Public Enemy downloads challenge to industry
May 6, 1999
By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) - If you can't wait to get your hands on the groundbreaking rap group Public Enemy's upcoming album, their first full studio release in five years, all you need is a computer, a high-speed modem and patience.
Through a partnership with Internet record label Atomic Pop, the mega-successful rap group is making the album "There's a Poison Goin On ...." initially available only via the net and through free digital downloads.
According to Public Enemy mastermind Chuck D., this is part of the group's plan to usher in the age of digital music -- and give a heads-up to major labels hesitant to embrace the new medium.
"This is a shovel in the dirt," says Chuck D., whose group first appeared on the rap scene in 1987 with "Yo! Bum Rush the Show." "You hope the artists will get a bigger percentage of what they sell and that the consumer can buy the music for less. It's inevitable and it's gonna happen a lot quicker than we think."
'Quicker' may depend on your modem
Through the end of May, fans can download the single "Do You Wanna Go Our Way???" in both MP3 and G2 formats through Atomic Pop, RealNetworks and Amazon.com -- and that's where some patience may help. Downloading Public Enemy's music can take anywhere from several minutes to a few hours, depending on your connection.
For those who prefer holding CDs in their hot little hands, Public Enemy is selling the entire album online through Atomic Pop or Internet retailer Amazon.com starting May 18, more than a month before it's available in stores and via other e-commerce sites.
Digital music turf wars
Public Enemy is part of a widening effort by groups to access the growing Web audience through digital distribution. Such analysts as Forrester Research predict that digital-music downloads can add $1.1 billion to the United States' music industry by 2003. But some major record companies are hesitant to embrace digital music distribution until the industry-supported Secure Digital Music Initiative sets downloading standards.
Rather than waiting, many top recording artists and groups -- Public Enemy among them -- are trying to bypass the big guys and do it on their own.
Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette recently announced that the Web site MP3.com will sponsor her North American tour. As the site explains, "MP3 is a file format which stores audio files on a computer in such a way that the file size is relatively small .... Typically 1 MB is equal to one minute of music or several minutes for spoken word/audiobooks."
The Beastie Boys placed MP3 files of rare songs on their official site until their label, the Capitol-licensed Grand Royal Records, asked them to take down the music. Nevertheless, the group has promised to place another round of tracks on their site.
And rocker Tom Petty, whose most recent album, "Echo," came out in April, offered a free MP3 version of the single "Free Girl Now" on MP3.com. Petty's label -- like CNN Interactive, a Time Warner company -- asked him to take down the track, so he teamed up with MP3.com on his own.
Breakups on the Web
Similarly, Public Enemy ran afoul of the group's longtime label, Def Jam, when the band made unreleased recordings from "Bring the Noise" available on their Web site at no cost. When the label protested, the group did take down the music. But Public Enemy and Def Jam parted ways earlier this year, partially due to that digital-music disagreement.
Chuck D. says that the band signed with Atomic Pop in part because founding chairman Al Teller, who worked with Public Enemy at MCA Music Entertainment and CBS Records, understands the explosive growth of digital music. Teller, in turn, raves about the band's early embrace of the medium.
"Chuck D. ... deeply understands the profound impact Internet technology will have on bringing an artist's music directly to fans, as well as the enormous empowerment the Web provides artists to that end," Teller says in a statement. "Our relationship with Chuck D. and Public Enemy will serve as a strong example of the alternatives rapidly becoming available to artists on all levels."
'Deal is impeccable'
For Chuck D., the revolution is now. He says he hopes that his band's deal will encourage other artists to follow suit, especially those unable to sign with a major label or those who simply want more control of their recordings.
"We're setting the template for artists. We're telling them that if a label doesn't want to give them a chance, they can do it another way," says the rapper.
All noble technological premises and promises aside, the deal is an extremely lucrative one for the rap group. While Chuck D. doesn't divulge details, he freely admits that money talked, at least partially. Under terms of the agreement, for example, Public Enemy is not forced to deliver a set number of albums, is not tied to Atomic Pop for any definitive amount of time and retains the rights to master recordings.
"The deal is impeccable," says Chuck D., "in terms of our percentages of what we create and own. As far as Public Enemy is concerned, we're known all over the world, so when we do something, someone will want to get it from somewhere. And we know that people want to support someone who makes a statement."
Public Enemy, considered one of the most definitive and controversial rap groups, is best remembered for such classic albums such as the 1988 platinum "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back." It fused offbeat samples and traditional funk with Chuck D.'s politically charged lyrics.
The next release, "Fear of a Black Planet," hit the Top 10 and featured the hit "Fight the Power," which became the anthem for Spike Lee's film "Do the Right Thing." Their most recent release was the original soundtrack for Lee's 1998 film "He Got Game." This was the first film soundtrack created entirely by a rap group -- it peaked at No. 26.
Freeing the future
Chuck D. blames the three Rs of his business -- record labels, radio, and retail distribution -- for separating the consumer from the music. And he hails digital distribution as the way to reunite the two, albeit amid a lack of support from the industry.
"The music business is afraid of losing control. The companies are basically big banking systems. And they know that anyone can become a record company in terms of distribution, and that strikes fear into their hearts. This is a technology that record companies can't control. The public had a hold of it first, and that's the reason for a lot of the paranoia."
"We're not shooting down offline distribution, but it's not the priority," the rapper says. "Online downloading is our priority, and offline distribution is secondary."
Chuck D. says he envisions a day on which consumers can get music cheaply and quickly, while artists create and sell without the interference of record labels.
"I foresee that more artists will be able to come into the marketplace without the need for some stupid A&R person," says Chuck D. "The demo will be eradicated, and people can set up their own labels. This won't replace the majors or independents, but we'll also have digital downloads of artists.
"The bottom line is that consumers will have more musical choices."
Chuck D signs with Internet music label
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