Hit Charade

November 30, 2015

Nathaniel Rich theAtlantic.com 10/15

The biggest pop star in America today is a man named Karl Martin Sandberg. The lead singer of an obscure ’80s glam-metal band, Sandberg grew up in a remote suburb of Stockholm and is now 44. Sandberg is the George Lucas, the LeBron James, the Serena Williams of American pop. He is responsible for more hits than Phil Spector, Michael Jackson, or the Beatles.

After Sandberg come the bald Norwegians, Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Hermansen, 43 and 44; Lukasz Gottwald, 42, a Sandberg protégé and collaborator who spent a decade languishing in Saturday Night Live’s house band; and another Sandberg collaborator named Esther Dean, 33, a former nurse’s aide from Oklahoma who was discovered in the audience of a Gap Band concert, singing along to “Oops Upside Your Head.” They use pseudonyms professionally, but most Americans wouldn’t recognize those, either: Max Martin, Stargate, Dr. Luke, and Ester Dean.

Most Americans will recognize their songs, however. As I write this, at the height of summer, the No. 1 position on the Billboard pop chart is occupied by a Max Martin creation, “Bad Blood” (performed by Taylor Swift featuring Kendrick Lamar). No. 3, “Hey Mama” (David Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj), is an Ester Dean production; No. 5, “Worth It” (Fifth Harmony featuring Kid Ink), was written by Stargate; No. 7, “Can’t Feel My Face” (The Weeknd), is Martin again; No. 16, “The Night Is Still Young” (Minaj), is Dr. Luke and Ester Dean. And so on. If you flip on the radio, odds are that you will hear one of their songs. If you are reading this in an airport, a mall, a doctor’s office, or a hotel lobby, you are likely listening to one of their songs right now. This is not an aberration. The same would have been true at any time in the past decade. Before writing most of Taylor Swift’s newest album, Max Martin wrote No. 1 hits for Britney Spears, ’NSync, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, and Katy Perry.

Millions of Swifties and KatyCats—as well as Beliebers, Barbz, and Selenators, and the Rihanna Navy—would be stunned by the revelation that a handful of people, a crazily high percentage of them middle-aged Scandinavian men, write most of America’s pop hits. It is an open yet closely guarded secret, protected jealously by the labels and the performers themselves, whose identities are as carefully constructed as their songs and dances. The illusion of creative control is maintained by the fig leaf of a songwriting credit. The performer’s name will often appear in the list of songwriters, even if his or her contribution is negligible. (There’s a saying for this in the music industry: “Change a word, get a third.”) But almost no pop celebrities write their own hits. Too much is on the line for that, and being a global celebrity is a full-time job. It would be like Will Smith writing the next Independence Day.

Impressionable young fans would therefore do well to avoid John Seabrook’s The Song Machine, an immersive, reflective, and utterly satisfying examination of the business of popular music. It is a business as old as Stephen Foster, but never before has it been run so efficiently or dominated by so few. We have come to expect this type of consolidation from our banking, oil-and-gas, and health-care industries. But the same practices they rely on—ruthless digitization, outsourcing, focus-group brand testing, brute-force marketing—have been applied with tremendous success in pop, creating such profitable multinationals as Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift.

The music has evolved in step with these changes. A short-attention-span culture demands short-attention-span songs. The writers of Tin Pan Alley and Motown had to write only one killer hook to get a hit. Now you need a new high every seven seconds—the average length of time a listener will give a radio station before changing the channel. “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore,” Jay Brown, a co-founder of Jay Z’s Roc Nation label, tells Seabrook. “You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge, too.”

Sonically, the template has remained remarkably consistent since the Backstreet Boys, whose sound was created by Max Martin and his mentor, Denniz PoP, at PoP’s Cheiron Studios, in Stockholm. It was at Cheiron in the late ’90s that they developed the modern hit formula, a formula nearly as valuable as Coca-Cola’s. But it’s not a secret formula. Seabrook describes the pop sound this way: “ABBA’s pop chords and textures, Denniz PoP’s song structure and dynamics, ’80s arena rock’s big choruses, and early ’90s American R&B grooves.” The production quality is crucial, too. The music is manufactured to fill not headphones and home stereo systems but malls and football stadiums. It is a synthetic, mechanical sound “more captivating than the virtuosity of the musicians.” This is a metaphor, of course—there are no musicians anymore, at least not human ones. Every instrument is automated. Session musicians have gone extinct, and studio mixing boards remain only as retro, semi-ironic furniture.

The songs are written industrially as well, often by committee and in bulk. Anything short of a likely hit is discarded. The constant iteration of tracks, all produced by the same formula, can result in accidental imitation—or, depending on the jury, purposeful replication. Seabrook recounts an early collaboration between Max Martin and Dr. Luke. They are listening, reportedly, to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps”—an infectious love song, at least by indie-rock standards. Martin is being driven crazy by the song’s chorus, however, which drops in intensity from the verse. Dr. Luke says, “Why don’t we do that, but put a big chorus on it?” He reworks a guitar riff from the song and creates Kelly Clarkson’s breakout hit, “Since U Been Gone.”
Session musicians have gone extinct, and studio mixing boards remain only as retro, semi-ironic furniture.

Pop hitmakers frequently flirt with plagiarism, with good reason: Audiences embrace familiar sounds. Sameness sells. Dr. Luke in particular has been accused repeatedly of copyright infringement. His defense: “You don’t get sued for being similar. It needs to be the same thing.” (Dr. Luke does get sued for being similar, and quite often; he has also countersued for defamation.) Complicating the question of originality is the fact that only melodies, not beats, can be copyrighted. This means a producer can sell one beat to multiple artists. The same beat, for instance, can be heard beneath Beyoncé’s “Halo” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” hits released within four months of each other in 2009. (The producer, in his defense, claimed they were “two entirely different songs conceptually.”) As Seabrook notes, although each song was played tens of millions of times on YouTube and other platforms, few fans seemed to notice, let alone care.

Once a hit is ready, a songwriter must find a singer to bring it to the masses. The more famous the performer, the wider the audience, and the greater the royalties for the writer. Hits are shopped like scripts in Hollywood, first to the A-list, then to the B-list, then to the aspirants. “… Baby One More Time,” the Max Martin song that made Britney Spears’s career, was declined by TLC. Spears’s team later passed on “Umbrella,” which made Rihanna a star. The most-successful songwriters, like Max Martin and Dr. Luke, occasionally employ a potentially more lucrative tactic: They prospect for unknowns whom they can turn into stars. This allows them to exert greater control over the recording of the songs and to take a bigger cut of royalties by securing production rights that a more established performer would not sign away.

But the masters of star creation remain the record-label executives. The greatest of them all, Clive Davis, whose career has run from Janis Joplin to Kelly Clarkson, is an avuncular, charming presence throughout The Song Machine. He tells Seabrook that the key to pop longevity is “a continuity of hits,” a phrase Davis imbues with the gravity of scripture, though it means only what it says: lots of hit songs. More telling is the record executive Jason Flom’s reaction to meeting a young Katy Perry: “Without having heard a note of music, I was sure that Katy was indeed destined for stardom”—a statement that says more about the nature of the industry than about Perry.
In the music industry, the performers are called artists, while the people who write the songs remain largely anonymous.

Most memorable—and instructive—is the story of the obese, oleaginous Orlando entrepreneur Louis Pearlman. A luxury-plane magnate, he met the New Kids on the Block in 1989 when they chartered one of his jets. Upon learning that they were earning more than Michael Jackson, Pearlman decided to cast his own boy group. After Pearlman hired Denniz PoP and Max Martin to write their songs, the Backstreet Boys went from playing in front of Shamu’s tank at SeaWorld to selling out world tours. Millennium, released in 1999, is one of the best-selling albums in American history. Pearlman then decided to start an identical boy band, performing songs by the same songwriters. “My feeling was, where there’s McDonald’s, there’s Burger King,” Pearlman tells Seabrook on the phone from the federal prison in Texarkana, where he is serving a 25-year sentence for defrauding banks and investors in Ponzi schemes. Pearlman was a poor businessman but a savvy promoter. ’NSync, led by Justin Timberlake, formerly of The Mickey Mouse Club, was even bigger than the Backstreet Boys. Next, seeking his own Debbie Gibson, Pearlman scouted another ex-Mouseketeer: Britney Spears.

