Hip Hop Dreams and Realities in the Internet Age

By Geoff Ostrove and S. Craig Watkins

According to Sony Records’ Vice President of Sales, Scott Van Horn, the US music industry revenue was cut in half between 2000 and 2010, from $4 billion to $2 billion. Much of this downfall can be attributed to the rise of the Internet and the new choices for music consumption—digital downloads, file sharing, and streaming—that it affords.

Bill Rosenblatt (2015), "New Music Industry Revenue Figures Show an Illusion of Stability", Forbes
Bill Rosenblatt (2015), “New Music Industry Revenue Figures Show an Illusion of Stability”, Forbes

Though new technologies help explain the music industry’s financial slump, new technologies also enable the industry’s revival. Independent hip hop artists have been especially savvy when it comes to leveraging social, mobile, and digital media to make music and careers. Today, more and more independent artists are electing to record, produce, and distribute their music through the internet and various social media channels.

As the music industry struggles to maintain financial viability and stability, one thing is clear: fewer artists will be signed to major labor deals. The uncertain return on investment makes these kinds of deals less attractive for the industry. Moreover, some independent artists tell us that when the major labels do look to sign artists they often seek what are called “360-deals.” These deals allow labels to generate revenue from album sales, digital downloads, merchandise, touring, and just about any other revenue stream. In this environment, many artists have been forced to pursue more independent career paths. How indie musicians struggle to make it today is fascinating and points to distinct shifts in how they cultivate and manage their creative labor.

In the era of do-it-yourself music production and distribution independent artists face many obstacles to sustain a livelihood from their creative labor. Independence is a double-edge sword. On the one hand, artists can use a mix of platforms and channels to produce, promote, and profit from their art. On the other hand, artists take on the risks that were once primarily shouldered by music industry personnel such as artists & repertoire, producers, and marketing teams. They may also succumb to the illusion that in today’s DIY economy success is easily within reach.

Dating back to its origins in the 1970s, hip hop has been a culture of innovation and technology.
Dating back to its origins in the 1970s, hip hop has been shaped by innovative uses of technology.

If artists are willing to work around the clock making and marketing their music and their brands they can sometimes make a living off of their art. Perhaps more so than any other creative worker, musicians struggle with the possibilities and the perils of freelance labor, changing consumer behavior, and technological change. In truth, these have been longstanding features of life as an independent musician.  Like it does virtually everything else, the internet seems to accelerate and scale these conditions.

Take Austin, the city that brands itself as the “live music capitol of the world.” A recent economic report by Austin Music People (AMP), a trade association and advocacy group for Austin’s music industry, found that the total music industry economic impact rose from $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion between 2010-2014. However, AMP found that the year-round music activity by local artists, venues, and businesses declined more than 15% during that same period. The Austin Music Census, a study that was commissioned by the City of Austin Music Office, found that even in a town known for live music, local artists are finding it more difficult to make a living (and to afford living in Austin).

In the age of the internet, independent music artists are expected to make their own music, distribute it, and build their own brands.   They are also expected to tour incessantly, sell merchandise, and maintain online relationships with fans.  Kevin Beacham helps run Rhymesayers, an independent label created by the hip hop group Atmosphere. According to Beacham: “In a time where physical sales are dwindling we are always thinking of how to maximize alternative means of income for the label and our artists. That includes merchandise and touring options, as well as speaking engagements (for some artists), licensing, and other things that make sense for that artist. Again, there isn’t a standard procedure here, we work with our artist to find what fits for them and try to apply it based on that.”

Beacham adds, “however, we still put a lot of thought into the music side of it, as well as the presentation of the physical product… also in terms of just the music, we work to come up with creative ways we can share the music and create a connection between the music and the fan base, as well as potential new fans.”

Beacham brings up a number of interesting points here. First of all, he makes it clear that merchandise sales and live events are primary sources of revenue for Rhymesayers. He also points out that Rhymesayers has been able to slow the trend of dwindling music sales by connecting with their consumers in creative ways. In an age of social media and peer-to-peer engagement, independent hip hop artists must be willing to create and maintain a robust digital presence in order to stay relevant in hip hop fan communities. Social media channels are not simply a means for sharing photos and personal updates. Social media is also a practical tool that affords the opportunity to connect with fan communities and make sure that they are aware of album releases, tours, videos, and merchandise. The internet has made making a career in music possible for a larger number of artists, but it has not made career-making efforts a guaranteed success.

Needless to say, these economic, technological, and industrial shifts are redefining what it means to be a music artist today. Beacham suggests that while these trends may not lead to lucrative contracts it does mean that some artists can carve out a niche to earn what he calls a normal income. As he puts it: “We are now in the age where we will likely see less ‘superstars’ and/or what defines someone as a ‘superstar’ as a rap artist will change. It’s become less about how many records sold and more about personal engagement on social media, Youtube views…” Beacham adds, “a working musician can have a lifestyle in the same way someone can have working a management job at a retail store or corporation or something of that nature.”  Most independent artists struggle to build a fan base, get their music notice via the web, and make a living as musicians.

It is an interesting moment for those who elect to pursue a career in music. Digital technologies have caused major industry disruptions that drive down music sales and upend previous business models and career pathways. Ironically, these same technologies make it possible to kickstart new new creative and career models. For most aspiring musicians, it is a time of great possibilities and a time of steady peril.



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