38 posts categorized "Music Business"

April 01, 2016

Legal Loan Sharking: The Music Industry's Draconian Business Model

Understanding the music industry's loan-and-own contract model and why it should be prompting further independence, especially when music makers are more self-contained than ever before.

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


A film studio buys a script from a screenwriter. The screenwriter is paid a fee and the studio owns the script, and as such, the copyright to the script. Imagine if the film studio said to the screenwriter, "We're going to loan you money to write a script. When you're finished, we'll own the script and you'll owe us the money that we loaned you."


A publisher buys a manuscript from an author. The author is paid a fee for the right to publish the manuscript, but the author retains his or her copyright to the manuscript. Imagine if the publisher said, "We're going to loan you money to write a book. When you're finished, we'll own the book, we can publish it when and however we like, and you'll owe us the money that we loaned you."


In the music industry, labels front artists a recording budget — a loan — to record an album. Artists record their albums, then turn them in to the labels, who then own the exclusive copyright to the master recordings as well as the exclusive right to publish the album. For their services, artists receive a small royalty rate that's paid against the money that the labels fronted (loaned) them. Seem fair?


Music, easily one of the most important components of popular culture, is a booming business for radio, television, online publications, and more. On the surface, you'd think that recording artists, the music makers and actual bedrock of music itself, are well, if not reasonably, paid. Think again. Sure, some of the A-List recording artists score fat royalty checks, in addition to huge concert/show paydays. Still, even most A-listers' contracts are tied to the music industry's model of loan-and-own. Some A-Listers work deals that grant them ownership of their masters, but this is rare and usually only after some considerable time in the business. The truth is, the overwhelming majority of recording artists are locked into the loan-and-own model, which means that most never see a royalty check throughout their entire recording career.


The reason why most recording artists never see a royalty check is because when it comes to recording contracts in the music business it is, and has always been, a legalized form of loan-sharking. The comparison of a bank loan is the most popular analogy of for how recording contracts work in the music business. The idea is that a record label loans money to a recording artist for the purpose of creating new art. When this new art is marketed and sold, there is a split in profits between the label and the artists. The split is typically 88-93% for the label, and 7-12% percent for the artist. In other words, artists routinely sign contracts that give them a base rate of 7 to 12 cents on the dollar. Throw in a 5 cent royalty for each song that an artist writes on the album, and an artist can earn up to 40 or 60 cents per album sold. But none of these royalties are paid until the artist is recouped — i.e. until the loan is paid back.


It's important to remember that the masters of this newly created art belongs 100% to the label — unless some proportional agreement is made to stipulate otherwise, which of course is extremely rare. Though artists are entitled (supposedly) to a cut of the returns, there is no split in ownership between the labels and the artist. Further, the label retains the right to withhold royalty payments or apply would-be royalty payments to the debt (all monies the label spent on the artist) of the artist. Once an artist has recouped, satisfied their debt, presumably they begin to receive royalties. Note: When an artist has repaid their entire budget, they are said to be fully recouped. But typically, artists never fully recoup. And thus, it's very common that artists wind up owing their label indefinitely.


This is why the bank loan analogy, that many people like to use, is grossly inadequate. Even a traditional bank loan for consumers with the lowest credit scores is more favoring than the loan terms that recording artists are forced to agree to in a standard recording contract. For example, when a person with absolutely flawless or appalling credit receives a car loan, they gain 100% total use of a new/used car. For all intents and purposes, the car belongs to them. At anytime within the agreement, this person can refinance or actually sell the car. Moreover, at the end of the agreement, usually no longer than five years, the car belongs to them free and clear. In the music business, recording artists almost never own their work, even after the initial agreement that they entered is long over. Furthermore, the only actual usage right that artists retain of the music they create is the right to perform the album at concerts and such — i.e. touring. They can not however resell it, without the permission of the label that they're signed to.


Because of the labels legal-loan sharking and other practices, I caution people to remember that independence is not merely avoiding relationships with the labels, but rather learning how to preserve the best terms for you as an artist. The biggest advantage to working with a label is being able to access their marketing, promotion, and distribution power. But this access should not come at the cost of a draconian business contract. Hence, I always advise artists (producers are also artists) to form their own entities so that they are better prepared to negotiate with labels. For instance, I release all of my music through my company. If and when I were to ever enter an agreement with a major label or distributor, the agreement would only be for distribution. Which means that regardless of whatever money the label or distributor fronts me, I own the copyright to my masters.


Today, many artists are self-contained and are recording complete albums long before labels get involved. So you would think that artists are increasingly signing straightforward distribution deals. But that's largely not the case. Even most self-contained artists are still signing loan-and-own deals and giving up ownership to their masters. But know this: If you have a finished album, you don't have to give up your ownership to your masters. If a major label or a distributor is interested in your project, you can and should avoid the legal-loan sharking system.

The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

Check out DJ Jazzy Jeff (pre-Will Smith Hollywood fame) as he talks about the highs and lows of winning a Grammy.


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The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

March 29, 2016

Independence or Major Label, Informed Decisions Pay Off Best

The value of making self-contained beats and rhymes, and how (why) I turned down a major label record deal.

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


There's a familiar feeling that all unknown artists have. It's a feeling of hope — that one day, people will know and appreciate your music. For most, that hope will dissolve. Some artists are dope, but fail to ever seriously or consistently put in the work, time, and effort it takes to breakthrough. Some artists are just not that good, but they refuse to take stock of their talent (or lack there of) and remain steadfast in their delusion that they'll make it one day, and if they don't, it's because tastemakers (and everyone else) are haters. Then there are those artists who are quite talented and committed to the process, yet because of mitigating circumstances — music industry bullshit, jail time, lack of funds, no team support, wrong location, wrong time, frustration, etc. — they never get the chance they deserve or the level of recognition equal to their capabilities. Then there's my story.


