The Importance Of Music In My Life
August 31, 2008
A lot of people state that music has a high importance in their lives. For some, this is more than it is for others, but when I say it — I truly mean it. One of my friends told me I had Musical Tourette’s (no offense to those afflicted with the real Tourette’s Syndrome) because I will just burst out in a song at random. Being that I know music of all genres, all eras and a diverse set of artists, this could be any song at any time.
Lately, I’ve been in throwback mode. With music royally sucking since 2001, it’s about the only way. I even get strange looks from people when they hear me bumpin’ something from 1995 (one of the best years ever in music — more on that later) as if it is illegal to not be a teenybopper only interested in the latest drop.
From time to time I like to go back to the 1990s, when Bad Boy Records had the mainstream on lock and even had the streets on smash with Craig Mack and The Notorious B.I.G. I recently dug in the proverbial crates and listened to some of that Bad Boy when it was still fresh — Mack’s “Flava In Ya Ear”… B.I.G.’s string of hits, “One More Chance (Remix)”, “Who Shot Ya?”, “Warning”, and a lot of Total’s music (one of the few artists whose remixes are BETTER than the original songs — i.e. the remixes for “Kissin’ You” and “No One Else”).
The year 1995 was iconic for many reasons. Several artists were dropping albums at the same time. Danceable tracks, fresh debut albums, masterpiece music videos (when they were still thoughtful) and an overall vibe. Arguably, and in my humble opinion, “Can’t U See” by Total, featuring The Notorious B.I.G. was the “Cookout Joint” of 1995. Everyone was playing it at their cookout. If you were in middle or high school, you bumped it incessantly. If you were all mushy, it was the perfect song. I don’t know a soul who did not like that song. Having Biggie in it only made it better. When the video came out, we were all imitating Puff and Pam’s moves. Good times!
The New Jack Swing era (1987-1994) is probably my favorite era. PERIOD. I love 70s music more than anyone except maybe my sister (try me). But the New Jack Swing was exploding just as I was getting into music NOT by Michael Jackson, Prince or the funk records my dad and uncles were always playing. Salsa was all but dead in the 1980s, so there wasn’t much else going on but the Pop Scene aside from the burgeoning New Jack, which is merely a symmetrical fusion between Hip-Hop and R&B. However, it worked, because no one had obviously done before. Hip-Hop was relatively new and R&B was dead in the water in the 1980s until this point. I argue that it was necessary for both genres to not only survive but GROW as they have in the twenty years since. Uptown Records (Harlem!) founder Andre Harrell, an intern of his, Sean “Puffy” Combs and a good number of artists from Harlem, The Bronx, Mt. Vernon and Yonkers, New York made up the majority of their roster. However, one of the biggest and best acts on Uptown was a seminal group from Charlotte, North Carolina — Jodeci. They burst upon the scene in 1991 and forever changed the way male groups did it (Jagged Edge can thank them every time someone buys one of their records). And naturally, this singer named Mary J. Blige has had a LIIIIIIIITLE impact on the game for the past sixteen years…
Some of the artists and groups that either began or prospered in the New Jack era include:
Heavy D. & The Boyz (Uptown).
Mary J. Blige (Uptown).
Christopher Williams (Uptown).
Soul 4 Real (Uptown).
Father MC (Uptown).
Bell Biv DeVoe.
Now when we work back to the 1970s, I could go on and on all day. This music is timeless. Groups like The Isley Brothers, Earth, Wind & Fire, The O’Jays, The Ohio Players, Kool & The Gang, Air Supply and many others dominated peoples’ tape decks and eight track players. Thankfully, even though the music was several years old when my cousins and I came along, we were very much exposed to everything that our parents, aunts, uncles, older cousins and grandparents were jammin’ to in the 1960s and 1970s. This is the reason I am very knowledgeable about music that came out before I was even born. Although it is definitely arguable, my favorite song out of this era (and possibly ever) is “For The Love Of You, Pt. I & II” by The Isley Brothers. Listen to it once, if you haven’t already. It puts you in a zone. Words cannot express it, but it is great music — very much indicative of the Isley sound from about 1972-1980.
