The record label used to be needed, handling every aspect of production, but now that artists don’t need that, why do they still sign with labels?
I’ve seen 540 thread-long arguments about if Chance the Rapper was independent or not.
Artists are singing songs of independence left and right. Not a week goes by that I don’t run into some article about this artist that refuses to sign a deal or that artist who turned that (deal) down.
Yet, the Big Three — Universal, Sony, & Warner — are still going to see profits this year, they have no problems signing artists, and for them, it appears to be business as usual.
If the Internet is the big disruptor, and it is (or was), why do we still need these record labels?
I promise you, half the time when I ask a question or start writing about a topic, I have no idea about the answer or where the topic will lead me. I know that we’ll have to talk about some key labels in the history of Black music — from R&B labels to the more modern Rap ones. And I know we’ll have to discuss some of the functions that labels handle.
Mostly importantly I know this — big money is involved, and I ain’t watched The Wire all these years not to know to “follow the money.” So that’s what we’re going to do. Hopefully, in doing so, we’ll come up with some answers. Either way, we’re going to learn some shit along the way. Let’s go.
My natural inclination is to go deep into the rabbit hole. I start doing research and then I’m like Alice, “down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end?” The reason that my small ideas become long-ass, drawn out pieces is because I know that I’m doing a topic a disservice if I don’t speak about its origin and where we are now.
More often than not, it’s because I think about an audience that is growing up in a world that never held a physical item that they identified as music. A seventeen year old may have never touched an item that contains music outside of his or her phone (you have to remember, the iPhone came out in 2007…they were seven).
So it’s important to walk the reader back to a time where one had to go to a location, take cash out of their wallet, pay for an album, cassette, or cd, remove and discard plastic, put said piece of media in a device and drop a needle or press play.
If you were a recording artist in that world, it made perfect sense to join on to a Label. Imagine if you were a singer growing up in the Brewster-Douglas projects, Detroit in the early 60s. You form a group because, hell, who isn’t in one — people are singing on every corner. There’s a record label in your city giving people a shot and you want to get down.
Little do you know, the owner of that record label can’t get anyone in the state of Michigan to press his LPs, and, even if they will, they won’t give him a line of credit. Pressing them himself? Out of the question. Those press costs upwards of $60,000. So he gets his LPs pressed in Nashville.
He finally agrees to sign you and your group and for years every song you make flops. But he has a team in place, writing songs for you, there’s a choreographer, a stylist, there’s artist development where you’re taught “be prepared to perform before kings and queens,” all of these various people to help make you and your group successful.
Like I said, you’re from Brewster-Douglas projects, you couldn’t afford to do any of that shit yourself. No way. No how. And if you saw the plants where those records were made…hundreds of people, pressing your record, putting that record in a sleeve like that pic up there, sealing it, packing it away…you need a Record Label.
And luckily you have one because you go on to be a part of the most successful group on that Label and one of the most successful groups of all times. That Label allowed you to buy clothes at Sak’s when that meant something, that Label flies you to Europe when no one is flying, not like now, that Label builds you up to the point where people say your group name, The Supremes, and they think, “that fits.”
Motown has become synonymous with Black excellence. The Miracles, The Temptations, The Supremes, etc etc — those groups made the soundtrack for an era, and, while they were all Black, on a Black Label, from a Black city, that’s not how Berry Gordy promoted his Label and acts.
Gordy was about putting out the best work. Gordy was about crossover, he was about being non-threatening in a time where our civil liberties and human rights were threatened daily.
It’s a mentality that I understand. We were always taught that we had to be five times better than white folk just to level the playing field. To be better, that thought pattern goes, alleviates people’s desire to discriminate against you. We’ve all lived long enough to know that ain’t true.
If that were the case people would remember the Black-owned Label Vee-Jay. Oh, you ain’t heard of them? Vee-Jay was founded by Vivian Carter and James Bracken, a Chicago-based husband and wife team that decided in 1953 to borrow $500 and start a Record Label.
They first recorded The Spaniels and went on to record Blues artists, R&B artists, Rock and Folk artists, and did something that you would think they would be famous for — Vee-Jay were the first to distribute The Beatles records…BEFORE the British Invasion. Vee-Jay was large.
Capital Records, originally uninterested in the moptops because of their risqué lyrics, started seeing dollar bills, and, unable to handle the success of The Beatles, Vee-Jay had to relent and sell the group off to Capital. Vee-Jay ended up going bankrupt.
So much for leveling the playing field.
I know, the world for many of us starts with Rap.
The only story that is of interest is when we come into the narrative. I get it. Well I recognize our proclivities to be like that so look at it this way: them Rap Labels that you want to read about, they had parents.
Those parents were born in the late 60s and early 70s. If you want to understand the Rap label children, you’re going to have to understand their Soul parents. Dig?