My pursuit was perhaps best characterized by my commitment to music and my leeriness of the music industry, more specifically, the types individuals that dominate it and the level of shenanigans that are customary within it. Unlike most people who get close enough to sniff a major label record deal, I was never enamored by the whole major label system. I read about the music industry as well as books about business. Incidentally, reading a book or communicating with people who have accurate knowledge to share can save you time, headaches, and emotional distress.


At 19, I read Donald Passman's All You Need to Know About the Music Business, a tomb of music business discovery that broke down a lot of the complexity of how the music industry's business model works. A couple years later, I read Everything You Better Know About the Music Industry by Kashif, a much more direct, you-better-watch-out style book about the music industry that provided further details and much needed nuance. Thus, I was informed about many different aspects of the music industry. I learned more deeply about intellectual property, standard recording contracts, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, promotion, and various key components of art and commerce. But even before I learned of some of the music industry's most oppressive and reprehensible practices, I viewed the major labels as a poorly ran entertainment cartel, one predicated upon cheap (indentured) labor, and mostly void of any consistent sense of creative integrity. So for me, the goal was never to get with the major label system, I wanted to keep away from it.


In 1995, I'd been making beats, on kind of a committed basis, for just about two years. But I was rhymin' before I started making beats. But after the frustration of having to wait for other people to make beats for me to write and rhyme to, I started making beats for myself. Although I was serious almost right from the start, I probably didn't develop a decent level of skill until 1999. Thing about that time frame is that I had a reverence for the art of beatmaking that was instilled in me by the beatmakers (producers) who I looked up to and taught me. Therefore, I was constantly reminded by how much time and effort it would take to build a decent level of beatmaking skills.


By the end of 2000, it all began to come together for me. My beatmaking skills had finally caught up with my rhymin' skills, and within months, I would make "Milk," the song that would give me my first true level of recognition. In 2001, a then very close friend of mine, Tamika "Tammy" Butler, was working at Daddy's House Recording Studio (Bad Boy's recording home). Tammy regularly came in direct contact with various beatmakers (producers), rappers, and other music professionals, so naturally, I put together a CD for her to pass on to those individuals who she and I thought might receive my music well. The CD was hastily put together, nothing fancy at all, and aside from "Milk," it only included two other songs.


Because I scrutinized who Tammy gave the CD to, she would call me from the studio, tell me that "so-and-so" was there, then ask if it was OK to let them hear my CD. Often, I'd say no. Not because I thought my music wasn't good enough. On the contrary, I knew my music was good enough. But I had strong concerns about who exactly heard it. As it was bound to perhaps happen, Tammy, overrode my "No," and let a couple of people hear my CD that I asked her not to.


First, DJ Tony Touch. So I'm at home, working on some beats, and Tammy calls. She tells me that not only did she let DJ Tony Touch hear my CD (against my wishes), but that he asked to have it and she let him "hold" it. Before I could erupt with anger, she goes on to tell me that Tony Touch told her to tell me that my song, "Milk is a MONSTER!" and that he would be placing it on his upcoming mixtape. This was pivotal news for several reasons: (1) This was the first time that a known and respected hip hop/rap music insider had validated my music; (2) That he was willing to place my song on his mixtape (free of charge), meant that he really did believe it was a monster; and (3) DJ Tony Touch's reaction was the exact sort of reaction that I anticipated (hoped for) from a respected hip hop/rap insider. Taking a cue from DJ Tony Touch's co-sign, I didn't bother to wait for any more validation; instead, I went to work and made ten new songs. Together with "Milk," these songs would become my first album, Soul Review.


Several months after Soul Review had been out, catching some street buzz in New York (mostly in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx), I get a call from Marcus Logan, then VP of Marketing at Arista/Star Trak Entertainment. After a series of phone conferences, Logan informs me that he's worked up three deals for me: (1) An album deal with Arista; (2) A single deal with Motown; and (3) A development deal with Artist Direct that would land significant upfront money. Rather than pursue any of those opportunities presented to me, I told Logan that I was no longer interested in obtaining a major label deal. Thus, I had opted for a path of my own, an independent path. (My ultimate goal was to make music on my own terms, write books, and start a publishing company to give other writers opportunities.) After one last phone conference, in which Logan tried to tell me that I was making a big mistake, and in which I thanked him for all that he done and tried to do for me, I walked away from those opportunities. After that, Marcus Logan and I never spoke again. And I went on to sell out every copy of my album, without any marketing team, promotion, or major label backing.


Two years later, at my request and encouragement, Tammy met with Logan in his office. She presented him with a copy of the Third Edition of my book The BeatTips Manual. Because he had once sincerely believed in me and my music, I had wanted to repay him by including him with my plans for BeatTips. However, whether he had been put off by me turning down the offers that he had worked to get for me, or he had simply found no merit in what I was doing, he showed little interest in being involved, and further advised that, "Without any big names attached to the book, it wouldn't sell."


There's one more thing about this time. Tammy again gave a copy of Soul Review to someone against my wishes. Perhaps because I'd gotten mad at her for letting some people hear the early version of the album, or maybe because she simply forgot, whatever the case, it wasn't until three years later (around 2004) that she told me that Just Blaze had told her to tell me to "Give him a call!" A missed opportunity? Perhaps. (To this day, Tammy still feels bad about not immediately relaying Just's message to me.) But funny how things turn out, Just and I would meet some years later and eventually have two pivotal business meetings. He's one of only a handful of people in the music business that I respect and trust.


