Saturday, April 16, 2011

Reign of Independence Pt. 2: My Low Budget Album is Better Than Your Big Budget Album

The year 2011 is starting off strong with its quality of hip hop albums. Saigon finally releases his Just Blaze produced, multi-year old album The Greatest Story Never Told. Raekwon unleashed Shaolin vs. WuTang, a long player that harkens on the sound of the Rza circa 1993. Pharaohe Monch gets the assist from Duck Down on W.A.R. (We Are Renegades). In addition, Cunnilynguists released Oneriology to the adoration of their worldwide fan base. It is only April. Yet, there are at least four albums demanding respect and critical acclaim.
The ironic thing is this: they are all independent albums.

Saigons’s album was released on Suburban Noize, known for its “greener artists”. Raekwon, with EMI distribution, was released on his own ICEH2O label. As mentioned before, Dru Ha and Buckshot put out W.A.R. Oneriology was released through QN5. Four great albums released to rave reviews under minimal budgets.
So, one may wonder about the major releases that has been anticipated this year. Well, we can look at two of those albums right now: Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers and Wiz Khalifa’s Rolling Papers.
Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers has been talked about enough by me. No more words need to be given for my dislike of it. Rolling Papers, however, is a different story. Wiz’s lyrics remain intact and the album is good. Yet, there are still some glaring differences between this album and his highly heralded Kush & OJ. The production on Rolling Papers is more “industry friendly” and less organic/experimental. Some of the songs are especially made for mainstream appeal. In the end, it can be said that some of the major label albums sound really “commercialized”.
Honestly, any hip hop listener shouldn’t be surprised by what they have witnessed.
Independent albums have the benefit of allowing artists to do what they do best: be them. In many cases, independents want to capitalize on the artist. They want the artist to make their music the way they make it. Independent sign artists to be themselves, not a concoction of a musician predisposed for super download sales and background IKEA soundtracks. In reality, it makes more sense to expand on what exists and not change the musician or the music.
The habit of independents making excellent music is nothing new. In the south, Rap A Lot was a long standing representation of great music. 2 Live Crew was independent also. Even in the west coast, many artists (Too Short, E-40, Mac Dre, the vast majority of the Bay Area, etc.) came up independently. Respectively, the independent route was the way non-New Yorkers made a living and succeeded.
Yet, just because New York and LA has major label offices does not mean that they never fostered their own independent movements.
The most notable independent movement for non-commercialized hip hop music showed up  full force during the late 90’s. Three labels come to mind: Rawkus, Fondle ‘Em, and Stonesthrow.

Rawkus was the most visible and successful commercially. Fondle ‘Em served as a boutique label for Bobbito Garcia. He liked certain unsigned artists and released their music. The same can be said for
Peanut Butter Wolf’s Stonesthrow. Although not a boutique label, Stonesthrow was a full independent force. The label would release seminal music from old funk artists, forgotten about songs, crate dug treasures, and hip hop artists that made music that they liked. With fervent focus, the late 90’s built a movement of music based on making music without caring what people thought.
The only label that tried to be commercial was Rawkus, which brought about its eventual demise. Then again, I knew things were going downhill when EL-P preferred sleeping sodomy to working with the label again.
So, why is being independent so much of a choice for today’s artists?
For one, it tends to not be a choice at all. In today’s musical climate, A&R (artist and repertoire) work is limited. As well, most labels sign artists that create their own buzz and music movements. Many major labels, due to decreases in profits, do not give the same advance money they gave in the past. Thus, artists today have to work for themselves or build teams around them. This tends to force artists to be more knowledgeable of the footwork needed for their own careers. In turn, present label practices make artists fend for their own success.
The second reason is the need for some experienced artists to thrive. There are musicians that are seasoned vets in need of career sustenance. They may have fallen out of favor with labels. However, they still have fans and still demand tour money. So, they can either let their careers die or keep working. Like any enterprising person, they choose to keep working.   
A third reason depends upon the dwindling sales of artists. Albums are not selling CD’s like they used to. Having an album that very few people may even buy is not cost effective on a major label. Independent situations usually bring better per unit money for artists. With that said, why go to a major label when your chances recouping your money are getting slimmer?
The last reason deals with technological advances of the medium. Technology has been the gift and curse of the industry. It has given fans faster/easier access to music. Yet, it is a significant part of the reason that sales are dwindling. File sharing allows fans to get music at the ease of a stroke across the keyboard. What many artists have done is kept releasing free music and mixtapes to gear them for an impending album release or just to build a following for successful touring and merchandise sales. Also, many artists don’t need major channels to get their music on internet sales sites. An artist can as easily contact I-Tunes or have a CD Baby account and be on all the respected digital download sites. In the end, technology has opened artists to the opportunity of truly controlling their sales careers.
If this has been a lot for you to read, consider this equation:
Past independent examples + need to survive + technological advances= more independent functioning.
Major money and major music are not synonymous anymore. Artists are finding themselves creating music with half the monetary hassle. They can also make their kind of music and master their own fates. The state of the music industry has only made independence more feasible. Thus, it remains to be seen how major labels will function in the future, if they exist as they once have.

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