January 20, 2007
DJ Dramas || Parallel Economies
Close followers of hip hop, the music industry or the sidebar to this blog are probably well aware that the suddenly rather aptly named DJ Drama and his associate Don Cannon were arrested earlier this week and charged with the rather dubious felony of selling hip hop mixtapes. Drama was at the absolute top of his game, producing some of the most spectacular mixtapes of the past few years, most notably of late catapulting Lil Wayne into the role of hip hop's crown prince. Quite coincidentally (or perhaps not?) Drama was also about to receive some serious big journalism coverage, exposing the mixtape underground to a large audience almost completely outside it's standard base of operations. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was the prime driving force behind Drama's arrest and quite clearly they saw a threat in both his own rise and in the rise of mixtape itself as both an artistic and economic endeavor.
Over the past couple years the mixtape industry has grown into a rather uneasy but working relationship with the traditional music industry that the RIAA represents. The mixtape world was a place to find new talent, test new songs, and build up street level buzz for artists. For artists like 50 Cent, T.I. and the Dipset crew the result was millions of dollars for both the artists and the record labels. Many of the songs on those mixtape cds may have been unauthorized and living in a legal gray area, but their existence was sparking the sales of those officiated CDs that make the dues paying members of the RIAA their money. That relationships clearly is no longer, although it's rather unclear whether RIAA ever quite realized what sort of relationship many of its member had with the mixtape industry, ironically enough DJ Drama was due to release his first major label back mixtape.
Culturally the RIAA's actions are about as hamfisted and assbackwards as it gets. They just went out and arrested a friend and associate of some of their best artists and members and alienated even more of their customer base. But economically it's a whole other story. The mixtape industry operates in what could be called a parallel economy. It's products circulate in shadowy networks, it's transactions off the record, it's details unreported. One can imagine situations where big rappers get paid by DJs to appear on mixtapes, and one can also imagine situations where rappers pay DJs to place them on mixtapes. What actually goes down is pretty much behind the scenes and off the books.
The music and mixtape industries may have had an uneasy but working relationship, but now that the RIAA has gone on the offensive one can see just who really threatened who. The music industry has been running scared since Napster first rolled on the stage like the chupacabra, and the mixtape world is just the latest, and quite possibly the greatest threat yet. Peer to peer file sharing threatened the music industry right were it hurt the most, the area of distribution, the point where the record labels were taking in all their money. But distribution is only one part of the music industries much larger business structure. They are also in the business of what they call A&R, the finding, filtering and amplification of new talent. They provide high risk financing to artists. They are in the manufacturing business, creating the physical products for sale. And they are in the marketing business big time, hyping up artists and getting them the attention they often want, and almost always need in order to sell large amounts of music.
What is some remarkable about the mixtape industry is just how thoroughly it threatens the established recording industry. The mixtape industry has a manufacturing base, the ability to make hundreds of thousands, and most likely millions of units. DJ Drama alone had 80,000 CDs taken from him during his arrest. More importantly though it has a distribution network, the ability to get it's products into the hands of retailers across the entire US, and those retailers are for the most part completely outside the RIAA's standard sphere of influence. Then there is the A&R, a role that mixtape DJs played so well that more than a few have been recruited to the major labels, and sometimes even given their own imprint to develop. All that the mixtape industry lacked was large artist development and marketing budgets of the major labels. But even with marketing the mixtape players were in all likelihood selling far more CDs per marketing dollar spent than the labels, and with that sort of result the artist development budgets might well be there sooner than later. In other words at least within the world of hip hop the mixtape industry has just about every component they need to replace the traditional music industry completely. If an artist can make as much or more money on the mixtape circuit why bother signing with a major label at all? Given how much more vital and exciting mixtape music is compared to the overproduced major label product it'd probably be a good thing. Of course a more likely result is probably closer to a semihostile merger/takeover than a slaughtering, but no wonder the RIAA is scared of the very mixtape DJs who are threatening to revitalize the world of music. The recording industry has lost everything on the cultural and artist side of things, all they have left is the money and lawyers to bully the real competition; at the expense of just about everyone else out there no less.
January 16, 2007
When I read about counterfeit sneakers nowadays my first thought is "how can a get me a pair of those". Over the past few years the street, skate and sneaker industries have swiped a page out of the art world and mastered the science of manufacturing artificial scarcity. As a marketing trick it's probably got a long life ahead of it, there are always people around who want what they can not have regardless of of how obvious the artificiality of the process is. But as a story it's pretty damn, blah... Thousand dollar ostrich leather sneakers, limited edition of five? That's not exactly much more of a story than those five hundred dollar limited edition camel leather ones in an edition of 20 is it?