Many of Pearlman’s strategies continue to dominate the construction and marketing of pop acts, particularly in the one pop market more delirious than the United States. Seabrook credits the Backstreet Boys’ 1996 Asian tour with helping to inspire a Korean former folk singer, Soo-Man Lee, to create K-pop, a phenomenon that gives new meaning to the term song machine. Lee codified Pearlman’s tactics in a step-by-step manual that guides the creation of Asian pop groups, dictating “when to import foreign composers, producers, and choreographers; what chord progressions to use in particular countries; the precise color of eye shadow a performer should wear in different Asian regions, as well as the hand gestures he or she should make.”

In K-pop there is no pretension to creative independence. Performers unabashedly embrace the corporate strategy that stars in the United States are at great pains to disguise. Recruits are trained in label-run pop academies for as long as seven years before debuting in a new girl or boy group—though only one in 10 trainees makes it that far. This level of control may seem eccentric to American readers, but Seabrook reveals that the careers of stars like Rihanna and Kelly Clarkson are almost as narrowly choreographed.

By the end of The Song Machine, readers will have command of such terms of art as melodic math, comping, career record, and track-and-hook (a Seabrookian neologism). One term remains evasive, however: artist. In the music industry, the performers are called artists, while the people who write the songs remain largely anonymous outside the pages of trade publications. But can a performer be said to have any artistry if, as in the case of Rihanna, her label convenes week-long “writer camps,” attended by dozens of producers and writers (but not necessarily Rihanna), to manufacture her next hit? Where is the artistry when a producer digitally stitches together a vocal track, syllable by syllable, from dozens of takes? Or modifies a bar and calls it a new song?

Hitmakers today don’t only create hits. They create “artists.” The trouble comes when successful performers believe their press and begin writing their own songs, or when songwriters try to become stars themselves. Taylor Dayne—who, against Clive Davis’s advice, demanded to write her own songs, and bombed—is a cautionary example of the former. Ester Dean, who has had mixed success as a solo act, is an example of the latter. “To be an artist, that’s another story,” says Mikkel Eriksen of Stargate. “You can be a great singer, but when you hear the record it’s missing something.” Esther Dean, a prolific writer of melodies and lyrics, is an artist, but Ester Dean is not making it as an “artist.”

What is that ineffable something that separates pop stars from the rest of us? What is the source of Rihanna’s magical powers? Eriksen, trying to pin it down, describes it as “a sparkle around the edges of the words.” A K-pop star proposes another theory: “Maybe it is because of our great good looks?” Seabrook lands on a more subtle quality: an “urgent need to escape”—escapism as a matter of life or death. Rihanna was desperate to escape an abusive father; for Katy Perry it was her family’s repressive evangelical faith; for the Backstreet Boys it was Orlando. The perfect pop star creates a desire loop between audience and performer. We abandon reality together, meeting in a synthetic pop fantasy of California Gurls and Teenage Dreams. Only they are not really our teenage dreams. They are Karl Martin Sandberg’s.

Adele Goes Viral, No Selfies or Tweets Needed

November 29, 2015

BEN SISARIO NYTimes.com 11/27/15

While stars are now expected to live their lives in full self-promotion mode online, Adele barely touches her social media accounts. A 27-year-old mother who speaks with a working-class North London accent, she is revered by fans as much for her seeming approachability as for her vocal prowess. In interviews she speaks about being a full-figured woman in the image-obsessed entertainment industry, and about rejecting product endorsements to keep the focus on her music.

She also sells more albums than anyone in the struggling music business thought was still possible.
When official sales numbers are announced by Nielsen on Monday, they are expected to show that Adele’s new album, “25,” which went on sale Nov. 20, will have sold at least 3.2 million copies in the United States in its first week. That smashes an opening-week sales record that has stood since ’N Sync sold 2.4 million copies of “No Strings Attached” in 2000. But annual CD sales then were more than five times what they are now, and the music industry relied on a vast network of brick-and-mortar retailers that has long since eroded.

“This is beyond all expectations,” said Ish Cuebas, vice president for music merchandising at Trans World Entertainment, whose more than 300 stores include the F.Y.E. chain.

Since 1991, when SoundScan — a tracking service now owned by Nielsen — began collecting reliable sales data from retailers, only 20 albums have sold more than a million copies in a week. Three Taylor Swift albums accomplished that feat, though none had sales that approached the stratospheric figures for “25.” Target and Barnes & Noble both said that first-day sales for “25” at their stores exceeded those of any previous album.

Adele’s “25” also had the biggest opening week in Britain, where just over 800,000 albums were sold, according to the Official Charts Company there. That beat a record set in 1997 by Oasis, which sold 696,000 copies of “Be Here Now” in an abbreviated three-day sales week.

With positive reviews, a hit song — “Hello,” already the subject of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch — and saturation coverage of Adele from an adoring news media, the album should remain a hit through the holiday season. Analysts expect it to sell five million copies or more in the United States by the end of the year, a milestone that has not been reached since 2011. That hot-selling album was Adele’s previous release, “21,” another trend-defying phenomenon that went on to sell about 30 million copies around the world.

On Thursday, Adele announced that she would go on tour in the spring for the first time in five years, all but guaranteeing heavy promotion for the album well into 2016, and perhaps beyond.

Adele’s “25” — filled with confessional torch songs and heart-tugging ballads, and driven by Adele’s powerful and soulful voice — is being celebrated throughout the music world as an artistic and commercial success that has become all too rare. And huge numbers of listeners who otherwise have spent little or no money on music are plunking down $10 or more for the album.

“There are people out there for whom this may be the only record they’ve bought in five years,” said David Bakula, a senior analyst at Nielsen. “The last one may have been ‘21,’ and now they’re coming back in force.”
The success of Adele’s “25” is all the more remarkable given how the landscape of music retail has changed since 2000, when some 700 million CDs were sold annually through a network of chains like Tower, Sam Goody and HMV, as well as in big-box stores like Best Buy and Circuit City that devoted considerable floor space to music. Today, with digital outlets like iTunes, Amazon and Spotify having upended the way that music is distributed and consumed, thousands of record stores across the country have closed and the music acreage at the big boxes has been sharply reduced. Last year just 141 million CDs were sold in the United States, according to Nielsen. An additional 106 million albums were sold as downloads.

But Adele appears to have activated millions of customers for whom making a purchase is viewed as a sign of devotion and support for the artist they love.

“There’s a level of respect by buying the song, rather than just streaming it,” said one fan, Carlos Villa. “I acknowledge the work that you put into this song, and I appreciate you for that.”

Mr. Villa, a 29-year-old who works as an administrator at New York University, said that he placed an advance order for “25” as soon as it became available on iTunes, and also ordered a CD from Amazon. He would have also bought a vinyl LP, he said, “but I don’t have one of those players.”

The album has also heightened the industry’s debate over streaming, since, like Ms. Swift a year ago, Adele decided to withhold her full album from streaming outlets like Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer, although “Hello” was widely available for streaming.

In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show on Wednesday, Adele hinted at the reason for releasing the single but not the album that way, saying that she viewed streaming sites as being like radio — in other words, as primarily a promotional platform. When Ms. Swift kept her latest album, “1989,” from Spotify and other streaming outlets last year, she criticized those sites as being part of a “grand experiment” that does not compensate musicians fairly. (Ms. Swift later made a deal with Apple to include “1989” on its new streaming service, Apple Music. Apple Music, unlike Spotify, does not have a free version, although Apple lets people try the service for three months without paying.)

The sales of “25” are being hailed as a vindication of Adele’s strategy to block the full album from streaming, although analysts have also been quick to portray her as an outlier whose success — or stance on streaming — is not likely to be repeated by very many acts. The No. 1 title on Billboard’s most recent album chart is Justin Bieber’s “Purpose,” which opened with a record 100 million streams, and other young stars like Ed Sheeran have expressed gratitude to Spotify for helping to propel their careers.

