Monday, September 7, 2009

The Responsibilities Of Music Consumers

A few days ago, DJ Greg Street went on a bit of a rant on Twitter (sigh) regarding the purchasing power of the hip-hop consumer. He had some good points, encouraging hip-hop listeners to buy albums as a means of demanding that record labels devote more attention to the hip-hop market. However, he suggested we be less critical and buy more albums regardless of quality. This is simply poor advice, and I will not encourage anybody to buy (his example) The Blueprint 3, though I do encourage readers to purchase several other albums this month. Consumers should not be expected to support a sub-par product simply because the artist has made great music in the past. If you feel Jay needs your support, buy The Black Album again. When you're buying an album you are supporting not just the artist, but a specific artistic direction as well. In the end, DJ Greg Street got me thinking about a number of issues related to music consumption and I felt the need to discuss them.

There is a widespread notion that the sales of hip-hop and rap albums are declining, however I have yet to see any quantitative assessment that suggests the sales of this particular genre are declining at a rate faster than album sales as a whole. It is inarguable that hip-hop has passed its peak market share, but to suggest that it is in a steady decline, teetering on the precipice of jazzdom, is to ignore reality. As long as hip-hop is consistently being demanded in clubs, and played in numerous commercials, there is little reason to fear for its well-being. The genre is more ubiquitous in popular media than it ever has been. Whether this translates into “good” hip-hop is another issue.

As with any genre, there is certainly an amount of trash out there. If you desire for there to be more artists like those you consider good, it makes sense to buy their albums rather than purchasing any hip-hop release just to support the idea. On a personal level, an album that I consider good has been released every other week on average this year. That means at least 25 albums I would consider buying, or at least $250 dropped on new releases. Given my current financial situation, I can't manage that kind of output, meaning I have to choose. Do I purchase those I think are the best? Do I decide some artists need more support than others? Do I show favoritism to independent releases? In this day and age, you have to think about what you are saying with your dollar when you buy an album. It's an odd concept, but I think that's the main message Greg Street was trying to convey. In a sense, you're also casting a vote.

Of course, there is an argument to be made that purchasing a major label release only serves to reinforce the industry status quo in terms of artist management, distribution, digital rights, pricing, copyright, sample laws, etc. While I agree with the sentiment of this argument, I can't support the idea of abandoning artists. I don't have the answers, but something needs to change. The record labels have been operating at the pre-Napster status quo to the detriment of artists and consumers alike, without taking any meaningful initiative to address the new reality. Downloading cannot be stopped, but consumers have shown that they still believe recording artists are deserving of their money. The labels need to find some way to reconcile these two facts and forego acts of intimidation and symbolic legal actions. However, I find it difficult to believe this will happen, because record labels are increasingly becoming obsolete and will attempt to maintain their hold on music distribution by insisting that nothing has changed.

As a final thought, a decline in sales of individual hip-hop records may not signify a decline in the sales of the genre as a whole. God knows, the market is far more saturated than it was in the 90's. If the information was available (I'm sure I could hunt it down), it would be interesting to do an analysis of the number of units moved in relation to the number of individual albums released.

P.S. Big Boi stated today that he has secured a release date for Sir Luscious Leftfoot and will be making that information available soon. I'm excited, but still skeptical.

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