The following is the second installment of hip-hop journalist Eric K. Arnold's article about net neutrality and the urban music world. (You can read the first entry here.)
For more information about why the open internet is crucial to the music community, check out our Rock the Net site. And stay tuned for Part III!
Changing of the Guard: The Evolution of Urban Gatekeepers
Having an Internet presence is especially critical to urban music because of the frenzy of ownership consolidation that all but eliminated small, independent commercial radio stations. As a result, urban radio has become formulaic and bland, with the same 20 or 25 songs in heavy rotation all across the country, and has rarely been accessible to independent artists not affiliated with major labels. (See “The Effect of Consolidation on Urban Radio” for more info).
The past few years have also seen the shrinking of the retail market for CDs. Large music-oriented retailers like Tower have given way to “big box” stores like Best Buy, and digital downloading has also taken a bite out of the retail pie.
The effect of all these trends on the recording industry has been considerable. While the independent labels’ market share continues to grow incrementally, major labels have taken a huge financial hit. Faced with lower revenues, their cost-cutting measures have included everything from dropping artists who don’t sell a certain number of units, to underpromoting acts not deemed a priority, to layoffs and the elimination of traditional A&R departments.
At the same time, commercial radio numbers are down overall. Major players in the radio industry like Clear Channel have begun to target the online social networking market as their desired audiences have increasingly become accustomed to surfing the web in order to hear new music.
Meanwhile, multi-tasking sites like Fusicology and Okay Player have become one-stop multimedia outlets for urban audiences — providing a digital alternative to traditional print publications — while online stations like Breakdown FM have presented music, news, and information left untouched by urban commercial radio. And Vibe.com has featured important political coverage missing from the newsstand edition.
By the same token, popular sites frequented by the young urban demographic like YouTube and MySpace have filled some of the role once played by A&Rs – developing new artists. For instance, The Pack and Soulja Boy built up their online buzz to viral levels, parlaying YouTube views and MySpace hits into commercial success and mainstream radio and video play. These days, many new rap songs are leaked first to YouTube, leapfrogging commercial radio in the buzz-building chain. After Ludacris’ “War with God” was posted online, Luda’s label manager Chaka Zulu told the Associated Press, "It had the Internet going crazy… (YouTube is) a viable marketing tool for us now."
All this has created a situation where the Internet has become a primary resource for the entire urban music industry – and a battleground where indie artists, major labels, radio stations, and telecommunications companies are all jockeying for position.
According to indie rap icon and label owner Paris, “The end result, in my opinion, will be that non-music retailers will soon become the new record companies…The main difference is that these new parent companies will treat their musical pursuits as advertising for the corporate entity, and will not rely on the revenue generated from sale of music at all. It will simply be used to generate interest in other products and services.”
“That’s why [the potential loss of] Net Neutrality is really scary,” BET's Paul Porter says. “Some of the things [telecommunications and cable companies] are trying to do is put a lock on musical freedom.”
He expresses concern that the same thing could happen to the Internet that happened to the radio industry. Urban radio was once “a beautiful thing,” he recalls, but “once consolidation hit, the variety went down, the quality went down.”
Davey-D — one of the few urban journalists who’s consistently covered net neutrality — predicts “a chilling effect” not just on artists, but also “folks gearing up to be their own media.”
He cites a recently announced merger between Clear Channel and Katz Media —which effectively consolidates over 1,200 online stations — as a revenue-siphoning move, which could result in a potential death blow for independent Internet radio. This development makes the fight to preserve net neutrality even more critical, since corporate-free online content is already being threatened.
At a recent panel discussion on the Future of the Independent Artist in San Francisco, Public Enemy’s Chuck D urged the audience to step up their Internet game:
“When (people) talk about net neutrality and preventing online radio shows from happening, or three years from now each email you send out is gonna be taxed with digital postage attached to it. . . these things are realities if you don’t take advantage of what’s out there now.”
As the online landscape continues to be shaped, preserving Net Neutrality becomes tantamount to protecting Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression – probably the two most important principles of the Constitution and the First Amendment.
About the Author:
Eric K. Arnold has been writing about urban music culture since the mid-1990s, when he was the Managing Editor of now-defunct 4080 Magazine. Since then, he’s been a columnist for such publications as The Source, XXL, Murder Dog, Africana.com, and the East Bay Express; his work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Vibe, Wax Poetics, SF Weekly, XLR8R, the Village Voice and Jamrock, as well as the academic anthologies Total Chaos and The Vinyl Ain’t Final. Eric began his journalistic career while DJing on college radio station KZSC, and remembers well the early days of hip-hop radio, before consolidation, and commercialization set in. He currently lives in Oakland, California.