Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Turn Off the Radio

or just listen sans visuals:

Dallas Penn posted a great interview with Hot 97 Program Director Ebro Darden for the Combat Jack Show. The whole thing is over 70 minutes long, but it’s broken into three digestible YouTube sections. Put it on in the background and listen away—for anyone with an interest in our Western music world, it’s a good conversation.

If you need some backstory, here are a couple bloggy summaries. Tl; dr: Darden responded to a critique from Rap Radar’s B. Dot to  “incorporate at LEAST 5 local records into [Hot 97’s] daily mix” by characterizing underground artists like Sean Price, (and current bloggy faves) Flatbush Zombies and Joey Bada$$ as “minor league.” Price took offense to the term minor league. Fast fwd past a lil’ innernets back-and-forth to Combat Jack interviewing Darden to address the topic.

Fortunately, the conversation isn't so much about Darden's word choice, but rather covers the decision-making process in radio programming. Darden talks about how songs are market-tested (pt. 1, 8:35-10:56) and programming decisions are made based on which songs will retain the most number of listeners (much like television, changing stations is the big thing to avoid). He talks target markets (pt. 1, @10:40: ages 18-34) and ratings measurements (pt. 1, 19:50 - pt. 2, 2:00). And he shares his views on the role of radio in the music industry. The whole conversation is a great reminder for music fans of how commercial radio is primarily a tool in a larger music industry. Or, as Noz so artfully puts it, "this should be required listening for anyone who wants to bitch about what’s wrong with radio."

Overall, I understand Darden’s points about how Hot 97 (and stations like it) are employees reporting to a larger corporate body. However, the entire conversation has an air of that “It is what it isdeal with it,” lead-footed attitude which should be familiar to anyone that has ever worked at a large and/or long-standing organization. This type of talk usually turns me off b/c it never strikes me as conversatin' so much as lecturing. Then again, I spent years in museum education, so maybe that made me soft. Whoops.

That said, the interview is interesting to me b/c it fires up a number of questions and responses:

From a long-term perspective, does it make more sense to play fewer songs that individually retain more listeners, than to play a greater variety of songs that may not perform as well individually?
I couldn’t figure out a more succinct way to word this question, but my hypothesis is that a radio station could perform better by having greater variety in its playlists. My theory is that with more variety, the station could attract a wider market share/listenership, as opposed to a core market that literally listens 90-100% of the time. I don't think this would necessarily dilute a brand, so much as strengthen it by demonstrating wider acceptance.

In terms of how to test this, I’m wondering if there is any data on how frequently stations go through songs to maintain a high percentage of listeners-not-switching-stations. In other words, if “Look At Me Now” has a near 100% chance of retaining listeners, at what point does that song lose that ability and have to be replaced? And how many of those songs are needed to fill out a year of programming for a radio station? Based on NPR’s reporting, a hit record can cost over $1 million to produce (mind you, we don’t know how often record companies invest comparable amounts into projects that do not yield hit records). So, how much does the record company spend to place all those certified hits on radio in a given year? My hunch says those numbers won’t make much business sense. Or, to counter Ebro’s point about corporate radio entities being risk-adverse, I imagine the music industry is actually engaging in even more risky behavior by placing such high bets on fewer horses. I know, this is speculation. But food for thought.

Wait, why are we spending so much time chatterin' about radio; who listens to that shit anyway?

There is an assumption in this conversation about radio's role and responsibility in music based on the past, e.g. Combat Jack talking about how Hot 97 broke 50 Cent, Jay-Z, et. al. First, I’d argue that radio didn't break those first two artists, mixtapes did (I'll link to my annotated bibliography on mixtapes when I get around to posting it). Additionally, I’m not convinced that radio necessarily makes or breaks a musician’s career. Perhaps if you're a "major leaguer," like Nikki Minaj who needs that additional exposure to set up her perfume line, or her appearance on Ellen, etc. However, Darden makes clear that "minor leaguers" can have their own lane. In the third video (@15:17), his advice to Joey Bada$$ is to “do you” and “we’ll find you.”  He returns to this point at the 24:42 mark:

Contrary to popular opinion, Public Enemy, as big as, um, "Fight the Power" was, was never a radio group…  I say that to say that you don’t have to be on the radio to have a career and matter in hip-hop. If people are willing to do work and be about some shit, you’re gonna get yours. It’s gonna come to you whether [Hot 97] supports you or not. I understand [Hot 97 is] the hip-hop station of New York and we have an obligation. And we try to fill that obligation; to some people it’s satisfactory, to others it’s not. We’re comfortable with that, too. But put in your work, man. And make sure your music is good, and make sure your brand is developed, and make sure you are out here doing your research… and having your relationships with… producers, DJs, whatever.
Which leads me to my third question/observation:

