The LA Times has a nice history of the commercial “mix tape” (now on CD) and its role in promoting new hip-hop talent:
- New York — On clear weekends here, a boisterous bazaar sets up along the sidewalks that bracket Broadway and Canal Street, and anyone in the market for a gold chain, a bootleg DVD or a Rolex of questionable pedigree can haggle up and down the block. One of the fixtures on this scene is a salesman — he identifies himself only as “J” (it’s even on his business card) — who stacks underground rap CDs on a folding table, most priced at $10.
The CDs are called mix tapes, and while the name is defiantly old school in its cassette-era origins, they are the cutting edge of the moment as rap finds some of its future in its own past. A flagship symbol of that phenomenon is best-selling rapper 50 Cent, who this year spun his mix-tape success into major label platinum. J, a proud merchant, is well aware of all of this. “It all starts here,” he said with a wave of his hand. “If it’s new, it’s right here.”
….In the 1970s, mix tapes were the first recordings of the nascent hip-hop scene in this city, and back then they were often simply a document of a DJ’s playlist at a nightclub on a Saturday night. “We made them and sold them at the clubs and through taxi drivers,” hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa said. “There were no rap records yet, so this was the only way people could take the music with them.”
….Much of the stir can be attributed to 50 Cent, the thuggish New York rhymer who was a staple of the mix tape scene for years before his major label breakthrough in February set sales records for a rapper’s debut. More than that, established stars such as Snoop Dogg and P. Diddy in recent months have premiered new material through the mix tapes in a form of street-level test marketing and promotion, and Busta Rhymes has plans to follow suit. MTV, arguably the defining indicator of mainstream youth music, now posts reviews of the “mix tape of the week” on its Web site.
….”In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the mix tape had really become something, you had DJs like Kid Capri taking it to the next level,” Morales said. “There were all these new cats, everything was fine and dandy, and then in the mid-1990s the RIAA started getting in the scene. By then you had all these Web sites and companies devoted to mix tapes, and the RIAA sees that and, boom, here come the bigwigs. After that, it was quiet for years.”
Then technology gave mix tape makers the edge over the copyright enforcers, and the CDs were back, in force, on the street. Frank Creighton, the anti-piracy chief of the RIAA, said that today, mix tape makers “daisy-chain” CD burners to produce 1,000 discs a day. He said most mix tapes will have a manufacturer’s run of anywhere from 500 to 10,000, but that with hot titles the larger players step in to make their own copies — and copies could swell to 50,000.
“We’ve seen a real spike, and that’s directly due to the cost of CD burners and blank media ….Now that you can get those blank CD-Rs in bulk for under 5 cents a piece, the practice has become as attractive as narcotics. The profits are just as great.” He added that “thousands” of seizures and arrests are made each year.
….”The label people would say, ‘You’re destroying my marketing plan,’ ” Calloway said. ” ‘We wanted the pop-sounding single first. You are putting out this hard-core-sounding single — and it’s going to upset the balance of what we created in this boardroom.’ Whatever. But we, the DJs, were so connected to the streets we knew what people wanted to hear. Then these people realized that if you allowed these DJs to use a song from your artist on their tape, it could get that artist exposure and credibility.”
That is exactly what happened in the case of 50 Cent. The rapper was deemed too volatile for the major labels after several violent street confrontations, including one in May 2000 that left him bullet-ridden and near death. Even after he recovered, a sub-label of Columbia Records that previously had him under contract wanted nothing to do with him. So the rapper immersed himself in the mix tape scene in New York and made celebrated appearances on collections by DJ Whoo Kid and others.
One of those mix tapes got in the hands of Morales, who loaned it to a bodyguard for Eminem. Eminem heard a star in the mix, and that led to 50 Cent’s $1-million signing to Shady Records. The result was the fastest-selling rap debut since the SoundScan era of tracking sales began in 1991.
The labels want it both ways, with their own “street teams” leaking advance releases to the mix tape makers to take advantage of the promotional opportunities, while the enforcement arm of the RIAA has retailers raided and prosecuted. It is this kind of rudderless hypocrisy that has removed the moral high ground from the label’s war on file sharing and copyright infringement in general.