It was the most alarming email I’d received since my ex broke the engagement. The publicists for the Minnesota hip-hop dynasty Rhymesayers Entertainment announced that in order to curb illegal downloading, they would not ship promo copies of the new Atmosphere disc. Instead, the label planned listening sessions in New York and Los Angeles. Either music reviewers made the trip, or they waited for the album to hit stores like everyone else.
The significance of this embargo does not end with the fate of future Rhymesayers releases; the label’s approach represents the independent music scene’s bittersweet affair with online piracy. Since the onset of digital thievery, a googolplex of articles and analyses have explored how peer-to-peer technologies such as LimeWire hobble the recording industry. But until I was forced into a four-hour train ride to review a single Atmosphere disc, I never considered how file sharing specifically affects independent artists.
Back in 2003, in an article titled "Upstart Labels See File Sharing As Ally, Not Foe," New York Times writer Chris Nelson interviewed chief executives at a variety of thriving independent labels, most of whom were reluctant but willing to concede that illicit downloads generate buzz and ultimately album sales. Rhymesayers co-owner Siddiq Ali, like his contemporaries at indie-rock imprints such as Wind-Up and Vagrant, noted that his modest production costs quickly turned a profit, despite the recording industry’s notorious downturn in 2001, the first time in history that total album shipments dropped.
Since that Times article, Rhymesayers has grown into one of hip-hop’s largest independent imprints, having sold more than one million combined Atmosphere units alone. The label’s other artists have also fared well; last year Brother Ali’s The Undisputed Truth debuted at number 69 on the Billboard 200 chart after selling more than 10,000 copies in its first week. So if these guys are rising while Eminem’s stock is sinking, why did Atmosphere’s Slug and Ant fly across the country to play their disc for a bunch of ungrateful hipster critics? Better yet, why did I have to trek down from Boston just to hear it?
The oak-tabled conference room that Rhymesayers’ distributor, Warner Music, designated for this listening session is as impersonal as fluorescent-lit corporate bunkers get. Slug isn’t fooling anyone; despite his media-friendly facade, he would clearly rather be drinking at his favorite Minnesota bar—or at any bar, for that matter—than romancing a dozen writers on the 48th floor of a Manhattan skyscraper. To compensate for the irony that comes with unveiling his new working-class manifesto on 6th Avenue, he arrives in a faded green sweatshirt and a grubby beaded-out winter hat. Ant, who is hungover from the night before, doesn’t even bother showing up.
"It means a lot to me that you all came down," Slug tells the bunch. "I just heard that there were certain people who—when they found out that we weren’t giving out advanced copies—took offense and told us to take them off the label’s mailing list. That’s cool, but it’s one thing to not want to waste your time with this, and it’s another to boldly be like, ’Fuck you for doing it this way.’ That’s pretty self-absorbed."
While most of us seem amped to hear the album, it’s clear that Rhymesayers’ audacious publicity anti-stunt is the main attraction. After previewing Atmosphere’s latest, When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, I’m not the only skeptic who skips cordial questions about beats and rhymes. It’s like that movie they made about the board game Clue; we’re all enjoying ourselves, but none of us know why we’re here.
"Do you actually feel like this is going to stop people from bootlegging?" one writer asks with a hint of disapproval. "Are you expecting it to help you sell more albums?"
"This is our way of gauging how much we would lose," Slug responds. "I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I feel like I’m in a position amongst my contemporaries to try something like this to see how it works. If it’s not as successful as we want it to be, and we can say that it’s definitely because of this, then we’ll have learned a lesson and all of my friends can look at it and say, ’I’m not doing what those idiots did.’
"But if this does work," he adds, "then everybody can use the model. It’s not the most creative approach, but it’s a step toward coming up with something."
In the frenzy that’s ensued since the 2000 Napster trials, major and independent record companies have taken innumerable measures to combat piracy. Since a lot of music leaks through the press, some labels watermark their advanced discs so that they can trace ripped files to the culprit. Some publicists send out cassette tapes, while others include "speed bumps"; the CDs I get from New York indie-rap imprint Def Jux pause in the middle of every track to remind me that "this promo copy belongs to Chris Faraone."
"The promo versions of the albums that we send out to the press have me speaking over the chorus of each song," says SageFrancis, an independent hip-hop icon and owner of the Rhode Island-based Strange Famous Records. "And we wrote a note in blood to each reporter saying something to the effect of: ’Hey ... this not is not written in people blood. It is written in puppy blood. The puppy is not dead. YET. If this album gets leaked then I guess we know where you stand on animal rights.’"
In 2000, about 14,000 songs were being downloaded every minute from Napster, the pioneer file-sharing program founded by Northeastern student Shawn Fanning. Eight years later—despite the occasional Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) arrest rampage choking out a large percentage of the problem—the overall threat remains significant and less traceable. Last year a report by the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) estimated that "as a consequence of global and US-based piracy of sound recordings, the US economy loses $12.5 billion in total output annually."
But the demand for music seems to be increasing; a recently released report from SoundScan—which surveys both major and independent labels—noted that unit sales of downloads and discs increased by nearly 15 percent in 2007. The Business Software Alliance’s annual Youth Downloading Study found that the number of kids, age eight to 18, who illegally downloaded music last year dropped to 36 percent (from 60 percent in 2004).
The findings of such studies are vehemently contested because there are no straight answers. The sheer breadth of our file-sharing universe makes it impossible to track illegal downloads. Furthermore, studies such as IPI’s "The True Cost of Sound Recording Piracy to the US Economy" don’t account for copies that are pirated before an album is released. And for independent artists, advanced leaks are the real problem.
"I’m not so worried about losing sales and downloads," Slug says. "If people are going to download the record, they’ll just do it the day after it comes out. For me it’s more about the anticipation. A lot of my friends put out records, and by the time the record actually drops and they go on tour, everybody is already sick of it."
Nature Sounds President Devin Horwitz, who counts MF Doom and Wu-Tang Clansman Masta Killa among his label’s top artists, argues piracy leaks more than the music itself. "Word of mouth travels fast on the internet," he says. "If your album is weak the fans will find out before they even get a chance to buy it." On the other hand, Horwitz adds: "If the product is good, the word spreads fast too."
Research suggests that Horwitz and Slug’s instincts are on point. A 2007 study commissioned by the journal Management Science concluded that "minor labels have adapted better to technological and market changes, and have in fact utilized file sharing networks and other nontraditional methods to popularize their albums," resulting in "a narrowing of the advantage held by major labels."
By subtracting early leaks from the equation—a tactic the majors have unsuccessfully attempted for years—Rhymesayers is poised to narrow that advantage further. Majors are still hemorrhaging money and blaming illegal downloads. Just this week EMI announced that it was cutting 2,000 jobs in its "struggle to respond to the challenges posed by a digital environment."
"Let’s face it, I’m going to be almost 40 by the time I put out another record," Slug says. "At that point, if I’m not rich, I’ll show up at the next listening party with a bomb and take all of you motherfuckers out."
That sounds like a good last-ditch strategy, but I’ll always miss the good old days when rappers just sent grenades in the mail.