Sunday, January 24, 2010

Rockstar Success Myth VS Hip Hop Star Success Myth

I used to think that there was a conspiracy to keep good music off the radio.

Of course since my music wasn’t getting on the radio at that time, that meant my music was good. Right? Certainly it was better than the junk I kept hearing. But this simple, and in retrospect funny, belief was based on 2 fundamental misunderstandings.

#1 - That radio and record labels were actually interested in good music and that the ongoing quest of music, much like science and education, was to improve. It took me years to accept the fact that to most people, music is just entertainment. Music is my lifeblood. Back then I thought everyone felt this way, but in fact for many people entertainment is their blood. Like blood it must be cleansed and filtered, thus they must have fresh blood (content, music, entertainment) continuously. The masterpiece you might have created will only keep their attention and interest till the next youtube sensation overtakes it. I got into record production because of the album
Dark Side of The Moon by Pink Floyd. That was my inspiration. It is a masterpiece. It is also an album that stayed on the charts longer than any other album in history (741 weeks - 14 years) and sold 45 million copies. But I think those days are gone on both the artistic side and the business side. We are now making candy for listeners to rapidly consume.

#2 - That the key to success was good music. Period. I thought if you had great music it would be recognized and valued on its quality alone. All I, and my peers at the time, concentrated on was our skills as writers and artists. But later when I got into producing and doing work with artists that were signed to major labels, especially hip hop artists, I started to see things from a different angle. What I saw was a different creed, a different attitude about how they believed they were going to become successful verses the attitude of my peers from the rock bands I’d been in. I think it is very instructive as to why (at least one reason why) Hip Hop has done so well over the past decade.

I call this the Success Myth. These are the stories you hear from kids in bands or young rappers when talking about the rock and hip hop stars and how they got where they are now. There are 2 kinds of myths I’ve heard.

The Rock & Roll Success Myth
There are these young guys, all good friends, who form a band and rehearse in their parents' basements. They write some songs and start gigging at local clubs. At one of the gigs they get discovered by an A&R guy or a well-connected manager. They quickly get signed, put with a famous producer and BAM! They’re rockstars!

It’s a Cinderella story. And though it is very unlikely to happen, it has happened just enough times for the legend to have spread and to cause bands to really think that this is how it is going to happen. Contrast this with the other myth I’ve heard- it goes something like this:

The Hip-Hop Success Myth
There are these two kids from the hood. One raps and the other makes beats. They need to buy some equipment to record their songs. They do this by selling weed, crack, hustling, whatever. They make their cd / mix tape and go out and promote the hell out of it. They sell their cds ‘out of the trunk of the car’. They raise a little money from this which they re-invest in their business to buy better gear, finance touring and promotion. They do another record. They go out and promote and sell their cds like they did last time, but this time with more success. They keep repeating this process till they have built a small empire that includes their own distribution system to mom and pop type shops, a small staff and a touring circuit. They also create partnership/alliances with DJs, radio programmers, concert promoters, etc. At this point they are being approached by major labels. They are in a position to negotiate very favorable terms and get not only a huge advance, but continue to own their own label as an imprint on a major. From there they are bound for the stars.

I like this story. It is based on a business plan and a recognition that hard work is required. It’s not based on luck, but proactive actions. It puts the power in the artists hands.

I could go on about this, but I think you see my point.

And it is what made me realize that there was no conspiracy. I realized that most people are in some way equal in the end. One person might be a genius at math or business but not be able to maintain his marriage. One person might be a great dad to his kids but can’t hold a job. And in music... usually the great singer has no head for business. Whereas the guitar player in that band that just got signed might be a crap player in a crap band, but they got some hustle and catchy songs. I lament the artists I’ve worked with who had ALL the talent, but zero social skills and no stage presence.

It’s about the hustle my friend. Provided you’ve got a slightly above average amount of talent, it is really just plain old hard work and organization that makes the difference.