Today, The BeatTips Manual is available in it's Sixth Edition, and it has been bought, read, and used by people and featured at schools all over the world. It includes exclusive interviews with DJ Premier, DJ Toomp, and 9th Wonder, just to name a few; it offers rare, in-depth knowledge on every aspect from history to instruction and process to business; and it has become the cornerstone of beatmaking education for countless beatmakers (producers).


When I turned down opportunities that were presented to me 16 years ago, it was an informed decision with the thought of future growth in mind. What I've always aimed to do with The BeatTips Manual and The Art of Sampling is to help people do the same: Make informed decisions and grow.



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The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

February 21, 2012

Success by Endurance: Get on Someone’s Radar, Part 1: Louis C.K. and Why You Should Form a Beatmaker-Anchored Group

Build Your Own Platform and Prepare for the Long Haul; True Success Never Comes Instantly

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

A few months ago, I heard a story about comic Louis C.K. and his self-distributed one-hour online comedy special, Louis C.K. - Live at the Beacon Theater. At that time, I didn’t have all the details; I hadn’t heard of C.K.’s show until two months after he had initially released it. But as a casual fan of his work, the murmurs and word of mouth about the show peaked my interest. As a DIY advocate, I was also interested in hearing more details about how the show came about. Was it really independently produced and released? Was it really released from his own website? What payment options did he make available to consumers? And, was the show a success or not?

Several weeks ago, I read a mention on Twitter of an interview that Louis C.K. did on the talk show “Fresh Air”. This lead me to hit up the “Fresh Air” website. There, I did a quick search of “Louis C.K.”, and the results yielded a link to his his interview, which was available for instant listening and on podcast. In the interview, C.K. confirmed that he produced the special with his own money, edited it entirely, and released it independently from his own website. In exchange for two streams and two downloads of the unencrypted, high-definition show, fans were asked to pay just $5 directly to him via PayPal. C.K. explained that he went this route because he wanted to see if releasing a video of himself could make money. But he also revealed that TV comedy specials he had done in the past had netted him no money at all. “I've never seen a check from a [TV] comedy special,” he says in his interview with Terry Gross, host of “Fresh Air”. Clearly, he went this route also because he wanted to eliminate the middle man, no? Finally, C.K. expressed that the project was a success, revealing that he “made all of his money back and then some.”

Now, here, I want to make a couple of points of context—about the anatomy of a sale—before I go on:

• Louis C.K. independently released Louis C.K. - Live at the Beacon Theater in early December, 2011. It got on my radar in February, 2012, nearly two months later—not the first week of its release.

• I first heard mention—word of mouth—of Louis C.K.’s special on Twitter, not a paid advertisement on television or radio.

• Because Louis C.K. was already on my radar, when I heard that he had a new special, I was interested in learning more.

• I was able to learn more about Louis C.K.’s special by tuning into an archived episode of the talk show “Fresh Air”, a show that is heavy on my radar.

• After listening to Louis C.K.’s interview on “Fresh Air”, I wanted to purchase his special, which I did less than 24hours of listening to the interview.

O.K., end of context…

It’s important to note that the way in which Louis C.K. rolled out his special exemplifies, in both broad and specific ways, how music projects are now sold. Although, the instant-hit, first-week sales paradigm is certainly still in play, most music releases, especially those from independent recording artists, make their sales over an extended period of time. This difference is in how core fans and casual fans of large and smaller acts make purchases. For big, major label backed releases, there’s typically a large push to attract both the core fan and the casual fan alike within the first week of release. In these cases, first-week sales (good or bad) often narrate the level of success (or failure) of the music release.

For smaller, independent releases, first-week sales aren’t as critical. For one thing, core fans of independent artists don’t always go for the first-week sales crunch. Because they already have a fluid connection with the artist, they maintain an unwritten revolving commitment to buy the releases. This revolving commitment is understood to mean that the fan may not buy the album in the first week or even the first month of it’s release, but that he or she will indeed buy the album at some point, usually within the first 6 months of the release or sometimes longer. Also, because smaller, independent artists lack a major national/international marketing and promotion push, the rate of casual fan discovery takes longer for them.

While bigger, major label-backed artists rely on a heavy push for their releases, most smaller, independent artists simply build something that they trust (or hope) people will gravitate to. In other words, smarter independent artists know how to follow the maxim, “Build it, and they will come”.

Louis C.K. followed this maxim. He built his brand and offered a project directly to his fans, and they came. He didn’t wait for approval or validation; he just built it! With his own imagination, wherewithal, and money, he put together his comedy special and released it to the world on his website. I’m not sure how much emphasis C.K. placed on first-week sales. I know he did some press in the weeks leading up to the release, but that was minimal, and it was certainly not a 4-month, full court marketing blitz. Either way, I get the feeling that he knew that his "Beacon Theater" project was the sort of thing that would scale over time.

The Radar: Why Most Music Releases Scale Better Over Time

Right now, there's so much music, so much information in general, that one can hardly find the time to get through new releases in a year, let alone the first week it drops. In fact, when you think about it, in an age of ultra accessibility, the idea of buying or listening to music projects in the first week of their release is an antiquated practice that has outlived its usefulness.

I don’t know about you, but throughout the year, I find myself playing catch up. Each month, I miss a number of potential great releases, not because of a lack of interest but because of the overwhelming amount of releases. Add to that the sheer amount of noise that's tossed around, and the task of keeping up with new music becomes even more daunting. But that’s the problem. Discovering great music shouldn’t be about keeping up with mounting release dates; discovering great music shouldn't be a task. Discovering great music should be an enjoyable, rewarding journey. And I’ve found that the only “new” music that I can check is the music that makes it on to my radar. (Louis C.K. made it on to my comedy radar more than four years ago, yet I only recently purchased something from him.)