Even though most good music came out prior to 2001 (I pity the crowd that is under 18 and thinks Chris Brown and Lil Wayne are as good as it gets), there is still good music out there. You just have to turn off the radio, TV and music videos in order to find it. The best artists, aside from a few, remain unsigned or underpromoted, falling victim to label politics. However, here are a few artists and groups who manage to garner my attention who have either come out from 2001 or later or rose to prominence during the time period and since:
Israel & New Breed.
Steven The Levite.
And a few others. There is still good music to be had, but you have to search for it. Since most of the music-buying public buys into the publicity stunts by the likes of 50 Cent and those pushing the pop-tart princesses of the month, no one recognizes good music anymore. Either that, or they argue over who sells the most (as if that is a barometer for talent — label politics, distribution and other contractual matters factor in much more).
Let me talk a little bit about the music industry. From time to time, I venture onto YouTube to find the drop on some hidden gems and obscure vintage records. However, one thing I notice from the music from the 1970s to the late 1990s is that most of the COMMENTS on the videos there are usually appreciation for the artist’s work and how the music moved them when they first heard it. Regardless of genre (including hip hop). However, today’s music seems to be loaded with vitriol. There isn’t any more or less than there was even in the late 1980s (for those who remember the classic LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee rap battles, or the battles between Roxanne Shante, UTFO and the others). But my point is, I see a lot of people almost seemingly hoping for an artist’s downfall. Or comparing them to another artist, because they don’t sell as much as the other, and then bashing them talent-wise merely based upon this fact. Again, as I stated earlier, many of the people who buy records only buy what they see on TV and hear on the radio most. If your label doesn’t afford you a large budget with which to promote your work or get you on TV like someone from a major label, then guess what? Fewer people are going to notice you. Fewer people will know when your album drops. Fewer people will know about your shows. Meaning, fewer people will buy your records and be able to support you the same way they can for someone who is plastered all over every form of media. It’s that simple.
To take it a bit further, let’s discuss some industry facts. A lot of people think they know about the inner workings of the music industry, especially the complicated ways in which everyone inside makes money. Some believe that if you don’t sell 5 million copies of your record, you’re broke. Some believe that the artists who perform are the biggest money-makers. Some believe that the only way to become successful is to sell their soul and make music that contradicts everything they stand for. Not so.
1. Publishing. This is the most important part of an artist’s work. Whether you are a singer, rapper, songwriter, producer or anyone involved in the process of compiling the record, if you do not have your publishing through one of the arms in the industry (ASCAP – American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers or BMI – Broadcast Music, Inc.), people can in effect, steal your work and claim it as your own. I’ve seen it happen to people that I know, and many of us have witnessed it happen to people who are famous — with all the lawsuits in court seemingly on a daily basis. Without this protection, no one can monitor when someone is performing a song that belongs to you, or whether they stole one of your beats or what have you. Those are just two of the organizations that assist artists in this manner. There are others, but those are the two best bets out there. They charge licensing fees and whenever your work is published and disseminated, you are repaid in what are called royalties. I have a few friends who have ASCAP and a couple who have BMI. If you are serious about your work, then get this done!
2. Royalties. Royalties enable you to be paid on a grand scale for your work. It’s that simple. With the aforementioned publishing, your spins on radio can be tracked, if someone wants to sample your record for a beat, it can be tracked, how many units are distributed (which is how the RIAA – Recording Industry Association of America – computes whether someone went silver; 100,000 units, gold; 500,000 units, platinum 1,000,000 units or diamond 10,000,000+ units). This computation is not based upon records SOLD, but records SHIPPED.
For those who like to argue this point when discussing who their favorite rapper is what they sell, keep that in mind. Also, for those are seriously pursuing a career in music — this is important to your wallet and long-term viability, because this is potentially residual income. Why? Because your work makes money when you aren’t even working. If someone plays your record, you get paid. If someone samples your work and you give them the OK (see the case of Biz Markie in the early 1990s regarding sampling work — it was landmark), then you get paid!