As you may or may not know, the Civil Rights Movement gave way to the Black Power Movement, a Movement that has its roots in Black Muslim, San Quentin culture. While many of these groups discarded the Religion, the military structure and the tenet ‘do for self’ was adopted.
Respectability politics be damned, the labels that emerged out of this era were unapologetically Black. Recording artists took control of their destiny, starting Labels and establishing their own publishing companies.
Curtis Mayfield led the pack with Curtom founded in 68. After Mayfield had a couple of failed Record Labels, Curtom was the one that stuck. He established his own publishing companies, Curtom Publishing, Camad Music and Chi Sounds Inc., and in six years became the proud owner of Chicago’s only 24 track studio, owned the building, employed seven full-time producers, 12 writers, and had five acts on his Label.
The Isley Brothers, after several awful deals, followed suit with T-Neck in 69. The Isley’s, like Mayfield, had a stack of hits in their catalog and established their own publishing company as well, Bovina Publishing.
That was how the 60s wound down. In a August 16, 1969 Billboard article they had these words to say:
While the resources of major companies can be used most effectively to promote and market Black record products, there seems to be a shift on the part of the Black artists and producers themselves away from affiliation with a major label except for major label distribution of their own label. This trend is a result of the success that small independent labels have met in the r and b market combined with the realization of the financial advantages a large label’s distribution can provide.
Those Labels were straddling the fence between my parents youth and me coming on the scene. The Labels that came forth in the seventies were the ones that not only shaped my musical youth, they were also the ones that would mentor some of the future execs that birth those Rap Labels that you eagerly await reading about.
I can break my childhood up into three periods, birth to seven, eight to twelve, and thirteen to getting the fuck out the house (18) — all three of those periods are punctuated by songs that were recorded by Black Record labels.
From birth to seven, although I was hardly a cognizant human, most of those memories can be strung together by music. When I think of life on Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, the first song that comes to mind is the O’Jay’s “I Love Music.” There’s no way I know that song from when it was first released, I was three. But if I comb through Philadelphia International’s discography, their songs were a permanent fixture on our wooden stereo console.
“Backstabbers,” “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “The Love I Lost,” “Enjoy Yourself,” “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby,” “I’ll Always Love My Mama,” the list is endless.
Philadelphia International, founded by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff took over where Motown left off. I wrote in some detail about them here, but for this piece we’re going to talk more about the business than the amazing songs that came off the Label.
Already a songwriting/production team since 65, Gamble and Huff signed a production deal with Columbia, created Philadelphia International in 1971, formed the publishing company Mighty Three/Assorted Music, and started cranking out hits. By 1978, they were the number one publisher in Soul and had cranked out over 170 gold and platinum releases.
I’m not doing any justice to them here because to do so would be to write three or four 25 minute reads. Gamble and Huff not only changed the direction of Black music, they laid an example of Black empowerment that continues to this day. I am in awe of them, but I must tarry on.
Those were the good o days, a time of innocence, them birth to seven years. Living on an Air Force Base, parents still together. Them eight to twelve year old days, shit got real. I learned what crime was, poverty was, how to curse, fight, all that.
Although the majors Epic & Warner’s had Michael Jackson and Prince respectively, Motown (Gordy) had Rick James, there were still tons of Independent Labels and two of them were Black-owned. Those two dominated the 80s.
Those Labels were Solar and Tabu, both of which were uber Black. I would guess that 80% of all the music that I listened to between eight and 12 came from these five Labels.
Most of the people discussed here were larger than life characters. To sum Clarence Avant up with his ownership of Sussex (which gave us Bill Withers) or Tabu is short-changing his legacy. Avant is considered ‘The Godfather of Black music’ because he’s acted as counsel for up-and-coming producers and executives for over 50 years. Avant was a Black exec on a Major Label when there was no such thing as Black people holding those positions.
And like I said here, if Allah Be Pleased, I will do Dick Griffey the justice he deserves as well. So we’re only focusing on one aspect of these great individuals for brevity’s sake.
The early 80s saw Black music moving away from the more commercial dance music, as we discussed here, into more of a Funk/Soul hybrid. Those times were accented by Shalamar, Lakeside, & the Whispers — “Second Time Around,” “All the Way Live,” “And the Beat Goes On,” — songs that, when heard, place me back in our old duplex on Grape street.
Those are the first acts and songs that come to mind when I think of Dick Griffey’s Solar Records, and, considering they were the cornerstone of his Label, it makes sense.
Solar was the Label that rose out of the ashes of a joint partnership between Dick Griffey and Don Cornelius (of Soul Train fame) in March of 1978. Griffey formed his own publishing company, Spectrum and Hip Trip Publishing, and started with two acts — The Whispers and Carrie Lucas.
In three years, Solar was a company that grossed $40 million in sales, amassing two gold singles, five gold, and one platinum album landing Solar at #11 on the Black Enterprise List of the Top 100 Black-Owned Businesses in 1982.