I circle back to the "new" music that stays on my radar with a strong signal. For me, and I suspect many others, hearing music as soon as it's released is less important than hearing it at all. With more choice than ever before, I can tune into “new” music on my schedule, not the arbitrary release schedule of 10s of thousands of different artists. So for me, and I believe most others as well, the probability of me hearing “new” music and buying it (or something else from the artist) depends on whether or not the music/artist can get a strong signal on my radar. The greater the signal on my radar, the more likely I will purchase…eventually.

The Instant Success Problem; the Similarities Between Comics and Beatmakers; and Why Forming Groups Might Be the Best Way to Go

There is no such thing as instant success. Peel back the curtains on any success story, and what you’ll find is a more humbling set of facts. Everything from arduous practice hours, to tons of money spent (and lost), to creative failures, to opportunities that fell through, to lost and made business connections; it’s all there behind the curtain of instant success.

Louis C.K.’s story, like most comics, is a story of endurance. Countless hours of practice (writing bits and honing his style). Long and late nights. Numerous dead-end gigs. False-starts. Rejections. You name it, he’s gone through it. And through it all, like other comic success stories, he carved out a lane for himself—his FX show, Louie and his aforementioned comedy special being the most recent testaments to that fact.

There are plenty of stand-up comics chasing after success. For most of them, the idea of success is divided up into a series of reachable plateaus—develop your own style and type of bits; get noticed; earn a following; get noticed again by “TV people”; get a TV special; land a writing gig; land a television show. Of course, the order of some of these plateaus could be rearranged, but you get the picture.

Like stand-up comics, there are loads of beatmakers. And, like comics, serious beatmakers spend countless hours practicing, studying, and developing their craft. Beatmakers drop long, late nights without a second thought. We optimistically field dead-in beat sale offers and collaboration work that never takes off. We absorb false career starts and fast-talking music insiders and posers. And we endure rejections on a multitude of levels. Yet with all of this, why is it that most beatmakers fail to simply carve out their own lane?

The main reason is that most don’t even try to carve out their own lane. Why? Well, that’s easy to figure out. You see, in beatmaking, the idea of success—that most beatmakers envision—centers around two things: a beat placement or a beat sale. For nearly two decades now, the dream of landing coveted placements has given off the illusion that all one needs to do is make a beat (quality debatable), get it placed, and success instantly follows. In lieu of successful beat placements, a number of beatmakers have turned their focus to selling and leasing beats at unprofessionally low prices, often dragging down their brand and profile rather than raising it. (Check out, “Don’t Market Your Beats Like a Pack of Cheap Steak Knives”) Finally, a small number of other beatmakers have gotten into music licensing, but that’s a different article. But what you haven’t seen much of, however, and what I strongly advocate for, is beatmakers forming groups.

The music business is certainly different than the comedy business. Hundreds of comedy clubs exist all over America. There aren’t any beat clubs. And stand-up comedy, like the movies or a sports match, or a music concert, is an event that people pay money to go out and see or watch at home on the tube. Beatmaking, by itself, can’t make such a claim. Live beat showcases and battles don’t move the needle much at all. Those events, the best of which sometimes tout acclaimed A&Rs and “celebrity” beatmakers as judges and offer some level of placement/career assistance, are usually populated by some music insiders but mostly by the participants and their friends and family. In other words, these aren’t shows in the traditional sense; those beatmakers who participate are not being paid. In fact, in some showcases, they’re actually paying the showcase organizers to participate. A legitimate investment for some beatmakers, no doubt. But what if beatmakers just formed groups (or became solo rap acts) and bypassed the song and dance of beat showcases and the precarious world of beat placements?

Two years ago, I took in a show during the 2010 CMJ Showcase here in New York. Among those on the bill who I had come to see (and would have paid for, had I not been comped at the door with a press pass, thanks to Michelle over at Audible Treats) was Diamond District and Nottz. Formed by Oddisee, a beatmaker (producer)/rapper, Diamond District is made up of solo rappers XO and YU. And Nottz, one of the most prolific beatmakers (producers) to date, rocks solo. Both performances were worth the attendance (Diamond District’s set was especially impressive). More importantly, both acts proved the point that I’ve been making for years—That beatmakers could form rap acts and put themselves on.

Rather than limit the idea of success to placing beats with artists (which often attracts unnecessary middle men), or selling beats for less than their true value, beatmakers should expand their focus to include building new music groups. As a basis for success in beatmaking, beat placements are, for the most part, not sustainable. Being a part of your own group, with control of your music and direction, presents a much better chance for career sustainability than chasing after beat placements. Oddisee’s CMJ showcase and other tour opportunities over the past several years are proof of this.

There is, and will always be, room for a dope new act. Music consumers thrive on a fresh slate of new music. And there’s never been more music consumers in the world than there is at this moment. So instead of tossing your best beats into a bottomless pool of other beat placement chasers, why not use them to start a new act? A new act that you’re a central part of, not a marginal character. What’s the worse thing that can happen? A few show/tour dates and some record sales? Either way, whether you build a new group or create a series of beat tapes, the idea is to build something of your own, then get on someone’s radar. If you do so, eventually the success will come.

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The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

March 03, 2011

Some Recording Artists Are Better Off Selling Free Promotion Flyers

Over Saturation of PR-Type Music-Makers Will Give Way to New Era of Quality and Creativity

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

Even though most A-list recording artists have taken some financial jabs over the past several years, they still earn decent money. However, B- and C-listers (which make up the vast majority recording artists) had better either (1) accept the peril of their musical fate; or (2) pimp out their brand (if it's anyway serviceable) to some to establishment that's not endangered by the clutches of P2P technology and some consumers stubborn reluctance to by buy music.

