Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Hip-Hop Hullabaloo, Or: The Record Industry Hates Making Money

Visitors to popular hip-hop sites,, and got a rude awakening when they tried to open up the site last Friday morning. On November 26th, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, seized the two sites and the domain of BitTorrent search engine, in addition to the domains of at least 70 other sites responsible for distributing counterfeit DVDs and clothing.

This doesn't seem all that surprising, at least at first blush. The old guard of the music industry (and their allies in government) have been working steadily since the days of Napster to shut down the Web's most popular piratical outlets. First came the fall of Napster, followed by the breakup of its more notable P2P successors and, most recently, attempts by governments around the world to get rid of the most-used BitTorrent trackers. Some went quietly (and tragically). Others, not so much.

But while most prior moves by anti-piracy forces targeted outlets that openly aid and abet piracy, this action focused on a much more ambiguous target: music blogs. And for those of us who rely on such blogs for most of our musical cues, this is a rather troubling development.

For a certain segment of artists, music blogs have become the premiere promotional device. Radio and TV have long since given up on any musical pursuit that doesn't involve spinning the same 10 or 15 tracks ad nauseam, so artists who don't sound like Rihanna, Nickelback, or Lady Gaga are pretty much SOL. They're forced to retreat to the once-seedy (and still kinda seedy) expanses of the Internet. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The Internet, after all, is cheap as hell. Opening a MySpace or SoundCloud account is as easy as entering your email address and uploading your tracks.

Getting other people to actually hear your music, though, is an entirely different story and precisely where the blogosphere comes in. "Tastemakers" (ugh, buzzwords) find new tracks through relationships they have will labels or artists, or just through word-of-mouth. And in an age when artists can record a track one day and upload it to their SoundCloud the next, it's imperative that blogs be able to respond quickly if they want to remain relevant. And there's hardly a more fast-moving genre of music than hip-hop.

To be fair, hip-hop has never really conformed to the "tour, record album, release single " structure of rock music promotion. Since hip-hop's inception, new tracks have been released through mixtapes assembled by regional DJs. While most remain unknown except on a local level, others, like Atlanta's DJ Drama and Miami's DJ Khaled (yup, that one), have risen to national prominence.

Today though, even the mixtape, relatively nimble format though it is, has trouble keeping up with the changing winds of hip-hop. It's not that the mixtape is falling out of usage; far from it. Rather, physical mixtapes (or CDs) are becoming a thing of the past, just like their mainstream counterparts. Rappers like Wiz Khalifa, Lil' Wayne, and Gucci Mane have made their name on the mixtape circuit, releasing new material so quickly that it would make an A&R rep's head spin. Nowadays, though, their new tapes drop online, through sites like the ones seized by Homeland Security this past week.

The mixtape format has always existed on somewhat shaky legal ground, with mixtapes released by the above-mentioned regional DJs aren't being particularly ambiguous. Mixtape database DatPiff (my personal favorite) hosts hundreds of thousands of mixtapes, many released without permission from artists or labels. Indeed, Atlanta police, working with the Recording Industry Association of America, arrested DJ Drama back in 2007 for manufacturing mixtapes. The RIAA, after all, makes no distinction between counterfeit CDs and "unlicensed compilations."

But authorized mixtapes are a truly powerful promotional tool. Buzz generated by Lil' Wayne's legendary mixtape streak in the mid aughts skyrocketed Tha Carter III to multi-platinum sales in an era when big-box retailers are dumping their CD sections entirely. And Wiz Khalifa has managed to mount a sold-out national tour without a record deal, merely on the strength of his mixtapes.

It's puzzling, then, why the United States government, ostensibly with the consent of the record industry, would act on outlets like OnSmash and RapGodFathers. Sure, it could be a sinister ploy to cut indie successes like Khalifa off at the knees. Then again, the guy signed a deal with Atlantic in April, and the label's execs are probably picking out their swimsuits for the pools of money they'll be swimming in. After all, Weezy showed that, for the most part, mixtapes don't replace conventional albums. Mixtape versions of tracks are often tagged by host DJs, so listeners have to contend with asinine slogans like Khaled's infamous "WE THE BEST" tag being mixed several levels louder than the music.

This latest action by Homeland Security seems especially unsavory considering that staffers from the blogs in question claim to have complied with all requests pursuant to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (that is, requests by labels and artists to take down offending material). Seizing the domains of these sites consequently comes off as absurdly unfair, like telling a kid it's okay to chew gum and then sending him to the principal's office for pulling out a pack of Orbit. It also indicates a fairly clumsy understanding of the online music world, since these blogs were lumped in with a torrent indexer and a host of sites selling legitimately counterfeit goods.

The issue here is not that the record industry is trying desperately to hold on to the few revenue streams it has left, but that it's making enemies in all the wrong places. The sinister Swedes at the top of the BitTorrent community would burn record labels to the ground and piss on the ashes. Shutting them down makes total sense.

But the people behind sites like OnSmash, RapGodFathers, and DaJaz1 are truly invested in the success of the artists they promote. That record companies are willing to squander the blogosphere's massive promotional potential doesn't bode well for the industry at large. And a patient on life support needs all the medicine it can get.