3. Points. This leads me to my third note. Points are important in that they dictate how much money you can make off the sales of a particular record. The simplest way to explain points is the same way they are computed for people who are in the mortgage industry or getting points on their mortgage when buying a house. Points are basically a percentage of the royalties that come from the sales of a particular work (usually an album of some sort). I would encourage those who enjoy producing beats and want to do it seriously to EDUCATE THEMSELVES on the inside-out of points — it is the best way to make money long-term. Merely selling beats does not create residual income. If you get points on an album, obviously, people will buy it for years, and you will continue to get paid. Without points and with only selling the beat, you get what you negotiate at the point of sale (usually between $2,500 for a beginner using Fruity Loops or Pro Tools, to $30,000 The Heatmakers, Just Blaze and upwards of $100,000 for the likes of Timbaland, Dr. Dre, Swizz Beats, etc.) Accordingly, if you are able to get 3-5 points on an album, think of it as a commission. If a record ships 2 million copies, with an average retail of $12, you can easily profit anywhere between $750,000 to $1M from that record’s deal. Some producers or writers can make up to 10 points or so from a record deal. The absolute best in the game are able to get almost all the credit for their work, which is how Jay-Z and Puff (although many industry heads know that this came at the expense of some of his artists and the relationship with them) amassed such fortunes. All you have to do is the math to see how it is very easy to make a fortune and NEVER sing or rap. You just have to know how to turn your talent into a profit within the industry somehow.
4. Distribution. As I discussed in an earlier blog entry, this is important to the promotion of your album. Without large distribution like Universal Records, Epic Records, Interscope or Columbia Records have, it is pretty tough to compete with an artist who has advertising, media placement and tons of albums shipped (even if you are more talented than they may be). If you cannot move units from print to warehouse to the outlets, you aren’t going to sell records. Much worse, once it leaks and once people rip their CDs, people will bootleg it, which will decrease future sales. It is not NECESSARY to be on a major label to secure distribution, but it is the best way to ensure you ship enough records that the retailers will buy and are convinced will be sold in their stores. Again, with education and creativity, one can amass a serious fortune and never be on a major label. Besides, with the ground floor being flooded with new artists and the competition level, this is not always a viable option.
5. Major Label vs. Independent Label. Some people have been led to believe that if you are not on Def Jam Records, or Bad Boy, or Aftermath or Def Soul, Geffen, Island, Columbia/So So Def or any of the leaders in Hip Hop, R&B, Pop and the other genres that dominate the scene, then you have no chance to make it in the business. Not true. Increasingly, artists are finding that the creativity that many of them sacrifice to get onto a major label is available on an independent label. Concurrently, one (if they are smart) can make even more money on an independent than they can initially on a major label, due to the fact that standard contracts that most new artists sign on a major label restrict an artist’s creative freedom to choose producers, songwriting and many other things. The upside to being on a major is the amount of promotion that a talented (or not so talented) artist can receive. There will be billboards, commercials, music videos, radio airplay/spins that exceed anything that most independent label artists can achieve. However, this is not out of the reach of someone on an independent. Whereas most artists average about $2 per record sold in royalties (about 5-7 points, conversely), an independent artist can profit up to four times that, because they own almost all their publishing and don’t have the overhead that a major label has, which cut into the artist’s profits from an album THE ARTIST created. For those disgusted with the major label politics, an independent label may be the way to go.
A relatively new independent label, Koch Records, has burst upon the scene since the late 1990s with a burgeoning catalogue of artists — the most visible being The Diplomats, who, at one point had distribution through Def Jam Records, Koch Records and Asylum/Warner Music Records. Obviously, for those with that level of distribution can profit up to twenty times more than an artist on a major label (keep in mind that artists receive nearly 80% of the profit of each album sold, whereas most artists on a major only receive about 10-12% — this is worth noting when arguing over who sells more and who is broke, haha). But with all these factors at play, publishing, royalties, points, distribution and sales, you can see that going independent isn’t the death wish that it once was. The bottom line is that one must be educated about all areas of the music business before breaking in, or else they will be taken for a serious ride.
Happy writing and massive sales!
I love music. I love the legal aspect of the industry, as well as the business aspect. Hopefully, I will be able to share more insight the more involved I get later on.