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Guest Post by MC Lars

Back in 2005, my former manager at Nettwerk, Tom Gates, gave me a copy of Kusek’s “Future of Music” book.

“Read it,” Gates said.  “It might be interesting to you.”

I read the whole book in a weekend and was inspired to write a song detailing the changes Kusek proposed, many of which have come true.  It seemed crazy then.  Five years later, there has been an ideological shift made very apparent by the new generation of artists and consumers; music isn’t really a physical product anymore, it’s a service that artists provide that they are then paid for (if the service they provide has cultural and/or emotional value).

The song I wrote was called “Download This Song“, and it charted in Australia where I did TRL on MTV.  The YouTube video received a half a million plays and the single was given press in the NME, the UK’s biggest music magazine.  Afterwards, a girl in Texas who was being sued by the RIAA heard the song and contacted me.  I forwarded it to Gates.  Gates sent it to Terry McBride.  Nettwerk paid for her legal fees because one of the songs in her collection was by an artist they managed.  Clearly the ideas in the book and my song had reached a large audience.

It’s honestly somewhat eerie how much of what Kusek predicted came true.  Gone is the ineffectual A&R I described in songs like “Signing Emo” who races to find “the next hit” to get their band on the radio and a $200,000 video that only recoups 10% of the time.  WTF? Gone is the idea that record labels are necessary or even always helpful.  Gone too is MTV’s agency as a music network, platinum albums, and commercial music retailers like Tower Records and Circuit City.

It might seem very bleak to the common music fan, but from an artist’s perfective, things have never been better.  In the independent hip-hop community, thousands and thousands of regional pockets of talented artists working hard to perfect and distribute their material have all popped up across America and the world.  No longer do artists aim to get $1,000,000 advances, a ridiculous and usually unrecoupable amount, but find themselves as part of an emerging middle-class that Kusek predicted would come to be.

Rap crews like Twiztid and the Psychopathic collective have used their underground and independent acumen to build empires and continue to bring tens of thousands of kids to their annual midwest hip-hop festival.  Upstate New York’s Weerd Science have become a credible and influential voice in the hip-hop underground on the strength of their 2005 debut – an impressive feet for a group with no strong label backing or touring history.   Records and regional tours have directly translated to lucrative career music for some of these artists.

The Peter Principal states that in the workplace, “each employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”.  Basically this means that you will keep getting promoted and promoted until you are unable to do the next job and that there is a subjectively manifested glass ceiling based on one’s ability to do their job.  This is reflected in the music scene because artists now get to become as famous as they care to be or deserve.  If the music is good, it sticks with people.

And this meritocracy is the future Kusek predicted – catalyzed, in part, by the broadband technological improvements made in the last few years.  HD YouTube videos are a click away, downloading speeds have increased and you can get any artist’s discography for free within a  few clicks.  I listen to most of my new albums on Rhapsody because it’s easier than keeping track of the stacks hard drives full of mp3s I’ve collected over the years.  There’s a Zen to music consumption now, one of the new simplicity of it all.

And for the record, I’m living proof that downloading doesn’t hurt artists.  Without the advent of torrents, kids can quickly get any of my albums for free at any time from basically anywhere.  And that’s awesome!  Kids have my albums, even the rare out-of-print ones, because they’ve found them for free online.  Some of them decide to help support me in other ways by buying t-shirts or getting the occasional track from iTunes, which adds up if the net is wide enough.  I then pay my bills with digital sales, college gigs, and international touring.

I can’t buy a mansion in Hollywood, but that was never the goal.  I get by comfortably and will keep making music until I die.  High five!  What more could I ask for?  The 14 year old version of myself would be very proud of how I turned out at 27.

“Music was a product, now it is a service”.

Check out a new favorite crew of mine from South Africa, Die Antwoord, luminaries in the Johannesburg “zef-rap” scene.  In a truly viral word-of-mouth fashion, another artist I’d worked with (Tina Root from Switchblade Symphony) sent me the YouTube link.

“You’ll like this,” she said. “It’s different.”  She was right.

I checked out their “Enter the Ninja” video – the raps were tight, the chorus was very catchy, the visuals were unique, and the editing was dope!  I then researched zef-rap and learned that it is an international postmodern culture that takes every regional hip-hop tradition I could imagine and amalgamates it into one thing.  It’s hip-hop of the future that I had found by the web from a colleague.

