D.J.s Trapped by Conflicted Record Industry

The New York Times’ Jeff Leeds has this piece today about how a prominent rap D.J., DJ Drama, along with fellow D.J., Don Cannon, have been arrested and charged with racketeering, among other things, for producing and selling mixtape CDs that had, at the least, been produced with the tacit blessing of the record companies. Drama, whose real name is Tyree Simmons, is a top producer of mixtapes, which are prime promotional vehicles for the labels’ artists, to the point that some record companies actually pay D.J.s to produce and sell the technically unauthorized compilations.

The record business is surprised by the sudden arrest of Simmons because he has been selling his mixes for two years with its apparent knowledge. The conflict for the labels is simple: mixtapes contain pirated material and could weaken legitimate music sales, although they also help promote artists and therefore boost sales to some degree.

On one side, many label executives and officials at the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the major music companies, say the mixtape is contributing to the problem. They argue that sales are ultimately undermined when the mixtape leaps from promotional giveaway item to replacement for an artist’s official label-distributed album.

On the other side are a separate faction of label executives and a variety of artists, many of whom privately say they are worried that the chill cast on the mixtape world would handicap labels’ efforts to promote hip-hop sales, which declined roughly 20 percent last year, more than any other major genre, according to Nielsen SoundScan data.

Even further mixing the emotions of record company executives is the fact that many of the D.J.s also double as radio D.J.s on major rap stations. When writing checks for the “illicit” mixtapes, labels hope the D.J.s will also give some airplay to their artists.

The arrest of DJ Drama doesn’t seem to have been engineered by the record companies, which are otherwise fighting unauthorized use of their copyrighted material everywhere else. (The implication is that a rival DJ or an individual artist sicced the authorities on Drama.) The era of the publicly sold mixtape CDs, with web sites and street vendors openly hawking the mixes, has probably come to an end, pushing the popular recordings underground.

But I wonder: will the record companies pay the legal bills for Simmons and Cannon? I don’t see how they can without implicating themselves, but somehow it doesn’t seem right if they don’t.

Update: Somehow I missed this, but Sean Garrett at The 463 has an excellent overview of the DJ Drama situation and even offers a YouTube video of the raid, which is not to be missed. Sean also suggests that the RIAA was not the instigator of this situation — it’s most likely an internal hip-hop fued.

Posted by Cynthia Brumfield on January 22, 2007 7:26 PM to IP Democracy