From working on NPC-60’s to DAW’s. Few have been able to encapsulate the music marketplace, and none can say that they have had the career or longevity that Dallas Austin has. Born on December 29th, 1970, Austin was brought into a world where others were failing to even get their foot into the door. Austin was introduced to music through the clubs that his parents owned and his brothers who were in a marching band. The giant leap into the intoxicating music industry is when Austin’s bass player stepfather Jimmy Knowles took him on the road with one of the greatest showmen of all time, James Brown, “I spent a summer on the road with the J.B.’s, and from that point, I just knew that I was a music fanatic.”
When most parents hear that one of their children wants to go into a volatile and unstable industry like the music industry, most would think to discourage them. But not Austin’s mother, “Either your parents encourage it or discourage it, but my mother encouraged it when she saw just how determined I was.”
What proceeded that moment would be a long line of the aforementioned success followed by acclaim. One of Austin’s first official forays into the industry was through the group, Another Bad Creation. Having moved from Columbus to Atlanta, Austin produced the immensely successful group. The group was described as the “landline to Motown and the new wave of emerging music.” Another Bad Creation’s success would pave the way for Austin’s musical empire to be located out of the metropolis of Atlanta. Austin said, “The kids were 5 to 11. Imagine kids that age singing and dancing. They blew up before Boyz II Men. We dressed them at Lenox. We made the music and the vision came together. Motown then came down and said that you are going to be incredible in the record business. You are clothing them. You are marketing them; you are writing the songs. You’re doing everything that we are doing.”
When the group took off, a new era of people in Atlanta listening to records skyrocketed. Austin proceeded the same steps to repeat the success that he had previously seen but in other groups. Some of those groups include international heavy-hitters such as TLC, PINK, and of course, Boyz II Men. During this time, all eyes were set on Atlanta. Austin would go on to say, “We nourished the industry that brought on T.I., OutKast, Ludacris, and it kept going on.”
Other sounds around the world would then go on to emulate the unique sound that Atlanta brought to the market. It isn’t easy to compete with what Atlanta has offered for the last 30 years. But now that the Atlanta soundscape has been established, how does it not become the same rhythm and dance that people are used to? In the age of the internet, being able to find new talent has never been easier. With the advancement of technology, it is now more accessible for people to make songs. It could even be done from your garage. There are now so many ways to be seen. YouTube, Instagram, and the plethora of social media applications. But how does a music producer discern the good from the bad? The answer is a lot crazier than you might think, “You have to be the purple cow. What you are listening to now is already two years old to a record producer. We want to know what is next. There has got to be something to catapult you all the way through. Like a purple cow, you have to be the same, but different.”
“So when most artists get into trouble with their labels, it is often because of miseducation.”
– Dallas Austin
Finding new and exciting artists is a daunting task for any producer. Thousands of acts come through a producer’s door. Thousands of performance’s before they see a performer like Usher, Bieber, or Beyonce. It’s not easy to find an act that would stay in your mind. The internet took the gatekeeper’s away from the music industry, “Soulja Boy was the first one to be discovered outside of traditional means. He did it with BAPE. He released it on MySpace, and it just took off. The record labels had to take a second and figure out what was going on,” Austin said.
A lot of artists now cut to the chase, because of the access that SoundCloud provides. They can now show that they have the numbers to back up what they can bring to the label. But just because you reach a point of success on your own and sign to a label doesn’t necessarily mean that you make it. When you are a consistent recording artist who is not signed to a label and only self promotes, you can potentially make some money. But for most artists who are struggling to make a living solely on their music, any deal you come across is almost certainly one that you will take. Because being signed to a reputable label, you could make exponentially more money. Austin provided insight into what an investment from a record label looks like in the age of access, “The contracts, in the beginning, are made so that there is a higher possibility of the label getting their money back as there is a good chance that the artist won’t earn it back. The whole point of a label is to not only get their money back but actually earn some more. If you are lucky enough to have success, the first thing that is done is the artist undergoes a contract renegotiation so that they can earn some more money. A lot of the time, when you see rappers with money stacked right next to them, that is the money they perform from doing live shows. It’s not from royalties. Shows are usually paid in cash.” Most of the time, artists that just made it large aren’t thinking about royalty money as much because the show money is so big and it takes so many streams to make a profit. That it’s just not worth putting a whole lot of thought into. Even going back to the old school days, groups like The Rolling Stones, The O.J.’s, and even The Temptations were only making money through their shows and not their royalties. Things changed though when Apple and Spotify started buying the licensed music from the labels. It became harder to make money off of the song. Usually, most believe that they are making more money than they actually are.
