Who Fucked Up Hip Hop?
By, Wendy Day from Rap Coalition
I’m looking at the Top 200 CDs that sold this past week, according to SoundScan—that’s basically a list of CDs that have sold between 3,194 on the low end (#200 is Chrisette Michelle’s “I Am”) and 189,682 on the high end (#1 is Day 182’s “Day 182”). These statistics give me an idea of what’s selling and what’s not.
Of these top 200 selling CDs, added all together, this week saw almost 2.4 million CDs sell. Of all of those Top 200 CDs, when one adds up all of the sales for all 200, over 125 million CDs have sold. That’s a lot of CDs….but not as many as it once was.
Overall as a genre, Rap is not selling well. The only three rappers that are Platinum on the Top 200 in sales this week are Kanye at #109 (2 million sold), Jay Z at #134 (1 million sold), and Timberland at #164 (1.1 million sold; and who knew he even had an album out?). Plies and Lupe Fiasco are about to go Gold, and Rick Ross will most likely go Gold in the next few months as well, while Souljah Boy will be Platinum around the same time.
So, what the fuck happened to rap?! We used to lead the charts. It was not so long ago that rap releases dominated the Top 10 releases every week. There used to be quite a few platinum rap releases each year—now I can count them on one hand, without using all of my fingers. Last year we had only TI, Kanye, and 50? Is that possible?
On this Top 200 SoundScan sales chart that I am looking at (dated March 30, 2008) there are the following:
• 28 Platinum CDs
• 7 Double Platinum CDs
• 7 Triple Platinum + CDs
Again, of these 42 Platinum (or multi-platinum) CD releases, only 3 were rap, and Timberland’s release is really more of a pop record (good for him!!). Three. That’s just embarrassing.
Has downloading of music adversely affected rap music to this extent? Doubtful. It’s affected it, but it hasn’t killed the success of Kanye, 50, T.I., Timbo, or Jay-Z. Could it be the quality of music we are signing? I believe that plays a big part. As a person who sets up labels for a living, I have to lament that any label that still has the same A&Rs in positions of power, should all be fired—not the A&R folks, but the actual labels. If you aren’t Def Jam, Interscope, or Atlantic, right now, you suck!!! (I am speaking solely in terms of rap music—someone is putting out those successful Gold and Platinum CDs I see on the charts in other genres of music!).
Our outlets are dwindling for retail (are any Best Buy stores offering in-store appearances for rappers who aren’t already Gold or Platinum?), video channels are non-existent (BET shows rap videos less than a few hours a day), and the competition for our consumer’s attention is being widely shattered by more and more diversions (video games, the internet, cable, film, TV, podcasts, books, sports, games, social networking, clubs, etc) that pull them away from listening to music.
On the business side, we all raced to do endorsement deals with products we didn’t really endorse, we started companies that didn’t make sense, corporations hired “consultants” that were inept (and still do), and the major labels let competitors hire away their best employees thereby breaking up their successful marketing teams over a few dollars. But I can’t just blame the major labels.
I also believe the new “incubators” that have infiltrated rap play a large part in this downturn. Until about 2005, we had a large number of independent labels around the US that were selling decent numbers on their own. The majors left them to bumble around by themselves and get pretty good at putting out their own CDs independently (the old trial and error method), and then would scoop them up when they got to a point where the major could apply their machine and really create something huge: No Limit, Cash Money, Slip N Slide, RocAFella, Rap-A-Lot, etc.
Once the incubators decided they would be the new business model and scoop up the indies before they really got their feet wet independently (meaning at a bargain basement price for anyone stupid enough to sell their dream and their artists for the low-low), it stopped the trial and error method of learning and left that process to mediocre New York staffs that often have no idea how to work regional releases to build them to a national level. Had Cash Money Records or No Limit Records done a deal with Asylum, Koch, TVT, Imperial, or Fontana would they have been as successful? Doubtful! The business model is just different.