Also on Solar were Midnight Star and Klymaxx, two groups that were more my generation’s music than the Soul of the above mentioned acts. Solar was only second to Motown in terms of sales and influence.
Tabu wasn’t as fast out the gate as Solar but it was still a heavy-hitting Label. After Clarence Avant shuttered Sussex, he jumped into the Tabu venture in 1975. It would be five years before Avant had his real breakthrough act…and what a breakthrough it was.
The S.O.S Band’s “Take Your Time (Do it Right)” was sho nuff one of the anthems that summer of 1980. That jawn went platinum. I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s important that I say it again here. Having a hit record in those days was huge. The label was practically making a dollar per sale. Thus, a gold 12" would net $500,000, a platinum album meant a million (or two).
S.O.S became the Tabu flagship that landed Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis before they became the hottest producers since Gamble and Huff. That flagship also made it possible for Alexander O’Neal and Cherelle to shine in the mid 80s. And if you were a teen (or a pre-teen) you know how big Alexander O’Neal ballads were, and O’Neal and Cherelle’s “Saturday Love” still will get you singing, “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturdaaaay Love.”
So why did I spend 1,254 words talking about all them Labels that you may or may not have heard about? Simple. Whether you’re talking Curtom, Philadelphia International, T-Neck, Solar, or Tabu, though they were all Independent Labels, they all had distribution deals. Philadelphia International was distributed by CBS, while Solar and Tabu were distributed by Epic.
That’s the “normal” approach. The somewhat abnormal approach (or so it seems with modern eyes) is the one that Curtom and T-Neck had. Those two labels were distributed by an independent — Buddha Records, who, incidentally was distributed by a mini-major distributor, Malverne.
All of these type of deals would be the same type that independent Rap Labels would take in the future. So let’s talk about that shit.
Even though the world has changed a bit and everyone sucks from the blood of Southern innovation, most of us are still unable to come to grips with the fact that our opinions are shaped by the media giants of Los Angeles and New York.
That statement could easily be met with all types of arguments ranging from people’s love of 3 Stacks to the support of Krits double album. Maybe someone would throw Future’s popularity in there. Yet and still, that doesn’t speak into the impact that the south had on Rap music, more specifically the business side of thangs and most people’s total disregard of that fact.
What’s been in the way of that is the focus on entertainment. Debates always ensue about what is real and what is not real Rap, or they throw derogatory terms on music from the south like Booty Music, Ringtone Rap, or more recently Mumble Rap. Those opinions cloud people’s perception of the intelligent people behind those groups and movements.
One of the first things that I wrote about was how BLACK those first Rap record labels were. Started by old Record men, club owners, and street hustlers, Rap was distributed through connections made on the Chitlin Circuit, a Circuit that connected Black Theaters to Black Radio and Black Radio to Black Record Shops.
Rap records were a novelty and big numbers weren’t expected. But as we talked about in great detail here, those Label owners lacked vision and gave away their artists and eventually the industry. By the time Run DMC began touring, a man named Luther Campbell was promoting their show and paying them $500 for their services. They weren’t getting paid good money by their Label and they weren’t getting paid good money to tour. Campbell didn’t understand that math.
Mostly because he wasn’t just a promoter, he was a DJ (with a crew called Ghetto Style DJs) and a business man. So later, when Campbell started his Record Label, he owned everything, from publishing to distribution. He knew nothing about the business but learned from “record men” like Fred Hill and Jerry Parson who ran a record pool:
I learnt the business through all these guys about distribution and then being an intern at [the radio station] 99 Jamz I learned how records got played. I would talk to all these record promoters that would come in; they would tell me how these records are getting played around the country. Jerry’s job was his record pool. He told me that, ‘There are other record pools around the country similar to what I do right here. You just got to tap into the same people.’ Uncle Luke
Campbell wasn’t an anomaly. Another popular DJ was learning the same lessons and involved in the same record pools. Although less known to the mainstream, this DJ had an independent system before Luther Campbell. He was all about that ownership. That DJ was Pretty Tony who also studied under Jerry Rushin of 99 Jamz.
You may not think you know Pretty Tony, but if you’re of age, you know Debbie Deb’s “Look Out Weekend.” I can’t speak for New York, but Power 99 played that song right along “Larry Love” and the like. It was Hip-Hop to us. We broke to it. Yeah, that came out of Miami. This was 1984 and this isn’t that article. What you need to know here is Tony put out that record and others by his damn self.
We had all the pressing plants in Miami running all the time just to press up all the records I was selling. We had Gabor, Caribbean, Miami Tape, JFL, all of them pressing up all that vinyl. So I bought a pressing plant. And I had that going 24/7 because that’s the only way to keep up with the demand on a record.
If you got four hits at once and you’re doing national distribution, that’s a lot of records. My distribution was through the one-stops. They fed all the record shops in all the states, so I didn’t have to send all those shipments to all those individual shops. Pretty Tony
For Pretty Tony it made no sense to sign with a major label or seek out distribution with them. Nor did he see the need to make compilations for them when he could have “14 platinum singles.” Again, at a dollar per record sold, the math is on Tony’s side. No way would a compilation sell 14 milly.
