The War on Mixtapes
By Gentle Jones
originally published in the Gannett News Journal
Our steady supply of Hip-hop mixtapes is threatened. What was once a strictly hand to hand phenomenon has become big business. Unregulated mixtape sales have operated off the radar for decades; now the recording industry is cracking down in the wake of terminally decreasing CD sales.
DJs Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, and Afrika Bambaataa were documented as early as 1973 pioneering the New York mixtape scene when they each recorded live parties on cassettes and sold the mixes hand to hand. Grandmaster Flash explains the pivotal role the DJ played in early Hip-hop “The emcee, breakers, poppers, producers and all that is hot, but there wouldn't be none of that shit without the DJ."
Beyond the next decade another generation of New York DJs carried on the tradition, folks with names like Kid Capri, Ron G, DooWop, Clue, and Tony Touch would compile the newest and most exclusive records to distinguish their mixes. These New York born tapes could be found all over the east coast, even New Castle County in the 1990's found a wide selection of mixtapes in local barbershops and beeper stores. These DJ mixes became the popular vehicle for hearing new artists and unreleased songs. Tony Touch explains, “The original point of mixtapes was designed to feature a piece of a song, not the whole song. It was a preview of what was to come or going on in the street. It wasn't designed to play full records, without showing some type of DJ skill, it was designed to showcase the DJ, how he does his mix, how he does his thing.”
Since the year 2000 the mixtape industry has boomed, as the digital age replaced 90 minute tapes with slim case CDRs which could be duplicated quickly and cheaply. This technological development allowed millions of consumers to turn to alternative products in reaction to the increasingly inflated price of traditional CDs. In fact, a 2002 lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of 40 states accused the music industry and distributors of price fixing, the defendants included Sony Music Entertainment, EMI Music Distribution, Warner-Elektra-Atlantic Corp., Universal Music Group, Bertelsmann Music Group. The case was settled for over $140 million which was divided amongst consumers and state agencies. This atmosphere created opportunities for the independent market. The choice between a 60 minute mainstream CD for $18.99 or an 80 minute underground mix of the latest hits for $10 ultimately meant increased sales for mixtapes. Numerous well known Hip-hop artists released legendary recordings through this unofficial market and CD "mixtape" sales eventually reached millions. Though some mixtape artists successfully transitioned from street vendor to major label deals with global distribution channels, many DJs still moved units through a patchwork chain of family owned businesses.
This summer Demitri Theodoropoulos of Wonderland Records in Newark, Delaware came under pressure from the Recording Industry Association of America to discontinue offering mixtapes for customers. He was raided by RIAA agents, along with officers of the Newark Police Department, who seized a small box of mixtapes. The subsequent court case cost the small business thousands of dollars. The actual law violated? These independently recorded and produced albums did not print the name and address of the manufacturer and distributor on the cover of the compact disc.
Demitri thinks the RIAA is motivated by business trends and not the artists’ best interests. "My concern is always that the artist gets paid. Those CDRs I stocked I purchased directly from the artists." Demitri adds, "I will continue to support the local scene but every album from here on needs to have that address on the cover." Aspiring Hip-hop artists and DJs should be advised that you must have the appropriate information printed clearly on the outside of the album for sale, even if the CD is homemade or self distributed.
The actual issue at hand runs deeper than the identification of manufacturing and distribution operations. The RIAA classifies most Hip-hop mixtapes as bootlegs, or pirated material. The plummeting sales numbers of conventional albums combined with the proliferation of leaked promotional materials and illegal downloading has caused the American recording industry to move to control the flow of all recorded musical activity. In an interview with the San Diego Tribune Ed Christman of Billboard, the record industry's oldest weekly trade magazine said, “Like newspapers, the record industry is in transition from physical to digital. But the digital has yet to offset the decline in physical sales." During the first half of 2007 album sales have declined an enormous 16 percent. As record labels hemorrhage profits, their lawyers scramble to curtail activities which infringe on their markets.
Mixtape star DJ Drama, who was born in Philadelphia, was arrested in January of this year and held on charges of racketeering after a raid in Atlanta where authorities seized nearly 81,000 mixtapes. DJ Drama recalls, “I went through a lot of emotions that day. From the cops jumping out of them Tahoes and putting guns to my head…under the circumstances I was pretty calm. When I heard that we were under arrest for bootlegging and racketeering, I went into shock mode and a million things were racing through my head.”
In spite of the controversy DJ Drama has continued to release material steadily. “The mixtape game is still here and I’m still doing my thing,” Drama told AllHipHop.com "All these artists and DJs who have benefitted off the mixtape game and found success need to step up and take charge. The mixtape game is too important for us to let it go to the wayside."
Tony Touch weighs in, “You don’t have enough outlets anymore that are pushing mixtapes because of the strictness of the industry.”
It’s not only these cottage industry Hip-hop artists who are penalized in the current clamp down on unregulated activity. U.S. educational institutions have been impacted. Over the last few years the University of Wisconsin estimated that it spent more than $300,000 to prevent and resolve allegations of illegal downloading and sharing of music by users of the university’s computer network. Private Citizens are also being held accountable. 30 year old Jammie Thomas was recently ordered to pay $220,000 dollars for illegally downloading 24 songs which were specifically cited in a case won by the RIAA in a Minnesota court.
Even the broadcast format is under increased scrutiny. Earlier this month Highway One LP was informed that they were being sued by BMI after witnessing cover bands performing songs written by famous rock acts including the Rolling Stones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Rusty Rudder, a popular Dewey Beach venue. The business owner is responsible for all licensing fees associated with the live performance of published materials and in this case the penalties for not having the proper license could reach $870,000. Since this lawsuit was filed the Rusty Rudder has announced that they will be closing this winter for the first time in their history.
As these larger trends within the music industry converge, they continue to threaten the mixtape format. Despite the persecution by the industry, the mixtape remains a strong marketing and promotional tool generating interest in unsigned artists and breaking hit records in new markets. Until podcasts and paid downloads become the preferred media, mixtape lovers will have to search harder to find the freshest mixes in local stores.