I used to cringe when recording artists conveyed to me their strategies for new music sales. In some cases, these were people I have been friends with for 10 years or more. In other cases, these were artists who I had long respected, but had only more recently felt comfortable calling friends. And still, these were also artists who were neither friends or enemies, but simply music people that I know. However, now I no longer have to cringe when I hear about plans like that redundant one; you know the one in which the strategy itself is predicated upon some delusional phantom "movement." Or how about all of the misguided and woefully under-matched DVD/video strategies. Indeed, in today's music scene, one has a better chance of making more money selling free promotion flyers than do using the stale (over played) strategies of the day.

One reason that I don't have to hear any of these non-reality-based strategies is because I have consistently (and cold-handedly) removed myself from even the most remote music-industry connection. Understand, I have never been, nor have I ever wanted to be a music industry "insider". As a kid, I learned early on that you don't have to be in the circus to see all the clowns. The other reason that I don't have to hear (and/or subsequently entertain) any of these non-sensible music-money-making strategies is because most of the once "new" and "imaginative" strategies have become so old and repeated that they have successfully paralyzed wholesale numbers of unsuspecting recording artists (many of which who operate more like defective "androids").

Certainly, this does not mean that I glory in the demise of the dreams of many artists. On the contrary, I reserve a special level of respect for the kind of dedication that many recording artists demonstrate. However, contemporary "success schemes" have converted a large majority of recording artists into de facto marketers and/or PR types, who seemingly just dabble—by chance—in making music in their spare time.

Thus, with the undeniable collapse of many of the most popular music money-making tactics, I'm convinced that a new crop of recording artists (especially in hip hop/rap) will continue to emerge. I'm not saying that this new group will ignore the necessity of some level of marketing and PR. I just believe that they will concentrate less on marketing/PR and more on the novel idea of, well, making creative, imaginative music. In fact, I envision that this new group of recording artists will reject the "quick fame and money" routine, and focus on generating something fresh, new, and eerily indicative of what history shamelessly has left to peddle. If I'm right, we are in the last days of the PR-type music-maker dominated era, and are at the horizon of something more engaging and fresh.

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The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

January 05, 2011

So You Think You Need A Manager?

In the Market for a Manager, You Might Want to Consider DIY

By PAUL LOVERRO (NASA)

In the late 1990s, I was in a group called The Presence (in addition to my solo work, I'm still a member today). Even though we were just starting out, we had a few joints that people were feeling in NYC. So we really wanted a manager. In our minds, it was time to take that "next step.” So I spoke with an experienced Manager who managed a lot of the acts that I wanted to emulate, in terms of their success and creativity. He told me that we didn't need a manager. In fact, he said that a manager wouldn't do anything for us.

His response pissed me off, because from my perspective, we weren't going anywhere and we needed help. We were really young in the business, and I thought that a manager could help us get to where we were trying to go. So I shunned his advice, and I met with several "managers,” explaining our situation to each. All the people that I met with were "first time managers;” but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought all these meetings in bars were actually getting me some where. In retrospect, it should have been obvious to me that I was spinning my wheels. After all, why would an experienced manager meet with artists that clearly couldn’t do anything for themselves?

Well, it took me a long time to realize that the advice of that very first manager that I spoke with was right! And if anyone would have said anything different to us at that time, it would have been a shark move. Although this was back in the late 90s, and the music scene has changed a lot, this issue surrounding a manager is one thing that hasn't changed.

This all comes back to my mind because now that I've grown in the business (that is to say, having produced and mixed countless many tracks, performed at numerous shows, and started a record label), the very last thing I EVER want to do is talk to a manager. It's ironic that when I was about 21, I carried the exact opposite approach. I've dealt with managers for well-known artists of past note as well as up-and-comers, and in my experience, they are either “day-planners” or they just plain get in the damn way.

You have to understand one basic fact about managers if you are just starting out as an artist: They get paid when you get paid. But that's not as good as it sounds. What that actually means is that if I contact you for a beat, for instance, and you direct me to your manager, your price will likely not be negotiable. Although this might be construed as good thing, it usually isn't.

Consider this scenario. Let's say I contact you for a beat and you want $1,000 dollars for it. We may be able to work it out one on one; trade some favors; change our agreement around until we get to a more reasonable price range; whatever. We might agree on a price that’s somewhere between $400 and $600, where still both walk away happy. But If there’s a manager negotiating, they’re likely gonna get about $200 of that $1,000, which comes up to 20% (15-20% is pretty standard for a manager). Guess what that often means? The manager most likely ain't going lower. So instead of getting that $400-$600, you get nothing. Because the manager doesn't want his or her 20 percent to represent much less then $200 dollars at a minimum.

I should point out, however, that if you have a manager that is actively hunting down work for you, then that's all acceptable. He might have contacts in film, or with major labels, or with more people in your local scene than you do. This would then be a win-win situation. But ask yourself, if you don’t already have those contacts, why would the manager be giving those to you when they can work with the next man that already does?

Of course, I'm not trying to paint all managers as useless or sinister. Some "first time managers" are genuinely trying to help. However, most of the time, they just have no idea what their doing; and this can damage your career and/or make your goals even more difficult to achieve. My point is, good managers are typically looking for someone that already has a name (brand presence, or more easily marketable product) and has earned money already. So as an artist, one good reason that you should be looking for a manager is if you are in such demand that you can't keep up with all the requests or manage your money correctly. But you have to be honest with yourself, are you really in that position yet? Fact is, a lot of new artists have managers in order to feed their own ego. So look deep in that mirror before you hire someone, and keep things real; handle your biz, straight up.