Tony is also quick to point out that the majors in New York and Los Angeles thought it a fluke when one song was a hit…but after five…
Luther Campbell had gained insights through mentors like Jerry Rushin, Paul Hill, & Jerry Parson, plus his experience as a promoter showed him how labels ripped off their artists. It was with that knowledge that Campbell pitched the California-based, 2 Live Crew (You have to listen to pre-Luke 2 Live Crew release “Beat Box.” If you do that you can hear why Luke pitched them).
“Trow The D” could have easily have been a Krush 2 song. Luke had given them the idea to make “Ghetto Jump,” and only asked that they perform it for free. They ain’t do it, so he pitched the song idea to the 2 Live Crew. And that was just a part of the pitch. The other part of the pitch was that they would release the song independently. Initially, he took the group and song to Pretty Tony, but he wasn’t interested in doing Rap. So Campbell (now known as Luke Skyywalker) decided to put the record out.
On an early Luke Skyy Walker Records promo sheet, Luke recalled, “I took some of my money that I made off concerts, pressed about 3000 records and we took them to distributors and record pools.”
But it wasn’t just the distributors and record pools that got “Trow The D” popping. He also took it to local strip clubs, Coco’s and Club Rolexx.
Everyone was trying to figure out, ‘How is he selling 500,000 records out of his mother’s wash house, with no radio play whatsoever?’ I’ll tell you how: ’cause I captured the strip club market, and the streets started following — that’s how. Uncle Luke
You see modern media marveling at how the Atlanta scene mines hits through strip clubs like Magic City, but shit, that’s been going on for 30 years now. Thir-ty.
Luke knew that if he was going to get paid from the distributors, he would have to put out more records and Luke Skyy Walker Records was born.
First he brought on some of his Ghetto Style DJs as A&R, Bernard Veargis and Jerry Parker (who signed one of Atlanta’s first great MCs, MC Shy D), then he brought in radio music connect Jonathan Black, record man out of Philly who already had ten plus years in the business and was known as one of the team behind Evelyn Champagne King (use your Googles), Luke dropped some singles, then released 2 Live Crew’s debut album, 2 Live is What We Are.
That album went gold. Again, you do the math, with no middle man to pay, low cost of production, and self distribution, Luke and nem made a killing. But it was a lot of hard work and promotion, promotion, promotion.
It wasn’t [Loud Records founder] Steve Rifkin who was the first to do street-team marketing. I had to do that, because I had no [major] record company behind me. I looked at the whole concept of a presidential campaign with big signs on the ground, and I said, “Let me take that and put signs in your door.”
Or let me go into the club with the label jacket on and give out records. That’s where guerilla marketing came from. We had to do that. Who created these wrap vans? There wasn’t no such thing as wrap vans. We painted the vans, because that’s what we used as a promotional tool. Uncle Luke
And it wasn’t just Miami that was rolling like that either. The Gulf Coast was getting busy with it also.
Music videos, as we discussed before, let you know that this Rap thing was taking place in other cities besides New York, Philly, and Los Angeles. It made sense that we thought Dallas’ finest, the DOC was from the city of angels, he was down with Dre, but to be honest, anything that came out that wasn’t from NYC or Philly…or later Miami…it had to be from Los Angeles, in my mind.
Take for example the first time I saw “Posse on Broadway.” I just assumed that Sir Mix-A-Lot was from LA…but he wasn’t. He was from Seattle. That same thing goes for if we heard something that ain’t stink of the four boroughs. First time my brother Shawn Degrassa played me Akshun’s “Mr. Scarface,” I didn’t recognize his accent. Content told me it had to be from Compton.
“Nope,” Shawn retorted, amused. We took pride in being the first up on something.
Damn. That transforming at the end of “Mr. Scarface” by Mixmaster B was official. It wasn’t bad. But I never thought anything of the song or the artist again until two year laters when I was sitting in Morehouse’s Commons watching Rap City and the video for “My Mind’s Playing Tricks on Me” came on. I was sold on the Geto Boys as were most of us after that video.
And, although many people had heard of the Geto Boys for the first time after seeing that video, this was only one of several incarnations of the group founded by the owner of the label that their music was released on. The owner was J. Prince, the label Rap-A-Lot.
Rap-A-Lot records came out of a promise. Prince made a promise. He promised to help rappers Raheem and Sir Juke Box with their career if they stayed in school. He named the Label after his brother, Sir Rap-A-Lot, dubbed the group The Ghetto Boys, and put out their first single “Car Freak.” That was followed by singles for Captain Jack, Raheem, Royal Flush, and others.
