On a Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 song ‘Check the Rhime,’ Q-Tip provides one rule: “Industry Rule #4080: Record company people are shady,” he says. Years later, Notorious B.I.G. would equate the rap game with the crack game on ‘Ten Crack Commandments,’ declaring, “I been in this game for years, it made me an animal / There’s rules to this s—, I wrote me a manual.” Bottom line: sometimes we need rules, and in the ever-changing landscape of the music industry, perhaps a little guidance would be helpful.
Forget everything you thought you knew about the music industry before 2012. It’s gone. Dead. Wiped out of memory like a PC’s hard drive after clicking an email that said “Check out my pics from vacation.exe.” The results is an environment where the higher ups are no longer as high as we think and our favorite artists are within reach — or tweet. It’s a new day, and with a new day comes a brand new set of rules.
If you’re looking to embark on a career in the proverbial “game,” this is a little blueprint to get you started. Artists, this speaks directly to your lives right now. For everyone else, this is just a simple guide about what’s really happening in the careers of those rappers and singers you fancy. You can print this out, and like Drake says “have a f—in’ read-along.” Here are 10 New Rules of the Music Industry.
Albums Drop With No Warning
Where were you on Fri., Dec. 13, 2013 at midnight? Don’t say sleeping, because you’re lying. You were posted up in front of your computer on iTunes purchasing Beyonce Giselle Knowles-Carter’s self-titled opus and you know it. King Bey dropped ‘Beyonce’ and not a single member of the Bey Hive knew beforehand. It was perhaps the boldest, Beyonce-est move in music history, as the songstress delivered a sexually-charged independent release as a middle finger to her label for not supporting her new musical pursuits.
While some artists in a lesser tax bracket may randomly drop “free albums” (we call them mixtapes, right?) at random, no one has done what Beyonce did when she delivered a surprise album without a gigantic promotional vehicle. This new rule that albums will unexpectedly fall from the sky is reserved for the Kings who know they’ll still profit, despite what Beyonce said on ‘Ghost’ with, “Soul not for sale / Probably won’t make no money off this, oh well.” You know what that means: Azealia Banks, don’t try this at home.
Tweets Can and Will Be Held Against You
Many years ago, the worst nightmare for an artist would be the release of a sex tape, a nude photo or some sort of past endeavor that they did for money and wished they hadn’t. Nowadays, it’s unearthing past tweets. Even present ones for that matter. If you put it out on Twitter, consider it etched in stone. Know why? Because someone out there is randomly taking screenshots of that tweet to use at a later time, regardless of whether or not you delete what you wrote.
Take Macklemore, who just swept the 2014 Grammy Awards and won the hearts of Americans through the song ‘Same Love,’ which came equipped with same sex marriages (officiated by Queen Latifah) when he performed the song live at the ceremony. However, a 2009 tweet from the indie powerhouse showed his overzealous usage of “no homo,” which had the LGBT community in an uproar. Your thoughts and ideals can change. Sure. But be careful what you tweet when you tweet it, because five years later, you may be reminded of the skeletons in your cyber closet.
Instagram Is Your New Getty Images
Hey websites, ever been sued over a photo? Not pretty right? Not cheap either. Photo copyright infringement is almost as “dangerous” as sampling a song without clearance. Major professional photo banks like Getty Images were (and still are) a viable means of obtaining press photos of celebrities, in addition to photos from the celeb’s publicist or managament. Not anymore. With artists and actors taking photos of everything from their faces to their food on Instagram, a whole well of flicks are at our disposal. Some people use Instagram more than others. Singers like Rihanna and Beyonce always have a steady stream of photos to check out, along with Miley Cyrus(and her tongue). On the rap front, Rick Ross always has some lovely photos to offer, as does French Montana(he even shared an Instagram photo of himself getting arrested). If you need Kanye West photos, though, head over to Kim Kardashian’s Instagram page.
Mixtapes Are No Longer Viable Promotion
There was a time when label delays led rappers to drop mixtapes to sate their fans in between album releases. It used to be a great idea. Used to be. That was until the mixtape completely replaced albums for a while, often being called “free albums” or “free EPs.” You know what you don’t make from free mixtapes? Money. And after a while, the effort put into mixtapes was on the decline after things like production and studio time came with no clear indication of a recoup. Projects like Lil Wayne‘s ‘Dedication 5’ and Meek Mill‘s ‘Dreamchasers 3’ are prime examples of mixtapes that would have garnered more praise in say, 2010, than they did in 2013. It’s time for a change. Release albums, artists. Get studio time, grab beats from producers, record the album, sell it. You don’t even have to promote it. Refer to Rule No. 1 for more information.
Sponsors Can Giveth and Taketh Away
Beware of your lyrics, your public behavior, anything and everything you do once you land a coveted sponsorship deal. You will in fact be monitored, and you can lose that deal as fast as you received it. Back in 2009, when Chris Brown and Rihanna got into their fateful altercation en route to the Grammys, the photos that circulated of RiRi following the event led to Wrigley’s pulling Brown from their campaign, even though ‘Forever’ was the new Doublemint anthem.