Retailers report that the album has been bought by all sorts of consumers — male, female, old and young.
But Adele’s success may also be because of her following among a demographic group that the youth-obsessed pop music world does not often focus on. According to Nielsen, which has studied the demographics of the fans of various pop acts, the typical Adele fan is a college-educated woman aged 25 to 44, who watches “Family Guy” on TV and likes to shop at Target, Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works.

Opening-week sales for Adele’s “25” are expected to be split almost evenly between digital downloads and CDs. ITunes represents the majority of digital copies and Target is the biggest driver of physical sales. The retailer had a special version of the album with three bonus songs, ran TV commercials promoting the release and placed cardboard displays filled with the CD by checkout lines.

“It’s something to celebrate, and miraculous to watch,” Russ Crupnick, an analyst with the market research firm MusicWatch, said of Adele’s sales. “But I think it’s like 75 home runs: It’s probably going to be a long time before we see one like that again.”

Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande Use an Award Show to Speed a Comeback

November 29, 2015


Watching the rapturous reactions to the performances of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande on the American Music Awards last Sunday, you would have been hard-pressed to recall that one was an immature scofflaw recently dismissed as a has-been, and the other’s career seemed all but dead after getting caught on video licking a doughnut at a Southern California bakery and saying, “I hate America.”

But everyone loves a redemption story, and in this era of six-second Snapchat fame, it seems a pop star can go from “Over” to “Comeback” in record time.

“Ariana Slays! Bieber is Back,” Michael Buckley, a YouTube entertainer, wrote on Twitter after the two performed hits from their recent albums on Sunday’s show.

Billboard gushed over Mr. Bieber’s soulful, rain-soaked performance of “Sorry,” saying, “It was practically an artistic baptism on live TV.” USA Today had these words for Ms. Grande’s Marilyn Monroe-inspired catchy dance hit “Focus:” “Nailed it!”

Award shows have long been opportunities for the second-chance crowd to re-emerge after a penitent time out: Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Kanye West among them.

Billboard gushed over Mr. Bieber’s soulful, rain-soaked performance of “Sorry,” saying, “It was practically an artistic baptism on live TV.” Credit Matt Sayles/Invision, via Matt Sayles, via Invision, via Associated Press

But unlike artists who sometimes had to wait years to be embraced again by the public (think of Frank Sinatra’s long years in the wilderness before teaming with Nelson Riddle in the 1950s for a series of now-classic albums), the pop stars of today bounce back with whiplash-inducing speed.

Jayne Charneski, an audience and consumer strategist who used to work at the talent agency Creative Artists Agency, attributes this phenomenon to (what else?) social media. “If the story is written in real time, it can be changed in real time,” she said. “Young people understand this. They too are in charge of their own brand online.”

Ms. Grande, the erstwhile doughnut licker, managed to spin the incident last July into a lesson on childhood obesity on Twitter, writing, “We need to do more to educate ourselves and our children on the dangers of overeating and the poison that we put into our bodies.” (Which does raise the question: What was she doing at a doughnut shop in the first place?)

Mr. Bieber had more to atone for: assault, pounding his neighbor’s house with raw eggs and being charged in Miami with drunken driving and resisting arrest. People even petitioned the White House last year to deport Mr. Bieber, a native of Canada.

Since then, he has embraced spirituality, naming his album, tellingly, “Purpose.” And he is practicing humility after a fashion, recently apologizing to fans on Twitter for walking offstage at a concert in Norway and to the television host Stephen Colbert for skipping out on an appearance.

“The Internet makes the news cycle,” said Ilan Zechory, a founder of Genius, a website that publishes annotated songs and other content. “You don’t have to wait for an interview on television anymore.”

Indeed, the teary pit stop before Barbara Walters or Diane Sawyer (to wit: Britney Spears in 2003) is no longer a rite of passage. Four years later, Ms. Spears shaved her head, went to rehab and battled for custody of her two children. In September 2007, she appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards in Las Vegas. But with scant social media love to boost her comeback, her awkward lip-syncing of “Gimme More” after months of silence confirmed fans’ worst fears.

“She is 25 years old and she’s already accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in her life,” joked the show’s host, the comedian Sarah Silverman.

Now pop stars are better at managing their media message, melding good and bad times (though some sins, like Chris Brown assaulting Rihanna in 2009, stick longer than others).

“The redemption theme even plays into the lyrics,” Mr. Zechory said of Mr. Bieber’s new album. “Sorry,” “Love Yourself” and “Life Is Worth Living” are all titles from “Purpose.” And recently Mr. Bieber told Complex magazine that he wanted to live an honest life like Jesus Christ. “Love, life, peace and happiness,” Mr. Zechory said. “Until it gets boring.”

All the tweets in the world won’t help if there isn’t the music to back it up. Miley Cyrus, who offended fans with her scantily clad, bottom-grinding gyrations two years ago, got back into their good graces at the 2014 MTV Music Video Awards after a yearlong media onslaught. But it was her blockbuster album, “Bangerz,” that secured her place (for now).

Robin Thicke wasn’t so lucky. He followed up his 2013 breakout hit “Blurred Lines” with “Paula,” a self-proclaimed apology to his former wife, Paula Patton, for being unfaithful. (Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic called it “the musical equivalent of a Facebook friend who refuses to stop overdoing it on tequila slammers and ranting about the demise of their relationship.”)

Ms. Grande’s and Mr. Bieber’s American Music Awards performance resonated with fans because, well, they liked it. “One day you can be licking doughnuts and being disgusting, and then you have a performance like ‘Focus,’” said Dave Bakula, a senior vice president for industry insights at Nielsen Entertainment.

Mr. Bieber’s album, too, is a hit. “Purpose” debuted at No. 1 and tied a record held by the Beatles and 50 Cent: having three of the top five Billboard songs in a week.

More impressively, Mr. Bakula said “Purpose” had 100 million audio streams. “If you are shunned and forgotten and hated, you don’t have 100 million streams,” he said.

But mostly, Ms. Charneski said, this year’s young musicians will be forgiven quickly because licking doughnuts and throwing eggs are something almost every kid can relate to. “Even when these kids are bad, they aren’t really that bad,” she said.

Nile Rodgers: Still Chic After All These Years

November 22, 2015

By JACOB BERNSTEIN NYTimes.com 11/06/15
Nile Rodgers isn’t holding his breath about the prospect of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum this spring.

Why should he, after having already been nominated nine times with his group Chic, nine times that left him a bridesmaid, not the bride?

“My attitude is that there are plenty of buildings that want to have me. Why would I want to live in a building where they don’t?” said Mr. Rogers, drawing a metaphor from Manhattan real estate, where he learned over the years that he was sometimes too famous or too black to appeal to everyone’s tastes.

As it happened, Mr. Rodgers was milling about on a recent afternoon not in his Upper West Side co-op but in his six-bedroom compound in Westport, Conn.

The view of the Long Island Sound stretched for miles, the furniture included Louis XIV chairs and ancient Chinese beds, and the walls were covered in platinum records he earned producing hits for Madonna, David Bowie, Chic and Sister Sledge.

Mr. Rodgers began to say something about how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was not about sales or statistics or even quality, but then stopped himself.

He was in danger of sounding bitter. And bitter is not in Nile Rodgers’s lexicon. Nile Rodgers doesn’t do bitter.

He’s the sort of cat who describes recent collaborations with Kylie Minogue and Janelle Monae not as groundbreaking or cool but as “smoking” or “bananas.” When he is with friends like Jay Z, Beyoncé and Stephen Hawking — whom he met while giving a speech at Google Zeitgeist in London — they don’t have dinner or watch a movie. They “hang” or “cut loose.”

He is helping to score Hugh Jackman’s new one-man show, and it’s going to be “insane.” Coachella called him and booked Chic to perform at the festival for the first time next spring, right around the time he is due to hit 64. How “awesome” is that?

In 2013, Mr. Rodgers teamed up with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams for the ditty “Get Lucky,” which has sold 9.3 million copies and won him three Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year. And since that time, he has been on a victory tour rare in the youth-driven music business.

Admittedly, some things have changed about Mr. Rodgers since his heyday.

