by Jim Marcus
Some 30+ years ago, something unforgettable happened in Chicago.
Chicago had long pioneered the manipulation of popular tracks on the dance floor by DJs who were not content to just play records one after the other. They began to mix them together seamlessly, overlay them, and extend part of songs that received maximum support from people on the floor. Club mixer EQs were becoming more unique to the task of mixing dance music, allowing that DJs could drop out or pump the bass up easily, kill midrange sounds or even lose, to a very great degree, the vocals from popular recorded tracks.
This allowed a lot of musicians and DJs to customize how their dance floors worked, and tailor them to a new crop of dancers—people who wanted to lose themselves for long periods of time in an addictive, bass heavy rhythm, without key changes or major movements in instrumentation.
A number of artists, including a large number of musicians of color, stripped out some of the musical complexity from Disco, and turned up the low end to build a kind of rhythmic energy that had never been heard before. Based on the learnings from these deep and continuously moving dance floors, they invented House Music. It came right from the passion and love of the floor, and, In a way, it was a perfect collaboration between musicians, DJs, and those people on that dance floor.
And that had never happened before in history.
The next ten years saw house music explode across the planet, break into various genres to meet specific cities and dance floor environments, and produce some of the most memorable dance tracks of the 80s.
It also saw the strange and disturbing disenfranchisement of nearly all of its originators.
Labels like Chicago’s Traxx Records, for better or worse, took control of the music released and managed how it would be released. Most of the artists involved were black and most had little or no experience in the mechanics of releasing records. But over that decade, they learned.
Top ten dance tracks were purchased for 300 to 500 dollars. Tracks were renamed, artists were renamed, music was split up and released out of order. Artists often had entire albums of music released across different distributors, under different names, with different musicians credited. Many of the musicians involved learned one thing powerfully.
Their own love of music could be used to take advantage of them. In order to be a musician that takes control of your art, you have to be, well, a businessman, too.
And that is a Lesson that Vince Lawrence never forgot. Lawrence was involved in some of the first House Tracks to come from Chicago although few of them ever listed his full name. If he were judged only by the number of people who’ve danced to his music in the 80s he would still be worth an entry in the Encyclopedia of music. But there is more to that tale.
After watching the same story of artist disenfranchisement across hip and, to a lesser degree techno, it became clear to Lawrence that there was an evolving model that could let artists build the value from their work regardless of label involvement. And the reason it may take off is that this entrepreneurial model is a win for labels as well.
Record labels, today, are as vital as ever for large artists. And the flood of smaller, unsigned artists releasing music through various digital means only makes that point more dramatically. For an artist with large scale pop aspirations, a record label is still the answer.
Right now, many of these artists still work in a shallow way, looking to garner label support as quickly as possible. The problem with this is that record labels are not looking to develop artists right now in an environment that is fast paced and always moving. What they need, what they want, is an artist who already knows who they are and is ready to hit the ground running. They want artists who have figured out the basics of performance, interviews, songwriting, and are comfortable knowing who they are wnad whet they want.
One of the core learnings here is that labels do not MEAN to take advantage of artists. Their concern is for their own sustainability and ability to continue to release. An artist who takes to long to figure out who they are, what they can do, where they want to go next, is one that can get caught up in the machinery and churned up. And these same artists CAN’T all be expected to be businessmen and women right out of the gate. Many of them became musicians in the first place because they disliked business.
So an entrepreneurial model is needed. A producer takes the artist and begins to write songs with them, encouraging their own song writing talents to blossom along the way. An easy hand allows the real direction of the artist to come through. The old adage to be followed is “it’s easy to write a great song.”
“First, just write a thousand songs”
In the studio, the artist is allowed to find who they are, what they are passionate about, what they think is important enough to write about. They are encouraged to become performers on multiple levels, to dance, to play, to interview well. They are asked thousands of questions to help them come to terms with who they are as an artist, what they want to be. And when the time is right, they are put on the road.
Touring, traveling, working with other artists, they grow and build their repertoire, becoming a solid and interesting musical act, one that has legs and can capture the listeners’ imagination. And it’s only when they know who they are and what they can do that they are shopped to a record label.
Producers like Vince Lawrence learned the lessons of the past and decided they wouldn’t repeat them under any circumstances. Their new entrepreneurial production model doesn’t rush to deliver musicians to labels like lambs to the kill and it doesn’t require that the artist be a full fledged businessperson along with being a talented performer. They build the artists into someone who can really control their own music and career.
Lawrence says,”We can make sure that a musician is the best representation of their art, knows exactly what the steps are, and is secure in what to expect before they ever talk to a Record label executive,” And that is the value on both sides.
There’s no way to go back to the past and fix what happened. Life doesn’t work that way. But the artists in the past who lost control over their own art can change how the future works. By changing what the word “Producer” means.
And they’re doing it today.