My roommate and I were discussing the current state of the music industry, more specifically the hip-hop world, a couple days ago. An artist that had performed at our school a few months before had just released a new album, his first with a major label. We were both disappointed in the new work compared to the many free mixtapes he released. I was quick to label him a “sellout” and after thinking it over, maybe I was wrong to label him like that.
I don’t want to preach economics and all that shit to you, but in a capitalist country like America, maybe it makes sense to “sellout.” We’ve all learned that a capitalistic market is based on demand by the consumer. We also know that Americans like to accumulate as much money as they can (“Fuck bitches, get money” comes to mind).
Honestly, how much does an independent artist make? It has to be dwarfed in comparison to what a star like Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z or Kanye makes. The way I see it, there are probably four big recording companies (EMI, Sony, Warner, and Universal) and those four companies probably have around fifty major artists each. If you had the chance, why would you not jump at an offer from one of these companies to be in their elite? You are guaranteed a fatter paycheck and sufficient stability. Not just that, but it gets you a lot more exposure. Exposure equals even more money; so theoretically, the earning potential is nearly unlimited. Metaphorically, the sky is the limit.
The only problem I have with major label signings is that it seems like the artist’s creativity is impeded. Labels want to be able to sell records to the masses so if they think you have market appeal but want you to change your sound, what happens? As an artist you have a decision. Do you stay with what you have and let your creativity flow to please your “true” fans, or do you move away from your original sound for more potential fans, more potential exposure and more potential money but risk being labeled as a “sellout?” It’s a tough choice. We can all name a few artists that we feel changed their fundamental sound to cater to the masses. Most of these artists ended up succeeding and rake in the money.
On the flipside, maybe it’s the “true” fans fault. In our generation, we’ve been lucky enough to have the Internet. The Internet is a resource that has essentially turned the music world on its head. We have the luxury of being exposed to so much more music, especially hip-hop music. Instead of having to spend money on an album to see what an artist is all about, we can download free mixtapes and tracks that they have put out with no charge to us. We attach ourselves to artists that we find “unique” and to music we enjoy. Then, when an artist changes up his sound, we go ape shit. Is that really fair to the artist, someone, who like you and me, is just trying to make a living? Maybe we “true” fans, the original fans, are at fault. Maybe we are just selfish and don’t want other people to be exposed to the music that we like. Sure, it’s cool to be the only one of your friends to have heard of an artist, but is that really fair to the artist? Probably not.
My conclusion is that there are so many pros and cons of “selling out” that there is really no right or wrong answer. It all depends on the artist and what they want to do with their career. My roommate and I came to the conclusion that very few artists and groups actually keep the same fundamental sound throughout their career. Our best example was a group like Wu-Tang Clan, who to many is one of the greatest groups of all-time (which may very well be a reason they were able to keep their creative integrity). With this recent explosion of music on the Internet and all the available blogs that have the ability to circulate diverse and unique music to fans, it will be interesting to see how artists move about in the music world in the future. I’m especially interested in how artists and groups that basically tell labels to fuck off end up panning out. Will they end up working with major labels as well or will the music industry be able to spread around the wealth and allow even independent artists to make a good living?
By the way, remember that artist I labeled as a “sellout?” Yeah, in the first three weeks he sold over 300,000 units, which according to my calculations is probably something like $1.5 million in royalties. Sounds good to me.
For the few of you that have seen this blog in its infancy, what do you think? Am I right? Am I wrong? Am I somewhere in-between? Am I an idiot or a prick? Is “selling out” even possible and if so what are the prerequisites? Do labels have too much control over their artists? Let me know. I’d really appreciate some input on this from other people, especially music fanatics like myself but with a different point of view.
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