War in a rack Pt 1

After releasing A Life In The Day Of B19 in September, three months of good reviews in Hip Hop magazines and radio play on urban stations, high street record stores still refuse to allow the album into the Urban music section! This is a major setback for the album and me personally. The aim of this album was to turn hip hop heads on to a new type of hip hop and jazz and break stereotypes about what British hip hop should sound like. But that’s impossible if a mainstream audience never even gets to see the album in the shops.
sowetosilThis is not an issue of me wanting to abandon my jazz connection. I’ve spoken to people on the counter, and it’s perfectly fine for an album to be in two sections, as long as the order is given from above. This is about the album being mainstream or marginal. If it’s tucked away in the jazz section, thousands of potential listeners will never know it exists. What’s more it brands me as an exclusively jazz artist. Many (especially inner city teenagers) will automatically be put off by that packaging without ever hearing it.
It also makes no sense from a commercial point of view. Surely they would want an artist to sell as many records as possible. If it’s in two sections, it should reach a wider audience. The reasons why it is so difficult to get it changed, and why it’s so contentious remain a complete mystery. I’ve been told by certain retailers to, ‘drop the issue’, ‘we want to draw a line under this conversation’ or else they may withdraw support for me as an artist altogether. It’s taken a pretty sinister turn.
It matters beyond just me as an artist and beyond this album. Men in suits, in boardrooms are dictating to us what is or isn’t hip hop! Thousands of people are kept from seeing an alternative model of hip hop which they can identify with. To put it simply, if Nelly Furtado, Justin Timberlake and Nelly are urban, why is a hip hop/jazz album set in a UK tower block not?
Social engineering through music
It’s now over 7 months since Tales of the Tower Block was released: still the major high street retailers refuse to stock it in the urban music sections. Irreparable damage has been done to the album sales, to the point that it has jeopardised the release of Basement Fable, the second part of the story.
talesoftowerblockTales of the Towerblock gained new hip hop audiences – I had record of the weekend on BBC 1Xtra’s Twin B show with ‘Everybody Raps’ which has also received lots of daytime play on that station. We had features in Hip Hop Connection, Echoes, Touch Magazine. Ras Kwame Radio 1 live session, Rodney P & Skitz were playing the record, along with many urban DJs. Still retailers wouldn’t move it to both sections, and punters were going into the record shops and not seeing the album because of where it was placed.
As a result of the album being tucked away in the more obscure jazz/classical basement of record stores, the release of Basement Fables has been seriously compromised. This is all happening at a time in which retailers complain that physical sales are dwindling, so their actions are even less understandable. Why would they not want too move more units?
Conversations between the retailers, Proper, and Dune records (since June 2006) were designed to make ‘double-racking’ possible, and not a bone of contention. After fulfilling a series of rigorous criteria set out by retailer X, they then changed their minds and refused to even discuss the issue of putting the album in the correct places. Absolutely nothing has changed since I posted my last blog on the subject in December 2006 – except the release of the follow-up album is now delayed.
rackThis isn’t the first time I have such had odd encounters with retailers; in November 2004 I was invited to do an in store single launch of Jazz Planet. Strangely we weren’t allowed to actually sell the singles in the store! These episodes have forced me to confront some ugly truths about what ‘urban’ music stands for, and who controls it: why certain artists receive industry support and backing whilst others are excluded.
The buying public are being deceived, and hip hop audiences in particular need to reclaim ownership of the music. A few people profit economically and politically from a warped concept of urban culture, and a great many people suffer. For the sake of creativity, diversity, community relations and supporting homegrown art, these issues should be flagged up at a national level.
If anyone has that burning feeling, ‘where did all the conscious hip hop go?’ or ‘why do I hear the same artists and the same songs continually?’ read on…
This has been the motivation for a series of interviews with artists, record industry experts and fans that have encountered similar difficulties with the ‘urban music’ tag or who feel their experiences chime with mine. In the coming weeks I will be posting video footage of some conversations with artists like Ty and Yungun who have had similar experiences, and many others with divergent opinions. They are designed to stimulate debate and to explore how much the perversion of ‘urban’ culture has intensified over the past two years. Only by speaking with a more united voice, can we ultimately reverse some of the damage caused.