When it comes to telling a story you see, the counterfeits are the real deal, whatever authenticity they lack on the branding and legal sides they more than make up on their backstreets round the world journeys. From shady factories in the Pearl River Delta, through backroom deals cut in cities that may not have existed ten years ago, across oceans and through government checkpoints in a one skillfully packed two TEU shipping container with an artfully doctored collection of shipping papers, finally landing in ever shifting locations on the fringes of your hometown. The fashion companies may be toying with "pop up stores" but the bootlegger's move with a rapidity that authentic goods are in no shape to keep up with, and with a necessity the bootleggers must hate and fear but that real brands can only dream of obtaining.
As "design" continues to seep into every crevice of our culture, counterfeit goods also offer a level of authentic undesign that legal corporations are practically incapable of producing. The off the books and in the shadows production style might be focused upon replicating name brands, but it also generates an environment ideally suited for the art of the machine and the art of the accident to thrive. The counterfeit good is all about "brand", but it also lives free of a brand manager. It's all about design too, yet it is made without any concern to the designers intent. And in this freedom mistakes thrive beautifully. The counterfeiters may want to be as accurate as possible, but they lack the lines of communication to make that happen nor do they have much incentive to correct mistakes. The accidents after all damage only someone else's brand, and when they are capable of being sold they almost certainly are. Without the designers the machines are also set free, the counterfeiter's push them for accuracy, but without the designer's pushing them to meet the intent and not just the surface of the design, the machines can shape the form upon their own paths.
Once it's made, once it's shipped, once it's slipped past customs, once it's settled lightly in some temporary location, then you still need to find it. There are no insider announcements, no camping sessions lining up to buy the goods the second they hit the shop, no fevered eBay auctions for the newest of the new, and there is almost no way of knowing how many were made and how many more will follow. Value and excitement both tend come from the thresholds, and nothing navigates the thresholds of taste and legality like a counterfeit good. These are the real artifacts of the industrial age, the goods with real stories. Goods you can wear both with pride and without fear of harming their secondary market value. More authentic than any brand can hope for, welcome to world of the authentic counterfeit.
January 03, 2007
A Question for 2007: When is inequality a good thing?
The internet was supposed to be the great equalizer, the tool that would let anyone become a publisher, a news source, a movie director or the creator of even new medias. Shockingly enough in large part it succeeded and the predictions came true. Anyone on the right side of certain economics and techno-literate thresholds can indeed go online and distribute their works for little or no cost. We live in a world of publishers now and it's great in many ways, for one it enables this blog to exist. Yet something also went horribly awry in the process. We got everything the internet promised, everything except the equality.
In a world of millions of news sources we still focus our attention on a select few. There has been a bit of a reshuffling at the top for sure, new information powerhouses have stepped up and dominated, while some of the old media players have stumbled while others danced nimbly into newly global audiences. But information continues to follow a power law curve, which roughly means we focus 80% of our energies upon what emits from just 20% of the providers, and the top 1% command half of our total attention. Wealth too follows this distribution, with the super rich dominating absurd amounts of the world's cash flow, and the payouts to the top dogs at the likes of Google, MySpace and YouTube only reinforce this inequity.
Equality is a concept wrought with it's own inequities. We pay incredible lip service to it as a concept, but rarely implement it well in reality. There are only a few people willing to defend say the extreme difference in earnings between top Wall Street executives and the entire quarter of New York City's population that lives below the poverty level while also living in one of the world's most expensive cities. But there are few still who are actually willing to do something about it.
One of the ironies of inequality is that it's almost always looked at a bad thing, when in fact it often is exactly the opposite. Take your blood for example. You may have left small drops from cuts and scratches around your childhood haunts. You've probably given a few samples that now sit in testing labs or medical disposal sites. You might have donated a few pints that now sit in blood banks or circulate in some form through another persons body. But the vast majority of your blood stays within your body and you wouldn't want it any other way, would you? Your blood evenly distributed across the globe wouldn't do anyone much good, would it? That globe of course is an inequality in itself, stars, planets and atmospheres are ultimately the result of a radically unequal distribution of elementary particles.
Equality of course can also be stunningly boring. We wouldn't want all flowers to be equal in shape and coloring, nor do we enjoy it when every building looks the same. But none of that takes away from the fact that the inequalities of power, wealth and culture we tend to focus on have awful and far reaching consequences. Consequences we don't often actually address. There is a danger in shifting more attention towards the overlooked space of positive inequalities, a risk of de-emphasising the existing problems even further than they are now. But with that risk comes the potential to find solutions. Perhaps, but just perhaps, the fact that so little is actually done to address the radical inequalities in America and beyond stems from that discord between the idea of inequality being bad and prevalence of subtle examples of where it isn't. More than that though is the prospect that somewhere within the examples of positive inequality lies an answer, or at least a start of answer to how we can transform the negative inequalities around us into a better state of being.
So it's 2007 now, maybe ask yourself, when is inequality a good thing?