This is an essay I thought I would never write. When I entered the music industry in the early 1990s, the disdain that I and many of my colleagues felt for the business we had chosen was almost immediate. Having to talk and deal with people with enormous power to both help and hurt your career, but who did not share your priorities and appreciation for the art and culture to which you were dedicating your young life; was downright disheartening. This was not just unique to me. One only has to scan through the catalog of 90s hip hop to find countless records railing against the exploitative, cut throat and often petty tactics of music industry idiots. (I myself wrote at least a dozen.) So, in the early 2000s, when the industry’s stubborn refusal to adapt to the changes in how music was being consumed precipitated its nose dive of hubris, no one celebrated it more than me. As an artist who had two unsuccessful attempts at major label projects and had been told by numerous executive types that my music was “too sophisticated”, I was happy to watch it fall and die. I had started my own independent label and recording studio facility and had been putting out my own records since 1996. I built a good living, carved out a niche and had the personal assets and debts to prove it; and although the industry monster of which I was reluctantly a small part was crashing down all around me, I felt confident that whatever would replace it would be better. Ten years or so later, I am afraid I was wrong.
I remember being eighteen years old and visiting a friend at Uptown Records who worked in the video promotion department. I knew that this particular label would want no part of the kind of music I was doing so I was there solely on a friendly visit between stops at companies to which I was better suited. While sitting in the office with my friend, a young A and R approached us and asked her if I was busy and if I had good musical taste. She gave him an answer he wanted to hear, so he asked me if I would do him a favor. He brought me into an empty conference room where on the table, sat a boom box, and a large cardboard box (the kind reams of printer paper come in) over flowing with demo tapes. He explained that this was just what they had received in the past three days and he was busy doing something regarding the release of Soul 4 Real’s debut album. He then asked me if I would take a listen. I told him I wasn’t going to be long and didn’t possibly have enough time to listen to all those tapes. He said I didn’t have to. “Just listen to the first 20 or 30 seconds of the first song on each one. If you hear ANYTHING wrong with it, put it back in the box. If you hear something that is major label quality, set it aside.” “Sure why not,” I said, and dove right in. In thirty minutes I must have gone through fifty tapes. I found one that was worth a follow up listen. Only one.
I still get to walk through label offices every so often and I can’t remember the last time I have seen a box of tapes/ cds. That’s because they no longer exist. The box of tapes is now called, the internet. When the music industry collapsed and music joined the all-digital cyber universe, the barriers to entering music collapsed along with it. What a wonderful thing it became that ANYONE could now make a song and unleash it upon the world, and what a terrible thing it became that ANYONE could now make a song and unleash it upon the world. Artists like me had spent many frustrating years chastising the music filtering process in which labels engaged. Like any filter, it kept a great deal of crap from reaching people, but it often kept great music which didn’t meet what a musician might call, “frivolous criteria,” out of the public ear. At the time, I focused on the latter. I didn’t appreciate (until the filter was removed completely) the significance of the former. The internet is a bastion of noise. There are too many so-called artists putting out too much music and so much of it is somewhere between awful and mediocre for both objective and subjective reasons. Freedom isn’t free, and although most of today’s music damn near is, you pay for it in time when attempting to find something you like. Trying to discover just one new thing you can listen to out of this virtual box of demo tapes is quite literally like finding a needle in a haystack. As a result, music services, websites and blogs have emerged in attempt to streamline and validate the product for the listener. But they don’t really help. Validation can often be purchased for a small fee and because the consumer now pays next to nothing for music, the revenue from these types of operations is typically generated on the supply side. As a result, it is against their self-interest to be critical. The supply of big dreamers making music is virtually limitless while the demand is not. Reaching the discerning listener is more difficult than it has ever been because a person with any kind of sophisticated musical taste will not waste his or her time combing through boxes and boxes of tapes just to find one cassette of merit. But a non-sophisticated listener who relishes his own “consumer power” to register an up or down vote, will comb the desert with zeal; rejecting out of hand even the rare quality talent they come across in favor of something that appeals to their undeveloped musical taste. This explains a Solja Boy. It explains a Chief Keef. It explains the young kids who see those artists and think to themselves, “I can do that,” and post the first song THEY HAVE EVER RECORDED on Soundcloud and iTunes. Of course you can do that! Almost anyone can! Learn to play a musical instrument! Twenty years ago, the demo tape of the artist they are emulating would not have made it 30 seconds in the boombox before it would have been discarded.
