Not long ago, FMC asked journalist Eric K. Arnold to write an article about net neutrality and the urban music community. (Eric previously wrote about the impact of media consolidation on urban music; check out that piece here.)
We weren’t sure if the hip-hop world was familiar with net neutrality, but figured there might be a connection between the scene’s entrepreneurial, anti-censorship spirit and the open internet — which allows free expression and gives everyone the same level of access, whether they’re a huge company or a bedroom beat-maker.
Eric talked to a wide range of urban music figures from prominent bloggers to hip-hop label chiefs and MCs, and got their opinion on why the internet is crucial to their work. We’re publishing his piece in installments right here on the FMC blog — today is the first entry. Stay tuned for more of this fascinating story, and check out our Rock the Net site for more information about the importance of net neutrality to the music community.
Net Neutrality and Urban Music By Eric K. Arnold
Hip-hop has always been about getting the word out, by any means necessary. In the past this meant dealing with all kinds of intermediaries — those gatekeepers at major labels, radio stations, video outlets and magazines who decide which talent rises from the streets to the mainstream. With the Internet, today’s hip-hop artists are taking the hustle into their own hands, finding new ways to connect their words and rhymes with potential audiences without interference or censorship.
When pioneering rapper Too $hort ended his business relationship with Jive Records, his home for 21 years, he decided to start his own independent label, Up All Nite. “I’ve been offered [record] deals,” he says, “but it feels really good to not be a part of the major label big pimpin”. It just feels good to say I don’t need a signature from a label to do a guest appearance on someone’s album.”
To a large extent, the Internet made his decision not to re-sign with a major possible, while allowing him complete creative and artistic freedom. Up All Nite’s online “set-up shop” allows the label to sell new music directly to fans via digital download, thus saving on the manufacturing and distribution costs associated with a traditional brick-and-mortar retail model.
Up in Your Bits
This way of digital life might not last forever. Powerful companies that provide your Internet hookup (Internet Service Providers, or ISPs) are looking to alter the fundamental way the web works, by deciding the wheres, whos and hows of information exchange.That’s why public interest groups, technology experts, innovators and creative types are fighting to preserve net neutrality — the principle that protects the open internet.
If that sounds a bit confusing, you’re not alone. Look at it this way: net neutrality is what allows you to go where you want to go on the Internet, download or upload the legal content of your choice and say what you want to say without undue restriction. Basically, it’s the Internet as you know it.
But the ISPs want to charge those who put content on the web — artists, filmmakers, mix-tape DJs, etc.— an extra fee for speedy delivery of their sites and sounds. Those who couldn’t afford to (or didn’t want to) cut a deal with these huge corporations would be stuck in the slow lane. Currently, all users get equal access to the Internet, regardless of their corporate connections. Which is why the fight to preserve net neutrality is shaping up to be an epic battle for nothing less than the soul of cyberspace.
But Net Neutrality isn’t just about politics and technology; it’s also about artists being able to connect with fans, and vice versa.
“We’ve seen what happens when a majority of musicians have limited access to a communications medium — it’s called corporate radio,— says Michael Bracy, Policy Director for Future of Music Coalition — a Washington, DC non-profit that deals with musicians’ issues. “We can’t replicate the mistakes of the past when dealing with new technologies. Net neutrality ensures a level playing field for all musicians, and not just those with major industry backing.”
Eloise Lee is the Net Neutrality Policy Director at Media Alliance, a non-profit media watchdog organization who have been closely following the issue. She says the open internet is of crucial importance to musicians and the public. “If you have a MySpace account, if you rely on the Internet to share your work, Net Neutrality is your issue,” Lee explains.
“The U.S. is about freedom of speech. If Net Neutrality is not protected, all of that would fade. Those rights are under attack,” she adds. Immigrants, youth, people of color and other independent voices have been historically underserved and underrepresented, Lee notes — restricting Internet access would affect these voices disproportionately.
For that reason, it’s not an overstatement to say that the future of the Internet is at stake, and quite possibly, the future of cultural and musical expression as well.
Urban Music and the Internet
Because artists on alternative-leaning, underground-oriented labels have rarely enjoyed commercial radio support, they’ve had to turn to cyberspace to get the word out about their releases and tour dates. Blogs, chatrooms, and fan forums have allowed listeners to share music and interact with each other, and in many cases, with artists directly.
“The Internet, that’s “it” for independent artists,” says Paul Porter, a former BET executive who now operates Industry Ears, a non-profit music business watchdog organization. With an increasing number of urban artists taking the independent route, maintaining access to the Internet becomes critical for long-term survival.
“What’s happening on the Internet is that’s the only place you’re hearing real music and real news,” Porter says.
“The Internet is more vital for indie and underground artists in urban music than any other available media,” echoes Asya Shein, founder of urban culture site Fusicology.com, which operates in 17 North American markets through a combination of street-level promotion and online activities ranging from album reviews to event marketing.
The Internet, Shein says, “allows the artist to directly connect with their fanbase in a direct and inexpensive manner.” That’s important, she adds, “considering most music on the radio is neither indie nor underground — in the urban sector, especially.”
The Internet levels the playing field in very real terms for urban artists who face a significant barrier to entry into mainstream outlets. Examples include independent labels like Hieroglyphics, Quannum, Stones Throw and Rhymesayers — cornerstones of underground hip-hop whose Internet presence has been critical to their building a diverse, dedicated fan base over the years. All of these labels have featured unique content (i.e., music videos MTV or BET won’t air or exclusive freestyles) online, and their websites have been extremely important in their being able to brand themselves and create revenue streams.
“We’re the original Internet label,” says Tajai Massey of Hiero Imperium, whose Web presence helped the eight-member Hieroglyphics collective reinvent themselves way back in 1997 — long before YouTube or MySpace were even in existence — as an independent entity following stints on major labels.
“When we first came up, nobody had the Internet. It was a means of mobilizing our fans,” Massey relates, adding that Hiero’s online presence remains an integral part of their marketing and promotional strategy: “Nowadays it’s impossible to get the word out without the Internet.”
According to Lateef the Truthspeaker, a core Quannum artist who’s been putting out records independently since the mid-90s, the Internet has become a tastemaker in and of itself: “Especially at a time when everything’s changing, the Internet influence just can’t be denied now.” He cites “the access that involves the youth, and the empowerment to the youth in deciding what is and isn’t successful — I think that that’s really big.”
Artists and fans aren’t the only people for whom the Internet is empowering. As urban music publications have fallen by the wayside, bloggers have picked up some of the slack, offering opinions, reviews, and commentary unfettered by the conflicts of interest with advertisers which have long been an albatross for urban media outlets.
“The blogosphere has reestablished a balance between what people want to see and read and what publications choose to omit,” says Adisa Banjoko, author of the Lyrical Swords blog.
There has been a dumbing down of hip-hop journalism in general over the past decade, yet urban bloggers like Banjoko, Jeff Chang, Clyde Smith and Matt Sonzala have consistently presented information unavailable anywhere else.
Stay tuned for the next installment of this article.
About the Author
Eric K. Arnold has been writing about urban music culture since the mid-1990s, when he was the Managing Editor of now-defunct 4080 Magazine. Since then, he’s been a columnist for such publications as The Source, XXL, Murder Dog, Africana.com, and the East Bay Express; his work has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Vibe, Wax Poetics, SF Weekly, XLR8R, the Village Voice and Jamrock, as well as the academic anthologies Total Chaos and The Vinyl Ain’t Final. Eric began his journalistic career while DJing on college radio station KZSC, and remembers well the early days of hip-hop radio, before consolidation, and commercialization set in. He currently lives in Oakland, CA.