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Issue 1084

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Feature

THE CHANGING FACE OF R&B

JEF LOREZ
JEF LOREZ

A few monthâs ago I finished reading Daryl Easleaâs exhaustive book, Everybody Dance: Chic And The Politics Of Disco. On finishing it I was left shocked at just how much the music business has changed since Chicâs hey day in the late '70âs and early '80âs and today.

The generation of supremely talented R&B musicians, multi-platinum selling hits and bona fide superstars is, indeed, a lifetime away. I can remember Nile Rodgers himself telling me a decade or so ago, as we chatted in his Connecticut home, how much he mourned the fact that the era of the R&B musician - always such a source of pride amongst Americaâs inner city youth - had been devoured by hip-hop culture, never to be heard of again. Now it seems that the music business itself has been swallowed not only by its own greed but by the advance of technology. 2006 marked âthe greatest one year loss in sales of CDâ, according to the April 18, 2007 edition of the Washington Post. However, even greater has been the decline of urban music sales, according to some, an unthinkable 24% loss on the previous year. What does all this mean? That today, the very existence of R&B or soul music as it was once known, is in grave danger of falling off the musical landscape altogether?

How did this sad state of affairs ever conspire to occur? There are several factors, many of which can be squarely blamed at corporate Americaâs all consuming desire to promote whatever can sell the most with the least amount of effort. When hip-hop first started to capture the imagination of Americaâs youth in the â80âs and early â90âs it was, in many ways, renegade, underground rebel music. Acts such as Public Enemy, KRS One and even NWA broke the mould, forgoing radio play to address or reflect what they felt were societyâs ills. As their popularity grew, so did the copycat acts, watering down the message and in the case of NWA, Ice Cube and Dr, Dre inspiring a âgangstaâ culture in the music business that had little to do with music or politics. It tapped a vein in young, urban society. Sales were explosive and so too were record labels' profits. Whatâs more the product was cheap to produce. Made mostly from samples of old records and producers who had MPC drum machines in their bedrooms, the very notion of hiring musicians to go to a studio to record seemed archaic to many. Why try to find a rare singing or song writing talent and nurture and promote them when a hip-hop act could sell more records and often had a built in underground following that would spark further sales? The music business is essentially a business after all, so you canât blame record labels entirely for their pursuit of the mighty dollar. In the battle of art versus commerce, very rarely does art win.

What this meant in the â90âs was that a whole slew of household R&B singers, songwriters and producers were now becoming obsolete. In order to stick around, a tougher hip-hop image had to prevail, thus the emergence of acts such as Mary J. Blige, Jodeci and the like. However, it also left little room for anything else. Thus, the disparity with R&B from the previous two decades. While the â70âs and â80âs produced a diverse
assortment of R&B stars with uniquely different styles such as the OâJays, The Jacksons, Rick James, Commodores, Barry White, Prince, Isley Brothers, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Phyllis Hyman etc etc., in the â90s R&B started to become very homogenized with a handful of outrageously well paid producers responsible for the majority of R&B on the charts.

So long as R&B artists adopted a hip-hop image and could be marketed as such, often featuring rappers in their songs newer artists such as Brandy, Aaliya, Usher, R. Kelly, TLC, Faith Evans, Monica and of course, Mary J. Blige continued to enjoy success. In fact, L.A. Reid, then CEO of LaFace Records, was probably responsible for some of R&B greatest successes in the â90s in the form of Usher, TLC and Toni Braxton the latter who he managed successfully market to both a younger and older R&B demographic as did Boyz II Men who, in the early part of the â90s, ruled the airwaves with their sugary sweet balladry.

In the new millennium, though, one thing was clear. It was rappers not R&B artists that captured the imaginations of Americaâs youth. More importantly, perhaps, it was hip-hop that sold both to the black urban demographic and the suburban white one. Hip-hop artists were becoming actors, getting their own TV shows and making the headlines. Kids were interested in rappers with their rebellious nature and outspoken comments not comparatively boring R&B acts that still sang about the R&B staples of love, romance (and now increasingly sex) and being in the club and dancing etc.

