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Who controls the Free, according to Dupri

Jermaine Dupri opened up the 2013 A3C Hip Hop Festival here in Atlanta last week with an A3C x Tech Talk hosted by James Andrews titled “The Overlap: Music and Technology.”  Held in an intimate, studio-feel kind of setting, JD shared some important stuff about giving away free product that both artists and fans need to know.

Naturally, the record labels are indignant that they no longer control the “free” like they once did, but who really does control the free? What’s to gain by giving stuff away, and it is morally right for fans to take advantage of free stuff?  Here’s how JD directed the thinking in the room.  He pointed out that if this were 1992, and we were at this conference, everyone in the room would have a free CD, a free product, in their hand, compliments of the record company.  These days, however, virtually every new important hip-hop record is leaked through the Internet before its release date, giving the world free access to the product and – arguably – diluting potential sales.  And the record companies are p*ssed.

But isn’t leaking the product over the Internet the same as slipping the CD into the conventioneer’s goodie bag, just on a much grander scale?  Here’s what JD had to say:  “If these guys are giving you a free CD from Jermaine Dupri, and you’re gonna tell ten other people, and those ten people are gonna buy it, or they’re gonna tape it for their friends, or whatever – it’s the same situation, it’s just a new way of thinking about it, a new way of seeing it.”   So, did the pre-release leak of Drake’s “Nothing Was The Same” this past September keep Drake from selling a million copies upon release?  “You’re outta your mind if that’s what you really believe,” JD says.  “The Drake leak helped him sell 600,000 records.”

I agree with JD, but my thinking has definitely evolved over the years.  Back in 2000, Napster was the face of peer-to-peer file sharing, and I was righteously opposed (let’s not talk about the CDs I burned for friends, okay?).  It was a counterintuitive notion for me: that you could give the product away – the very product you had slaved over, presumably to make money by selling it – and still reap dividends in the promotional buzz you could create.  But the explosion of the Internet over the past 10 years or so has rewritten the rules.  The information flood gate has burst open – sweeping aside the gatekeepers in its wake – to reveal countless niche genres and artists that previously had no real ability to compete against the “hits”.  In the music business, the number of potential fans for a band is finite (it’s doubtful that hardcore fans of One Direction will also be hardcore fans of Metallica, for example), but the number of users of the Internet is (or seems) practically infinite.  The challenge, of course, is cutting through the glutted market to reach all those potential fans.

With JD having been just hired as Mariah Carey’s new manager, I guess we’ll see what JD’s next move is… and for Carey fans, it’s good to know that if it includes free or leaked tunes, that’s OK with JD.