Finally, I want to end with something that happened recently. I heard beats from someone that I found very good. I run a podcast, a record label, I know almost every emcee in the NYC underground, I offer engineering services, I have this platform here at BeatTips as a Blogger, and I'm generally a pretty good guy about spreading the word around about people I find interesting. Why do I point all this out? Because those are all the things that this artist (beatmaker/producer) NEVER found out about me because of the reaction I got from his manager. I was given a semi-third degree about who I was by this manager—aka third party—and then ignored.

To this “manager,” let me say this: we are not on such different levels, homie. In fact, I'm probably far more well known in underground circles. But because of your “management,” I’m now less inclined to share with you the advantages and goodwill that I’ve earned. Maybe what your “manager” did was un-intentional; maybe it was an oversight; maybe I'm too sensitive; maybe there was a problem giving me a proper decent (respectful) response. Regardless of what it is, in this specific case, your “manager” actually hurt your interests rather than helped them.

Editor's Note: For more information on DIY, check out the BeatTips DIY Resource Center
Also, The BeatTips Manual (in the Business Part) includes a comprehensive discussion of so-called producer managers and the like, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each.

---
The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

December 21, 2010

Notice Anything About Hip Hop/Rap Music Criticism Lately?

Why the Quality Hip Hop/Rap Criticism is on the Decline

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

It's a precarious time for hip hop/rap music criticism. In recent years, the overall quality of hip hop/rap music criticism has declined so dramatically that highly judgmental, disconnected and non-analytical, or unsubstantiated “glowing” music reviews have become acceptable. By and large, the main metrics of what defines a high quality music review—objective observation of a piece or collection of music on its own merits, its projected target audience(s), it's entertainment value and/or scholarship value as well as decent writing—are largely being ignored. In fact, increasingly these days, music reviews are being guided more by popularity and appeasement than they are by a genuine or contextual analysis of the merits of a given piece or collection of music.

The causes of the current shape of hip hop/rap music criticism are varied. However, I attribute this plunge in the quality of hip hop/rap music criticism mostly to three factors: (1) the shift in coverage focus and decline in writing quality of the larger, more prominent hip hop/rap media outlets; (2) the stampede of new music bloggers; and (3) the revolving influx of new rappers and other recording artists.

Large Scale Hip Hop/Rap Media Outlets and the Quality of Hip Hop/Rap Music Criticism

Widespread massive declines in advertising dollars (and in some cases, payola-like schemes) have prompted many music publications—print and online—to dramatically change course and look for new revenue streams. Necessarily, as with any "for profit" journalistic entity, this has resulted in a series of cost-cutting measures that have directly led to many corners being cut, notably in the area of music criticism.

Although I have long questioned the qualifications of some hip hop/rap music critics (over the past 15 years), as a whole, I've found most to be at least fairly knowledgeable about hip hop/rap music's history and the current themes of the time. But today, coverage at the larger hip hop/rap music publications have shifted more towards news (in some cases, sensationalism and gossip) and away from quality analysis. Furthermore, the once more prominent music/culture publications no longer have the same sort of revolving revenue streams as they perhaps did more than a decade ago.

Thus, this shift in coverage focus, coupled with the large-scale loss of advertising revenue, means that the larger hip hop/rap media outlets can no longer retain the same number of quality writers (i.e. informed, analytical music critics) as they were once able to. Therefore, to fill this void of writers, most of the larger hip hop/rap music publications have resorted (in varying degree) to using pro-bono (for free!) freelance writers and unqualified “interns” (who may be hip hop/rap music fans, but not necessarily always decent writers or persons with solid hip hop/rap music history backgrounds) to review much of the music being released these days.

Strong writing skills aside, this is not to say that a decent knowledge of hip hop/rap music history is the most paramount qualification for a music reviewer. But the reality is, without some fairly strong sense of hip hop/rap music history, particularly of the eras, sounds, and styles that many recording artists routinely reference today, the corresponding—often critical—context is lost. And without solid knowledge of the corresponding context for a piece or collection of music, a reviewer can easily be led to issue a negative slight against that music, for something he or she simply is not aware of or does not understand, or a glowing remark, for fear of not offending or fitting in.

Now, to be fair, seniority still prevails at the larger hip hop/rap media outlets. Indeed, at those publications, most of the high profile music reviews are reserved for the most senior writers and editors, which, in theory, should assure a higher quality of criticism. But that isn't always the case. In fact, as new hip hop/rap projects either move toward or away from complexity and creativity, and as senior writers and editors grapple with the realities of how their media outlets are actually monetized (i.e. how they get paid), the decline in the quality of hip hop/rap music criticism goes mostly unchecked—even among these otherwise elite writers.

Music Bloggers and the Quality of Hip Hop/Rap Music Criticism

The overall quality hip hop/rap music criticism has also declined because of the stampede of new music bloggers. The sheer freedom of the internet has made it more possible than ever before for individuals to publish their own ideas and observations about music (or anything else for that matter). That bloggers (myself included) have been able to do so as an alternative to what the so-called “tastemakers” have to publish is particularly liberating. And to be certain, there are some really terrific (highly knowledgeable) hip hop/rap music bloggers. However, that being said, from my own two year observation of no less than 75 self-described "hip hop/rap music blogs," most "hip hop/rap bloggers" fall into two categories: (1) highly subjective fans (of one sound, style, group, or other); and (2) lower-skilled writers—the latter being the more typical and severe observation.