As we pointed out here, Houston was one of the first cities to have a radio station that played Rap. One of those DJs that is the foundation of Houston Rap Radio, Steve Fournier, also started the largest record pool that focused on Rap, the aptly titled Rap Record Pool of America. Through the Pool and local Radio, Rap-A-Lot flourished gaining the attention of LA and NY labels, most notably, Def Jam who courted Prince and brought him out to Manhattan.
I had moved the company to New York for like six months with my partner Cliff (Blodget). And things didn’t go too well out there. But I went out there like the last 3 weeks of the last month in New York and I had the opportunity to clear my head and focus.
I would go to Def Jam and me and Lyor Cohen would sit there and he actually opened up check books and showed me the numbers that really grabbed my attention. And there was LL Cool J checks and Whodini checks. I went to see all these checks and this money, so I was like “Whoah — it’s some money in this shit!”
You got to realize, New York was a powerhouse back then, so everybody wanted to follow that movement. And it was up until I was able to clear my head and see what was going on. I said “Naw.” I say, for my last piece of money, y’all gonna have to listen to me. I told the artists this, I told everybody. I said, “I want to go back [to Houston] and finish my Geto Boy mission.
That ‘Geto Boy mission’ meant adding that rapper that I mentioned earlier, Akshun, to the group. That song “Mr. Scarface” was put out on another local Houston Label, Short Stop Records owned by Troy Birklett but Prince still added Akshun to Rap-A-Lot. Akshun became Scarface, the Ghetto Boys became the Geto Boys, Prince went from the one stop, record pool distribution, to distribution via Def American/Geffen. And the Geto Boys became a huge success…all the while scaring Geffen who refused to put their album out.
And that was the best thing that could have happened to J. Prince because from that moment on, he was and remains, independent; not to mention, Rap-A-Lot would be the inspiration for one of the greatest Black-owned Rap Labels of all time despite the fact neither I (nor most Rap snobs) respected the music put out on it.
I can’t say that I ever owned a cassette or CD that had names sparkling with diamonds, on fire, infused with cash or any variation of the above. I first started seeing them in my last days of buying The Source — two, three full page ads with album covers — in that same design. At the top of each ad, a tank logo with the words ‘No Limit.’
Although Pen & Pixel got their start with…guess who? Yes, Rap-A-Lot, Aaron & Shawn Brauch really made their chops on another, independent Black Label based in Houston, Suave House Records, founded by Tony Draper. That may have been where the Brauch brothers got their chops, but I only know their designs from their work with No Limit.
“P” had been working with another company out in the bay area to get his CD covers and promotional materials printed, he was dissatisfied with the turn around times and quality of their work. His demeanor changed drastically after everything was explained and he had the opportunity to meet our team. It was the beginning of a new era in promoting music, and Master P was the brains behind it. He knew what he was doing, he also know that hiring the best and expecting the best was the way to make things happen. Shawn Brauch
I’m grateful for Solange’s Seat at the Table so people could start thinking about Master P again, because yo…
I can’t say that I’ve liked any of his records (maybe a Mystical song here and there), certainly can’t say that I let a song play beyond the first verse, then or now, but what I can say is very few people have had the Major Labels shook like Master P did in the late 90s.
From 1992 to 1996, Master P went from city to city, selling thousands of records out of his trunk, and getting his music into as many DJ’s hands as possible. Tony Draper remembers this about P:
Two years ago, he was set up in a parking lot in Houston at 2 in the morning. He said he had a new record coming out on Tuesday. I said: ‘Are you sure? That’s the same day Snoop Doggy Dogg’s record is coming out.’ He didn’t care, and the album sold gold’ — 500,000 copies — ‘’and I was amazed.
You’re looking at a young successful black C.E.O. who has the intelligence to take the rap business to the next level. Tony Draper, NYT, May 13, 1998
His plan was to make money from the product and not concerts. He focused on “dance music,” and, knowing that he couldn’t compete with the major labels, adding more songs on the album (yes, the average album almost always was in the nine to twelve song range — fourteen songs was long). It was then that Master P decided to get a distribution deal, he wanted to sell more records.
And sell more records he did.
The I Got the Hook Up soundtrack, platinum. Ghetto D, triple platinum. The Last Don, quadruple platinum. By May of 1998 only Warner Brothers…you read that right…WARNER BROTHERS…only Warner had more albums in Billboard’s Top 40 than No Limit. All of that with no Radio play, no extravagant videos on MTV, and most importantly, no middle-man taking a cut.
That’s why the record labels were shook. And they had every reason to be because on the heels of Luke Records, Rap-A-Lot, Suave House, & No Limit, came Ted Lucas’ Slip-N-Slide, Jay-Z & Dame Dash’s Roc-A-Fella, Birdman & Slim’s Cash Money Records (I left out So-So Def because they had a joint deal with Epic and I also left out Murder Inc because they were a Def Jam company).