How could they compete with 50 Cent whose life story was better than any marketing exec or Hollywood scriptwriter could have dreamed up? Here was an ex-drug dealer from the hood who was shot nine times and lived to tell the tale on the way to superstardom? All the in beefs between rappers, whether 50 and Ja Rule, Jay-Z and Nas only fuelled the fire of excitement with Americaâs youth, both black and white. R&B couldnât even come close. The pendulum began to shift even more dramatically towards hip-hop. Now drug dealers were infiltrating the music biz through hip-hop, funding their own labels and production companies. They had little time for R&B. The ostentatious nature of the bling bling generation went hand in hand with hip-hop excess and the gangsta/hustler modern day Scarface image that many rappers tried to present. Above it all was the fact that hip-hop was very cheap to produce. Decent rappers are a dime a dozen in the hood and catchy samples can be lifted from thousands of golden oldies with sonically potent beats available with the purchase of many lap top computers or specialist CDs.

However, the writing for urban music was on the wall when the street hustling nature of hip-hop began to cannibalize the genre by bootlegging CDs before their official release and making them widely available on most street corners in Any Ghetto, USA. It would only get worse. As illegal downloading and CD copying became easily accessible for most Americans official CD sales plummeted. Record labels folded or laid people off, reduced ad revenue meant music magazines and media outlets did likewise and the existing record labels realized they could no longer stick to their old formula of: For every seven acts signed, one will be successful and pay for the other six flops. Now there was no longer the marketing budget to promote the one successful artist. If hip-hop was suffering, where did that leave R&B?

Six or seven years ago it would cost around a million dollars to promote a debut album of new âbabyâ R&B artist as they are known in the business. Recording the album could cost $300 - $400,000. While most semi/non established producers would charge around $15 - 20,000 per song produced on a major label, new artists required at least one song (usually the single) to be produced by a superstar producer with the hope they may even appear in the video. Around 2000, before 911, the going rate for the big name producers (think Rodney Jerkins, Jermaine Dupri, Timbaland etc) was $100-$150K per song. I remember being with Rodney Jerkins one weekend where an around the clock schedule had him producing 5 songs for various artists with a going rate of $100K per song! You do the maths!

After spending almost half a million dollars to record the album, next came the video(s). To pay for an established video director such as Paul Hunter or Hype Williams an average budget for a new act would be $200,000. If a video for a second single was required â double that figure. Throw on top all the promotional costs, print, radio, TV ads, travel, showcases etc. and a million bucks was gone in an instant. If a record company was making $10 per CD then sales of 100,000 would see them breaking even on a million dollars. Superstar acts sold CDs by the millions and while their marketing and recording expenses were higher, when groups like TLC, Toni Braxton, Usher, Destinyâs Child and Mariah Carey sold upwards of 5 million CDs it was clearly a bonanza for the record labels.

Enter Napster, Kaaza, Limewire. CD burning and illegal downlaoding meant that CD sales nose dived faster than a Luftwaffe in the Battle Of Britain. Even worse for R&B music was the fact that not only was it now the distant cousin for record labelsâ revenue streams but Americaâs urban audience downloaded and pirated music way more than their rock and country music counterparts. Record labels stopped signing urban acts and R&B acts almost entirely. For the last few years a record labelâs philosophy about signing an urban artist has followed 3 main criteria.

Sell 30,000 copies of your album independently. Put a bar code on the back so it registers with Soundscan. Once you reach that magical 30,000 mark a major will usually pay an interest, whether you CD consists of you reciting the Yellow Pages in Mongolian!

Hook up with a big name producer and be signed to his production company with said producer working on your project and appearing in your video â or write a string of hit songs for/with said producer and have him return the favour with a record deal of your own.

