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New Media Economics in Indie Rap

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 through payola 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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Comments

6 replies
  1. Jefe says:

    I’m an indie rapper and I can’t say that I agree 100% with this. I do agree that major record labels are now obsolete, and I believe in the idea of the middle-class musician. But the idea of music as a service and not a product is not realistic for many indie rappers like myself. I live in a market where people that are into hip hop don’t really go out to clubs or live music venues because the live music joints only want major label acts when it’s hip hop – even to open – and the club owners are shady and want the ARTISTS to PAY to perform instead of paying the artist! So for people like me I can’t make music into a service, it has to be a product still. Thankfully the internet makes it easy for people all over to hear my music, but it’s hard to get heard beyond the noise of every other indie and unsigned rapper out there. Live shows are critical in getting beyond the noise, but I have to try be heard in other cities and states because around here it’s useless. Hard to get booked out of area when you can’t show that you’ve got a lot of fans that come out to your shows. Catch 22.

    Another thing that is really missing from this is the idea of licensing. That’s a huge income source for artists and you don’t have to be signed to a major in order to get into it. I’ve licensed my music for indie films.

    Music as a service may be the present in some places, but it is still very much a product in many places. I spend money on beats, mastering my tracks, submitting to festivals, web hosting, video promotion, and getting CDs made to give to DJs and to sell because there are A LOT of people who don’t believe that you are for real without having that shrink-wrapped disc. I make money through digital and physical sales, ad revenue from sites like Reverb Nation, digital streaming websites, and music licensing. But when someone bootlegs or illegally downloads my music, all that does is confirm to people that music has value but the artist isn’t worth getting paid. I saw on Facebook last week that someone asked the question would you buy a whole album from your favorite artist. There were 35 comments, and every last one of them people said they would first try to find it online for free and download it! Someone even said they don’t want to spend music on a whole album because if 2-3 songs were not to their taste they would feel ripped off and that the artist didn’t put their all into it! It’s time “music fans” realize that indie artists should be treated differently major label artists, but a lot of them don’t want to see us as relatable and on the same level. A lot of them don’t think we are worth anything until someone famous co-signs us and they see us on MTV. That’s just the way it is.

  2. Dave Kusek says:

    Jefe – your thoughts are well taken. It is a very difficult market in many respects and there is no simple or easy path or solution that is going to work for everyone. Music as a service is evolving and is going to take on many different meanings. Licensing music is a service, performing music is a service, and accessing music online via Pandora, Last FM, Spotify, etc is also a service. The main thing in my view is to keep trying new things, keep pushing yourself to market and remain flexible to jump on opportunities as they present themselves.

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