This is how it “zef” a uniquely postmodern hip-hop form: In one video, a rapper named Jack Parow “ghostrides” his car, dancing along side of it.  This is a hip-hop tradition that was popularized in the Bay Area in the last decade, a reflection of the car culture being so integral to “hyphy” rappers like E-40 and Mac Dre.  Zef-rap incorporates many regional hip-hop movements into one genre, which is why I’m so in love with it these days!  Would I have heard of this genre otherwise?  Probably not.  It’s all because of this viral video my friend sent.  Now I can’t stop talking about them.

When kids ask me how I got into music, I always tell them this; if you want to have a career in indie hip-hop or any other genre of music these days, you need to be dedicated, come original, and work on building your brand as something real and human that people can relate to.  Don’t expect to make money on albums, labels are essentially just banks that help promote artists as brands, with CDs being their main promotional tool.

Kusek gave me hope when I was starting out that the playing field would be leveled if you believe in your art.  The punk rock ethics that I grew up with as a teenager in the late 90s are very conducive to the new culture of music listening and consumption.

I’d also like to thank Dave for his support through the years and also for getting me into classes at the Berklee College of Music in 2007 – I’ve learned a lot from him and trust you all can too.

Much respect to anyone working to make a career in music.

Welcome to the future!

MC Lars

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I was hanging out with my friend Charlie McEnerney last night and asked him about his interview with Larry Lessig.  Here is his post and a link to the complete interview from Well Rounded Radio.  Check it out.

In many music and entertainment circles, the name Lawrence Lessig needs no introduction, but for those who don’t know his work, here’s some background.

Lessig is a lawyer and activist whose interests are mostly in intellectual property, copyright, technology, and political reform. He’s has written five influential books, including Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (2000), The Future of Ideas (2001), Free Culture (2004), Code: Version 2.0 (2006), and Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (2008).

Remix was just published in paperback in October 2009.

Over the past 10 years, Lessig has worked for both Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School. He is currently a lawyer at Harvard Law School and director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

Lessig is a founding board member of Creative Commons. In 2008, Lessig launched the Change Congress campaign, now called Fix Congress First.

Lessig talks about Creative Commons during the interview, but in a nutshell it’s an organization with copyright tools that allows content creators to give various levels of freedom to others for them to remix and build upon the original work.

The idea behind remix culture is how an artist can take a work that a pervious artist has produced and build upon it to create something new. The term has become more commonplace in the last decade, but in fact the concept has been in use for decades, most notably in rap music starting 30 years ago.

Growing up in Queens, New York, I was lucky enough to hear the rap bands of the first era pretty early on (granted, thanks to bands like Blondie and The Clash and college radio putting Grandmaster Flash, The Sugar Hill Gang, Kurtis Blow, and Afrika Bambaattaa on my radar) which usually utilized sampling techniques when creating their music.

I have long been a fan of the groups who fine tuned the ideas behind audio sampling to perfection, in Long Island’s Public Enemy and De La Soul. I’ve always thought both groups pushed the ideas behind sampling in ways that few others did before or since, albeit in very different directions.

With Public Enemy’s 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and De La Soul’s 1989 album 3 Feet High and Rising, at the moment it seemed like the idea of what music “is” was being reinvented.

But, after a series of lawsuits for a variety of musicians and labels, the art of sampling and remixing was largely hobbled, in either using others work with or without their consent.

Twenty years later, it is still mostly the domain of those willing to tread in dangerous waters or for artists who want to engage their own fans by allowing them to remix work as part of the growing participatory culture community. For remix artists who might be looking to push their ideas further, it’s unlikely they can put their work into the public without a sizable budget.

Having read all of Lessig’s work and seen two recent documentaries about the remix culture (Brett Gaylor’s RIP: A Remix Manifesto and Benjamin Franzen’s Copyright Criminals), I wanted to speak with Lessig about how current musicians could utilize Creative Commons and share with their own audience as well as look at how we music fans can better understand this era of shared creativity, which dramatically changes the idea of those performers vs. us in the audience.

In addition to these films and Lessig’s Remix book, some good reads on the subject include DJ Spooky’s book Sound Unbound (2008) and Matt Mason’s The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture is Reinventing Capitalism (2009).

