By, Wendy Day (www.Rap-Coalition.com)
What is it about the rap music industry that makes people standing on the sidelines assume they understand how it works? Does it look easy from the outside looking in? Are folks so blinded by watching BET and reading a couple of rap magazines that they actually think they understand the ins and outs enough to pursue this shit as a career?
I agree that it’s easier to get into this industry than it is to play professional ball, or be a rocket scientist for NASA (all that pesky schooling), or to be a brain surgeon (again, more years of schooling and actual experience operating on brains). But it’s not so easy that someone can wake up tomorrow fresh off a job at Burger King, and say “I want to be a rap star,” or my personal favorite: “I am going to manage my boy Bo-Bo’s rap career.”
If it was as easy as going to Kinko’s and pressing up some business cards, don’t you think EVERYONE would be doing that? Oh wait! They are!!
One of the saddest days of my life was the day I realized that Hip Hop was no longer a culture, no longer a lifestyle choice, but a business. And a very big business it was. People from outside of the culture were co-opting it and making money from it. I knew that this also meant that the day it no longer was profitable, they’d move on like the fair weather friends they were (we’re almost there, by the way). Lyor Cohen wasn’t tagging subway cars, and his pants weren’t sagging, but his decisions controlled the movement of rap music far more than anyone whose pants did sag. There was a trade off though. For the first time in my lifetime, I was able to see young people of color get good paying jobs in the music business. Some even had perceived power. I was able to see artists make money for themselves and feed their families and create their own companies based on their level of fame. And this was a good thing. This was the 90s.
Then 2000 hit and reality shows were everywhere. Billionaire heiresses became famous for doing nothing but sleeping around and getting high or drunk. The behavior of an Old Dirty Bastard type of character was no longer seen as bizarre or pushing the envelope. Hell, Flavor Flav had his own TV show doing that shit in his sleep!
But somehow the mindset was born in all of this that getting into the music industry is easy. No training, no experience, no relationships….just POOF! I’m a manager! Or POOF! I own a record label. Artists seemingly believe it comes down to “getting discovered” by someone at a record label, but in the 16 years that I have been doing this, I can’t think of one scenario where that was the case. Who is telling these kids from OH and TX and Cali that they can just mail in a demo to a major record label in NYC and they will get offered a deal? That has NEVER, EVER, EVER happened!! The labels don’t even listen to unsolicited material. They send it back unopened. There’s even a question in my mind if most of the A and Rs have the time to listen to the stuff they request…
I get hundreds of emails from wanna-be artists each week asking me to get them a record deal. They have no idea what they are asking me, and they have no idea why they are asking me, but somehow I am a perceived gatekeeper stopping or allowing them to live their dreams. A dream they made no effort to research or learn about. I also get a ton of emails from people complaining that their city has more talent than Atlanta, or Miami, or Houston, or Dallas, or whatever city is the flavor of the minute in the music industry. The PERCEPTION is that the labels get together and decide which city or town will be next, and then they all go there. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha Sorry to laugh, but that is so funny to me. These industry folks can’t even decide which artist on their own rosters to put out next and here are these kids in, say, Buffalo NY thinking they are getting passed over for their only shot at music success.
The reason certain cities develop their own industry is out of frustration. When enough talent in one place (artists, producers, DJs, etc)—Atlanta, for example, gets frustrated enough to say “Fuck the industry!” and start doing things on their own separate from the industry, and when they begin to make a little noise on their own, the industry comes running to see what’s going on. If the industry feels they can make money off of a new movement, they arrive in droves to co-opt that movement, signing anyone they can get their hands on at the price they are willing to spend. If they don’t think it will lead to massive national sales, they leave as quickly as they came (see the Hyphy Movement in the Bay Area for proof of this phenomenon).
Rap music is a business. It stopped being just an artform, very sadly, in the 90s. The view of the music industry "putting on forgotten cities" is very wrong. An artist, or a city, has to create its own movement to attract the industry. IF the established industry thinks it can pimp it and make some money, it’s a done deal.
Being a non-sports person, I am going to try to make a basketball analogy, so bear with me. I went to a Knick's game in NYC a few years ago. In watching the team play (not so well), I decided that I could do that better than anyone on that team could. I had always loved basketball, so I went home and practiced for years. Every waking moment, I practiced. But the Knicks never called me to come play with them. I live in Atlanta, where I think very few ball players are from (it doesn’t matter if there are a lot of ball players from here or not, no one I know is getting put on by the NBA). We have a ton of talented ball players here just in my neighborhood alone—yet, the Knicks never called me. I practiced every day and knew I was better than anyone on that whole team. I wrote letter after letter to the Knicks telling them to come to Atlanta and watch players play ball, especially me. I even offered to fly some team scouts in at my own expense. No one came. Looks like Atlanta is just a forgotten city in basketball because they didn’t come when I called.
Finally, out of annoyance, I went back to a Knicks game, and when the ball came out of bounds over near where I was sitting, I got out of my floor seats and threw the ball and scored a basket—all net! A very impressive shot. When folks came over to me, I explained that I was a great player and deserved to be on the Knicks. But they laughed at me and were angry that I interrupted the game.
What did I do wrong? Why didn't they sign me up on the spot? Was it because I didn't take the time to learn the BUSINESS of basketball? It was my favorite sport, but once it left the b-ball courts in my town, it became a business when the Knicks name was attached to it. I didn't follow protocol--learning the sport, playing through school, playing through college and standing out, and getting drafted to a team (one in a million shot). I just assumed it was about throwing the ball through the hoop because of my love of the sport. And I assumed if they saw me do it well, that was all that mattered.
Realizing this is a half-assed analogy, I hope you understand what I am trying to say. If you want to do this for a living, learn the rules and protocol. It's NOT just about grabbing a mic or about a scout from a label stumbling into any city outside of NYC to discover talent and putting your city on the map. That couldn't be farther from reality.... And how sad is it that we all understand how the business of basketball works, but we think we can mail a demo to someone at a record label and become the next major superstar!!