How do you make a living in hip-hop if you're not a successful crapper?
Recently, there has been a lot of chatter in the White/rockist/rock/indie/whateveryouwanttocallP4K/NPR/etc.-ish music media outlets about all the money musicians are not making: 

Which makes me think that this same question exists in hip-hop. Because I find it hard to believe that Sean Price and other major “minor league” (or whatever backhanded superlative you want to use this week) hip-hop artists have figured out something that Galaxie 500 and a buncha other rock bands haven't. Ok, that’s not a fair comparison b/c Galaxie 500 has been defunct for decades. How about Sean Price and Kristin Hersh (and, yes, I am aware of CASH Music): how are y'all making a living and how is it or is it not sustainable? We're at the point where most of our favorite artists from the past decade or earlier are middle-aged, have families and/or mortgages and/or some other grown-ass responsibilities that will stick with them until the big D. I'm no longer interested in whether Immortal Technique should get airplay on Hot 97; I want to know what can be done structurally in the music business to ensure that an artist like Immortal Technique can live and make art without winding up broke, in debt, sick, etc.


Those are really the big questions that stuck out in my head. There are also a bunch of passing comments that aren't necessarily critical to the larger conversation, but deserve a little shine:

"[F]or the sake of the culture, I'm gonna give you this song..." (pt. 2, @14:44-15:18)
I almost wrote an entire piece about this one statement. Darden suggests that established artists like Swizz Beatz or Just Blaze should shoulder more responsibility in nurturing un-established artists by offering pro bono services. For the "sake of the culture." This attitude is familiar. It's in every other part of our society currently, b/c public funding of essential services are increasingly slashed and the subsequent solution is to have private providers fill those services. In this case, the logic is that the entire record business can't support or nurture every artist (only those major leaguers!), so artists should help other artists. 

This train of thought is a misdirection. The whole point of the recording industry’s existence has been to invest in artists by funding the means and platform to distribute music. Now, b/c the industry increasingly invests a disproportionate amount of funds in fewer artists (in order to mitigate risk??), it expects artists to act as A&Rs and develop each other until they can 'prove' their worth to a major label. In other words, corporate entity wants to minimize expense and risk in order to assure income, so tasks that are slagged off fall downwards. Sound familiar to anyone in a middle manager position or below? 

And, btw, artists already nurture each other in a number of “off-the-books” ways, via collaboration, conversation, inspiration, etc. So, it seems ridiculous to suggest that Just Blaze also needs to portion n-% of his annual budget towards pro bono services, simply because he pulled enough income from the Kendrick Lamar and Game beats he sold in tax year 2012. I'd be open to a conversation about how Just Blaze should be taxed a certain amount b/c he’s in a certain tax bracket. Or talking about how Just Blaze is such a nice guy for providing a generous loan to Jay Electronica for a beat. But it is misleading to suggest that a solution to the current music industry woes is that the Just Blazes of the world need to donate their time and efforts to struggling artists in the name of TempleofHip-Hopdundundunendofstory.

"It's more than just the song. We decide what music we like beyond just the song." (pt. 2, @4:20)
...and then from @5:00 on it's a long riff about the importance of a good song, e.g. Eminem being a great rapper... until he hooked up with Dre and started making good songs. This idea of "real, full-fledged songs" as a key, distinguishing factor between major and minor league artists is particularly laughable. In case you can’t use your own ears and need a textual description of the scientifically-proven-to-become-an-earworm structure/nature of music today, I direct you to the so-called "art" of songwriting detailed in The New Yorker's Rihanna piece this past March. Yes, "it" is more than just the song. Fuck that noise about placing so much importance on songwriting, or trying to define the "art" of songwriting.

"That's another thing people don't talk about: the lack of music video exposure." (pt. 2, @6:50)
Are we really having another crying session over how MTV doesn't play music videos? Maybe Darden needs a refresher on why it's not viable to make music videos like back in the day? Besides, I found plenty of videos here.

"Why you think L.A. fell off?" (pt. 1, @13:19)
Los Angeles fell off?

"You're expecting a business to care... about what you're talkin' about" (pt. 1, @18:46)
Darden's response to Ben Amin's comment about hip-hop's responsibility to represent the proverbial 'people.' Uh, yup, nothing to argue here.

That actually sums up the conversation nicely.

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