Thursday, March 03, 2005

Kanye West and the major labels- Pride goeth before destruction

Sorry but I'm not interested in the recent shoot-up beef between two best-selling rappers except to say that it's going to be one more excuse that outsiders are going use as evidence that the whole style is full of thugs (and possibly a sleazy publicity stunt).

I'm much more interested in the fair-haired golden boy of hip-hop who's been anointed as royalty by the crit community. Once seen as a rival to N.E.R.D./Pharrell/Neptunes, Kanye West has now overtaken them and his own notice as a producer with his solo career. The College Dropout not only cleaned up on the charts but also wowed the Pazz and Jop electorate, but not the Grammy people quite as much as Brother Ray. Personally, I like the record but don't love it and still admire the guy's craft and ambition. "Jesus Walks" was one of my favorite singles from last year- such bravado in a gospel song and actually reaching out to the thugs to say that God's son walks with them. Loved some of the other singles but it just didn't speak to me as an album as a whole.

But the problem that West has now is that like our president, he's claiming political capital that he doesn't really have. Is he kind of full of himself? He's a rapper, remember? It's like saying a rock band has too much guitar playing. The guy's on a roll and has a right to flaunt it but he might become too big for his britches now. Kanye get $ to do mags? ponders a New York Daily News headline but the editors interviewed there say no dough.

West's point is that his visage (or any star's mug) helps to sell mag covers. That's true. Editorial decisions are made about what goes on the cover of a magazine based on the assumption of what will have the strongest drawing power on the newsstand. During a SXSW panel, Alan Light (Tracks, Spin, Vibe) basically gave this as an explanation when I complained about the quality that I was seeing on the covers of music publications. His thinking that some of the cooler stories that might be nearer/dearer to some writers' hearts will be inside but many people aren't going to bother to look unless there's some eye-candy up front. Doesn't sound like the most idealistic point of view but if you were running a print publication, you'd have to do the same or fold up shop (now you know one reason why I do online publication).

So, that means that West does have a point then and the magazines themselves know it. But, what he leaves out of the equation is this: his face appearing on the mag helps him also. Nothing like a mag cover to give you exposure and help get the word out about you and your album. Though it's been proposed many times, I don't know any studies that draw a direct correlation between an article or cover and actual sales (IF I'M WRONG, PLEASE TELL ME!). Nevertheless, it's an obvious boon to the artist and that should be obvious to them. I mean, do you think all these music stars talk to us press people just because they like us?

Not that this is a new idea, mind you. Minimalist composer La Monte Young has at various times insisted that he should be paid for interviews, reasoning that his time is worth money. Sad to say, that has led to few interviews with the great composer, which should tell you something about how successful this approach is (which is a damn shame since he deserves much more recognition than he gets).

But it shouldn't be too surprising that publications don't like the idea of shelling out for stories or covers of their subjects. The mags and papers are already having a tough time with shrinking ad revenues and online competition now so it's not like they have the cash to toss out on a regular basis. Even though I'm sure they'll cite some ethical reasons for this also, you can be sure that tight finances do weight heavily on them too. Plus, they can reason like this: "If West wants to be a pain in the ass, we'll just go with this other guy." And you know what? The other artist will be glad to take the cover away from West and get the exposure instead of him. The result would be less press for West and him having to eventually eat crow or scale back his ambitions. As such, you can expect that this is a bunch of hot air that's going to blow away soon but you have to admire the man's chutzpah, right? As his single proves, West obviously reads the good book so I just hope that he remembers Proverbs Chapter 16, Verse 18.

Not that he's the only one who's over-reaching right now and becoming in danger of self-destruction. After starting to turn a corner on lower profits by beefing up their online offerings, the major labels are now trying to press their luck: Music labels seek higher download prices. Fair enough- no one ever accused them of being public service organizations. But still, wouldn't they have enough sense to realize that they've stopped their own downward momentum by offering reasonably priced, easily obtainable music on the Net? As it is now, Apple makes a piddly amount of money from I-Tunes downloads with most of the money going to labels, licensing, publishing, etc.. If the labels want to start squeezing more out of consumers, do you think they'll just go along and start shelling out more money? Many probably won't. Even with the threat of lawsuits, they'll look for Kazaa or Grokster or such alternatives instead. Ramping up the lawsuits and continuing education and promotional programs won't stop that- they've just started winning over consumers again but the victory is pretty precarious right now. It's not just economical either- though kids will have the same amount of money to buy less songs, such a move will prove to them that these companies are greed heads, trying to shake them down. Makes you think of an indie label called Sympathy for the Record Industry. There'll be little of that.

Also, what happens if Apple doesn't go along? The labels can yank their catalog but few users will follow them because the alternatives to I-Tunes are barely known among the downloading masses. All it will take is for one or two majors (or even a bunch of indies) to break with the rest and stick with the 99 cent price tag for songs. The other companies trying to raise prices are going to be screwed then. Supply and demand is the traditional reasoning behind many market moves but when you factor in literally free trade (i.e. Kazaa) and a 900-pound gorilla that most people already know as their trusted source for songs (I-Tunes), this model doesn't work. Don't believe it? Look at what happened to concert attendance last year as ticket prices went up. Sometimes, the fan's alternative to such shakedowns is to just stay out of the music market loop.

If the majors really do want to press this, you'll just see people ripping their old CD's into Mp3 files and scouring used record shops for new music. And then the RIAA will be sure to blame music pirates for their next self-inflicted decline. By then, maybe a sympathetic West can write a good down-and-out number to sooth their souls.


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