The demo tape barrier isn’t the only one that has fallen. I probably recorded 300 songs in my basement before my crew and I had honed our talents to the point where someone went into their pocket and gave us money to go to a recording studio. Believe it or not, there are now artists with commercially available product, who have never set foot inside a real recording studio! I meet them all of the time. These are people who think a laptop and a USB mic can replace a studio. While these are great tools for pre-production, they can rarely create the “major label quality” sound my Uptown Records A and R buddy was looking for years ago. But the major label barely exists anyways, so why not save the studio money and put some crappy sounding record on the internet? The younger listener is now generally so used to hearing low quality, poorly recorded, poorly mixed, and unbelievably distorted and loud music, that they don’t even know what a great recording is supposed to sound like any way. Big Lil’ Young now has access to the boombox, and he’s filling the bandwidth with his hackneyed attempts at making music. How does a supremely creative and talented artist without major label funding, cut through the noise?
Not long ago, there were even built in barriers to entry for those of us who went the independent label route. In order to compete in media outlets with major label product, one had to present it like it was just that. It cost money to use or build a pro recording facility that produced that sound quality. You HAD to have the record you were pushing on vinyl or DJs couldn’t play it. That cost MORE money. Pushing your record meant giving it away to a lot of people. Radio, press, record pools etc. (Each time we put out a record, we would fill a mini-van from top to bottom with record mailers, back it up to the loading dock of the post office and spend $1500 in postage alone!) The expertise and money required for such an endeavor took time to orchestrate and the time it took to develop the musical talents worthy of such risks, was even greater. Reaching the point where one could release a record independently was a major accomplishment in and of itself. When we began shooting videos in 1998, the attention we received for just being able to pull it off would be worth a million of today’s YouTube views. Today, people shoot music videos on cell phones and that’s pretty damn cool, but there is something to be said for all that needed to be learned and achieved to reach such a milestone. People still managed to make awful records, but they paid a hefty price when they did. This barrier to entry actually insured that quality records would stand out if the artist met certain criteria while getting to that point. Records are now released independently with very little skin in the game. If an artist does have money, it isn’t used to perfect the product. It is used to pay all of the filters of validation I described above. (ANYONE can put a music video on XXL’s home page for a week for $1300. ANYONE!) Do you trust today’s listener to listen to a record or look at a video and accurately judge the talent and skill it took to make it? I sure didn’t trust the label executive to do it twenty years ago, but I must say they were far better at it than today’s modern listener. I know I may sound like a grumpy old man, but let us be honest with ourselves and call a spade a spade.
It is just too easy now. Rappers don’t learn how to make their own music or find other musicians and create a unique sound. They go to Soundclick and purchase beats for ten bucks! Rappers don’t build fan bases any more. They buy Twitter followers and YouTube views and hyper-inflate social media to force everyone else to do the same. Labels don’t develop artists any more. They sit with their trimmed down staff and limited budgets and wait. They wait for the act to do all of the work. They wait for an artist to find some way of over exposing himself on his own with whatever stilted piece of gimmicky junk he can come up with, then they swoop in, sign him to a 360 deal, exploit and use him up in two years, then spit him right back onto the block where he started from. No hiring a producer to sit in the studio with the youngster and show him the ropes for a year. No vocal lessons, very little media training, no performance coaching and no thought for the artist’s long-term career. It is all about making the most amount of quick money with the least amount of investment as possible. Gone are the days of a label signing and developing ten acts so that one could blow up and pay for the other nine. Gone are the days when an artist was pimped out of his mechanicals, but at least still controlled his publishing, image and likeness.
I want music that is slow-cooked and not micro-waved. I can’t believe I’m saying it. I want my corrupt music industry filter back. It was better than this bullshit.