Friday, October 8th, 2010
by Jeff Chang http://cantstopwontstop.com
Lupe Fiasco’s third album “Lasers” finally has a release date. After more than 2 years, dozens of songs, a 30,000 signature petition, and threats of a protest next Friday at the Atlantic offices in Manhattan, his album will finally be available on March 8, 2011. A single is being rushed out in about two weeks.
The announcement comes a week before a mass protest organized by Richard Baker and dubbed “Fiasco Friday” was slated to take place. As of this morning, over a thousand signed up through the protest website to attend. No announcements have been made yet as to whether the protest will still go on next week.
Fiasco Friday was simply the most prominent in what seems to be a growing trend of rap artist protests against their labels. Big Boi and Nas have both been involved in similar fights with their labels about albums that they say the companies have wanted to leave on the shelf.
Nas’s beef with Def Jam over the release of “The Lost Tapes Vol. 2″ hit a new height with a withering letter to Def Jam execs that hit the web yesterday. Nas even made a veiled reference to Fiasco Friday. In an email headed “PUT MY SHIT OUT” Nas wrote:
Honestly, nobody even cares what label puts out a great record, they care about who recorded it. Yet time and time again its the executives who always stand in the way of a creative artist’s dream and aspirations. You don’t help draw the truth from my deepest and most inner soul, you don’t even do a great job @ selling it. The #1 problem with DEF JAM is pretty simple and obvious, the executives think they are the stars. You aren’t…. not even close. As a matter of fact, you wish you were, but it didn’t work out so you took a desk job. To the consumer, I COME FIRST. Stop trying to deprive them! I have a fan base that dies for my music and a RAP label that doesn’t understand RAP. Pretty fucked up situation
This isn’t the 90′s though. Beefing with record labels is so 15 years ago. @ this point I just need you all to be very clear where I stand and how I feel about “my label.” I could go on twitter or hot 97 tomorrow and get 100,000 protesters @ your building but I choose to walk my own path my own way because since day one I have been my own man.
Nas and Big Boi’s situations are slightly different from Fiasco’s. In both cases, their labels have used the exclusivity and copyright clauses in the artists’ contracts to try to force them to release the works the label wanted to see. In Big Boi’s case, Jive wanted an Outkast record. In Nas’s case, Def Jam wanted a new Nas album. (Nas and Damian Marley’s “Distant Relatives” project was also reportedly held up for months for this reason.)
Lupe Fiasco is a mid-level artist, which is a bad level of hell to be caught on these days. Back in the salad days, when rap ruled the industry, labels signed lots of mid-level artists because although they probably wouldn’t sell gold their first time out: 1) they might break out in a big way, and 2) they were bound to lure similar artists who might also break out in a big way. Both Nas and Big Boi began their careers this way and found early success.
Now that the industry is getting used to the idea of living smaller forever, mid-level artists’ clout is null. Labels don’t want to spend a penny on development (what used to be called A&R). Nor do they want to sign many artists who aren’t already poised to blow. And profit margins are a lot thinner these days because the labels are pouring money into those sure shots. It’s a downward spiral.
Rap artists have been harder hit by these trends than rock artists because hip-hop departments were the first to go when the industry collapsed in the past decade. These days majors wait to see what bubbles up from the well-organized markets, or generally make do on (usually slimmer) margins with their legacy artists.
So where does that leave a smart, lyrical Muslim rapper who sells consistently but doesn’t top the charts and is nearing 30? In the worst possible situation.
Enter the audience and Fiasco Friday.
The odd thing is that all of their protest organizing may have tipped the balance in favor of release because it gave Atlantic exactly the kind of earned media attention for Lupe and Lasers that it wasn’t willing to drop a nickel on in the first place.
And yet Lupe is probably still bound by an exclusivity clause to release his albums through Atlantic. And he probably doesn’t own his copyrights. If he wanted to reach a big audience, he never had much choice—because of the way that the majors control the process from copyright to global distribution.
It’s the agony of victory.
But audiences should not have to fight like this for every artist they love who is caught in this kind of situation. And in an era in which technology allows creativity to be sparked and distributed immediately all around the world, artists should not have to find themselves in a situation in which their creativity and livelihood is squashed by employers who won’t sell what they produce.
In book-publishing contracts there is a clause called the reversion clause. If the publisher does not do anything to sell the author’s book–and here it should be noted that it is standard for authors to keep their copyright, unlike in the music industry–they must make an agreement with the author either to hand it back or sell it back to him. Free the art.
Reversion clauses are common sense. That’s one thing that musicians and their audiences can be demanding now. And it’s a first step toward confronting the larger problem: the control that majors have over the global pipeline from copyright to distribution.