Cash Money & Slip-N-Slide have more in common as they built their buzz by selling thousands of records out of their trunks, to mom and pop record shops, flea markets, and giving em away to DJs. Roc-A-Fella and Death Row (which was earlier) didn’t have to go that route.
What all of these Record Labels had in common was they needed national distribution.
I didn’t start out thinking or writing about music until a little over two years ago. I went to school for Film so when I thought of distribution my mind was always on theater count. Limited release films usually roll out in key markets, no more than four or five theaters. Independent films usually open in less than a thousand and blockbusters…blockbusters open in a couple a thousand.
Black films always got the almighty shaft because they opened in fewer theaters yet they had their numbers compared with blockbusters. Take a film like Malcolm X. Because it was a long film, it opened in 1,124 theaters. Not that bad, right? Wrong. JFK, an equally long film opened in 1,395 theaters; those 271 theaters add up at $8,782 per theater (compared with JFK’s $4,487 per theater). Malcolm X would have made $7 million more its opening weekend had it just opened in the same amount of theaters as JFK (conversely, JFK would have made $3.6 million less).
The game is rigged.
But I never really thought of all that record distribution entailed. The best way to describe it, is with this scene from Krush Groove. Russell Walker, owner of Record Label, Krush Groove, signs the Sheila E character to a deal and in some alternate universe, even alternate from the film world, “Holly Rock” becomes a monster hit. Orders are coming in like crazy, but Russell can’t fill them. His dad won’t front him the money, banks turn him down. Where can he get the dough?
The movie revolves around that. Russ borrowing money from a gangster and him getting his ass whooped until he can pay it off.
Every Label that I’ve written about from Curtom to Cash Money at some point signed a distribution deal. What were these distributors able to do that all the Labels that they represented couldn’t (do)? Why didn’t those Labels combine and start their own distribution? The reality is, and continues to be, capital. Here are some wise words spoken from a few of the Label owners that we mentioned above:
Because you’re undercapitalized. If you get a hit record that sells a million, then you have to pay for all of those pressings, you have to pay all the royalties, and you’re not really set up to handle the machinery. It sounds like a paradox, that if you get a hit it’ll throw you into bankruptcy, but it’s totally true, because your money is spread out. Berry Gordy Black Enterprise, Jun 74, pg 151
Any little company that suddenly gets a hit record knows what it’s like to have this great new demand for its product and not enough money on hand to meet the demand. By the time they get a bank to let them have the money, the demand for the record has weakened. They are left with hundreds of thousands of albums to meet a decreasing public demand. Dick Griffey, Black Enterprise, July 1982 pg 38
I knew that, with some national distribution, it would be over. My biggest thing was I couldn’t get the music out there everywhere. I had people calling for orders I just couldn’t fulfill, so I definitely knew I was on to something. Master P, Billboard Magazine, Mar 16 2002 psg 38, 48
Capital. We talked about how it was a problem way back in The Infiltration of Black Rap, and now we find ourselves returning to it again.
The Big Three, Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner, have been running victory laps. For the first time in fifteen years, they are seeing profits. Articles in Billboard are celebratory about it as are music execs. They’re now free to spend money and the listener will benefit, goes the narrative.
The listener will benefit?
I’m always leery when I’m being TOLD I will benefit.
“Oh word? How?”
The labels say that they will be able to invest in artists again and play an active role in their development. Those words are aimed at the heart of the old and crusty audience like myself who came of age during the time of the Powerful A&R, a position so large that Rap songs were made condoning it. So they can’t be talking to me.
Nor can they be talking to the youth who blow up their own artists on YouTube, Soundcloud or whatever platform their music can be found on. Ok, then who the hell are they talking to?
They must be talking to each other…and other Corporate entities…because this sudden explosion in profit didn’t come out of no where. No. Record labels are seeing their first profits now because of streaming. Streaming, yo.
I learned at a very young age working my first job at Burger King #404 that what benefits the company doesn’t benefit me in any shape or form. A rise in profits at BK usually meant less employees and overtime for us — working more than one station — broiler steamer and fries, drive-through and front cash register.
We’re not talking burgers and fries here, but the concept is the same. Not going to go all deep into streaming, but I will try to dissect how this is not profitable for the indie artist — mostly because I truly don’t understand.
A while back I wrote a piece about a Masta Ace album that I deemed a classic. No one had heard it. When I got people to listen to it, they found themselves impressed. For whatever reason, they had never thought to listen to a Master Ace album — whether that was because of his age or some inflammatory line they heard in one of his songs — they weren’t checking for Ace.
Around the same time I wrote an article about the phenomenon that is Oddisee, how he built his following, stayed true to his art, and was still able to live a great living via licensing and touring.
More recently, Twitter was buzzing with this article/interview from Yoh with Brent Faiyaz’s Manager, Ty Baisden, as he pulled back the curtain on why he and Faiyaz decided to go the independent route. Even more recently, the innerwebs cheered on the annoucement of Steve Stoute’s UnitedMasters which Tech Crunch said “replaces record labels.”