The flattop is gone, replaced by the dreadlocks he wears underneath a backward Kangol hat or navy bandanna. So is the “Miami Vice”-inspired 28-foot cigarette speedboat.

The white powder that was once his main dietary staple has been swapped for stevia, packets of which were strewn all around the house — on top of his alligator-skin side table in his living room, on his desk in the upstairs recording studio and in his bedroom, where he packed for a gig Chic was due to play in Milan, opening for Duran Duran at the Piazza del Duomo.

On the bedside shelf was a picture of Mr. Rodgers’s mother, Beverly Goodman, and a copy of his memoir, “Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny,” which was published in 2011.

The CliffsNotes version goes something like this.
Ms. Goodman was 14 years old when she gave birth to Nile in New York City. He met his own father, a traveling musician named Nile Rodgers Sr., just a handful of times.

Sometime around his second birthday, Ms. Goodman met Bobby Glanzrock, who became his stepfather and introduced his mother to both heroin and to Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, who spent a lot of time at the family pad.

“It was the place to hang,” said Mr. Rodgers, who talks about his childhood with an air of perennial amusement, having come to the conclusion that it was better for his development as an artist to have been raised by people who were colorful than by people who were responsible.

In a house full of addicts, Mr. Rodgers likes to say that he was “the dog who could talk,” and this is a pretty good summation of how he processes things.

If he didn’t look like the stylistic love child of Bob Marley (that hair) and Dean Martin (those suits), he would fit right in as one of the Dalai Lama’s monks.

In high school, he began playing guitar and joined the “Sesame Street” touring band, after which he was hired as a house musician for the Apollo Theater.

He met a young bassist named Bernard Edwards, and together they formed Chic, which was responsible for some of the biggest hits of the 1970s, among them “Everybody Dance,” “Le Freak” and “Good Times,” songs that would be sampled by the first rappers.

In the ’80s, Mr. Rodgers moved mainly to producing, becoming the Phil Spector of the post-disco era, a man who brought his Midas touch to Diana Ross (“I’m Coming Out”), David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”) and Madonna (“Like a Virgin”).

Lest there be any question of Mr. Rodgers’s position in the pop producer pantheon circa 1985, a plaque from Billboard proclaiming him to be No. 1 hangs high on the wall in his recording studio.

Vacations took place in St. Martin and Martha’s Vineyard with friends like Oprah Winfrey and Mick Jagger. Playboy bunny flight attendants came by the dozen, cocaine by the kilo.

Mr. Rodgers could barely fathom slowing down. He was a functioning addict, the sort whose heart could stop on Thursday night after a bender, but be in the studio Friday morning for a session with Peter Gabriel or Cyndi Lauper.

In 1994, Mr. Rodgers went into a state of cocaine psychosis while at a party in Madonna’s Miami home. Soon after, he was on a plane to rehab.

Unsure of his ability to stay sober in New York after he got out, he relocated to Westport.

For a while, things were quiet. Mr. Rodgers scored video games, hung out with his girlfriend Nancy Hunt (a former magazine editor) and produced albums for artists like Michael Bolton and Tina Arena.

But royalty checks kept rolling in, as the Notorious B.I. G, Pitbull and Will Smith recycled Mr. Rodgers’s productions over hip-hop beats and rode them once again to the top of the charts.

Then, in 2010, Mr. Rodgers was diagnosed with “extremely aggressive” prostate cancer. Rather than slowing down, he decided to kick his career back into high gear. “I really didn’t know what the future held, so my philosophy was I was going to go out like a lion,” he said.

Instead, he went into remission, just as the time was ripe for his revival.

Rock was going out of fashion, and a new crop of dance producers viewed Mr. Rodgers as an icon, the sort whose music made the feet move and had layers of grit and soul underneath.

At the 2012 Montreux Jazz Festival, where he performed with the remaining members of Chic, Mr. Rodgers was introduced to Dimitri From Paris, who happens to be one of the planet’s best known D. J.s and was eager to remix the best of the Chic and Sister Sledge catalogs.

Mr. Rodgers was thrilled by the prospect, seeing in it an obvious tie-in to the memoir he had just released.

Then he went to Ibiza to accept what he describes as “some lifetime achievement award” and met Disclosure, who wanted to collaborate with him and a singer named Sam Smith on a new track.

But it was the collaboration with Daft Punk that really changed Mr. Rodgers’s life.

Afterward, Mikael Jansson photographed him for Interview. Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin captured him for French Vogue, then introduced him to Lady Gaga, whose video “Applause” they had directed. She brought him into the studio in the spring to do some work with her on a forthcoming album.

In June, Louis Vuitton flew him first class to D.J. at its 2016 spring men’s show. Over the summer, Tom Ford hired Mr. Rodgers to rejigger Chic’s 1978 disco anthem “I Want Your Love” for his fall 2015 ad campaign, with none other than Lady Gaga singing lead.

And that is just a smattering of his latest projects.

Last month, Mr. Rodgers was on deadline to deliver tracks to Mr. Jackman, to Mr. Urban and to Stargate, the Norwegian producers behind many of Rihanna’s and Katy Perry’s hits.

He had parties here, there and everywhere.

One was back in the city, on the evening of a reporter’s visit, to be followed the next day by a conference where he gadded about with John Legend. After a short trip to Europe, Bette Midler was expecting him to perform at the annual Halloween benefit she gives for the New York Restoration Project.

In fact, it was time to go. A black Escalade was waiting outside. Mr. Rodgers’s electric guitar was by the door, along with his Tumi luggage. The world was calling.

Meet the duo behind pop music’s latest and greatest hits

November 20, 2015

By Claire Atkinson NYPost.com 11/20/15

For all the changes sweeping the music industry, pop music remains a hit-driven business, and increasingly those hits are coming from the same songwriting duo.
Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter are responsible for a stunning five Top 40 hits this year, including four they penned together: Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Selena Gomez’s “Good For You,” Gwen Stefani’s “Used to Love You” and Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself.”
In just 12 months, Tranter, 35, and Michaels, 22, have moved from relative obscurity to become two of the most in-demand songwriters around.
Together, the duo have written songs that have notched 2.26 million digital downloads, equaling some 400 million streams.
Record companies still depend on a steady stream of hits to propel album sales, and they turn to tunesmiths like Tranter and Michaels to deliver.
The pair have become so adept at translating heartbreak into hits that they were called upon by both Bieber and Gomez, themselves exes who dated off and on for years.
Tranter and Michaels worked separately before Warner Chappell’s co-head of A&R, Katie Vinten, put them together.
Their biggest success so far is Bieber’s “Sorry,” which charted just behind No. 1 Adele’s “Hello” on the Billboard Hot 100, and this week is at No. 3.
The two are teaming up to work on a new album for Britney Spears and are also jamming with John Legend.
“This has been our most successful year times 100,” Tranter told The Post.
Although they are two of the most valuable songsmiths today, he said it takes time for a hit to play out and deliver a big payday. In the meantime, the pair is “focusing on the creative.”
He was in a failed rock band when Vinten approached him about writing for others. The first time he met Michaels, he said, she hid in a closet because of embarrassment over sharing relationship dramas for song material. But then she emerged.
“She kicks the door open and has this insane melody with my title plugged into it,” he said.

Who’s Crazy Enough To Start A Record Label Today? Ed Sheeran, Miley Cyrus, And Others…Here’s Why

November 1, 2015

George Howard Forbes.com 10/31/15

As Billboard recently reported, singer-songwriter, Ed Sheeran has started a label: Gingerbread Man. Sheeran explains that the gesture isn’t about the money, but rather because he “[wants] to hear some cool music on the radio.”

Miley Cyrus’ new record, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, was released without the financial support or the knowledge of her label RCA, and essentially was released by the artist herself.

Certainly, these aren’t the only high-profile artists who have either started their own label or operated independently of the label to whom they’re signed. Jack White’s Third Man Records, for instance, has been releasing a steady stream of both his own output and that of other artists, since 2009. Even Frank Sinatra had his own label, Reprise Records (though, it was sold to Warner Bros. soon after its founding).