The incubator system also took the running of the label away from the streets and shifted the power and decision-making (and the check writing) to New York, where it’s hard to see what’s happening on the streets of Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Macon, or even Miami. Without the ability to react quickly to consumer responses and trends, money gets wasted, precious time gets lost, and artists sell less CDs.
The incubators started with the right idea—spend less, work harder, and tap into that sales market of 100,000 to 350,000 CDs for every release. The problem is that they signed artists that had the ability to do strong numbers, and stunted them with reduced budgets and struggling staffs. I am going to say something even more controversial now: if Boosie and Webbie had signed to Def Jam or Interscope, would their releases have maxed out in the 300,000 CD sales range or would they both be Platinum? As big as the buzz is for these artists on the streets in the south even today, I can not imagine they would not be selling larger numbers.
I am dumbfounded that Webbie’s recent CD has only sold 143,284 CDs in the 5 weeks that it’s been out, and Rick Ross has been able to sell 340,747 CDs in 3 weeks. Both are good artists, both are good albums, but Webbie’s street buzz is far bigger than Rick’s. Hell, I can’t help but wonder if Webbie could have done these types of numbers if he stayed I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-T, do you know what I mean!?!
I don’t mean to pick on Asylum. I think they are a fine place for people who aren’t ready for a major label yet, don’t have the proper financing to get there by themselves, and who are relegated to selling just a couple hundred thousand CDs.
So what’s the problem with rap?
As I travel the country (I spent the entire month of February and part of March out on the road in the south—a different market almost everyday), the fans are still excited about the artists, just not many of the ones signed to the major labels. The indies, the few that still exist, are doing well in most of the southern markets. Sadly, most of them have the goal of signing to a major label. The kids are no longer excited about CD releases and many seem to buy CDs as an after thought, unlike my generation which couldn’t wait for Tuesday release days. They aren’t excited about the stories and lifestyles of the artists anymore (how many times did that rapper get shot? Or, who is Lil Wayne dating now? Is Keisha Cole having Jeezy’s baby?) and music is no longer the soundtrack to their lives. Could it be that most of the rappers are over 30, while the fans are not?
Labels slashed their budgets in response to declining sales. DJs are starving because radio went corporate and cut out many of the jobs. The violence at rap shows killed the opportunity for most rappers to tour without the prerequisite R&B act to keep the show “safe.” When the fans told the industry they wanted their music by downloading it to their favorite gadgets, we didn’t respond—we kept trying to force feed them the old hugely profitable methods instead of embracing new technology. Labels forgot to let the fans and consumers dictate which songs they liked best and singles were chosen by marketing staffs based in New York and then force fed to radio with double bonuses to make a song pop. The A and R people stopped seeking out good music and started hooking up their friends or signing acts that offered financial kickbacks to sign them. The rap stars began to age and most went from looking like a star, to looking like somebody’s Dad.
And most importantly, the artists stopped making great music—they started to see this a as a business and made music that they thought would sell, or hit radio, or succeed in the clubs. The bean counters started running the record labels instead of the creative folks. Employee promotions went to staff who had no real success but had showed loyalty to the bosses as they were coming up—so many of the people in positions of power don’t know shit about urban music, how to work a record in today’s economy, or how to keep artists happy and productive—even if they signed rappers that the fans wanted to hear.
I take responsibility for the part I played in fucking this up. I did deals that were seen as expensive for the labels because I forced them to give artists a bigger piece of the pie than the traditional 12%, after they paid back all the expenses. I even did a couple deals for artists who had no business getting record deals in the first place even though they had a regional track record or a major artist behind them. I wrote articles and spoke on panels about retaining ownership and starting your own labels when really only 1% of the audience turned out to be qualified or capable of doing so.
The answer is that we all fucked up hip hop. From the corporate greed to the lack of delivering what the fans want. The real question is, what are we going to do about it!?