By the time I saw that announcement though, I was deep into writing this article and it was more clear to me what UnitedMasters was.
In order to understand that, you’ll have to have a quick run through on what crashed the record labels — piracy. Napster and my own person favorite computer crasher Limewire, sucked the life out of Record Labels right at the height of their popularity.
Every genre suffered, but I might venture to say that Rap suffered the most. When the bottom fell out, Rap was on a serious, unstoppable uptick. Rap videos were expensive, Rap tours elaborate, and Record Labels tossed money at rappers knowing they would get a huge return.
Back in April of 2015 The New Yorker published a Stephen Witt expose (“The Man Who Broke the Music Business”) on our brother Dell Glover who worked at a Polygram compact-disc manufacturing plant. It’s a good piece (though it lacks the humanity and depth that it should have) about how Glover burned music from Universal (who bought out Polygram) onto his computer and added it to a pirate MP3 site.
As I’ve said before, reading the legal cases are the best place to find info. This is no different. In the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v ADIL R. CASSIM, A.K.A. “Kali,” MATTHEW D. CHOW, A.K.A. “RL,” BENNIE L. GLOVER, A.K.A. “ADEG,” EDWARD L. MOHAN, II, A.K.A. “MistaEd,” (Count 1 is Conspiracy) we find this interesting tidbit:
GLOVER and ‘St James” acquired many albums during the course of the conspiracy, including nearly all the major rap (and some pop/rock) pre-release albums, and provided them by various means to CASSIM weeks or often months prior to their commercial release.
You know how it goes, one article prints something and others piggy back off it changing the title in some way, but every article that picked up this story left one part the same, ‘The Man Who Destroyed the Record Industry.’ Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay V. Prabhu and Operation Fastlink cracked down on Piracy much quicker than homicide officers sought to solve the case of Tupac, Biggie, or Jam Master Jay.
But that ain’t stop the bleeding.
Steve Jobs offered up iTunes store in 2003 as a way to actually download music legally. At first, there was a million downloads a day. We started seeing articles about how iTunes saved the music industry. But Record Labels weren’t happy at just breaking even. Corporations need constant growth. So in their mind…that ain’t stop the bleeding.
Daniel Ek told Apple in 06 to hold his beer. He proposed to the Record Labels that they give their music away for free and charge for a subscription service. That shit seemed far fetched. But his math was correct. Check this:
It has been hard to imagine how the music industry could ever match its pre-Napster performance in the 1990s, when compact disc sales ruled. But now one monthly payment zaps 30m songs into your smartphone, tablet or desktop app, enabling artists like Drake to notch up streams by the billions. The Canadian rapper’s music was streamed more than 4.7bn times on Spotify alone last year. Every hour, his songs are streamed more than 500,000 times on the service.
Few could be happier about these dizzying numbers than Universal Music, the record label that distributes Drake’s music and collects royalties from Spotify each time someone streams one of his songs. Artists like Drake helped power Universal to profitability last year, earning the company $1.1bn in streaming revenues in the first nine months — enough to offset the fall in sales of digital downloads and CDs.
Great right? Drake must make beau coup dollar from such a thing, right? Sorry. I offer up this:
Spotify have stated they pay their artists royalties on average £0.004-£0.006 per stream. So with 4.7 billion streams in 2016, the rapper is likely to have received an estimated $33,840,000. according to Spotify Calculator. However, the payments will extend to the record label, publishing companies, producers, featured artists with listed credits on Drake’s songs and, of course, Spotify itself.
That brings us full circle. Why do we need the Record Labels then? Ain’t nobody getting albums pressed or cassettes made. No one needs elaborate photo shoots and the act can make a video for themselves on their phone. We can all do that. Yeah…except for one thing…DISTRIBUTION.
iTunes and Spotify aren’t here to help you, bruv. They are not in the business of servicing the dreams of every little act out there in the world. They are in the big business of meeting the needs of their large clients — Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner — as a result, those streaming services are closed systems.
You wanna get on iTunes or Spotify, the same way you had to go through a distributor back in the day, now you have to go through a digital distribution company.
CDBaby is perhaps the most popular (although aded.us seems more comprehensive), but there are at least 27 companies (called ‘aggregators’) that do the same damn thing, and if you want to be one of them you have to have: at least 20 albums in your catalog, UPCs/EANs/JANs for all products you intend to distribute, and ISRCs for all tracks you intend to distribute. Most people stop at the 20 albums in your catalog…
That’s what Steve Stoute essentially built — an aggregator. UnitedMasters spin on things, from what I can gather is that it “identifies the listeners, builds artists a CRM tool, and helps them retarget their top fans with pinpointed ads for tickets and merch.” Happy to see us get in the game.