In some ways the very notion of a record label seems as anachronistic as the “Bros.” appended to “Warner” (it’s now the much more en vogue, “WMG.”) This is because various moments of disintermediation – the removal of the layers that stand between those who create music and those who consume it – have called to question the role of labels. Specifically:
•The advent of home digital audio recording, which took root in the early 1990s allowed for some artists to forgo the trading of the ownership of their sound recordings to labels in exchange for the funds to make a sufficient recording.
•The combination of iTunes and so-called aggregators like CDBaby and TuneCore (Disclosure: I was one of the original founders of TuneCore) in the early 2000s enabled some artists to forgo the trading of the ownership of their sound recordings to labels in exchange for distribution into stores/online retailers.
•The emergence of social media, around 2010, enabled some artists to forgo the trading of the ownership of their sound recordings to labels in exchange for the publicity that labels supplied/paid for in order to alert consumers to the existence of recordings.

Why then do we even continue to utilize the term “label,” let alone continue to start them? Without calling to question Ed Sheeran’s motives for starting his label (which, for what it’s worth, I absolutely believe has everything to do with his stated intent of hearing more cool music), as is so often the case, there is a financial explanation.

Look at the credits on Ms. Cyrus’ recent release. You’ll notice – amidst the details of who wrote what – an alphabet soup of abbreviations like “ASCAP,” “BMI,” and “SESAC.” These are performance rights organizations that issue licenses on behalf of songwriters – like Ms. Cyrus and the various members of The Flaming Lips who co-wrote many of the songs on the album – to entities who desire to play their music. The specific term, as governed by copyright law, is the “Right of Public Performance.”

In practice, what this means is that every time the songs from Ms. Cyrus’ new release are streamed — from sites like Soundcloud (where Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz was first exclusively released), Pandora, Spotify, or radio stations – the writers of those songs are owed money, and it is the role of these entities — ASCAP, BMI, SESAC — to collect and distribute this money.

Until fairly recently, however, neither the labels nor performers of the songs were paid when songs were “publicly performed” on radio. This is due to the fact that the United States does not have an enumerated right of public performance for labels and performers – only for songwriters. (I’ve written about this inconsistency at length, if you’d like to go down a rabbit hole.)

Terrestrial radio, of course, is no longer the only way to hear music. As technologies advanced and led to digital means of music consumption (Sirius/XM, web radio, Pandora, Spotify, et al.), the rules that govern these works’ consumption have also advanced, and it these advances that provide the financial answer to why artist-run labels have economic relevance.

Specifically, no longer are songwriters the only ones who are paid when music is publicly performed. Now, performers and labels are compensated when their works are publicly performed via digital transmission.

For instance, should Ed Sheeran release a song on his new label that he wrote and performed, and should that song be played on Sirius/XM or on Pandora, Mr. Sheeran will be paid three times: as songwriter, performer, and label.

Just as my friend the Venture Capitalist Andy Weissman believes, I too feel that via technologies like Blockchain, instead of having a handful of streaming services, we will soon have thousands, and the significance of these payments will grow. Those who have the most claims to these payments – those who not only write songs, but also perform them and release them on their own labels – will benefit the most.

To understand the scope of this, I spoke to my friend John Simson.

John and I got to know each other many moons ago, when the label I was running, Rykodisc, released the American Roots Music project, for which Mr. Simson expertly navigated the complex legal elements. Mr. Simson went on to be the founding Executive Director of SoundExchange from 2001 to 2010. SoundExchange collects on behalf of the labels and performers as described above.

Mr. Simson is now the Business and Entertainment Program Director at American University’s Kogod School of Business and the President of the Music and Entertainment Industry Educators Association

Below – lightly edited for clarity and grammar – is my conversation with Mr. Simson:

George Howard: John, thanks for doing this. So, my premise here is that there’s a real economic incentive for artists like Ed Sheeran to start their own labels. Can you talk a bit about the growth of streaming and collections?

John Simson: The growth of streaming has been remarkable. It has benefited from new services taking advantage of new technology to bring music to consumers. While some legacy services were in existence in 1995 when the law providing for streaming payments was passed, it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that the explosion of revenue began to occur.

GH: Can you give me some specifics?

JS: Sure. From 1995 to 2001, SoundExchange collections were approximately $6.2 Million total. It grew to roughly $10 Million in calendar 2003 and around $40 Million in 2005. By 2010, SoundExchange collections were well over $250 Million and growing by double digits each year, primarily on the strength of Sirius/XM satellite radio and Pandora Internet radio.

SoundExchange is likely to hit $1 Billion in collections in 2015.

GH: Wow. So, talk a bit about how this increased collection relates to artists?

JS: The major benefit to Artists who start their own labels is that they are collecting both the label and featured performer share of streaming revenue.

The statutory license that SoundExchange administers requires that royalties be split 45% to featured performer and 50% to the owner of the master recordings (typically a label).

When the Artist is their own label, they are capturing 95% of streaming revenue rather than 45%. [Note: the remaining 5% is paid to a fund to pay background musicians and vocalists.]

GH: Right, and so it really does provide incentive to artists to be their own label. There’s a sort of economic calculus now that there’s increased revenue potential…a sort of cost/benefit analysis that is similar to the one artists used to calculate with respect to the increased margin of being their own label in the era of CDs and downloads. Now they have to do that cost/benefit around increased streaming revenue versus what they gain/give up by signing to a label. Right?

JS: I think it is safe to say that Artists need to determine if they need the services of a label for marketing, promotion and creative input, or whether they’d rather hire outside parties to take on those roles so they can retain the greater portion of streaming revenues.

GH: Right, right, and these streaming revenues are both growing and differentiated between services.

JS: The volume of music being streamed has grown at a rate that is unprecedented. In its first five years of operations, SoundExchange processed about 7 Billion performances. Last year, Pandora streamed over 300 Billion performances!

As you say, George, it is important to note the differences between narrowcasting. Pandora — where one song is played to one listener — is “narrowcasting.” While Sirius/XM streams one song to potentially 28 Million subscribers is “broadcasting.” As such, a play on Sirius/XM is worth much, much more than a play on Pandora. Where an artist/label receives roughly 14 hundredths of a penny for each Pandora spin or 14 cents per 100 spins, each play on Sirius/XM is worth well over $12.00!

GH: It’s great information, John, and it’s great to talk to you. Thank you.

Spotify Isn’t Killing Record Sales

October 29, 2015

But it isn’t saving them either.

Gillian B. White theAtlantic.com 10/2715

Technology, as anyone with a phone or computer can attest, has made it easier than ever for artists to get their music to their audience. But it’s also created some huge dilemmas when it comes to how talent and their record labels get paid. What’s the net effect?

A new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research takes a look at the streaming services, sales, and unpaid downloads in order to figure out whether, all told, these services are helping or hurting the music industry.

These streaming services—Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and Pandora—represent a compromise of sorts between the music industry and those providing music via the Internet. Instead of buying an entire song or album, users can just pay a flat rate, queuing up the songs that they want to hear whenever they want. Or users can pay nothing, but must endure interruptions from advertisers. Either way, the services cut down on piracy and provide both websites and record labels with some cash. That makes them a better option for the record industry than having music pirated, in which case they would make nothing, but a worse option compared to buying tracks outright. (The royalties per stream are significantly less than what pure sales bring in.) Overall, the Recording Industry Association of America reports that revenue from streaming services grew to nearly $2 billion in 2014 from about $0.5 billion in 2010.

To find out how streaming platforms impact record-industry revenue, researchers took a look at Spotify, a streaming service which started in 2006 but enjoyed substantial growth after 2011, once it became available in America. The service has more than 75 million users, and around one-quarter of them shell out $10 a month for premium access (which cuts out commercials and allows users to play songs offline). The other 75 percent generate revenue for the company through ad exposure. The company then pays artists, record labels, producers, and others a cut for allowing their music to be included in their offerings.

Luis Aguiar and Joel Waldfogel, the authors of the NBER study, find that, at least in the case of Spotify, streaming brings virtually no financial gain to the industry, but it also prevents losses. When looking the top songs each week and calculating how much rights holders were paid, researchers find that streaming usage increases music-industry revenue thanks to the ability to convert those who were either downloading illegally or not listening to tracks at all. But those gains are pretty much offset by streaming’s displacement of permanent track purchases or downloads.

