ANALYSIS: Music PR - Hip-hop hype moves to a rhythm of its own. The one market challenging hi-tech IPOs as the most over-hyped lure of easy money is the music business, specifically hip-hop and rap. Purveyors of this form of popular music have honed a mar

The young Turks of hip-hop and rap are challenging the way big labels do business, capturing the imagination of today’s youth and cashing in big. Antonio ’L.A.’ Reid and Kenny ’Babyface’ Edmonds of LaFace Records in Atlanta, Kevin Liles of Def Jam Records and Sean ’Puffy’ Combs of Bad Boy Entertainment, both in New York, mirror the success of Motown’s Berry Gordy and the indomitable Quincy Jones.

The young Turks of hip-hop and rap are challenging the way big labels do business, capturing the imagination of today’s youth and cashing in big. Antonio ’L.A.’ Reid and Kenny ’Babyface’ Edmonds of LaFace Records in Atlanta, Kevin Liles of Def Jam Records and Sean ’Puffy’ Combs of Bad Boy Entertainment, both in New York, mirror the success of Motown’s Berry Gordy and the indomitable Quincy Jones.

The young Turks of hip-hop and rap are challenging the way big

labels do business, capturing the imagination of today’s youth and

cashing in big. Antonio ’L.A.’ Reid and Kenny ’Babyface’ Edmonds of

LaFace Records in Atlanta, Kevin Liles of Def Jam Records and Sean

’Puffy’ Combs of Bad Boy Entertainment, both in New York, mirror the

success of Motown’s Berry Gordy and the indomitable Quincy Jones.



In the last decade, these artists-turned-moguls have catapulted their

music from street theater to an international lifestyle phenomenon.

Traditional music sounds have been transformed. Chart topping rock -

like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock - and Disney-fied pop stars such as the

Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears base much of their success on the

infusion of urban rhythms into their music and dance. The accompanying

fashions have moved from statement to daily wear norms.



Hip-hop and rap labels are also changing the rules of music PR. Their

audience relations are so tight, in fact, that a new release can go

platinum overnight with little to no media attention.



Such high demand, however, proves to be a double-edged sword. The labels

are cavalier with the press but vulnerable to piracy. The new MP3

phenomenon enables bootlegs to move faster and at a higher price via

online auctions.



Moreover, since the Internet is less cumbersome than a street-corner

stand, it makes the pirates even more elusive.





Press: who needs it?



Garth Brooks makes a tearful confession on Donny & Marie, the Barenaked

Ladies rock the house on Conan O’Brien and Britney Spears is, well,

everywhere.



Press junkets remain the PR corpus of country, rock and pop music.

Publicists carefully time magazine coverage to new release dates, plying

writers from Rolling Stone to the local free weekly with advance copies

of CDs.



They saturate the national press with glossy packets.



But hip-hop and rap artists frequently miss interviews, usually because

their labels neglect to book them once committed to the press. Music

writers consistently complain that the urban labels are stingy with

advance releases. Security is not the prime motivator for these tactics.

’There’s always a hassle of getting hip-hop advances on time,’ says Doug

Wolk of Rolling Stone. ’Hip-hop is where you sell a half-million copies

in the first week. If they send you a copy they’re doing you a

favor.’



Wolk recounts a story of an unnamed writer from another New York

publication who encountered publicity static when he went to cover the

new Nas release.



The record company producers made him check his tape recorder at the

front desk, limiting him to only a pad and pencil. In the end, his story

bore little resemblance to the CD that was released because several

tracks the writer covered never made the final cut.



Rolling Stone is one of the few publications with enough clout to

regularly get press kits for new rap and hip-hop artists and titles.

Writers for local free weeklies have a much tougher time covering their

subjects.



Roni Sarig of Atlanta’s Creative Loafing has been forced to go to LaFace

Records studios to listen to new tracks that may or may not end up on

the final release. But he seems unfazed by this process. ’I don’t think

their core audience is looking to the mainstream press to tell them

what’s good,’ he says.



Sarig has heard record company executives say that they ’go out and find

the kid the most people respect and put him on the payroll.’ Working

target peer groups in schools and hiring street teams to make early

morning poster assaults on abandoned buildings and telephone poles have

proved the most successful PR strategy. ’Simply getting the word out

drives sales probably more than journalism,’ explains Sarig. ’A hip-hop

or rap release doesn’t really need a review. Those other techniques are

as strong if not stronger.’





Piracy or PR?



Working the DJ pools and club mixers is another label strategy. John

Rotella, general manager of ARK21 Records, a small independent label in

Los Angeles, says that this tactic and MP3 are important PR sources for

underground music producers: ’For youth-skewed or gay-skewed music they

are very effective lifestyle promotions.’



Concerns about bootlegged downloads, he claims, is a lot of media

hype.



’If you strip it all down, the amount of actual people that are

downloading records based on the billions of business that’s out there,

it’s probably 2%,’ he says, stating that download time is too lengthy

for most people to bother with. ’Rap and hip-hop is all about the first

two weeks of sales, MP3 is about artist development and the long

term.’



But 2% of a billion-dollar industry is still a lot of cash, and the

labels have been burned by Web vendors and street hawkers. Journalists

point the finger at DJ pools and record companies. The record labels, in

turn, blame the journalists. ’Some labels definitely give stuff to

people who make mixed tapes,’ says Wolk, who knows the exact location of

a shop in New York’s East Village that will handle the mixing.



Wolk and Sarig both admit to selling sample CDs, though Sarig says he

only does so after the official release date. ’I couldn’t afford to have

my New York apartment if I didn’t (sell CDs),’ says Wolk, who, like

other music writers in the Big Apple, is served by a used CD vendor who

makes house calls.



Sometimes the accusations of bootlegging can escalate to violence. Def

Jam artist Jay-Z was arrested recently for allegedly stabbing music

industry executive Lance ’Un’ Rivera after accusing him of masterminding

the piracy of the rapper’s new release, due out this month. Post-party

buzz claims that Jay-Z proclaimed, ’You broke my heart,’ before stabbing

the exec in the chest. Rivera survived the attack, and Jay-Z turned

himself into the police. Some speculate that this was all an elaborate

promotion to heighten Jay-Z’s street persona. (Kevin Liles of Def Jam

declined repeated requests for comment.)



Though overt violence as a PR strategy has not been used in the wake of

the Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. murders, it underscores the gritty

guerrilla techniques that have driven the rap and hip-hop segments to

stratospheric success. In an age when PR is continually redefining

itself, perhaps PR pros could benefit from taking a page from the

hip-hop playbook.



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