Why the Music Industry Can’t Save Itself

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 okey-doke/ … 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, […]

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

downfall—imminent doom. And like all bullies—whether 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 domination—the music industry is

lapping up its last left spoils, even as all indicators suggest this giant is

crippled and wobbling—more 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

were revealed

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 combined—three 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 Boyle’s triumph, seemed to be classical tenor vocalist Andrea

Bocelli’s 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

artists—and 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 superstar’s 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 Boyle’s musicianship, not top model-like qualities, that “engaged

everybody,” he said. And while many—in the millions—preferred 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 now—because 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 was—and is going back to—is, 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

week—until the last? Who says this

precious jewel wouldn’t have been laughed at hysterically—if not directly

insulted—by 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-up—which I’m sure will have far-reaching effects into the new

year—the 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

a sport?

It’s worth

noting that only 6% of Boyle’s sales were internet-based, with iTunes

accounting for a mere 40,000 downloads in total sales. The lesson can’t be overlooked:

Fans are still interested in the physical

nature of music—but 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.

In The

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

industry’s 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 four—Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, EMI, and

Sony BMG—which 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 students—most of whom know no better—to

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

hasn’t 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 sleeves—make 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

independently—without 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 artist—no

matter how slick or savvy—is involved in. The 360 is a perfect avenue through

which labels are able to reclaim their “pride” by reminding artists not only of

who’s boss but who’s king.

And if brow-beating teenage music lovers—who’ve

been forced upon (against their wills) disposable, downloadable music for

years—wasn’t enough, and gagging artists didn’t 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 of—if not

inextricable link to—the 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 weren’t so serious. It gets worse. This misinformation campaign is

successfully dividing artists and DJs—installing chips on the shoulders of

artists who once could never establish a career without successful mixtape DJs

willing to take chances on them. Lil’

Wayne’s misguided, expletive-riddled

rants against mixtape DJs a year and half ago is a sobering example.

But even this apparently doesn’t quite

fit the bill. Increasingly, industry executives, and their high profile

artists, like

Jay-Z, are suing bars for playing music without permission. The labels, it

has been reported, send “spies”—operatives!—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 bloggers—has

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

downfall—imminent doom. 


Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work regularly appears on TheDailyVoice.com and other online journals. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.