The Record Industry's Furtive Dependence on the Commons

Pity the hip-hop record industry! It can’t stand the idea that anyone might draw upon an existing music CD in order to make new music — the classic process by which creativity has proceeded for centuries. Yet it desperately needs people to remix hip-hop and share it in order to generate new talent, promote CD sales and cultivate “street cred” for artists. This hypocrisy — showy crackdowns on “piracy” yet furtive dependence on creative and social sharing — is vividly on display in the recent arrest of DJ Drama, one of the country’s most famous mixtape DJs.

But first, some background, most of it from yesterday’s article by Samantha M. Shapiro in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. In the hip-hop world, it is routine for DJs to produce mixtapes that combine one artist’s new raps or music (or random sounds taken from anywhere) with the vocals or rhythm of another artist’s song. No one clears the copyrights; they just do it. Some enterprising DJs have become famous for the quality of their mixtapes, which acquire a kind of “social branding” within the fan community. The DJs act as small businessmen, privately distributing and selling their mixtapes through local businesses (bars, taxis, convenience stores) and even through major retailers like Best Buy.

Ever since the record industry became so concentrated and distant from the artistic realities of musical creativity, it has come to depend upon the mixtape world. Mixtape communities function as a socially trusted intermediary marketplace. They are a place where first-time artists can get exposure and, if they’re lucky, attract the attention of the big record labels and radio stations. Conversely, the big labels see the mixtape scene as a way to test out new artists on a smaller scale and to promote upcoming CD releases.

As Shapiro writes, “Labels began aiding and abetting mixtape DJs, sending them separate digital tracks of vocals and beats from songs so they could be easily remixed. They also started sending copies of an artist’s mixtape out to journalists and reviewers along with the official label release.” In short, the record labels couldn’t resist the efficiencies of the commons to capture people’s attention and confer social credibility on a product.

That’s why they would often commission and “leak” a mixtape in order to test the popularity of a new artist. Or they would use a mixtape to show music reviewers and journalists that a rapper’s songs are “getting spin from the street.” The labels also track mixtape sales as a useful way to refine their own marketing.

For all these reasons, the legitimate record business has found it convenient and indeed, irresistible, to do business with the illegal mixtape world. They saw DJs as trusted intermediaries who could broker the market needs of the big labels with the shifting social predilections of hip-hop fans. “The best DJs have a better brand than the average label does,” a prominent record promoter told the Times. At record labels, the right hand could not resist the promotional benefits of mixtapes even as the left hand was suing hundreds of people for copyright infringement.

It was a huge shock to the hip-hop world, therefore, when the Record Industry Association of America in cooperation with law enforcement authorities staged a major raid of Aphilliates studio in January. Two of the owners of the Atlanta studio, DJ Drama and DJ Don Cannon, were arrested, and 25,000 allegedly illegal CDs were seized.

The DJs were charged with violating RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law that is typically used against organized crime and drug rings. Serious stuff. It’s worth noting that the RIAA and law enforcement did not make any RICO moves against Best Buy or other major retailers, even though illegal mixtapes are sold there as well. The arrests amount to a declaration of war by the four major record labels (which control 70% of all retail sales) against the mixtape scene that it has come to depend upon. A concentrated, bureaucratized industry is pitting itself against the creatively robust commons.

So here are my questions: Can the major labels successfully develop and sell hip-hop music without access to the social community of artists and fans to which DJs give access? Can commercial hip-hop retain its vitality now that it is hacking away at its creative and social roots? Can a musical scene in today’s networked environment thrive under the RIAA’s regime of draconian copyright controls? DJ Drama could be at the center for a very interesting drama.