The Mix Tape Realities

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

DJ Drama is one of the top producers in the mix tape scene. Last week, his office was raided by the Atlanta Police, in conjunction with the Recording Industry Association of America, also known as the RIAA. The RIAA is the political lobbying organization for major record labels, who are behind the lawsuits against bootlegging, file sharing and illegal downloading. Police SWAT teams arrested DJ Drama and his protégé. The charge was racketeering under the RICO Act and violating copyright laws. They spent a night in jail and were released on bail the next day. The case itself will probably get thrown out. But the arrests reignited a sensitive issue in the music business.

The mix tape industry is an important, albeit sometimes illegitimate business. Called tapes, these are really mix CD's. Some mix tapes feature alternative versions of songs from superstar rappers. New artists are often mixed in, making mix tapes perfect for marketing new talent. Sometimes, the DJ will create their own mixes, or blend several songs together to create an entirely new mix. Other times rappers will freestyle on top of another’s song, creating a musical conversation to be answered on another mix tape. This is a very inside world for rappers, free from the typical standards issues that constraint traditional records. They are, very street.

Artists like Jay Z, DMX, P. Diddy, and Snoop Dogg all use mix tapes to keep their credibility real with a hip hop crowd that’s not interested in the major label hustle.

There are no set rules about mix tapes, but they've become a key marketing ingredient for rappers to build credibility. So important in fact, that major labels often commission mixers to make them. 50 Cent built his career releasing a dozen or more mix tapes before his official CD was released by Interscope. Once created, mix tape cds are promotionally distributed to street teams to give away. Sometimes they are legitimately sold in stores in a joint agreement with mix tapers. But sometimes, mix tapers bootleg the songs illegally, manufacture and sell CD's on street corners, at swap meets and in mom-and-pop record stores. Even a traditional site like carries dozens of illegal mix tapes. There's real income being generated and major labels are not reaping the profit.

Because credibility is essential in rap, major labels have turned a blind eye to the mix tapers income up until now.

So it should come as no surprise that following two weeks of the most significant sales decline in music history, the RIAA would go after mix tapers.

Arresting mix tapers and trying to stop the mix tape business is not the way to go. Rap music used to build its following through MTV airplay and six-figure marketing plans financed by record labels. With MTV now more interested in reality television and declining marketing budgets at record labels, mix tapes make a lot of sense. The better solution is that record labels work out deals with mix tape producers to build legitimate businesses together. Then, they might just save the goose that's laying their golden eggs.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.