As a small number of these "indie" music bloggers have seen their own profiles rise (a fact in no way lost on the larger hip hop/rap media outlets), they have increasingly taken to publishing more formal music reviews. The results are mixed. In a small number of cases, these formal reviews represent some of the most lucid and engaging reviews that I have ever read. Unfortunately, however, in most cases, these formal reviews either poorly echo the tone and approach of the larger hip hop/rap media outlets, or they simply collapse under the weight of overzealous subjectivity, disconnected analysis, and/or poor writing. (Please consider the ramifications that occur when larger media outlets see—rightfully so—many of these bloggers as "readership competition.")

The Influx of New Rappers and the Quality of Hip Hop/Rap Music Criticism

Finally, the third factor that has greatly contributed to the overall decline in quality hip hop/rap music criticism is the revolving influx of new rappers. If this influx was characterized by artists who were mostly committed to creativity and originality, perhaps the state of hip hop/rap music criticism wouldn't be quite as precarious as it presently is. But the number of new acts who stand on their own styles (or even unique interpretations of current trends or styles and trends gone past), compared to the number of those acts who openly carbon copy overworked and less-substance based trends, appears to be rather low. And while everything that is "good" doesn't always find its way to the graces of most music reviewers, suffice it to say, not everything that is "bad" isn't always left out! Therefore, if the sheer number of less informed or less qualified music reviewers has increased; and if the number of new rappers has gone up dramatically; and if the filters—whatever those may be—for permitting more coverage of the "good" and blocking the "bad" (subjective as tastes may generally be) have been mostly neutralized, then it's safe to say that the metrics of what should define a high quality music review have been greatly compromised.

What's Next for Hip Hop/Rap Music Criticsm?

As I outlined above: The shift in coverage-focus by the leading hip hop/rap media outlets (and some of the top bloggers); the use of less qualified reviewers (typically, less skilled writers or pro-bono writers and fans turned bloggers who either lack a solid understanding of the history and fundamental aesthetics and priorities of the hip hop/rap music and beatmaking traditions or are ignorant of it, altogether); and the overwhelming revolving influx of new recording artists (some committed to creativity and originality, others not so much) have all contributed to the decline of the overall quality of hip hop/rap music criticism. Can this unfortunate trend be reversed? Perhaps. But without the demand from hip hop/rap music fans, I don’t think it can be reversed in the near-term.

The Fate of the Outlier Bloggers

Again, there are a number of terrific hip hop/rap music bloggers who are publishing some high quality music criticism. I'm confident that they will continue. But as their profiles rise, the lure of larger media outlets (both from hip hop/rap music and other mass-genre sectors) may prove too strong to resist. Therefore, I anticipate that some of the larger music/culture media outlets will absorb the "outlier" bloggers, i.e. the most intelliglbe, engaging, savvy, and/or creative ones, either by bringing those notable blogs—wholesale—into their networks, or by giving those bloggers paid staff, senior writer, and editor positions. If this happens, and I think it's inevitable (indeed, it’s actually already begun), will these bloggers continue to take the lead, effecting a revival of high quality hip hop/rap music criticism? Or will they ceremoniously conform?

If they conform, expect the number of bandwagon schlock-jobs (read ass-kissing covert promos and mainstream protection), masquerading as music reviews to increase. Also, expect the number of dismissive, disconnected, and often misleading "write-ups" to increase as well. But if these outlier bloggers do keep on track, and let's all hope that they do, then we will soon witness one of the most informative and engaging eras in the not-so brief history of hip hop/rap music criticism.

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The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted name in beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

What Does It Mean to Be a Mainstream Music Fan Today?

Once A Fertile Ground for Music Education, "Mainstream Music" No Longer Means What It Used To

By NASA

The other day my wife was playing the Beatles’ White album. I never really listened to it all the way through. But I realize now that my folks played a lot of those songs—non-stop—when I was too young to understand what it even was. Most of the time, music was the LAST thing my folks were thinking about. And that just goes to show the difference in generations.

Both of my parents had lots of vinyl; my pops, in particular, had a great collection of 45s with Doo Wop. Beyond that, my folks weren't musically inclined AT ALL. However, the passion that they had in their finger tips—as typical mainstream fans in the 1960s and 70s—is more then what's in the whole body of the typical mainstream fan today.

It's as if back then (1960s and 70s), every person in the US had some degree of passion for music, even if they were at the mainstream level. And I think that the reason for this was because of the overall quality of music that they were being regularly fed as a whole. Now when I say “mainstream,” let me be clear: I don't mean the style of music being mainstream. I mean as listeners, my folks weren't "fanatatical" about music, they were just your typical "mainstream" fans. But the definition of a mainstream fan changed dramatically from their era to mine, and from my era (the 1990s) now, this change is even more dramatic.

I think you can always randomly say that "Music isn't what it used to be.” You hear that all the time. From 70s rock fans, from 80s pop fans, to 90s hip hop/rap fans. That sentiment transcends race, age and genre. This isn't really an observance of that fact, albeit true. The point is more it's subversive effect. And the strongest effect is not on the music junkies like myself and everyone that reads a site like BeatTips. The strongest effect is on that mainstream music fan that is turning on the radio right now as you read this. From there it spreads down to their generation and their children.

When I was a little kid, I knew names like The Beatles, Johnny Mathis, The Dells, The Flamingos, The Doors, and many more. That's a healthy mix of music, truly diverse in it's sound and approach. Before I knew what I was being taught by being exposed to that music, I had already learned something. I learned that music is varied and it has a wide assortment of sounds. Furthermore, I learned that music comes from all kinds of different people from all over the world. But when I consider today’s “mainstream,” I wonder, do mainstream fans, particular kids, learn this today?