But that doesn’t mean that this is the end of the story. While streaming has grown in popularity, the business model still struggles to attract paying customers. Tidal, the streaming service started by Jay Z and a gaggle of other celebs, has only recently broken the 1 million subscriber mark. Apple Music has managed 6.5 million paid subscribers, though it remains to be seen if those numbers will hold once people realize that their free trials have automatically converted. The ongoing challenge of getting people to actually pay for music on the Internet means that to make money, platforms must generate adequate ad revenue, and then also be able to pay out enough to attract top artists. The latter issue is one that received lots of attention when America’s favorite red-lipped songstress, Taylor Swift, scolded Apple for plans to withhold royalties during the three-month free trial of its new streaming music platform, writing, “Three months is a long time to go unpaid, and it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing. I say this with love, reverence, and admiration for everything else Apple has done. I hope that soon I can join them in the progression towards a streaming model that seems fair to those who create this music.”

Swift got her way, but that doesn’t mean that music sales will ever be as simple, or as lucrative, as they used to be.

The Guy Who Signed Slick Rick and Jay Z Is Still Killing It

October 23, 2015

Hot off signing Fetty Wap, hip-hop mogul Lyor Cohen has something to prove.
Devin Leonard Bloomberg.com 10/22/15

“Does anybody need anything?” asks Lyor Cohen. “A martini?” On a private plane flying from Newark to Kansas City, Mo., Cohen, one of America’s best-known record company executives, isn’t serving drinks. But the flight attendants are ready to take orders—even though it’s early afternoon and nobody’s ready for cocktails just yet. 300 Entertainment, a startup record label that Cohen co-founded almost two years ago, is flying a group of executives, journalists, and assorted hangers-on to see its biggest act, Fetty Wap, an amiable rapper whose effervescent hit, Trap Queen, a drug dealer’s ode to his girlfriend, broke out this summer. In a few hours, Fetty Wap will open for R&B star Chris Brown. Cohen wants to be there, along with everybody he can fit on the plane.

Cohen, who is 6-foot-5 and looks as if he were born to play an assassin in a Hollywood thriller, is also trying to show that 300 is for real. In November 2013 he announced that he and his partners were creating a new kind of record company, one that would challenge its larger rivals by melding the talent-scouting skills of industry veterans with technology that mines the Internet for undiscovered acts. They raised $15 million, including $5 million from Google, as reported by Billboard. Once a highly paid executive at Warner Music Group, Cohen says he’s content to sit in a cubicle in a small office and use the same bathroom as his employees. “I know this doesn’t look like we adjusted the cost structure,” he concedes, glancing around at the jet’s white-leather interior. “But if I told you how much I got this plane for, you would be very impressed.”

Without a large team of marketing people and a back catalog of old hits, some wonder if Cohen’s company can survive. “A lot of longtime observers have been watching 300 Entertainment to see if he can get traction,” says Larry Miller, director of the music business program at New York University. Surely, Cohen’s competitors would like to have signed Fetty Wap, whose sing-song melodies stood out in a summer of formulaic anthems. Fetty Wap doesn’t look like anybody else either; he’s missing an eye because of childhood glaucoma. “The Fetty Wap thing was great,” Miller says. “But people want to see if it can really blow up and become a real business.”

Cohen came up at a time when the industry was dominated by self-styled A&R executives proud of their ability to recognize and schmooze talent. If you could do that, the rest was easy. “The way to get rich is to keep walking around until you bump into a genius,” said the late Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records. As streaming music took off, technology companies claimed they could do a better job finding artists that people liked by using data. But anybody who’s used these services knows there is something unsatisfying about computer-driven recommendations; that’s why some of streaming music’s biggest players like Spotify and Apple play up the humans involved in their offerings.

Sipping tea on the jet, Cohen, 56, says he’s trying to blend old and new school approaches. Born in New York City, he grew up in a household he describes as “a hippie Jewish think tank,” and he got into the music business by promoting concerts for Red Hot Chili Peppers and the seminal rap group Run DMC. Cohen became the latter group’s road manager and eventually head of Def Jam Recordings in 1987. “We came in as a disruptive force with rap music,” he says. “ ‘Disruption’ is not a bad word but a word we embrace.”

At Def Jam, Cohen had a tendency to be the loudest person in the room, even around the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and Slayer. “He used to be a screamer,” says Bill Adler, Def Jam’s publicity director from 1984 to 1990. “He’s a more seasoned individual now.” Yet Cohen could also be nurturing. Jay Z calls him his “mentor.” Other rappers affectionately nicknamed him “Lansky.”

When Edgar Bronfman Jr. took over Warner Music Group in 2004, he put Cohen in charge of the company’s U.S. recorded music division. There he nurtured acts such as Bruno Mars and Death Cab for Cutie and persuaded many of them to sign so-called 360 deals, which entitled the company to a cut of touring and merchandise income. “I was the architect of that,” Cohen says.

Cohen, in turn, made an annual salary as high as $3 million along with big bonuses. He lived in a town house on the Upper East Side and dated fashion designer Tory Burch. But in 2011, Russian-born billionaire Len Blavatnik bought Warner Music. In little more than a year, Cohen was gone.

He took some time to think about his next move. In the fall of 2013 he spoke at MIT, telling students that when he was at Def Jam, he found acts to sign by monitoring radio stations. Now, Cohen said, he planned to use the Internet to do that more efficiently, but following online traffic alone couldn’t generate hits: “All you smart people, you could come up with an algorithm, but somebody still has to show up and say, ‘Yeah, I feel that.’ ”

“All you smart people, you could come up with an algorithm, but somebody still has to show up and say, ‘Yeah, I feel that’ ”

In November of that year, Cohen unveiled 300, which he founded with former Def Jam colleagues Kevin Liles and Todd Moscowitz. (They took the name from the Hollywood blockbuster about a small band of Spartan warriors who held off an invading Persian army.) At the time, 300 had a deal with Twitter giving it exclusive access to music-related data. Cohen says the arrangement hasn’t worked out. “We’ve suspended the deal until they get more engineers in place,” he says. (Matthew Plotnik, who runs music partnerships at Twitter, says the company looks forward to continuing to work with 300, which he calls “an innovative label.”)

300 has created what Cohen describes as “a dashboard,” a proprietary computer program that monitors the Internet for songs that generate an unusual amount of activity—which could mean shared links, “likes,” Twitter raves, or iTunes sales. “It blips,” Cohen says. “It trips a wire, and then we listen to it.”

Last year, Fetty Wap lit up the dashboard. He’d already recorded Trap Queen in a New Jersey studio and uploaded it onto SoundCloud in March 2014. The song spread virally, attracting the attention of bloggers. Cohen and his staff sampled Fetty Wap’s songs, sized him up in person, and quickly signed him. “We don’t have to go through a whole process to sign them,” Cohen says. “We’re trigger pullers.” He and his colleagues also helped Fetty Wap craft his image as a likeable up-and-comer from Paterson, N.J., who’s humbled by his improbable rise. “He is a pretty soft-spoken guy,” says Naomi Zeichner, editor-in-chief of the Fader, a music magazine. “They really helped create a narrative around what he is doing.” The label’s deals with artists vary but often let them keep the rights to their music—something that was rare in the old days. “Are they better deals for the artists?” Moscowitz says. “They are better in that we pay the artists on time.”

In Kansas City, Cohen disembarks from the plane accompanied by Xin Li, his tall fiancée, who works as an executive at Christie’s. Everyone boards a bus for a preconcert dinner at Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue, a touristy place. “How’s everybody doing?” Cohen asks. “Have you had the prime rib? It’s great.”

After about an hour, Cohen, loaded down with several shopping bags of barbecue sauce and whatever else he’s found in the restaurant’s gift shop, herds his entourage to the Sprint Center. He guides the bus driver around traffic cones into a backstage parking lot, then spirits everybody past the guards to Fetty Wap’s crowded dressing room. Cohen may not be running a big record label, but he still knows how to pull strings.

