by Bill Adler
I’m the co-author of a new book about Def Jam Recordings whose subtitle – The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label – seems to have provoked some misunderstandings. I didn’t concoct it as a way of bragging about Def Jam. Rather, it is a way of noting, 11 years into the 21st century, that the days of the great record labels are numbered. It is not a cry of victory, but a lament for what’s been lost.
Def Jam was lucky. When the first Def Jam titles were released in 1984, records and record labels were still facts of life. Music lovers depended on these labels to find and develop wonderful new artists, and to record, distribute and market their music. The labels were so important that outfits such as Blue Note, Atlantic, King, Stax, Impulse, Island and dozens of others became gleaming American brands on a par with Coca-Cola, Ford, Kodak, Kellogg’s, MGM and the New York Yankees. But that was a long time ago.
The best time in human history to be a music lover is right now. Who needs a record label when iTunes has put 20 million recordings at everyone’s fingertips? The best time in history to be a musician is also right now – at least when it comes to making and distributing recordings. That’s what computers and the Internet are for.
Still, let’s spare a thought for the services a label like Def Jam provided (and still provides) its artists. Its founders were Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. Rubin turned out to be a world-class record producer, renowned for his ability to bring out the best in artists ranging from LL Cool J to Johnny Cash. Simmons turned out to be a world-class marketer, a one-of-a-kind visionary who has done for hip-hop what Steve Jobs did for personal computing. Also on board from the label’s earliest years was Lyor Cohen. Today, he is the chairman and CEO of the Warner Music Group, but back then, working as an artist manager for Simmons, Cohen did such a righteous job on behalf of Def Jam’s largely African-American roster that the rapper Alonzo “Mr. Hyde” Brown began thinking of Cohen as “the white Martin Luther King.” Naturally, the label also employed a team of designers, publicists, promoters and salesmen – each working for the good of the artist.
However, these “behind-the-scenes” folks needed to be paid. With record labels’ revenues decimated by the falling price of recordings, there’s nowhere near enough money to employ such teams anymore. One after another, the labels have been slashing their staffs in an effort to hang on in the face of a very uncertain future. None of this is any problem for a musician content to do no more or less than make music and post it on the web. But a musician looking to earn a living and build a career out of his talent is poorer today for the lack of brains and muscle that used to be provided by a record label. (pictured, l-r: Bill Adler and Cey Adams / photo by Scott Rudd)
This is true throughout the arts.
Indeed, the digital world has been spanking the physical world in medium after medium. Records are long gone, but it’s only a matter of time before books, magazines and newspapers follow them out the door. This “migration of text” has certainly been a boon to readers, as there’s more to read than ever before, and it’s cheaper, too. But it’s also harder than ever to make a living as a writer, editor or publisher.
Professional photographers, videographers, and filmmakers face a similar plight. Nearly everybody in the digital age has access to cellphone cameras, basic photo- and video-editing software, and the ability to share all that content on the Internet. And movies? Many people feel there’s little reason to go to the theater today when you can download nearly any title at home just months after the original release, and for much less than you’d pay for a night at the cinema.
Again, some things are being lost. One of the reviewers of Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label was frustrated by its stubborn bookishness. He found it hard to read “continuous passages,” because he kept getting distracted by the “amazing artwork.” The book would be much better, he suggests, if it were made for a tablet, which would allow “the eye candy to be interactive.” In short, it would be better if it weren’t a book at all.
I disagree. If any kind of book deserves to survive in book form, it is a coffee table art book – which Def Jam Recordings is. There isn’t a tablet in the world that can compete with the sheer impact of Def Jam’s 12-inch by 12-inch pages, a format in which a two-page spread – words and images side-by-side – spans two feet.
I’m not arguing that any of us should be forced to choose between the digital and the physical. I’d be happiest if both could survive – in fact, Def Jam Recordings should be available as a book and an app. But you don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind’s blowing. I’m just glad to have lived long enough to see records evolve from discards destined for history’s scrapheap to collectibles preserved by museums… or at least the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, which opens a stand-alone library and archives in the new year. Whatever the future of the record business, its past is looking pretty secure.
About Bill Adler
Bill Adler has devoted the last 30 years to a career in hip-hop. He's worked as a journalist, critic, publicist, biographer, archivist, label executive, curator, editor, documentary filmmaker, and teacher. He met Cey Adams when the two of them began working at Def Jam in 1984. Over the next six years, Bill was the director of publicity for Russell Simmons’ Rush Artist Management, working closely with Kurtis Blow, Whodini, Run-DMC, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Big Daddy Kane, EPMD, Stetsasonic, De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, 3rd Bass and others.
Between 2003 and 2007, Adler ran the Eyejammie Fine Arts Gallery, a pioneering art space devoted mostly to hip-hop photography. In 2004, Bill teamed up with Perry Films to write and produce “And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years of Hip-Hop,” a five-part documentary history of hip-hop, for VH1. Adler is the director of the Adler Archive, a unique research library of hip-hop–oriented books, photographs, newspaper and magazine stories, audio and video recordings, and advertisements and flyers. He is the co-author of Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label.