The mainstream music industry (major labels, high street retailers, radio, music television, etc) is clearly facing huge financial challenges from download culture and is keen to maintain its influence over consumer habits. The reason it doesn’t face more challenges from government, or consumer watchdogs or the monopolies and mergers commission is that it continually trots out a number of PR myths.
The first myth is that all decisions about racking, radio or TV playlisting are ‘consumer driven.’ In an article in the New Statesman covering ‘the war in a rack’ last January (http://www.newstatesman.com/200701290019) an HMV spokesperson claimed, “Musicians and buyers can always put forward good reasons for being racked elsewhere…at the end of the day, it simply comes down to customer service.”
jazzplanetPersonally, this doesn’t square with my experience. Unless there are hoards of unknown consumers agitating to stop B19 from being under ‘urban’, why did the stores just ignore the requests of hundred of fans that have been asking them to move it? As mentioned, a similar thing happened with the release of Jazz Planet – major record stores simply refused the single and didn’t offer any explanation to me, Dune Records or to customers.
Beyond my own case, I’m anxious to find out if the huge floor space given gangster rap and American R&B is really market driven or if we’re being told it’s popular to shift more units. The truth seems glaringly obvious. The buying public turns to retailers, and radio as a barometer – to know what’s been released. PR, promoters and retailers all proscribe what an audience gets to hear, or more crucially doesn’t get to hear. They then hide behind the excuse- “it’s what our audience wants, we’re just reflecting market opinion.” If they limit choice, then their biggest clients are guaranteed more sales.
radio1A second major deception (common in radio, and music TV) is the industry itself supports home-grown music and champions the underdog. BBC Radio 1‘s website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio1/chart/playlist_faqs.shtml) claims that, their playlist team, head controllers etc are all committed to providing a balanced picture of British music, “We aim to play a mix of genres, ensure we support new UK artists as well as more established acts and feature more challenging tracks not played by most other stations.” The fact that the BBC is different to commercial broadcasters informs its more socially responsible approach. The site goes further, claiming at least 40% of their playlist are guaranteed to be homegrown acts, and in practice the figure is more like 45-50%!
jamiecullumHowever, as far as ‘urban’ music is concerned the figures never match the rhetoric, At the time of writing this there are 19 artists on Radio 1‘s A-list, (none of them British Urban acts), 16 B-list artists (no UK Urban acts – the closest things are Jamie T and Amy Winehouse) and 10 C-list names (only ex-sugababe Mutya Buena is urbanish) http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio1/chart/playlist.shtml. Representing British music on radio may apply to guitar bands such as Bloc Party, or singer-songwriters such as James Morrison, but any space for British hip hop, grime or R&B is embarrassingly small. Conversely, U.S Hip Hop and R+B has never been better represented on mainstream radio. Akon, Beyonce, Amerie, Timbaland. Three weeks ago Justin Timberlake even appeared twice on the playlist. This is an era in which Hip Hop and R&B have internationally eclipsed rock as the dominant voice of youth culture. Why are there no high profile British urban acts, and certain dissenting voices are gagged?
If the myths are widely believed, the main casualties are aspirant British urban acts who churn out poor quality copies of what they think the market wants, and the inner city listeners who try to re-enact the ghetto fantasies.
I have had some positive experiences and there are notable exceptions (specialist DJ’s such as Ras Kwame, Benji B, or Gilles Peterson). But the fact remains that there is almost no way for a British urban act to receive as much exposure as a well funded US counterpart, or to get the leverage of UK indie acts. There are inner city success stories that hold a momentary branch of hope to inner city kids on council estates – but the media buzz and industry support is rarely sustained for more than 2 years. Labels encourage these artists to model themselves on U.S rap and R&B icons, but when they don’t sell as well, they are dropped with the excuse that British urban music is ‘difficult to market.’

Continued in THE WAR IN A RACK Part Two…