Members of Zoo Gang, Fetty Wap’s crew, pass weed rolled in the wrappers of Backwoods Honey Berry cigars and share a bottle of Rémy Martin 1738 cognac. One Zoo Gang member rides in and out of the room on a Hovertrax. Two young women dressed for a party sit on the couch looking bored. Fetty Wap, who’s wearing olive-green shorts and what looks like a long white nightshirt, appears distracted; he’s been having voice troubles, but he brightens up when the 300 Entertainment people arrive.

“How are you doing, Fetty?” Cohen asks. “Are you feeling better?”

“A lot better,” Fetty Wap says. “We’ve been rehearsing.”

“Well, you promised us a lot, and look what you’ve done,” Cohen says.

A photographer tries to gather everyone for a group shot. “OK, everybody, put that weed down,” Fetty Wap orders his crew. Then he changes into a Kansas City Royals T-shirt, puts on some gold jewelry, and heads out to perform before an audience that knows every word of his songs. His first album, released in September, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. As long as Fetty Wap keeps delivering, 300’s future looks good. “Having hits solves a lot of problems,” NYU’s Miller says.

To find the next Fetty Wap, Cohen had 300’s interns scour the Internet throughout the summer. Sun-Ui Yum, an 18-year-old economics major at Harvard, says he and his fellow interns found a lot of promising acts. Yum sat 5 feet away from Cohen at 300’s offices. “I’ll just say that there’s nothing quite like Lyor shouting random things across the office at random intervals,” Yum wrote in an e-mail.

300’s next star may be the Atlanta rapper Young Thug. For a while, Young Thug wore dresses, which got some attention online. Since 300 signed him last year, his profile has only risen. “He’s become one of hip-hop’s most ubiquitous artists, and easily its most challenging and thrilling,” the New York Times wrote in September.

Recently, Cohen invited Gus Wenner, head of digital at Wenner Media, publisher of Rolling Stone (which his father, Jann, founded) to see Young Thug in New York. This time the rapper came out in a poncho. Wenner says he was mesmerized by an artist whom he suspects might redefine rap music. “Is this the cutting edge?” he recalls Cohen asked him. “Or is this the cutting edge?”

Cohen qualifies the exchange slightly. “When talking to anybody, I’m saying, ‘Yeah, this motherf—er is the cutting edge and amazing and is the new thing,’ ” he says. “I’m promoting them. But when I actually get an artist in front of people? It’s right there.”

Spinrilla, DatPiff, My Mixtapez Apps Offer Illegal Access To Music, And Record Labels Won’t Touch Them

October 6, 2015

By Max Willens ibtimes.com 10/03/15

If you found yourself worried about missing out on the Drake-Future mixtape “What a Time to Be Alive,” which dropped exclusively on Apple Music two weeks ago, you were not alone. And if you happened to be one of those people who illegally downloaded it using a mixtape app, you weren’t alone, either. According to a source at Universal Music Group who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter, “What a Time to Be Alive” was illegally downloaded more than a million times in less than a week via Spinrilla and My Mixtapez — two sites that are part of a subset of popular mixtape sites and apps that provide users with access to huge archives of amateur, occasionally illegal music for free.

Unlike on-demand streaming services like Spotify, which offer users access to millions of songs and albums, or radio-style services like Pandora, mixtape sites offer on-demand access to hip-hop mixtapes, compilations of unofficial or leaked material often built out of other artists’ hit songs.

These sites and apps, many of which have been around for a decade, are an entrenched part of music consumption. According to data from App Annie, six of the 25 most popular music apps on iOS last month were mixtape apps, and some of the top sites, like DatPiff, have generated more than $1 million in annual advertising revenue. But they are also an intrinsic part of hip-hop’s musical culture dating back decades, and they occupy a complicated place in record labels’ worlds. Those labels and publishers — which have found a way to monetize most of the music we can find online in one way or another — don’t see a cent.

They also don’t want to talk about them, because a number of top hip-hop recording artists, including the aforementioned Drake and Future, regularly and routinely put their songs on these sites with their labels’ blessing. The major labels, however, all declined to comment on the relationship they have with these sites.

“It was one of those necessary evils,” said Shawn Prez, the head of Power Moves Inc. and the former vice president of promotions at Bad Boy Records. “Mixtapes were incredibly important to breaking artists.”

The mixtape played a vital role in hip-hop’s cultural and economic history. In the late 1970s, when the art forms of rapping and DJing were growing up in parks and recreation centers in New York, people would trade recordings of DJ sets and people rhyming. In the 1980s, when club promoters were afraid of booking hip-hop acts or DJs, those same DJs would produce tapes in home studios and either give them away or sell them.

Later, DJs looking for new ways to stand out from the pack would cozy up to artist managers, producers and artists looking to get their hands on unreleased material that they could offer exclusively. DJ Clue, the first mixtape DJ to sign a major-label recording contract, would frequently hang around outside recording studios waiting for individual songs to be finished so he could release them before anyone else.

The tapes became so popular that they circled the globe. Copies of some of the most popular tapes, like Doo Wop’s “ ’95 Live,” made their way halfway around the world, showing up in collector hands in Japan and England and Brazil.

And as mixtape culture grew, the market for commercially released hip hop grew along with it. Label owners took notice. “The music industry embraced the mixtape DJ,” Prez said. “Those guys were essentially on the front lines of breaking our music.”

Legal Gray Area

The fact that every DJ was technically breaking the law was beside the point.

Irrespective of whether they sold their tapes or gave them away, mixtape DJs were all doing something illegal by distributing copyrighted material that they had not secured a license to distribute. “Whether you give it away or sell it, it’s still a copyright violation,” said Robert Meloni, a partner at Meloni & McCaffrey, who represents a number of prominent artists, including Drake and Lana Del Rey.

Beyond the legal red tape associated with giving away songs that were somebody else’s property, plenty of hip-hop music, especially songs made in the genre’s earlier years, relies heavily on samples of pre-existing hits, which also needed to be cleared with rights holders legally. Those hip-hop tracks, all made by younger artists and producers who lacked the business know-how, resources or inclination to clear those samples, rarely did. “In most case, people don’t get permission,” Meloni said.

But because mixtapes were unquestionably helping labels shift units, executives didn’t seem to mind. They began allocating resources to ensure their artists were well represented in that black market. “There was always a budget for mixtape promotion,” said Sommer Regan McCoy, founder of the Mixtape Museum and former manager of the Clipse. “Always.”

Before long, the label support for mixtape culture became even more institutional. Atlantic Records, home to artists like Curren$y, Wiz Khalifa and a number of other artists who put out mixtapes regularly, was one of the first sponsors of the Justo Mixtape Awards, the first awards show to recognize and celebrate the country’s most popular mixtapes, artists and producers.

Digital World

Inevitably, the world of mixtapes moved online. In 2004, the Boston DJ Clinton Sparks launched MixUnit, a site that became a kind of marketplace for mixtapes from all over the country. A year later, a site called DatPiff launched, and both businesses flourished. Five years after it went live, DatPiff’s parent company, Idle Media, filed for an initial public offering.

But as piracy squeezed the music business, some labels began to change their tune. DatPiff was named in a number of lawsuits filed by artists for facilitating the distribution of songs that violated their copyrights, and in 2007, the Recording Industry Association of America went went to war with the mixtape industry, arresting popular mixtape DJs and producers Don Cannon and DJ Drama and jailing record store employees at shops that carried the tapes. While the RIAA is not currently in the middle of a full-scale offensive against these sites, their stance on them remains unchanged.

“Many mixtape sites and apps like these appear to operate under the misconception that they can distribute any content they choose to characterize as a mixtape and the burden is on the copyright owner to complain about each work. That is wrong,” Brad Buckles, the RIAA’s executive vice president of anti-piracy, wrote in an email. “These sites frequently engage in massive infringement of copyrighted works. They are unlicensed music services plain and simple and cannot hide behind the DMCA” — the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Partners In Crime

Yet despite the widespread infringement and the lawsuits, the sites continued to operate, and artists, who saw the sites and apps as a proven place to grow their fan bases, continued to feed them. “Artists do what they want to do,” McCoy said. “They’ll leak to tapes. They’re notorious for it.”

