Recently I heard Hurricane Chris rapping on The Cipha Sounds effect morning show and was surprised to find that he had skills – serious skills – on the mic. I did not gather this by listening to his popular singles ‘A Bay Bay’ and ‘The Hand Clap.’ I began to ponder why he didn’t bring those skills to his singles. I’m a fan of early 90’s hip hop (think Wu-Tang, Nas, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, I could go on) and normally I don’t listen to or enjoy the radio friendly club single of today. But after thinking about it from a different perspective, not only did I respect Hurricane Chris significantly more as an artist, I gained newfound respect for all hip hop artists that sell large amounts of records.
Once I took time to view the music industry through a business lens, the motivation artists have to make radio friendly club singles became more apparent. In any business model, the ultimate goal is to profit, and the music industry is no different. Any artist who is signed to a major label does so to increase their reach and make money. If they were not primarily motivated by money, they would put out albums independently to have total creative control (something which is given up to an extent at major labels), while still having the opportunity to profit.
Music is not held to the same standards as other more traditional industries that sell goods and services. In traditional businesses, it is not the highest quality products that sell the most. The top sellers are the products that do the best job reaching the audience that is most likely to buy. Unfortunately, there is no correlation between quality of music and sales. Often artists will have to reach out and create music that appeals to other market segments to take album sales from good to great. In most industries this would be considered quality marketing. In hip hop this is called selling out. Jay-Z said it best on “Moment of Clarity” from The Black Album:
I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars
They criticized me for it yet they all yell “HOLLA!”
If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be
lyrically, Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did five mill’ – I ain’t been rhymin like Common since
He gets it. Nelly gets it. Ludacris gets it. Multi-platinum selling hip hop artists get it. These are the same artists that are most heavily criticized in forums and elsewhere online for making songs that are radio friendly and not for the ‘real hip hop fan.’ These artists simply understand how to monetize the business of music and spread their message better than their peers. They understand the difference between going gold and multi-platinum doesn’t depend on hip hop fans, but 13 year old white girls. They’re aware that in order to go platinum there are going to be some songs that they have to ‘dumb down for their audience’ as Jay-Z mentioned. They understand that as in the business world, just because you have the highest quality product doesn’t mean it’s going to sell if nobody knows its there. These are the artists that have managed to build successful brands, that allow them to draw from a larger pool of potential customers, but that is a totally separate topic that I hope to touch on in the future.
As Andre 3000 of Outkast said on “Elevators” from ATLiens:
True I got more fans than the average man but not enough loot to last me
to the end of the week, I live by the beat like you live check to check
If you don’t move yo’ foot then I don’t eat, so we like neck to neck
In the business of creating and selling music, if artists don’t sell records they will have minimal shelf life. However, I believe that quality music will stand the test of time and over a long period sales would reflect that. Unfortunately music labels are only interested in the 1-3 month window starting the day the album is released since albums make a large portion of total sales the first month (the first week in some cases). Reaching out to parallel markets in order to broaden your reach (i.e. collaborating with an R&B artist for a record, or reaching out other well known artists for guest verses on your records) is not selling out. It is a smart business move to ensure they are reaching the largest audience possible. Remember, music is a business and artists on major labels are primarily trying to secure profits through their music.
It wasn’t until I viewed music through a business lens that I realized why artists don’t always bring their best and why they insist on making (what I consider) crappy music. Those songs on the radio and being played in the club are not being marketed toward me, and are not a reflection of the talent of the artist. Like all for profit businesses, they are simply trying to grow their market share and increase their piece of the pie. It shows me that they understand the game, and I’ve grown to further respect the artists who get it, since I just began to get it myself. Once you view artists as businesses, singles and radio/club play as marketing, and audience/reach as customers, you will have a better appreciation for people who have managed and continue to make large profits in the industry.