Mix Tapes and Mixed Messages

Mix Tapes and Mixed Messages
Ever bought a DJ mix tape? Perhaps you appreciate a specific DJ's skills, or their selection of super fresh hip-hop, house or drum & bass tunes. Perhaps you've discovered artists and albums you'd never otherwise have heard. You may be an accessory to a crime.

On October 4, seven police officers paid surprise visits to two Toronto dance music record stores, Play de Record and Traxx. Armed with search warrants, the police shut down the shops, seized their selection of DJ mix tapes, and charged the owners and a few employees with fraud. After more than seven years of selling these tapes with no prior warning from any legal or music industry authorities, the owners were more than surprised. That surprise was echoed by DJs - mix tape producers or not - and others in the industry as word quickly spread of the bust. The months following have seen a growing chasm between those who see DJ mix tapes as a clear form of piracy, and those who point out that record labels rely on the tapes as a cheap marketing tool. In fact, label publicists and promoters are often the ones feeding fresh, new, often advance tracks to these DJs.

"The promotional element is something that may have been a consideration in previous years," says Brian Robertson, president of the Canadian Recording Industry Association (C.R.I.A.). "The issue here is of copyrighted sound recordings being reproduced without permission and somebody creating a pretty healthy business out of it."

It appears the very record labels who have relied on mix tapes as inexpensive and effective promotional tools, particularly for hip-hop and R&B artists, now feel that DJ mix tapes are cutting into record sales and therefore must be stopped. According to C.R.I.A. representatives, all five major labels have signed letters of support empowering C.R.I.A. to act on this matter.

"It's a highly volatile issue," says one major label promo rep, who suggests that I speak with a "higher up." "How do you balance it out between promotion, free marketing and royalty loss?" he continues. "It's money that's not being spent on royalties, but it's free promotion that we're getting because all the coolest people have the stuff and they tell their friends, who will then actually buy the material. But when it gets to the point where we're starting to see huge declines in hip-hop sales, we have to ask if it's because of mix tapes being so damn popular right now."

"There are two sides of the coin," according to promoter Jonathan Ramos, who manages Ivana Santilli and is the former V.P. of Marketing for Beat Factory Records. "This could be called entrapment. There are record companies that service these DJs with product, and there's no indication that you can't use the material on mix tapes. In fact, there are DJs that receive written requests, asking 'Can you put this on your next mix tape?' DJs often service tapes back to the labels to show that they deserve servicing.

"On paper," Ramos continues, "it's piracy, but then there's this whole grey area of how the labels were and are a part of this. What makes mix tapes special and different from home taping is that the labels are able to manipulate it. They get exposure, and if any music needs exposure, it's urban music - there's no commercial radio and there's barely any TV. In this country, I see mix tapes as black radio. I've seen and done marketing plans for American and Canadian labels and step one, six months prior to a record's release, is to give a white label single to mix tape DJs. It's a given. Ultimately, this bust and decision will hurt the artists, especially independents, because they're not getting exposure anywhere else."

Cheer DJ Pool founder and music journalist Daniel Caudeiron sees the issue from the artists' point of view. "You cannot serve the mainstream and the underground simultaneously," he says. "My perspective is that the artists, creators, and copyright holders all must be protected. The guys selling these tapes are making money and they ain't paying no dues into SOCAN or ASCAP on behalf of anybody. The artist might think that they're getting promotion, but in the long run, in my view, they're getting short-changed."

Certainly, there are plenty of grey areas where this issue is concerned, and marketing and legal departments at labels may be sending contradictory messages. The biggest shame is that these mixed messages have resulted in strong promoters of Canadian talent - the store owners and employees - being branded criminals.

"There are labels and there are promo people working at labels who turn a blind eye, yes," acknowledges Caudeiron. "And they have given people the tacit indication that it is OK to do this as long as you don't overdo it and press 5,000 copies. It's the 'don't wake the sleeping giant' type of thing, but now that we've woken the giant up, it's going to be tough times."

Both Play de Record and Traxx will be defending themselves in court from mid-December. In the meantime, dance music shops across the country have pulled mix tapes from their shelves and affected artists have lost one of their few means of promotion.

"In an ideal world," according to one major label promo rep, "it would be like 'That guy's selling 10,000 a month of his mix tapes? Sign him, get him to make them for us, take our cut.' That's the music company perspective."

"What I'd love to do is get the five heads of business affairs into one room, have the marketing people there and say 'OK, figure out what the deal is,'" fantasises a frustrated Ramos. "I think the onus is on the record companies. The problem is not 'Are they bootlegging? Is it piracy?' It's like, 'Get it right.'"