Don't talk to Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott about how bad things are supposed to be in the music business.
The Portsmouth, Va., native's debut album, "Supa Dupa Fly," burst onto the nation's pop chart at No. 3 during its first week in the stores, selling an estimated 130,000 units.
That's more albums sold in the last seven days than U2, Paul McCartney, Aerosmith and Jon Bon Jovi combined. The fact that a virtually unknown young black artist can outsell a bevy of aging stars underscores the strength of hip-hop music as a commercial force in the mainstream market.
While analysts and record executives whine about how tough the music business is this year, particularly in the rock market, fans of black music are turning out in droves to snap up the latest rap, rhythm and blues, gospel and hip-hop music released. Black music appeals to consumers of all colors and generates billions of dollars in annual revenue around the globe.
Indeed, more than one-third of the best-selling albums on this week's pop chart were written and recorded by black artists. So far this year, sales of R&B albums are up nearly 13% over last year--more than twice the increase of all album sales, according to SoundScan.
Even this year's best-selling pop acts--Hanson, Prodigy and the Spice Girls--imitate or draw heavily from rap and R&B.
As a result, record executives who predicted that rap music was a fad and closed their urban divisions a few years ago are scrambling to find a way to get back into the urban business.
"There is a reason why my album is blowing up," said Elliott, who writes, raps, sings and produces her own music as well as runs her own Elektra Entertainment-affiliated label, named Gold Mind Inc. "I'm not living in the past. I'm futuristic."
Elliott joins a legion of young black entrepreneurs whose companies have dominated the charts in recent years, including Bad Boy's Sean "Puffy" Combs, Def Jam's Russell Simmons, Death Row's Marion "Suge" Knight and LaFace's Kenny "BabyFace" Edmonds and Antonio "L.A." Reid.
Talented black entrepreneurs have found success by cutting joint venture label deals with such major companies as Arista, Interscope, Universal, PolyGram and Sony--which provide financing, manufacturing and distribution in exchange for a share of the profits.
Under these joint ventures, entrepreneurs not only wield more creative control over their music, but also make a great deal more money than if they worked directly for the corporation.
Although the parent companies may give up $2 or more per record under a joint venture, they can profit handsomely.
The corporations reap manufacturing and distribution fees from each record pressed, gain respect on Wall Street for the market share these labels provide and add credibility on the street with hip-hop fans.
Indeed, Arista and Interscope have emerged as two of the most successful companies in the business in recent years, thanks in large part to a string of rap and R&B hits delivered by black entrepreneurs with whom they cut joint ventures.
"The marketplace is just brimming with hip-hop talent," said Elektra Entertainment Chairwoman Sylvia Rhone, who signed Elliott to a label deal after fierce bidding with several competitors. "There are so many fantastic black artists and producers sprouting up everywhere. The fact is that hip-hop music is really driving the economy of the record business these days. It's the force drawing consumers into record stores."
Black entrepreneurs chuckle about the white executives who predicted 10 years ago that rap was a fad doomed to die a quick death. Despite criticism from politicians and parent watchdogs, rap has thrived, with hip-hop artists providing the industry with some of its top moneymakers in recent years.
Rap producer and star Sean "Puffy" Combs has had a lock on the No. 1 spot on the pop singles chart for the last 36 weeks, and his debut album, which was released Tuesday, is expected to enter the pop album chart at No. 1 next week.
Although this is Elliott's first solo album, she has been building a fan base over the last few years by appearing on songs she wrote for such rap and R&B acts as Jodeci, Aaliyah and MC Lyte. The concept of introducing fans to a new artist in this fashion is common in the hip-hop world. Rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg got his start appearing in videos and albums by Dr. Dre, as did Puffy Combs, by singing and dancing in videos by artists on his label.
Firms that downsized their urban music divisions during the alternative rock boom of the early 1990s are suddenly grappling to get a foothold in the black music market.
EMI Music shocked the record industry several years ago when it shut down the black music division at Capitol Records, once home to Nat King Cole and other famous African American stars. A&M followed suit and then dumped Perspective Records, an unprofitable joint venture with R&B producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Last month, A&M hired urban- talent whiz John McClain from Interscope to reboot its urban division, and Capitol is rumored to be working on a deal to align itself with rap powerhouse Priority Records. Even Geffen Records, known primarily as an alternative rock label, and Disney are said to have made overtures in recent weeks to beef up their presence in the black music arena.
"No matter what any of these old out-of-touch executives tell you, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the music business right now," one record chief said. "The fact is, these guys are just selling the wrong kind of music."
It's a Black Market for MusicFor more than a year, rock record executives have complained about a down market. But there's been strong growth in black music genres: rap, rhythm and blues, and gospel. Percentage of sales based on manufacturers' shipments at suggested list price:
Rock and pop: 41.9%
Rap, R&B and gospel: 25.3%
Source: Recording Industry Assn. of America