
specifically to their taste, but the executives, stuck on stupidity, thought
the battle wouldnt last long. Wrong!
This turf war over the future of creativity
and substance began raging. The fans agreed with acclaimed writer S.H. Fernando
that [t]he diversity of rap songs is matched only by the diversity of the
people making them.
Labels, disagreeing, unwisely hired
attorneys to police the internet and put to an end peer-to-peer file-sharing.
The aim was to nip in the bud this budding revolution. Foolishly, they only
gave it more credibility, recruiting millions to the cause. The once-giant
labels thought a few casualties would intimidate their opponents. But it didnt.
And now, the big fourUniversal Music Group, Warner Music Group, EMI, and Sony
BMGare forced to tuck their tails between their legs and surrender to their
captives will, which tossed their way reparations (net sales) of $11.5 billion
in 2006, compared to more uplifting, and less contentious, times like 1996:
The fans demanded an end to the reign of
free-market fundamentalism in music productionespecially Hip-Hop. The sheer
though that the market (radio,
television, print magazine, websites) could police itself never sat well with
them. They understood that the radio and TV stations were, to a great deal,
beholden to the record companies. They knew how loyal and unquestioning on-air
personalities had to be to A&R executivesjob-preservation.
And now, just as with the global
economy, the fundamentals of the recording industry have been shaken-up,
exposed as frail and vulnerable. The boom
and bust of revenue, brought by boisterous executives, are no longer hidden
from the public. The Bernard Madoffs of the music business can no longer shelter
their names, faces, and reputations.
the cymbals on Coltranes Alabama and Miles Davis Prayer (Oh Doctor Jesus),
the walls will come crashing down.
Right on cue, the multi-millionaire
executives have begun blaming their artists, blaming the fans, blaming everyone
but themselves, for the outcome of this Ponzi schemewhich, might I add, they
Their years of carelessness and
recklessness have nothing to do with the current state of affairs, they swear.
Their years of shunning artist-development and cranking out these pop groups,
as Vinnie described in last weeks editorial,
isnt in no way related to the disgruntlement fans presently express, they contend.
Dumping disposable artists on an intelligent audience didnt create this
crisis, either, they say. But we know better.
* * *
Every Black Hip-Hop artist whos ever
sold more than 500,000 copies has a tale to tell, a story to share.
Each has, once, or twice, or thrice throughout their career, been confronted by
a middle-age White male executive who reminded him/her who was boss, who
assured him/her how a bright future could be clicked off with the switch of a
button, who lectured him/her about how much more he knew the Black audiences taste in music.
Everyone. No exceptions.
And such artist, at that moment, had to
muster up divine self-restraint to avoid being subsequently hit with attempted
murder charges. They restrained themselves because they believed that someday
soon, the empires endeavors would be exposed, that someday soon, the corporate
thugs who run the industry would be stripped naked of all supremacy.
These very artists, if they would be so
observant, would notice that their expectations are closer, nearer, and realer than theyve ever been.
Since last weeks publication,
which featured an interview with a former marketing heavyweight, Ive received
tons of e-mails from managers, independent executives, and artists, expressing
great joy in Vinnies prediction that if major record labels dont change
their ideology, and I dont see that happening anytime soon, theyll be gone in
5 years, and that, in their space will surface artist-controlled
These readers have seen it all and been
through it all. They dont see major labels anymore as a relevant element in
the making of an artist. Their usefulness has passed.
Mainstream Hip-Hop acts, still bound by
contractual obligations to record labels, should understand that the fans have
their back, that the fans are just as displeased with the politics of the
business as they are.
Weve all suffered greatly from the greed
of the pigs at the trough.
At this junction, when the prospect of freedom is more tangible than ever
before, dont be stupid. Dont sign your life away to the same companies
responsible for the current meltdown. The labels have, long ago, absolved
themselves of all responsibility concerning artist-development, marketing, and
promotion. Nothing the labels can provide you today cant be done independentlywith
tenacity and temperance.
The rumors are not true: Fans dont
discriminate against independent acts in favor of majors. Remember: These are the very fans whose rebellion brought
to their knees once omnipotent record companies.
Even if they dont buy the CDs as often
as youll prefer, they show their support in other waysmerchandise and concert
The record labels never meant well for
Hip-Hop, and theyve made that known, as best as possible, in the last two
decades. Even if its a young, handsome Black face sliding the contract across
the table, understand that the content is just as dangerous as it was when old,
not-so-handsome, White faces were pushing the poison.
We are an independent people. We can do
it ourselves. We dont need no more tyranny. We can walk right into liberty. We
can free ourselves from the shackles and bondages the music industry has kept
us bound in for far too long. We can flip open a new page this moment, and fill
it with words of redemption, words of hope, words of freedom.
The days of kowtowing before executives
are past. The present is truly a gift. And the future awaits with great
anticipation the rising up of a resilient people.
John Forté would agree: Its a new day
running/ And it aint coming/ Cuz its here for the taking/ Its been years in
The GZA would concur: No time for
backwards thinking/ Lets think ahead/.
Its time: Lets think, act, and move
ahead into a future fueled by self-determination!
Olorunda is a columnist for BlackCommentator.com
and a cultural critic. He can be contacted at Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com. Tolu's Column will return in October 2009.
 Baldwin, James.
Process. The National Culture Center, Creative
America. New York: Ridge Press, 1962.
 Reference from Philadelphia
slam poet Black Ices Truth Is performance on HBOs Def Poetry Jam: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SY7pM8k8moY
 Reference from:
Mos Def, The Rape Over,
The New Danger, 2004.
 Reference from:
A Tribe Called Quest, Check
The Rhime, The Low End Theory,
 Reference from:
Pharoahe Monch, Desire,
York: Hyperion, 2006, p. 32.
 Ibid. p. 119.
 Fernando, S.H. The New
York: Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1994, p. 266.
 Bay Area legend
JT the Bigga Figga shares some of his experiences: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Q9z1WzB0nU&feature=channel
 Reference from:
John Forté, Breaking
of a Man, StyleFREE, 2009.
 Reference from:
The GZA, 7 Pounds, Pro Tools, 2008.