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Hip-Hop/R&B

Reinventing the wheel, part one

Michigan's FrontStreet Records mixes old and new school to nab the hip-hop consumer

Odell Palacio (left) and Dave Kelly.
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Published 4/7/2010

The music industry today is certainly a lot different than it was 20, 10, even five years ago. Music video request shows are irrelevant; radio is shunned as much as it's relied upon; and CD and vinyl buyers— the ones who prefer hardcopy over downloads — are purchasing music from their armchairs instead of lining up at record stores. And while dreaming up ill-fated attempts to make more money, many labels are resisting change more than they're adjusting to it.

Not FrontStreet Records. The Fenton-based label — home to several Detroit-area artists — claims it has paired acute business sense with identifiable music to secure a rare distribution deal that allows the label to directly upload music to iTunes. Combined with a focused Internet campaign, the company says it has found ways to succeed in the new digital music world.

"I've been an inquisitive person since I was a kid, when I was tearing radios apart to see how I could put them back together," said the company's founder, president and CEO, Dave Kelly. "Now, this is the biggest goal I've ever had — taking apart the music business and reassembling it."

Kelly, a Flint native, earned his stripes as a keyboardist and label co-owner (the original FrontStreet label) as a kid. After taking a four-year break to work in international finance, he re-established FrontStreet Records in 2002 and brought aboard two new people — producer Jason "Thirty" Bruyninga as production supervisor, and Odell Palacio to handle marketing and promotions. Bruyninga had previously done studio sessions with such rap legends as Dr. Dre and Jazze Pha as well as boasting production credits for such stars as Rick Ross and Freeway. Palacio's resume, meanwhile, included work as an intern at Universal Music Group and as urban market college rep for Atlantic Records. 

"Don't be afraid to be around other useful people who may have a different or unique angle on things," Kelly says. "Just because I may be almost twice someone's age, that doesn't mean I can't find perspective on what it is they have to share. I get great ideas from the people I have around and often make a plan based around what it is they say."

Kelly and his new team spent eight months building a studio and recording material with Deaji and JabberJaw (the latter now known as Jab), two artists Kelly had taken under his wing in previous years. Initially, Kelly and company looked to build their base with physical retail music stores. But Kelly saw the decreased value in modern record stores and the need for a new way to build interest.

"I thought that it was ridiculous for [major record labels] to try to ban [early free file sharing service] Napster when there were already a lot of people using it," Kelly says. "It's obvious there's a pattern of people who went to this place for their music. So you have to follow what the people want and be conscious of what people are looking at. Don't think you have it all together and that you know everything."

Kelly began to foster relationships with other retailers to secure digital distribution and started building an online music store of his own to sell FrontStreet's product. The team then relaunched their previous idea of "52/50" — a campaign to release 52 singles over the course of 50 weeks. The songs — which included Dux Jones and Braulio's "Same Story" and Jones' "Catch me Illin," among others — made waves with consumers both individually and as a collection. As a result, iTunes editors began featuring these songs in the store's spotlighted "New and Noteworthy" section. FrontStreet also released monthly comps that combined the label's singles with unreleased songs.

Eventually, FrontStreet landed the distribution deal with iTunes. The deal makes the songs available for purchase within 24 to 48 hours of release, making them more visible to iTunes editors, who may post them in "New and Noteworthy" and the store's other highlighted sections. Other indie musicians get their music into iTunes and other digital outlets via such distribution companies as CDBaby and TuneCore, which can take three weeks to post. "[The deal] makes us a 'big boy,'" Palacio beams. "iTunes is the biggest distributor in the world right now and we have a direct distribution deal. There's no other company in the area that has the deal we've got."

Palacio also insists that the importance of the iTunes distribution goes beyond positive press and bragging rights. The deal doesn't just make FrontStreet's music easily accessible to any customer; it makes the music available to the right customer.

"The hip-hop buyer is a tryer and a buyer. If they try it and don't like it, they're not dealing with it," Palacio says. "But iTunes requires you to have purchasing power to get an account. You go there as a consumer with the intent to purchase because you did all that work already. And if you don't buy the song, you can only hear a verse and a hook. Who goes to a grocery store just to try the free food on Sundays?

"Our deal with iTunes was strategic, because we're catering to the 'buying' market more than the trying market."

FrontStreet has the music to back up the plan.

The label has anchored its production team, dubbed the Skouts, which is Bruyninga, several label artists, and Kelly himself. The combo crafts soundbeds with "disgusting drums and harmonious melodies," Bruyninga says. The in-house production is done almost entirely without samples (tunes, lyrics, or other elements from previously-released songs) so the group provides a versatile range of music with a solid foundation.

"Without the sampling, a sound is coming out of here that nobody else is going to have," Bruyninga says. "We're developing a home sound, so people are going to be sampling us one day." He's no fan of the "shortcut" to simply adopt the sound of the moment. 

He continues: "Once we get more of a core audience, we'll have a distinctive sound that people will love and we'll have that audience forever."

The label's artists are an eclectic mix of young, charismatic emcees and singers with digestible lyrics and engaging mic presence. Detroit native Dux Jones (pronounced "Dukes" Jones) sports an effortless delivery with singing to deliver confident, radio-ready tunes such as "Ten Freaky Girls" (which recently entered the rotation of 95.5 FM) and "Same Story." Fellow Detroiter Oseeola (pronouncd ah-see-oh-la) is known for clever rhymes and an eye for aesthetics; he uses both on "Street Wear," which nabbed several features on HypeBeast.com, the go-to website for streetwear aficionados. Ann Arbor singer Braulio is the label's resident chorus vocalist, and Warren-based songbird Rai Knight may capture hearts with "Mr. Postman," a poppy ode to love letters.

"In the '70s, record companies were developing artists to make sure they had real fan bases while artists were bringing a piece of art to the table," Kelly says. "The '80s were all about just making a quick buck. Now, you have to get back to the old school to make it work — making records people can relate to and letting the [listeners] make a connection with the artists who are there."

William E. Ketchum III is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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