I was recently asked to tackle a question that seems to have reared its ugly head again: “Lamonte, where do you see the breakdown in today‘s music business?”
I decided to compare our modern-day music business to the circumstances of the Charles Dickens novel “A Tale of Two Cities.” This infamous novel is based upon two classes of people who occupied the same geographic space and their two different worlds. One class was the French peasants who were demoralized by the French aristocrats, the more privileged class of people, in the mid-1800s. I continued giving the example, as today urban music would fall into the peasantry class in comparison to other genres of music, which comprise the “majority” or aristocrats of the music business.
“MORE TIMES THAN NOT, URBAN RADIO WAITS ON SOMEONE WHO ISN’T REPRESENTATIVE OF THE GENRE OR someone outside of radio TO SAY THAT A RECORD IS HOT, AND THAT WE SHOULD EXPOSE THIS TO THE CULTURE.”
When I use the term “urban music” I MUST include the recording artists, recording business or record companies, radio stations, and now digital platforms.
Let’s break down this true “Tale of Two Cities” as it pertains to the music industry.
The first and most important factor in this breakdown is that the music industry isn‘t about music anymore! The entire focus is on business and not music. A large majority of today‘s recording artists have one goal in mind, and that’s to change their current financial circumstances. With that type of focus, the real emphasis on cultivating and perfecting their music artistry is lost. When they lose that center, it affects their creativity in music and it shows in all aspects of their artistry. That‘s a major factor in why today‘s music has a dwindling life span. Also, I believe artists today lack knowledge of the history showing how urban music created “cool”! Be clear: Nothing moves without urban music.
Since the beginning of our existence in this great land of the United States, we started singing in the cotton fields. We created jubilant musical tones in spite of horrific living conditions. Over the past 300 years, we have been responsible for jazz, blues, gospel, soul, R&B and now hip-hop – genres now known as “urban.” Some will say that rock’n’roll, country, and pop music have stemmed from these creations. But somehow, at times, these formats have been positioned in various platforms as superior genres. I believe that with the knowledge of urban music’s rich history, artists are instilled with a sense of pride and responsibility in themselves and their craft, and that will increase the quality of today’s musical output and decrease the level of what I call “foolishly peasant-sounding music”!
Keep in mind that the blame for this dysfunction in urban music can‘t be placed solely at the feet of the urban recording artists. Over the past 20 years, I have witnessed the mammoths in the music industry dismantle almost every urban music department and minimize the influence of the urban music executive. Today, that job is nearly complete. Again, this circumstance mimics the aristocrat vs. the peasant caste system … or as Tyler Perry would say, “The Haves and Have Nots.”
Let‘s look at what some would call the aristocratic class in today‘s major recording companies, with a focus on promotions. Pop, crossover and country promo departments may not have flourished over the years, but they have ALL maintained a level of non-dismantling – while urban departments have been consolidated and downsized. The average tenure of an employee in a pop, crossover or country division, in comparison to that in urban, is 35 percent longer (and, this is according to various executives who have been polled across formats).
From observing this decline, the takeaway is that a level of cultivation that all, not just younger, music executives need – to flourish and to harvest great product – is virtually non-existent. I believe the urban music executive not only understands the art of business but brings a sense of science – insights about what consumers in the genre want to see and hear.
Next is what I like the call the UBER peasantry mentality and dysfunction that plague the urban radio business today. I truly believe that many people have lost the understanding that urban radio has always created the “cool” I referenced earlier. Historically, the power of a microphone has been paramount in the urban community – way before the age of television and what we now call the “internet of things.”
Not only is radio nostalgic but, per recent data, radio is still the number one driver of music introduced to consumers. This illusion – that the power of “cool” creation has been taken away by YouTube clicks and Instagram likes – needs to be abandoned. Today‘s urban radio landscape has a “wait and see” mentality instead of the trailblazing attitude of yesteryear. Other genres and their executives take an opposite approach.
Artist embracement also needs to be restored at urban radio, not only to new artists in the genre but especially to our core legacy artists.
Years ago, I took a Mary J. Blige record to a radio programmer and he said, “Lamonte, I really like this record and I know it‘s Mary J. But, remember it‘s my job to tell you why I shouldn‘t play your record and it‘s your job to tell me why I should.” I sat in his office, dumbfounded, saying to myself, “this is crazy.” This happened years ago, but this type of dysfunction continues today, albeit covertly. It makes me wonder, does this happen at country, pop or rock radio?