Win American Idol.

Letâs support some of these claims with some recent hard facts: Last year no hip-hop or R&B album was in the top 10 selling CDs in the US.

In statistics released in July of 2007, CD album sales from January to July are down 15% on the same period last year. Although the sales of digital tracks are up 49%
it does little to stop the crippling effect of the lack of album sales, vital to break new artists.

If we look at the dozen or so R&B contemporary/relevant artists around today we will see that very few of them have actually broken in the last two years which is when the music business really hit a nose dive. Some that have were ushered in by the connection of a big name producer.

These, give or take a name or two, are the movers and shakers in todayâs R&B market.
Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, Keshia Cole, Usher, Ne-Yo, John Legend, Mariah Carey, Chris Brown, Omarion, Ciara, Robin Thicke, Fantasia, Musiq Soulchild.

We can safely say that of the above, the ones that have broken in recently have been Keshia Cole, Ne-Yo, Fantasia, John Legend, Chris Brown, Omarion, Ciara and Robin Thicke.

Letâs take a closer look at the development and story behind their success and see if it falls into our theory.

Ne-Yoâs success is, of course, due in part to the vision of L.A. Reid, who, as evidenced by the signing of Chrisette Michelle, after auditioning a cappella in his office, is still committed to the old school way of signing R&B talent.
However, Ne-Yo would never have made it that far, Iâm sure, had he not co-penned Marioâs #1 smash âYou Should Let Me Love Youâ which was produced by Scott Storch.

John Legend, another name on the session scene for a while, got his initial break from rapper Kanye West who he played keyboards for and who produced some of his debut album.

Omarion, of course came from B2K. Ciara was introduced to us as part of Jazze Phaâs production camp and Robin Thicke, though signed to Babyfaceâs American label a few years back broke through with his debut album under the Neptunesâ Star Trek company.

Fantasia, of course, was the winner of American Idol.

That leaves us with Keisha Cole, marketed as a young west coast Mary J. Blige and Chris Brown, who to the best of my knowledge didnât get their breakthrough riding in on the coat tails of anyone else (at least for marketing purposes) but instead through the old school formula of talent and hit records, which is not to belie the ability of the other artists mentioned. Two broken acts (in the traditional sense) in the last 3 or 4 years is hardly a stunning success rate for R&B. I didnât include Rihanna in the list as in my book sheâs an out and out pop artist who just happens to be black.

The problem is the way the music industry is structured in this day and age. Labels simply arenât willing to spend the money like they used to and their lack of money and increased overheads also means a lack of vision. Itâs too risky for them to step too far outside the box, even though that is what is sorely needed. Imagine if Prince had gone knocking on record labelsâ doors with a demo tape and the response was, âItâs too difficult for us to marketâ or the Jackson Five had been greeted by Motown with âNo one is interested in a kids group â we donât have the marketing money to break you. Sell 30,000 records in Indiana, then give us a call.â Similarly if (Little) Stevie Wonder has been turned down because âNo oneâs interested in a blind kid playing the harmonicaâ then just think what a sorrowful state weâd be in today. That though, I fear, is what many of todayâs unique and prodigious talents are being told when they try and get a record deal. If you havenât won American Idol, sold 30,000 CDs from your car or got Timbaland producing your beats, no matter how talented, you may be cold out of luck.

Before, however, we castigate R&B to the same bygone era as big band, jazz and more, letâs attempt to be optimistic. I honestly feel that if the public is presented with a genuinely explosive talent they will bite. The key is exposing them without having to incur huge expenses. Clearly the internet will probably mark the way forward for the music industry. If YouTube and MySpace etc. can take over from the record labels we may again see R&B dominating the airwaves. Thereâs no doubt when Usher, Mariah and Beyonce can still sell millions of records the public still has the appetite. The challenge is figuring out a way to satisfy it.
Words JEFF LOREZ

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