Reebok is another stickler. Last year, when Rick Ross uttered some sketchy bars on Rocko‘s ‘U.O.E.N.O.’ that suggested he was condoning rape, Reebok pulled his sponsorship right from under his large frame. Lil Wayne’s Emmett Till line in Future‘s ‘Karate Chop’ remix left him without any more free Mountain Dew to drink. So you see, sponsors watch you like a potential employer does your Facebook page. Keep your brand squeaky clean, especially when you’re paid to represent another one.
Hip-Hop Is Ageless
This one goes without saying, but it’s a lesson we’re all still learning. Hip-hop is a relatively younger art form compared to the extensive history of other genres. Since it’s always been referred to as a “young man’s game,” the question of “What happens when the man is no longer young?” has been the elephant in the room for quite a while. Thank 44-year-old Jay Z for diminishing the boundaries of age set forth long ago in the rap game. It always feels like Jay is just getting started, so who knows? He may be rhyming at 60. And why not? Rock stars do it all the time. On the other side of the spectrum, we had a young Earl Sweatshirt of Odd Future who was geared to be the next Nas at the tender young age of 16. Teenagers being compared to legends (by the way, Nas is 40)? The age minimum and maximum are nonexistent. Age ain’t nothing but a number.
When Album Sales Fail, Make a Reality Show
Showing up on a reality TV show in place of an album (or in tandem with a release) isn’t all that new. In 2005,Run-DMC‘s Reverend Run brought ‘Run’s House’ to MTV, highlighting his family, career and love life. In 2008, conveniently around Valentine’s Day, Public Enemy‘s own Flavor Flav debuted his romantically-challenged reality show ‘Flavor of Love’ on VH1. Love seems to be the common theme when it boils down rappers’ careers hitting the reality TV circuit. ‘T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle’ and ‘Marrying the Game’ are both examples of shows centered around one rapper (continuing Run and Flav’s legacy).
However, since the advent of ‘Love & Hip Hop,’ it’s been a revolving door for rappers. Joe Budden, Jim Jones,Consequence, Saigon, Peter Gunz and the list goes on and on of rappers who have either made a cameo or starred in ‘Love & Hip Hop’ in their respective city. It seems to be the easiest way for artists to stay relevant without creating music these days.
Indie Is King
If Macklemore and Ryan Lewis taught you anything over the last few years, it’s that major labels are the furthest thing from a necessity when it comes to fostering a successful career. It’s not like they’re completely irrelevant. It’s just that the tables have turned, and an independent deal or DIY is the preferred means of moving units. They earned Grammy Awards and sold millions of singles and made an impact with their album ‘The Heist’ all on their own.
Financially it makes sense, and the internet has become an artist’s greatest ally (and sometimes his worst enemy), but check the careers of acts like A$AP Rocky, Joey Bada$$ and Odd Future. While indie and imprint deals were struck for some in the middle of the buzz, artists are given more options to no longer be tethered to binding gigantic contracts that restrict any upward mobility. Sure some artists still prefer this means of management, but for many it’s not necessary. Guess that dreaded 360 Deal is approaching obscurity as well.
Social Media Serves as a Press Release
For the 2014 publicist, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as a social media vehicle is perfect for their artists. However, ever since they learned how to press “send” on a tweet or status, it’s been game over. From ranting about their label woes (we see you Lupe Fiasco and Azealia Banks) to just complaining about everything and everyone around them (hi, Gucci Mane!) and making public apologies (Oh, Kanye.), rappers in particular love a good rant, especially on Twitter.
That’s the bad side of it. The good side involves announcing album releases, tweeting at other artists and producers to reveal potential collaborations and announcing tour dates. Sure, it completely replaces a press release, but who references those anymore? Read any website and the “proof” of anything is usually a screen shot of a tweet, Instagram post or Facebook status. So there you go. A word of advice for artists: still use Twitter; just don’t abuse it.
Rappers and Singers Are Ambiguous
When Lauryn Hill delivered ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill ‘back in 1998, and then swept the Grammys the following year — including a win for the Best Rap Album, hip-hop purists were a bit concerned. Sure, Lauryn knew how to rap seamlessly, but she also knew how to sing just as well, and an album that was arguably primarily singing earned a rap-related honor. Was she the gateway drug to this ambiguity? Probably.
And while artists like Drake and more recently Childish Gambino have proven they too can both rap and sing, the grey area is where confusion (and dissension) lies. Since T-Pain retaught the masses how to use Auto-Tune, guys like Future have followed suit and the result is sing-songy rap. So is it singing? Is it rapping? Well, it’s both, which is a tough pill to swallow, but that’s what it is. Welcome to the new world. These are the new rules after all.
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