The Death of Record Labels:Artists take charge by Tolu Olorunda

“Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is… to make freedom real.”

—James Baldwin[1]

Hip-Hop should listen to Marco Polo & Torae more.[2] On “Crashing Down,” a prophetic track off the duo’s latest LP, Double Barrel, the hook goes:

… Whatchu gon’ do when the walls come crashing down?/

How you feel?/

Ask me, I’m doing fine/

I’m asking, whatchu gon’ do when the walls come crashing down?/

This crashing 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 we’ve known them. Total destruction. And this is no time for melancholy. Indeed, it’s a time for celebration, a time for jubilation, a time for exhilaration.

There’s 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/.”[3]

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 public’s 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/.”[4]

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 from.

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 understood—or, rather, thought they did—the game, and how it had to be played. These rappers “poked out [their] a**es for a chance to cash in,”[5] and the “[shady] record company people”[6] made good use of it. Very few of these slaves to their labels owned their Masters.”[7] Most were simply slaves. Period.

These artists knew they had to put on the Blackface—often the only available escape from a past mired in poverty. For those brief moments, the Blackface became more than an opportunistic cosmetic supplement—unlike 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,” didn’t invoke memories of shame and sadness—reminder 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 form—reality.

The New York Daily News took note of this trend in 2006.[9] Errol Louis, columnist for the paper, noted the similarity between some of the time’s 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 Coon”—a famous minstrel hit from the Blackface era.

In mention also was 50 Cent’s 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’: “I’m 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: “It’s 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 there’s 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.[10] 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 ingenuity.

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 albums—albums Hip-Hop needed so badly—were placed on the back burner—shelved and abandoned.[11]

No other example yields greater timeliness than Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II, which is scheduled for release tomorrow—after 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 adherent—even in the face of blatant disregard. But the tables soon turned, and with the new millennium came an age of free downloading—an age of choice—an age of freedom.

And the recording industry hasn’t been the same ever since…

In The Long Tail, Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine, details, amongst other things, the rise and fall of giant record companies—crippled 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 industry’s total sales fell by a quarter. But the number of hit albums fell by nearly half.”[12]

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.” [13] And so they began sending signals, but the rapacious executives pretended they couldn’t 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 wouldn’t 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.”[14]

Labels, disagreeing, unwisely hired attorneys to police the internet and put to an end peer-to-peer file-sharing.[15] 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 didn’t. And now, the big four—Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, EMI, and Sony BMG—are 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: $14.5 billion.

The fans demanded an end to the reign of free-market fundamentalism in music production—especially 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 executives—job-preservation.[16]

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.

Like the cymbals on Coltrane’s “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 scheme—which, might I add, they created.

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 week’s editorial,[17] isn’t in no way related to the disgruntlement fans presently express, they contend. Dumping disposable artists on an intelligent audience didn’t create this crisis, either, they say. But we know better.

* * *

Every Black Hip-Hop artist who’s ever sold more than 500,000 copies has a tale to tell, a story to share.[18] 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 audience’s taste in music.[19] 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 empire’s 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 they’ve ever been.

Since last week’s publication,[20] which featured an interview with a former marketing heavyweight, I’ve received tons of e-mails from managers, independent executives, and artists, expressing great joy in Vinnie’s prediction that if major record labels “don’t change their ideology, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon, they’ll be gone in 5 years,” and that, in their space will surface artist-controlled “Music/Entertainment Firms.”

These readers have seen it all and been through it all. They don’t 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.

We’ve 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, don’t be stupid. Don’t 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 can’t be done independently—with tenacity and temperance.

The rumors are not true: Fans don’t 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 don’t buy the CDs as often as you’ll prefer, they show their support in other ways—merchandise and concert tickets.

The record labels never meant well for Hip-Hop, and they’ve made that known, as best as possible, in the last two decades. Even if it’s 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 don’t 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: “It’s a new day running/ And it ain’t coming/ ‘Cuz it’s here for the taking/ It’s been years in the making/.”[21]

The GZA would concur: “No time for backwards thinking/ Let’s think ahead/.”[22]

It’s time: Let’s think, act, and move ahead into a future fueled by self-determination!

Tolu Olorunda is a columnist for and a cultural critic. He can be contacted at Tolu’s Column will return in October 2009.

Published in: on September 8, 2009 at 10:50 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Excellent site, keep up the good work

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