We’ve 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 another—replicas of the
But this I, Robot generation of artists can’t 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. They’ll find out that the artists are mostly left out of the
decision making process that determines the types of products—brand—sold 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
hit—which, in most cases, sounds so similar to the last one. They get word from
A & Rs about what kinds of songs the label’s marketing department believes
is destined for Top 10 Billboard Hip-Hop/R&B territory, and aren’t interested
in paying the price of protest.
And so, even if you’re a, say,
14-year-old Keke Palmer, the labels still want you singing sultry
“urban music”—music you contend is “inappropriate” for you and your age
group—and when your CD tanks, for lack of promotion effort by the label—repercussion
for refusing the pimp’s offer—you 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 you’re 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 convinced—compelled—commanded—to 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, he’ll 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 fields—artist development,
distribution, marketing, etc.—so you know quite a bit about what the music
industry once was like and what it’s become today.
Absolutely. I’ve been across the board.
I pretty much had a finger on every pulse of the business—from 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
that—developing an artist. So, for example, with the first record, there weren’t
these exorbitant benchmarks in terms of record sales the label wanted to
achieve. The first record was more like a grassroots activity—catering to the
So, you’re basically doing everything at
a mom-and-pop level—independent stores, urban radio, High School tours, College
tours, etc. And, if it’s truly a talented artist, you have benchmarks to meet,
as far as development is concerned.
There wasn’t this 200,000 or 300,000
sales benchmark. If you did 30,000 with your first record, that was legitimate,
because you’re still a developing act.
you got the rough draft of an
artist—one you saw some potential in. How long, on an estimate, did it take you
to development the act?
At least 5 years. I’ll give you an
example: Look at Beyoncé. Destiny’s Child came out in 1997. If they came out in
2009, there will be no Beyoncé today. Period. Destiny’s 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 Destiny’s 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 Destiny’s Child came out in 2009, they
wouldn’t be here—they wouldn’t last. They’ll put out an album, hit moderate
sales, and be finished.
the truth, because we don’t 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?
That’s an interesting question. But
here’s the scenario: Basically, which I’m sure you know—because I’ve read your
material and you’re obviously well-versed—the one thing consistent with all big
4 companies—there are 4 now, but they’ll soon be only 3—the one thing that
sustained them through all these years is “catalogue music”—classic music—classic
That’s how the business model is
sustainable—with 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
business—when everybody was making big money—they 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.
We’ll be in marketing meetings, mapping
out strategies, and you couldn’t say the “N-word”—Napster.
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 pipeline—which 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! They’re
Record labels are now making job-preservation decisions, which
sacrifice the creativity of the acts that come through.
that point—job-preservation. Can you describe some of what you witnessed, in
the marketing meetings, which conflicted with your visions and intentions?
That’s 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 & R’s) 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 I’ve 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 Ginuwine’s 100% Ginuwine. Usher was hot at the
time. And so, our whole thing was to piggyback off Usher’s success. They said,
“Let’s pattern what Arista is doing with Usher.” And this would happen all the
time—when we would get acts and try to pattern them off somebody else who’s hot
at the time. I would sit in those meetings and ask, “Why don’t we come up with
something that’s 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 is—you
don’t bite somebody else. That’s what it was predicated on. And, somehow, we
got into a space where everybody’s biting now.
you know, folks like myself, even some MCs, bash the artists for
swagga-jacking, and you’re suggesting that the blame should be pointed in the
other direction, because the artists aren’t at the helm of their marketing
Without question. Kids coming up today
are just in The Matrix. They have no clue what’s happening. And your point is
exactly right because, for example, let’s 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 Now”—that’s a Puffy
video. And that’s 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 says—a White executive that has no clue about
the culture—“This is our Usher.”
to your point about Nas—which 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
project—working on it?
I’m a huge fan, myself. I think, at the
time, he was very confused. When he came off It Was Written—which was his first commercial success—I think, for
one, he had a lot of pressure on him to fill the voids from Tupac and Biggie’s
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 didn’t nurture his core base. We didn’t 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?