Thanks partly to the arrests and the suits, and partly to changing tastes, the mixtape and hip-hop evolved too. Producers moved away from blatant use of recognizable samples; mixtape DJs became more cautious in the material they used; and artists, following the example of stars including 50 Cent and Lil Wayne, started putting out album-length releases of original material and labeling them mixtapes. “Once upon a time, the mixtape was a playlist, a collage of old music, new music, all kinds of artists,” Prez said. “Nowadays, 90 percent of the mixtapes done are like artists dropping their own albums.”

Prez argues a large amount of the content that’s filling sites like DatPiff and Spinrilla isn’t owned by any of the labels that might once have rightfully felt infringed. But every once in a while, a release like Drake and Future’s will pop up on one. And even if it doesn’t, tracks featuring the beats or vocals from those hits will appear, often within days of the official release.
Yet despite the collaboration and interdependence, the prospect of an economic partnership feels stalled. Neither the three major labels nor Merlin, the digital rights agency that negotiates on behalf of independent labels, has any licenses in place with mixtape sites. According to a person with knowledge of the negotiations, Universal Music Group has tried to compel a number of the sites to sign a blanket licensing deal, though those talks were unsuccessful.

Similarly, the prospects of killing these sites in court are dim. “You cut off that one head, and 10 more pop up,” Prez said.

Why Beyoncé Has Stopped Doing Interviews

October 6, 2015

The woman with all the answers simply does not answer to anyone.
By Jia Tolentino theFader.com Sept/oct

Beyoncé has achieved the American Dream. Not just the money part, although she’s reportedly worth $450 million. Not just accruing property, although her newborn daughter is said to have a nursery suite in Barclays Center that costs $1 million per year. Not even just the dream about the perfect family, though her “Drunk in Love” duet with Jay Z at the 2014 Grammys revived the institution of marriage in a way unmatched until SCOTUS cast a rainbow over history this year. No: on top of all this, there’s one American Dream that Beyoncé claims almost uniquely, a type of power that eludes even (and especially) the very powerful, summed up best by a sentence in a New York Times article from May 2015: “Beyoncé, a representative explained, has not answered any direct questions for more than a year.”

Her representative meant questions from journalists, presumably. (The Times article was about her vegan meal delivery service; Beyoncé supposedly “dodged” phone calls for a month before finally opening her email correspondence with: “It’s important you know I’m not a vegan.”) For a pop star—and a female one—to not only make herself unavailable to the New York Times but also to insist, as she did when Amy Wallace profiled her for GQ in 2013, that she be the one to record her interviews with journalists, it’s a remarkable refusal. While the President of the United States is going on podcasts and doing Twitter Q&As, Beyoncé has simply stopped answering questions altogether. She’s a woman from whom everyone wants everything, yet she does not have to answer to anyone at all.

This is also, of course, the basic definition of a queen. And the name Queen Bey feels barely hyperbolic for Beyoncé, who is outsized and legendary not by lineage but by her own will and design. She commands her Beyhive, the most rabid fan base in existence; she inspires Illuminati jokes that don’t feel entirely like jokes; she signifies such broad sexual power that bell hooks called her both “slave” and “terrorist.” While black women in America are still politically erased and economically devalued to a degree that makes every exception notable, Beyoncé—rich, powerful, seemingly invulnerable, and nearly universally celebrated, desired, and admired—seems both to forecast a better future and to bring it closer within reach.

Through a decade where the nature of pop celebrity has shifted wildly, Beyoncé has won her position by exerting an unprecedented level of control. She dictates the means of production: there was the legendary surprise album drop, its production surely requiring a forest of NDAs. She manages her image compulsively, Instagramming constantly but only ever tweeting eight times. She will refuse to do interviews even for her own cover stories, as she did with T magazine in 2014. She was on this year’s coveted September cover of Vogue, but gave no quotes; instead, the accompanying story was populated by praise from collaborators and friends. She swerves her narratives: though people still whisper that she faked her pregnant belly with Blue, she shut down rumors of a second pregnancy with a single uncaptioned photo posted to her Tumblr in which she sat on Jay Z’s lap and drank a bowl-size glass of red wine. And, by releasing an extended promo reel and calling it an “HBO documentary” (2013’s Life Is But a Dream), she made it clear that her story is not a conversation but a monologue. Willing to present herself but never explain, Beyoncé is an object lesson in the specific, underused power of sheer withholding; she’s also a reminder of how long and perfectly you have to grind to even get to a place where you can give this tactic a try.

Beyoncé, after all, has spent three times as much time in the music business as the eight years that God gave her to get ready. (And when those eight years were up, they were up: her dad used to make her run a morning mile while singing to build up her endurance.) At 33, she’s a better vocalist and dancer than anyone else working, with her phenomenal natural talent continually honed by the fact that she’s such a professional—and/or perfectionist—that she watches concert footage after every show, like an athlete reviewing tape. She said, in her GQ profile, that she critiques herself, her outfits, her hair, her dancers, and her cameramen in her hotel room and that, in the morning after the show, everyone gets their notes.

The control Beyoncé exerts on her image and narrative is self-perpetuating. She has arranged her looks, angles, abilities, and performances so that the biggest possible crack will still be infinitesimal; she has fixed media expectations so that everyone knows that Queen Bey is going to detachedly get her way. The effect, in practice, is flawlessness, which further enlarges her legend: as she becomes even more legendary, she gains ever-increasing power to further her own control.

This feedback loop can be somewhat terrifying. As the American political machine gears up for its next presidential election, Beyoncé’s self-produced, self-directed documentary seems to foreshadow a world in which we get a pre-packaged narrative or nothing at all. But Beyoncé, like any contemporary politician, is careful; she’s pinned her name to fundamental ideals. Who can argue with sex, money, hard work, family, and hip-hop? Who can argue with feminism when it’s Beyoncé proclaiming it? After the 2014 VMAs performance that felt like the crown jewel in her PR strategy—her royal body silhouetted against the word “FEMINIST” written sky-high—she seemed far above the “is she or isn’t she” identity-politics games that play out on the internet. The image was indelible, and Beyoncé didn’t have to explain exactly what she meant.

It’s by sticking to images, ultimately, that Beyoncé’s iron-fistedness will help her last. On her Instagram account, she wordlessly conveys the personality that came out in early interviews, the shy girl with an electric undercurrent of ego. Sometimes she’ll post a photo that looks doctored, like her thigh gap was carved out in Photoshop. But who would be surprised by that? It’s part of Beyoncé’s genius that, to some extent, she’s open about the fact that her perfection is won with considerable effort. “Pretty Hurts” and “Flawless” managed a trick that, today, perhaps only Taylor Swift can replicate: using vulnerability to signal solidarity with her audience while simultaneously asserting her supremacy over all. The strategy has a good amount of duplicity baked in—pretty hurts, maybe, but it sure seems to be working for her. Still, as Swift and Beyoncé both prove, we’re happy to settle for heavily crafted intimacy; replicating their strategies on our own Instagrams and iPhones, we’re increasingly unable to distinguish that intimacy from any other kind.

The incident in which Beyoncé’s supreme image control revealed itself to be essentially beyond public comprehension was the elevator fight—that grainy footage, appearing to show her famous sister lashing out at her famous husband as Beyoncé stood silently in the corner. Whether she was in shock or performing, there was no crack in her demeanor, even when the family exited the elevator: Beyoncé’s smile was set, as it frequently is in public, to an almost chemical calm. Anyone clamoring for a different response from Beyoncé after the incident—something real, but in an ugly way for once—would get nothing; eventually, her family issued a terse and informationless three-sentence statement. Then, a few months later, Beyoncé mentioned the incident on the Nicki Minaj remix of “Flawless.” Of course sometimes shit go down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator. Rumors about the incident were still floating—infidelity, divorce—but rumors are always floating about Beyoncé, and her non-explanations always override them. Today, no one talks about the elevator anymore. Among all the ways Beyoncé’s control works for her, this is the realest: when you don’t answer direct questions, you can’t lie. You never have to.


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