Friday, April 10, 2009

A New Era in Hip Hop Cultural Production: What the collapse of the music industry means for artists.

The Hip Hop artist base hasn’t stopped exponentially growing since the inception of Hip Hop culture. Even as the corporate industry fragmented and com-modified Hip Hop’s artistic practices for economic gain, our numbers grew. When consolidated media misrepresented and defamed our name and value, they grew still. As we learned to navigate the information age, we developed ways to get around every barrier thrown in our paths. As we matured, we started teaching classes, running youth programs, and doing element workshops all over the globe, laying down the blueprint for a whole next generation of Hip Hop cultural producers we are now responsible for. In the era of Twitter, Myspace, Facebook, Internet radio and digital downloads, this burgeoning artists base is now not only intrinsically connected by its interests and practices, it is intricately networked, and rapidly developing a powerful collective consciousness.

As the music industry continues to struggle for life, the majority of Hip Hop’s artist base (those of us who rely on a day job or side hustle to sustain our creative endeavors) stand at its deathbed like battered children, mourning an extremely abusive parent. Some of us harbor denial, anger, and regret, others are confused or indifferent. But what we should be clear on now is one thing: the strength of one’s network and one’s ability to maneuver it determines the amount of resources at one’s disposal, and this simple truth leaves us with quite an inheritance if we’re clear.

As independent Hip Hop artists, we’ve learned to navigate around the corporate industry by gaining a wide range of skill sets in a number of overlapping sectors including technology, communications, education, social entrepreneurship, and more. We are an army of highly skilled soldiers, with the ability to develop community-owned alternatives to Sound Exchange, coalitions of Hip Hop broadcasters, media producers, and journalists, teaching hip hop artist unions that advocate for fair wages and healthcare. We have the capacity to really change the game. But for this to work, we gotta cut off life support to the old industry model, and move on. We have to go from asking, “How do I get a break in the industry?” to asking “How do we create a situation where the most deserving (in terms of skill, grind, and contribution) independent artists can get the maximum profits for what they do (be it shows, sales, panels, workshops, whatever) at any given time?” We have to change how we shape our organizations, record labels, businesses, and how they relate to each other as well as changing how our artist selves interact with our day job selves inside our own mental paradigms.

We also have to recognize that the industry’s death and our survival as artists is not a passive process, it’s a battle front. As legislation on internet broadcasting, royalty collection, and online music sales continues to pass through Congress, the corporate industry, like a zombie, attempts to infect and control the policy shifts through groups like the RIAA and Sound Exchange. While this is going on, DC-based advocacy organizations that originally popped up to oppose this corporate agenda have developed their own interests to protect. These get tied into the nonprofit industry that has sprung up around the media reform foundation base and the new hip hop foundation base, and the mess that results is a matrix that sucks in and eats artists and activists, leaving confusion or indifference in its wake. Sun Tzu said a confused army always loses. In the case of Hip Hop artists, our confusion leads to crabs in a barrel, reinvention and/or spinning of our wheels, or simple ye’ old community fragmentation. We can’t afford any of that anymore. Now is the time to pull the plug, kill the noise, and organize the movement.

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