It’s obvious that Hip Hop isn’t what it used to be and most think it has gotten worse. In the mainstream, it seems we’re seeing less Tupacs and more Soulja Boys. Whenever this topic gets brought up, I always hear a lot about conspiracies. Like the reason the music has gotten so much worse is because the people at the top are trying to keep everybody dumb or something like that. I see this view as the wrong answer to the right question and let me explain why.
Once you understand how business interests (like a label or marketing team) can influence the content of the music, I think it provides a much better explanation as to why Hip Hop has gone the way it has.
First, what do I mean by Business Interests? ‘Business Interests’ sounds like a somewhat sophisticated term, but it’s not. It is very simple. All it means is ‘do what ever you can to make as much money as possible’. Pretty straight forward. “Business” is just a fancy, euphemistic way of saying that. You got to maximize profits. That’s priority number one. Now this is the key point I want to get to in this post—“How has the business ideal of maximizing profits, influenced the music?”
PROFIT VS. CONTENT
This ideal has influenced music mainly in it’s content. You want to maximize profits so that means you want to maximize the size of your audience. The ‘audience’ is simply the people who might buy your music. So you want your audience to be as big as possible, therefore, you wouldn’t want to write or talk about anything that might offend, alienate, or turn off people who would consider buying your music because you’d be missing out on potential profits. Any divisive content, opinions and points of view are discouraged for the same reason.
Now as you can imagine this becomes very limiting for the artist as well as frustrating because you’re constantly second guessing yourself, wondering if a certain topic or story might get a negative reaction from your fan base. So then, and this is the key part, the artist chooses to water down their music. Why? Because when you talk about nothing, your audience is everybody. And that is the business interests goal achieved, because that’s how you maximize profits. You talk about nothing, to make your brand palatable to everybody and therefore more people might buy your music.
DISAPPEARANCE OF POLITICS IN HIP HOP
Take politics for example. Why has Hip Hop become so much less political? Because business interests want to maximize the size of your audience and talking about politics will greatly reduce the size of your audience. Politics is left vs. right, so if you take a political position in a song then no matter what it is, you’re cutting your audience in half. A 50% decline of your potential listeners can be a lot of money lost so ‘business’ prefers to simply not talk about anything political. That is why the most popular artists stray away from politics because it doesn’t serve the business interests, or in other words, you make more money if you don’t talk about politics than if you do.
Now all this implies that the business side has a say in what the artist puts out. Not all situations are like this. Some artists come to their labels with controversial tracks and even though the label may not want to put them out, they do anyway because they’re not in charge. Ideally, this would be how it works. Business interests being subordinate to the artist interests, however this is very rare in the major labels. Why is that?
It all has to do with leverage but, first, it’s worth acknowledging that a lot of the people in powerful positions at the major labels are breathtakingly unfamiliar with Hip Hop. Most got into the industry strictly because they saw it as a place to make money if they invested right and nothing more. So the fact that these people who make the decisions about what to put out, would have a hard time distinguishing between a Kendrick Lamar and a Lil B, is a fact worth recognizing.
WHY BUSINESS HAS TRUMPED ARTISTS IN THE PAST
Alright, back to the main point–why do business interests trump artists interests in the major labels and not so much in the indie labels? It all has to do with ‘contractural leverage’. Again, sounds fancy or complicated but it’s not. It’s just another euphemism. Basically it means: what are your bargaining chips when you negotiate with the label. Now in the majors, the reason why artists have gotten screwed is because they have had no bargaining chips and the labels don’t hesitate for a second to take advantage of it. Think about how most artists got started. They we’re relatively poor and desperate, while the labels had all the money. There are a million rappers out there that want to be signed and only a few big labels. The artists need the labels while the labels don’t really need one particular artist because they can find a clone of him in 2 seconds. So what happened?
The labels were basically like “OK, we want to offer you a contract where you sign all of your copyrights over to us. We’ll give you a loan with an absurdly high interest rate for you to record the music, which we’ll then own and any scraps of money you do end up getting from people buying your music will be used to pay us back for the loan we gave you in the beginning–and if you have a problem with any of this then we’ll show you to the front door because we can find another hundred artists just like you who won’t.”
THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW
That is how shit went down about 10-20 years ago, but it’s radically different now because of technology. (Yes, I know we talk about technology a lot) Artists don’t need the labels anymore, so they become in charge or in other words, they have some serious bargaining chips. Why do you need a label’s distribution or recording studio when you got Youtube, Bandcamp and $250.00 Pro Tools? You don’t. So now the tides are shifting and labels are being screwed over while artists are claiming what is, in my opinion, rightfully theirs, and it’s about time.
Mainstream Hip Hop has been severely stunted by this strategy of ‘profits over content’ although it’s nothing compared to pop music. Now, I’m not a fan, to say the least, of pop music. I happen to think it’s some of the most boring, meaningless, obnoxious and repetitive noise out there. Rap music has been stunted by this strategy but pop music simply is this strategy. It’s what you get when you take music, and then suck all the art out of it.
WRAP IT UP
Anyway, the point is to resist this. Keep business ideas away from the artist’s ideas. Don’t worry about turning off certain types of people or how to broaden your fan base, just worry about expressing your ideas and getting your message out. Don’t dumb anything down, don’t conceal your intentions with a particular topic, just do you and that’s it. The moment you try to please everybody is the moment all art goes down the drain and then you loose your passionate fan base etc…
That’s all I’m going to say for now. I want to talk more about the Mainstream vs. Independent movements. That will be my topic next time.
-PW Writer 2
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