I’ve spent a long time thinking about underground hip hop and capitalism and in particular what my stance is when it comes the capitalism. There seems to be this assumption in underground Hip Hop circles that money and capitalism has somehow killed off the life and soul of Hip Hop. That the ‘Golden Age’ of Hip Hop will never be resurrected because of the desire for big money, in what is perceived a soulless and treacherous industry, where it is all about the dough and nothing to do with the music. I’ve heard numerous people say, ‘It shouldn’t be about the money, it should just be about the music….’
You can certainly see how all this cynicism for the industry develops. I’ve heard all the assumptions. Many of which I have been guilty of myself in the past. It can often appear that the only way for an artist to get a break is by ‘selling out’ and follow whatever direction the record company puts them in, whether that be congruent with their actual identity or not. It can often seem like the artists willing to do what they’re told end up getting some success whilst the so called ‘real’ artists, genuinely passionate about their craft, that want to truly express themselves, are the ones that end up desperately trying to make ends meet. Sometimes these ‘real artists’ get lucky and get a deal, but end up getting ‘screwed over’ because they refuse to do what they’re told and are dedicated to their art with uncompromising resilience. In turn they never get the financial success the avid underground Hip Hop fan thinks they deserve.
You can look at numerous artists that appear fresh on the scene, that are not rich, yet still pretend to be, by wearing the big diamonds and chains that they had to rent for their music video. The same can be said when artists decide to follow the direction of a record company that encourages them to portray a false ‘gangster’ image that is incongruent with who they really are. When you look at the many occasions where illusions are put in place and an artist’s genuine expression is foregone for the £ or the $, it’s easy to assume that it’s impossible to make genuine music these days that is financially profitable. When an artist pretends to be rich when they’re broke, or a gangster when they’re a devoted Christian, it’s pretty obvious to see this isn’t in line with the ‘keeping it real’ ethos. However we can’t forget that there is an element of showmanship that often comes with being an artist. Not to mention the fact that Hip Hop has had a long standing affair with capitalism, or more to the point, the desire for individual prosperity. The Sugarhill Gang would talk about owning, “…a colour TV, so I can see, the Knicks play basketball…” Which was considered quite a moneyed item to own back then. Big Daddy Kane is arguably one of the first ‘bling’ rappers and a precursor to Jay Z’s infamous style. I think one can demonstrate showmanship whilst still ‘keeping it real’ but the line can be a fine one.
As an avid fan of underground Hip Hop and music outside of the ‘Pop Charts’ in general, I’ve often wondered how it can be that so many talented artists never reach the level of acclaim I have felt they deserved.
It’s when you look at all the above problems that appear to run rife in the music industry, I can see how many begin to believe that once you sign a record deal, you lose your soul and integrity and that once you start to prioritise earning money, then your artistry will somehow be compromised. Taken a step further, many start to even feel that capitalism is the underlying problem. That the love of money is evil and all the hardworking individuals basically work their arses off just to make the bourgeoisie richer whilst the working class struggle on. I don’t want to get too much into politics here, but I will say that I don’t follow the above thinking.
I think a lot of it comes down to what you see and think when you see someone who is rich and wealthy. Do you assume they have came to wealth by fucking over other people? Or do you look to these people and see them as a teacher and inspiration for how you can succeed in todays world? I’m not saying capitalism as it is today, doesn’t have its flaws, but I also don’t believe that striving for money or wanting to be rich is a bad thing. In fact I think it is a good thing! Capitalism is ok with me as long it is done with the right intent. In other words I think it’s fine to want to make money and be stupidly rich as long as you do it in a way that benefits other people along with yourself. A lot of people have the false assumption that by them profiting, someone else will somehow be losing out. Yes that can happen and does happen but not in a lot of cases. I think the real key is learning to develop win-win outcomes rather than assuming the only option to make money is win-lose. A lot of the richest people have become rich, not because they exploit other people to get where they are, but because they understand business and provide a good service for other people, that other people truly benefit from. Competition between companies drives them to improve their services to the public both in terms of quality and pricing, provided the competition is fair and open. I frankly don’t buy into the premise that ones desire to gain a profit and improve one’s life is somehow a bad thing. I believe it is this drive that allows society to progress!
The less artists and inventors are encouraged to do what they do by being able to make a sustainable living off it, the less great artists and inventors there will be. For an artist or inventor to truly flourish and reach their potential (which will in turn benefit others), I believe they should do what they love and use that to sustain them. They might be quite happy doing it for free, but they will never be able to dedicate as much time and their work will suffer because of this. Many forget the amount of time and effort that goes into creating something.
I could go on about my views on Capitalism VS Socialism but again that is another topic.
Essentially yes, it does come down to the need for money, but I believe the problem is not so much the money making nature of businesses and corporations. I think a large part of it, is that a lot of very talented artists, are very talented because they dedicate all their time strictly to their craft but know little to nothing about business or building value beyond simply making good music. For a plumber to be successful, he can’t just be good at plumbing. He has to understand business and money too. The same can be said for musicians. Talented artists that fail to grasp this point end up feeling like a slave to the marketing machine and become frustrated and cynical to the music industry. Many have this arrogance that they should somehow get the best deal in the world strictly because they believe their music is great. Right there is the rub, an artist wants to do what they want to do and get paid to do it exactly as the way they want. Yet they have not proved to anyone that what they do will be financially profitable. I think this is why many record companies have taken the safer route by trying to get artists to portray such and such an image because they feel that image is easier to market and sell to the public. Or they take the safer option of trying to take the largest share possible of an artists recordings and future works, in case the artist doesn’t sell as well as hoped or expected. In this day and age there are tons of extremely talented people. Just because you are a great Rapper does not mean you don’t pose a risk to a record company when you expect them to invest a ton of money to promote you and help build your career. Like it or not there are numerous great artists like you, what makes you so special beyond your music? Are you a hard worker? Do you look to help others along with yourself? Or are you strictly trying to get as much as you can for yourself and couldn’t care less what happens to others? If you are the latter you are no better than many of the so called ‘fat cats’ you most likely say you hate.
My thoughts are this, I genuinely believe there is no better time to be an artist than right now, because we have so many tools that are much more easily accessible to us in this digital age. I think the control of the industry is in our hands now, more so than it ever has been before, but the key is for artists to understand business and relationships the same way as we understand our art and our music. We shouldn’t look at record companies and management from an adversarial perspective. The artists approach often seems to be ‘don’t fuck me over’. Instead we should look to these people as partnerships and look for ways to benefit them as much as they can benefit us. Which can go beyond the realms of simply making them more money. The more artists learn to become as passionate about developing win-win outcomes for themselves and others they work with, as they are about their craft, the more we will see them reach the big time. It is then that an artist can express themselves in the way they want and still be financially profitable. That to me is the true spirit of capitalism which is all buttery goodness with me!
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