It’s really simple. The A & Rs get
whatever producer is hot at the time to produce a record similar to the current
radio hit—back then, everything was radio-driven. So, they’ll bring that
familiar sound in the studio to produce your first single. So, an artist would
have no say-so, because, once you’re 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, you’re just as good as your last bat.
And that’s why everything sounds the same: They pick similar artists because
the artists have to hit a certain bar of radio play, and that’s 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, that’s 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 let’s be frank: Drake
is one-in-a-million. Most other artists don’t have the intelligence or following
he has. So, what advice do you have for those unlike him, to ensure they’re not
Well, I think it’s really basic. At the
end of the day, talent will shine through. If you’re good, it’ll 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 don’t give a sh** about how talented
you are. They don’t care. All they care about is whether or not you’ll 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, I’m not even a big fan of Drake. I think the bar is so
low in Hip-Hop that this dude is being appreciated like he’s that guy—and he’s ok to me.
funny because I share those same views. I heard his 2006 mixtape, Room for Improvement, and that’s about the only thing I’ve been
impressed by so far, as far as lyricism. But, obviously, he has something other
artists don’t have, and some of it might be intelligence—
I agree; it’s 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
he’s a nice guy; I’ve watched his interviews, and I think he’s also smart and
humble. I like that. But part of what makes cats hot in Hip-Hop is natural
swag—not a premeditated swag.
Like Jay-Z had.
Jay-Z! Jay-Z’s swag is visceral,
internal. I could be wrong, but Drake seems like one of those guys in front of
the mirror, who’s making sure his hand movements are on point, his feet
expressions are right. So, I think he’s an actor—a good one.
But the bar is so low, and the consumers
are so unaware, that he can get away with it. It’s not Drake’s fault that the
consumers, the fans, don’t know any better. I almost feel like there needs to
be degrees in Hip-Hop, where you can’t buy or say anything, unless you have
knowledge about the historical events and benchmarks in Hip-Hop, because most
of these kids don’t 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 it’s 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
empowered—they have choices. Kids don’t 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 don’t change
their ideology, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon, they’ll be gone in
What you’re going to have, instead, are
“Music/Entertainment Firms” that are all-encompassing.
They’ll be management firms, because, in
my opinion, the music will be free by then. Generally speaking, there’ll be
certain packaged music sold for purchase, but the primary configuration of
music will be free in about 5 years.
Today, if you’re under 25-years-old, you
don’t 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 I’m saying?
but can you elaborate on it for a second?
What I mean by that is—when kids, today,
subscribe to an artist, it’s not just the music they’re into. They’re digging
backstage and behind the scenes footage of artists. So, really, what you’re
buying into is a lifestyle—not just the music.
So, the firms would cultivate the
lifestyle of the artists—marketing, shows, etc.—their overall brand. And that
involves music as well. If you look at Jay-Z, he doesn’t have to put a record
out, and he’s 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 music—will 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 firms—artists
or pseudo-record label executives?
Well, that’s a great set of questions.
I think—the 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. It’s almost as though you need sub-genres in Hip-Hop,
because it’s so fragmented. So, artists need to be niche-driven—need to know,
and then focus on, their core constituency. As long as there’s 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 corporations—like Verizon or AT&T—and 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. I’m sure you’ve heard this saying time and time
again, and it’s very true—artists were nothing but h**s. They’re like janitors.
The labels take their Publishing and their Masters. They’re service workers.
Now, artists can completely control
their Publishing and the direction of their careers. They may not be
Superstars, but they’ll 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?
It’s not just sensationalism. I think
the site tries to stay away from sensationalism—there’s some of it every now
and then—but there’s a certain integrity that comes with it. And I think that
the themes and stories [covered] on the site—these kids can learn a lot from
it. It’s a credible site.
And I wanted to commend you, too,
because the editorials I’ve read—you’ve really done a good job of breaking
I’m 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.