A lot of the same questions keep coming up as I tour around the country promoting my new book, Young, Rich and Dangerous: The Making of a Music Mogul. People want to know my take on the problems in the record business. They want to know why sales are so bad, and whether music labels have a future.
Yeah, they do, but only when label executives stop being so damn lazy. Sales could be better, but they only seem worse now because people got used to a record doing at least half a million in sales in the first week! The business got spoiled by those crazy sales from hip hop records in the late '90s. Now the labels miss opportunities to make money and break new artists while they chase what they hope are gonna be instant blockbusters.
These days, if an artist doesn't get 100,000 sales in the first week, he's written off as a failure and dropped. It can happen to the biggest stars if they don't do the work. True, Kanye made close to a million sales when his last album dropped, but Def Jam pushed hard and put out three singles before his album hit. 50 Cent had five singles! By the time Kanye's album hit everyone was talking about him. He got on the Golden Globes, Saturday Night Live, you name it. A battle with 50 Cent took the buzz about the album to a whole other level. It was crazy! If it takes that much to get sales for big names like that nowadays, imagine how much you need to put into breaking a new star.
We used to roll up our sleeves. Back in the day we sold 70,000 albums for Kris Kross their first week and went on to sell 8 million. We kept running with it and promoting and gave the artists time and exposure to take hold in peoples' minds. We were willing to put in the time. The music business is a business where you have to build something. It's not scratch and win! We need to get back to those basics.
The basics are about things like artist development. Ya'll probably heard I took a lot of heat lately because people twisted up the meaning of what I was saying about Justin Timberlake's look .The media wanted to turn it into a beef but it was nothing personal. I think Justin's an amazingly talented performer. But his style just isn't that interesting to me. I was making that statement as a producer whose job it is to create artists from scratch. I am always looking at what other people are doing so I can do something different, make something better and create my own lane.
When I sign someone, there has to be talent. But the other part is the artists' look. They have to have that sparkle that's all theirs. A lot of thought goes into bringing out that star quality. It doesn't just happen all by itself. Their style has to be different. They have to have a presence so when they walk in a room, heads turn. They have to be able to stand next to me and have their own shine.
There are other things the labels can do to save themselves. The record companies as we knew them are pretty much gone, but that's okay. People are finally figuring out there's real money to be made from ring tones. There are dozens of other deals we can cut branding our artists and finding other ways to sell content through digital deals, merchandizing, and concert tours. The industry just has to work harder.
I call my book, Young, Rich and Dangerous because young, ambitious guys like me are a danger to all those older guys who sit at the top of most labels. They're gonna lose the race because they're not hungry enough. Early on in my career, when I was fresh off the success of Kris Kross, it felt like my belly was full. I was enjoying my success and congratulating myself. But Babyface told me something I'll never forget: "One hit doesn't count for much. You gotta have three or four hits before you can really call yourself a success." I've lost count of how many hits I've had since then, but I'm not stopping. I have to keep running so I can catch up with Quincy Jones!
That's why I wrote my book. I wanted to show kids who are looking to be in the music business it's not easy. Even after almost two decades of making hits I'm still in learning mode. Two months ago I put out Jagged Edge's album Babymaking Project too early, figuring one single before it dropped was enough to hook their old fan base. But I was wrong. Kanye and 50 changed the rules of that game. It's all about the story that goes along with the album as much as the music itself.
I want the next generation of executives and entrepreneurs to understand that the formula is always changing. They need to take risks and keep ahead of the trends if the industry is ever gonna survive. For the most part, I believe it will.
If I thought the labels were over I wouldn't have set myself up as a man on the inside, as president of Island Urban Music, a division of the biggest of all the music giants, Universal Music Group. I'm there, along with guys like my man Jay-Z, president of Def Jam, and L.A. Reid, who sits at the top of Island Def Jam, because I wanted to be a part of a team that knows how to make great music, then promote and sell it in a way makes sense in the digital age.
We're all music men, so we know what people wanna hear. We're not afraid to experiment. But we also know that it takes good ole' fashioned grind to sell records. We're showing other executives how it's done. We're dangerous!
Jermaine Dupri is a Grammy-award winning music producer, president if Island Urban Records and author of Young, Rich and Dangerous: The Making of a Music Mogul (Atria, October 2007)