The dream continues to be sold — indie band hits top of iTunes. Remember this one:
Earlier today (Jul 24 15), independent artist Jack & Jack hit №1 on the iTunes album chart. Jack & Jack’s four-track EP, Calibraska, is currently charting ahead of rapper Future’s DS2 and Taylor Swift’s 1989. What’s more: they uploaded their album using DistroKid, a service which lets them keep every cent of the profits.
Well, next, Jack & Jack released a HarperCollins book, signed with CAA, and then released an EP via Island (read: Universal). They released videos for each song with the help of Samsung. Remember that story? I certainly don’t. But I’m sure enough people did to pay that annual $19.99 a year fee for Distrokid in hopes that they could have the same one (story).
Before Nathan Slavik vacated his post at DJ Booth for BitTorrent, he often delved into the illusion of independence which he called ‘mindies.’ Stories like Jack & Jack reads like a perfect example of a mindie and the shit people talk about Chance is a part of that category as well.
I’ve read everything that I possibly could on Chance; how he makes his money (touring and merch), read about his manager Pat Corcoran wherever I could find info on him, but it was the Complex Blueprint of Corcoran that left me with questions.
Most notably for this writing, how did they get Acid Tunes on iTunes?
Chance, like Jack & Jack, has several partnerships. He too is signed with CAA (now with the CL Group), he has the Apple deal, his publicist is Dan Weiner, but as it stands (as far as we know) no Record Label distributing his music.
Is that the model for all artists?
That is, unless your dad is a power broker in Chicago and helped Obama get elected.
You have to ask yourself, “what kind of career do I want?” The independent story is nice but usually people talking it don’t know business. Because if they did they would know that even the most independent of Labels goes through Caroline (Universal) or Orchard (Sony).
I’ve written all of these words and still can’t tell you why a Label deal is necessary. What I can ask is this — as the Big Three work to make these streaming networks a more closed system, will there be any other way but through them or their affiliates to get music to the masses?
I follow the scene in England, mostly the so-called Afro-bashment movement. There are new songs released daily. Many of these artists build a following and do shows. But in order to see revenue for the millions of views that they may get on their videos, they’re going to have to have a Vevo account.
And guess what? Vevo is a video hosting service founded by…that’s right, the Big Three. In order to get an approved Vevo page you have to go through a video distribution company like marvment or ditto. The Big Three are ever-present.
Recently, Big Machine Label Group an independent (distributed by Universal), released Taylor Swift’s Reputation. One could either pick it up in the store or download it. Streaming wasn’t an option. The logic went that Reputation would move more units without streaming and thus bring in more $$$.
To date, it’s working. Reputation is already selling 1.238 million units, most of which (1.216) being pure albums sells (as opposed to singular songs). It debut at №1 on the Billboard 200 album chart and sold 41% more copies than the next 199 (!) albums combined. Adele worked that approach to perfection a few years back, selling 3.4 milly. They, like Master P, made their money off of the product.
Sorry to tell you this, you’re no more Adele. The likelihood of 3.4 million people buying your album that you recorded in your mama’s basement is about as likely as this going viral as a 15,000 word article in The Atlantic.
If an author typed 15, 800 words on Medium, chances are a couple thousand people would have read it. But Atlantic has a name and a following and they have enough money to promote their work. They can put their work in the banner of sites that you read, they can make an image and promote it on your IG account, they have the money to do all of that. I don’t. I’d be lucky if 500 people read this.
And that’s on Medium, a platform that allows people outside of my immediate circle to read my work. I can only imagine what it would be like trying to get anyone to read 8,000 words of mine on a personal blog.
So why do people sign on to Major Labels? Sure, some may do it for that cash advance — you don’t know people’s circumstances — but there’s that other reality. Maybe an artist wants to get their work to the widest audience as possible. Maybe they have plans of making a name for themselves and stealing away into the world of the indies.
What I do know is this, joint ventures like Top Dawg (with Interscope/Universal) and Roc Nation (with Universal) are the current incarnation of the Black Media Group but there is still room for other Black Labels. The Black Record Label was the inroad to many artists and, with Rap and R&B groups in every city and town in America, forming a collective never hurt.
But more importantly, the words of Dick Griffey from 1979 (Black Enterprise Dec 79 pg 46) still remain true — we still need to have “Black entrepreneurs with lighting and sound companies, ticket takers (or whatever the modern equivalent would be) caterers, ushers.” Hell, Zapp once had their own limo service, their own sound and lighting system, their own trucking company, catering business, and two recording studios. That’s just one group and that was 1984.
If we don’t work to form more powerful conglomerates, we will forever be at the mercy of those people who do not have our best interest at heart.
I leave you with these words from the Godfather of Black Music:
The only thing that would bother me is if Jerry Moss of A&M Records or Berry Gordy of Motown Records woke up one morning and said ‘to hell with it’ and sold out to General Motors Of Ford or Shell Oil. Because the days of the independent distributor would be over. Clarence Avant, Billboard Feb 16, 1974 pg 6
Avant saw into the future, didn’t he?