Austin explained, “I educate more people off the bat. When I am working with you and we are partners, I will educate you because you are a grown-up. So we need to understand everything, and it leads to a more honest and open relationship. So when most artists get into trouble with their labels, it is often because of miseducation.”
This is all without considering foreign markets. Usually, when a new artists releases, they are only released in America, and if they blow up then the label will release internationally and cross over into other markets. Austin went on to say, “It’s not fair for the creators who are only making 0.00001% per stream or sale. I know brilliant songwriters who have to drive Uber. It doesn’t matter if they are in Nashville or L.A. Technology came so fast that the record industry didn’t have enough time to catch up. A lot of the executives were old, so when the innovation of technology came through, they were not bothered to learn as they were already concerned about cashing themselves out. So all the tech companies came in and raided them. They came to the labels and offered them blanket licenses to use everything. Universal rights. That has to be fixed because it’s the songwriters and artists that suffer, and usually, the artists streaming numbers aren’t released to them.”
Austin has not only looked to help artists that he knows overcome these issues, but to help students in avoiding these pitfalls. Austin was on Georgia State University’s campus with an acquaintance and came up with the idea to expose students to the intricacies of the music industry, “I got the idea to use students on the stuff that I was working on. It could go on their resumes; they would get work experience instead of simulations of what it is supposed to be.”
Fast forward in time to 2019. The Creative Media Industries Institute or CMII has just gone live, and Austin receives a phone call saying they would like him to be the Artist-in-residence at the new facility. This would put him directly in line with the students with his own office and everything accompanying it. Austin has been heavily involved with the students and what they are working on, “I’m in the studio asking, what are you working on? Show me the project. Show me your music, how can we utilize each other”.
One of the other ventures that Austin is getting into is NFTs. For those who don’t know, NFTs are Non-Fungible Tokens. They are commonly associated with photos, videos, and even audio (amongst a notable amount of other digital file types). Using blockchain technology, they are irreplaceable assets. They can be bought or sold as digital artwork. In a study done by Forbes, a surreal $174 million dollars have been spent on NFTs and Austin wants in, “I’ve been doing a lot with NFTs and music. Teaching how it really forms and making our own smart contracts for recording artists. Students were involved in shows as well. We come down and ask who is into marketing? Who is into distribution? Who is into what? I want to teach students real skills in real ways so that when they get out of school they can apply their talents in real places”.
But Austin’s yearning to teach doesn’t end on a technical level, but a moral one as well, “I want to teach them to be responsible and dependable. Those two will kill off the smartest person who thinks they are the smartest person and the most talented person; when a person starts relying on you, that’s when you know that you are really good. The first thing I ask the students when I meet them is, what is your major? What do you really want to be doing? Often times those two are at odds with each other, and that’s where a lot of holes are. Suppose you are a journalism major and are really good at but want to work in A&R at a label in the music industry. Don’t go out and throw away what you are good at. Go work as a music journalist in the music industry. Don’t disregard what your gift is”.
One of the other resources that Austin has provided the students is through his distribution company, Rowdy Records. Students have access to have their projects listened to through his company,
“The incubation process is a little different. I’ll have students sign up, and on Sunday, I’ll go through them and listen to them and see who has what”.
Austin goes the extra mile and immerses students in real situations having real discussions over music. Austin’s goal is to bring music to Blockchain. NFT assign value to art on a system that is ever-expanding with no sign of slowing down. Austin wants to give musicians a jump on as it will take the labels a while to catch up. He is bringing power back to the artists.
Rounding down our interview was one last vital question. One that has been echoed throughout hip-hop and rap history. A debate that has been going on for generations. Old School vs. New School. Austin replied, “Old School. I haven’t seen enough from New School to make me reconsider that. There is so much value with Old School, along with the amount of culture that comes with it. The newest thing that people have been pulling from has been dubstep. There is so much stuff to look at in Old School. There is just so much inspiration. I’ve since been sampling my stuff from the 90s. I haven’t found any New School music that has me feeling the same way as Old School music”.