So let's back track for one second, to support what I'm saying. Review the list of artists that I mentioned earlier. Each of those artists barely scratch the surface of where anyone can go on a musical journey (of any kind). Like I said, my parents are not musicians and are not music enthusiasts. So taking that into context, look again at what they had me listening to as young as 6 years old! That stuff—their mainstream music—at the very least, put my mind in the best place for me to make my own healthy musical journey later on. In fact, looking back, it inspired me and gave me the opportunity to become a musician as well as a music enthusiast.

But in lieu of today’s mainstream, I have serious doubts that the same opportunities are being afforded to today's youth. With regards to mainstream hip hop/rap music, the first issue might perhaps be the major labels continued growth toward a more market-tested commercial sound in the late 90s. This went hand in hand with increased prices for their product. The combination of these two factors (as well as many others) helped to send people—in droves—to the internet to get their music through illegal downloading. And we now live in the shadow of all of these mistakes.

Today, mainstream hip hop/rap music is a shouting contest. Whoever does the most repetitive, ignorant, attention-getting thing can stand out in cyberspace. Since there is perhaps no longer an effective infrastructure to market music (whether it be of quality or not), nor is there a seasoned A & R presence that we saw through the mid 90s, contemporary mainstream hip hop/rap music is stuck in this echo chamber of sensationalism and unoriginality. Most of this music is a shadow of what it even was in 1999 when the TRL generation took hold, and that is saying something. Especially when you consider that a great deal of today’s hip hop/rap music is actually "self destructive.” No doubt these factors have degraded our music and culture.

Nevertheless, I'm extremely encouraged by the potential that the internet has to give people access to quality music. There is more then enough of it out there in every genre imaginable. That being said, it's now up to us (music enthusiasts and would-be mainstream fans alike) more then ever.

As music enthusiasts and knowledgeable artists, we have to be aware of what has happened to the mainstream and how it has happened. Furthermore, we have to be aware of who’s most responsible for creating such disparity in between the mainstreams of yesterday and today. If we do so, we can affect the sort of mainstream change that at least assures the youth a better chance at a varied choice of high quality music.

Support your fellow artists, support the music you love. And be sure to buy, play it, and share it (legally) with someone. Because the truth is, the mainstream system is no longer suitable for doing that for us anymore!

Editor's Note: The sentiment of Nasa's editorial resonates a lot with a piece that I wrote earlier this year entitled, "Musical Nourishment Marks Generations." It's worth a look, as I suspect that Nasa and I both will be revisiting this topic in the future.

---
The BeatTips Manual by Sa'id.
"The most trusted source for information on beatmaking and hip hop/rap music education."

December 14, 2010

Bangladesh Says No Royalties Paid For "A Milli"

In The World Of Beat Placements, You Don't Always Get Paid

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

In this video, Bangladesh speaks frankly about not being paid royalties for "A Milli." "A Milli," from Lil Wayne's 2008 hit album, The Carter III, won a Grammy award for Best Rap Solo Performance at the 51st Grammy Awards; and the The Carter III has sold nearly 3 million copies to date. Yet according to beatmaker/producer Bangladesh, he hasn't received any royalty payments for his credited production work.

Appearing clearly frustrated by the situation, Bangladesh directly cites Cash Money Records' Co-Founder/CEO Birdman as the cause for not receiving royalty payments. Bangladesh doesn't hide his disappointment with the matter, giving a brief overview of how and when royalty payments should normally be paid.

Bangladesh's story is a cautionary tell about the world of beat placements. Although many beatmakers covet placements with named recording artists, most are unaware of the not-so little-known secret that payments for beats often come slow, if at all. And even though Cash Money Records may not represent how all labels handle royalty payments for beatmakers (producers), Cash Money's alleged non-payment to Bangladesh (and similar situation with Manny Fresh) should, however, be considered as something common in the obscure world of beat placements.

For educational purposes...

On Birdman & Lil Wayne Not Paying Him Royalties For A Milli! (via www.SuckerFreeTV.com)


November 28, 2010

The Kickdrums: "A Cross Between the Velvet Underground and DJ Premier"

Upstart Beatmaking Team Share Details About their Slow Grind to Fame and their Unique Sound

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)

The Kickdrums have steadily been making beats/music on their own terms and from out their hometown, Cleveland, Ohio. Creative in both scope and in terms of how they've been to get their music out, the Kickdrums are certainly a beatmaking team to watch. In the video below (produced by HotMopFilms and HomeBase), the Kickdrums offer up details on everything from their unique sound, to how they were able gain recognition—in spite of representing from a non-major media market.

For educational purposes...

Off The Wall Ep.1 THE KICKDRUMS (via HotMopFilms and HomeBase)

Off The Wall Sessions - Ep. 1 The Kickdrums from OFF THE WALL SESSIONS on Vimeo.


September 14, 2010

Bink Shares A Few Jewels

VA Beatmaker (Producer) Drops Science On Everything From Gear To Drums

By Amir Said (Sa'id)

I find that most beatmakers are worth listening to; you can't be narrow-minded as to where a quality jewel will come from. But then there are some beatmakers who deserved to be listened closely to. Such is the case with Bink.

Bink, perhaps the most underrated beatmaker (producer) of our time, has in fact been quietly building up a catalog than spans not only several important eras but also many pivotal recording artists. So any interview that he does is bound to shed a few jewels. And fortunately, in his sit-down with PMPWorldwide he delivered. In this video, Bink speaks on his beginning with the ASR-10; how he was influenced by New York beatmakers as well as the unique "rhythms" of the DMV; sampling soul; sample clearance and why he's willing to give up 100% of his publishing; and more. (Editor's note: The BeatTips Manual includes a detailed breakdown of sample clearance and its complex process.)

For educational purposes...

PMPWORLDWIDE.COM - BINK! Platinum producer Bink! chops it up with the PMP

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