The show includes music from the earlier era of sampling as well as some recent examples of mainstream musicians offering up their work for remixing, including David Byrne and Brian Eno, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and Bjork.

I sat down with Lessig at his office at Harvard Law School to discuss:
* why it’s unlikely the current copyright system will change
* why Greg Gillis, also known as Girl Talk, has not been sued
* how Creative Commons works and how musicians can use it to engage their fans even more

Songs included in the interview include:
1) Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome (Welcome to the Terrordome) (in preview)
2) Grandmaster Flash: The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel
3) De La Soul: Me Myself and I (3 Feet High and Rising)
4) Public Enemy: Night of the Living Baseheads
5) DJ Moule: Black Sabotage remix of Beastie Boys‘s Sabotage
6) Radiohead: Reckoner (In Rainbows)
7) Nick Olivetti: Nasty Fish remix of Radiohead‘s Reckoner
8) David Byrne + Brian Eno: Help Me Somebody (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts)
9) Owl Garden: Secret Somebody remix of David Byrne + Brian Eno‘s Help Me Somebody
10) Mr. Briggs Hit me somebody remix of David Byrne + Brian Eno‘s Help Me Somebody
11) Girl Talk: No Pause (Feed the Animals)
12) Girl Talk: In Step (Feed the Animals)
13) Danger Mouse: Encore (The Gray Album)
14) The Album Leaf‘s remix of Nina Simone‘s Lilac Wine from Verve Remixed
15) Vind‘s remix of Bjork‘s Venus as a Boy
16) Fatboy Slim: Praise You (You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby)
17) Amplive‘s remix of Radiohead‘s Weird Fishes

Get the audio interview here.

A great profile by Paul Resnikoff.

Get past the street-tough imagery and braggadocio, and 50 Cent is actually one of the most well-run, well-conceived business entities in music. And like Jay-Z, he also one of the most wealthy.

Spawned by Dr. Dre and Eminem and one the highest-selling rappers of all time, 50 Cent is actually less a rapper, and more a company. In fact, he is one of the most highly-successful examples of a 360-degree artist today, and a template for future artist business models.

In an earlier era, artists would shy away from advertising and sponsorship deals. A tie-in with a major company was usually viewed as a sellout, and often resulted in a major credibility hit. That has changed dramatically, though rappers were never haunted by that sellout demon.

Instead, the opposite is true – rappers are often unabashed capitalist warriors beating the system, and rapping about their exploits. And 50 Cent – who famously survived nine gunshots at close range – recently entered a monetary stratosphere that few enjoy.

Sure, 50 is a mega-platinum seller, and a staple of popular culture. But the rapper, and those orchestrating his career, are mostly focused on pursuing revenues through any channel, instead of simply maximizing record sales. And the moneymaking possibilities are only limited by the creativity of the entrepreneurs involved.

In fact, during the past twelve months, 50 Cent netted $150 million, according to a Forbes estimate. A major percentage of that payout came from an interesting deal with VitaminWater owner Glaceau, purchased by Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion. 50, as part of a broader sponsorship deal, cashed Glaceau shares for an estimated $100 million after taxes.

That adds to an existing stable of other business divisions, including a G-Unit clothing line, a boutique recording label, and even a stab into gaming. “The financials of the music business have changed to the point that we have to find ways to make money in other places,” 50 Cent brand manager Barry Williams recently told Forbes. “I didn’t think six years ago when we started trying to sell music that we’d be selling VitaminWater and shoes and clothes. Now we’re moving into other directions, and four or five years from now, it’s exciting to think about us looking at natural resources and raw materials and other businesses.”

The natural resources discussion could potentially produce a 50-branded series of platinum jewels. The rapper is now entertaining a deal with South African mining billionaire Patrice Motsepe, another creative exploitation of the 50 Cent image that goes way beyond a simple album release.

Of course, 50 Cent is unique entrepreneur and performer, and an extreme example of success. And every successful, 360-degree artist forges a unique business model, one that plays into the strengths of the artist and considers the target audience carefully. But in the modern music industry, the ultra-successful artist is one that successfully exploits a broad portfolio of revenue generators, and approaches the situation like a diversified business. That is the reality of the modern music industry, one that demands just as much business ingenuity as artist creativity.

More info from Forbes here.

Digital Music News.