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Music to the People

Rapper Chuck D. on the Web and the beat of change in the music industry.
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The view from out there

In September, Chuck D., front man since 1987 for the successful and often controversial rap group Public Enemy, launched a Web site - Rapstation.com - to help independent rap and hip-hop artists distribute their music. In the music business, as in so many others, technology is eliminating the traditional gatekeepers between those who create and those who consume. We asked how long it would be before a trip to the record store was a thing of the past.

Downloadable music will be a no-brainer in two years; even the head of BMG is predicting the death of the CD. For listeners, programmed interactive radio and MP3 is a new way of getting to the product. Here are my alternatives: Do I stay home and make a copy of this music for $3 or be a fool and go spend $15 for this CD in a music store?

Major labels now have to face reality and realize that they have to share the marketplace. A few years ago they wouldn't consider sharing the marketplace. It'd be, "Hey, we wanna buy you out, or we just want to crush you." This is where, I guess, the chickens have come home to shoot.

The Web has been a saving grace for independent record labels, entrepreneurs, songwriters, and artists. It has given the artists' community a reason to do what they do, a whole new way to have exposure without a major-label contract. Maybe four or five years ago, it was really looking bleak. Somebody would cut a song and have no outlet to expose it and have only a slim chance to have a major deal. That causes obvious frustrations. This is a fantastic opportunity from a position of ownership, as opposed to having some company giving you a royalty. You can definitely get by all the politics of the industry this way.

Making your audience a participant in the process -- that's an unbelievable change. Unlike radio and television, we don't have to do 24 hours of programming. The ability to archive makes a Web site different. In the past if you had a show go up at 9 o'clock and people didn't get to it, you were disappointed and so were they. But if the show is archived for two weeks or even a month, people can check out your work anytime. It won't just evaporate. So you won't see as much wasted content as you did in the past with television.

But when you're dot-comming a situation, you need to focus on what you're going to do and what you're not going to do. We microfocus on the genre. We can split up rap and hip-hop into 20 subgenres. Despite a gigantic worldwide fan base, this is an underserviced genre. The Web allows us to expose the music. We want to be the ESPN of rap music and hip-hop. And that kind of says it all -- text- and information-wise, news-wise, video-wise, radio-wise -- for the new-artist community.

The MP3 Jamz section is becoming a gigantic area for artists. We're looking for a million artists and 500,000 labels by 2003. We have close to 1,000 MP3 artists now. It's a full-service supersite for underserviced music. And this will bring to the table a whole community of people -- graphic designers, tech people, and so on -- who are becoming more a part of the music business than ever before.

If you're a new artist or new label, you go to the MP3 area and it tells you how to put your songs up, how to rip your CD into an MP3 file. When it comes down to the rap and hip-hop nation, cats have been using computers. They get acclimated. This music's existence has come out of its use of technology -- turntables, the mixers, the amps. It has always run parallel with the samplers, the synthesizers. This wouldn't be any different: it's parallel, glove on hand.

But we're not going to be a portal for all aspects of black culture, for fashion and all that. We're not going to deal with that. "Digital Titanics" is what we call these portals that try to be everything to everybody. I don't agree with that philosophy. --From an interview with Juliana Verdone


For more insight on the current state of small business, see The View From Out There.


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Last updated: May 1, 2000




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