More times than not, urban radio waits on someone who isn‘t representative of the genre, or someone outside of radio, to say that a record is hot, and that we should expose this to the culture. I‘ll use Donald Glover as an example; for the record, we in the culture knew him as Childish Gambino many moons ago. But, before Gambino shouted out the Migos during his Golden Globe Awards acceptance speech, we knew that the track “Bad and Boujee” was HOT! We‘ve consumed and rubber-stamped the Migos‘ many singles before. If you haven‘t been under a rock for the past seven years, you know we have all sung or rapped the lyrics to “Versace,” “Pipe it Up,” “Handsome & Wealthy,” “Hanna Montana” and don‘t forget “Look At My DAB” (no, Cam Newton did not create that)! What Gambino did on the Golden Globes stage was a great look for Migos, but it should not have been a license – or a form or research – for some urban radio stations to now embrace the Migos in a way they had not been over the past seven years. That‘s dysfunctional.
I truly understand urban radio and its hierarchy, where most local programmers are not empowered or given the autonomy to support artists and brand themselves as creators of “cool.” We should find a way for urban radio to be loyal to their artists as well as protect the base of urban music again, just as other formats do, in such a way that this level of dysfunction is NEVER displayed.
A wise urban radio person once said, “If you are in the urban radio business, understand that this is a war and being on the front line is a thankless job and when the glory comes you will be the last to receive it, so figure it out and let‘s create ‘cool.‘ ” So, urban radio, it‘s time to embrace the fact that, historically, you have been the teacher to the community you serve, and you must take responsibility for some of the things that you do and the music you play. Urban radio is a teacher and it teaches people what to consume. Ratings may say one thing, but the people in the urban community are listening.
The digital music business is the newest sector of the music business; it does not show as much of the “A Tale of Two Cities” mentality. But through my lens, I see something that is still common practice that only seems to be formatted for urban music, “FREE DIGITAL MUSIC.”
Back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, there was Napster. This free, online file-sharing platform had become massively popular within its first year until it caught the eye of some in the aristocratic class of the music industry.
In early 2000, the rock group Metallica discovered that one of its songs appeared on Napster before its release date and the single made it to radio before its actual release date. The group and its label were not happy. Also, Metallica found out that its back catalog was available online for all to share. Several weeks later, the group contacted its attorneys and a lawsuit was filed against Napster for copyright infringement.
Also, multi-million-selling hip-hop producer and artist Dr. Dre got caught up with Napster. He filed a lawsuit against Napster exactly one month after Metallica did, using the same litigators. One year later, both cases were settled out of court and Napster was completely shut down.
Fast forward 15 years. In the digital space today, you have a plethora of music platforms that peddle urban music with a special emphasis on hip-hop, that is downloadable for free. The availability of these urban music downloads is embraced and encouraged by the music business. But in 2016 Metallica released an album titled “Hardwired to Self-Destruct” and sold more than 2 million copies. I couldn’t find one website where I could download it for free. NOT ONE! This is utter aristocratic behavior that feeds right into the narrative of “what’s good for urban music isn’t good for Metallica and other genres.”
Let‘s look at the uber-talented Chance The Rapper from the great city of Chicago. He is a rap artist who recently won Best New Artist, Best Rap Album and Best Rap Performance at the 59th Annual GRAMMY Awards. He travels the world performing on the biggest stages, sells tons of merchandise, and was a regular at the White House during Barack Obama’s presidency.
In 2016 Chance released an album titled “Coloring Book” that was available on every digital platform imaginable, all for FREE. To date, it is still available. Chance and his team believe that he should give his music away for free because it gives his fans FREEDOM. Let‘s be clear – when it‘s time to acquire some Chance concert tickets or some of that super-fly merchandise on his website, that isn‘t free! No FREEDOM is needed there. So, I ask you: Is a fan of Metallica more important than a fan of Chance the Rapper? Does a Metallica fan need to be set free? Why would Metallica make more than 2 million people pay for their newly 2016 released album?
Many would say these are silly questions, but I say that the aristocrats of this newly created digital music business didn‘t play that in 2000 when Metallica was the example and they surely aren‘t playing that in 2017 with that FREE foolishness. Whereas Chance the Rapper – although very talented and successful in certain circles – can be found on Datpiff.com, Mixtapes.com and even on his own website, giving away his musical excellence for free.
This brings us back to the initial question of where I see the breakdown in today’s urban music business.
We first must acknowledge that we are inside the Charles Dickens novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” and the urban music business continues to be blocked from the music aristocracy. Urban music must recognize and understand some of our current dysfunctional behavior with our artists, inside our record companies, at urban radio and even in the digital space. This all starts with us, as we are the architects of this culture. Urban music has dominated and led popular culture around the globe. We must embrace the love and channel it back into our music so that it increases our artistic measure. This disconnect between consumers and the industry must cease.
And finally, and most importantly, we must internalize the fact that we determine what‘s “cool”; we are the Architects of “Cool!”
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