Paul Porter has been around long enough to watch the music business grow, evolve, and gradually approach its inevitable implosion. The erstwhile BET program director backs up his enviable resume with a deep knowledge of the music business. We caught up with Mr. Porter (no relations to Denaun) and asked him to help us navigate the murky waters of the music industry. How pervasive is payola? Is the mixtape dead? What does the future hold for indie labels? Porter peers into the crystal ball and provides some answers. Dig in.
The Rap Up: For those who’ve never heard of you, tell us a bit about your experience in the music industry so far, where you’ve been an what you’ve done.
Paul Porter: Long story. I got my start in college radio in Boston during the perfect time, the late 70’s. Music was alive and well from P-Funk, Commodores and the early stages of Rap with King Tim the 3rd and the Fatback Band, Prince, James Brown and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. Northeastern’s WRBB carved out my early stages which developed the careers of Wendy Williams and Jay Dixon the head of Urban Programming for Cox Radio and Darius Walker the NY Bureau Chief for CNN.
WILD, Boston’s only Black Commercial outlet, hired me away during my junior year and I doubled as a student, college hoop player and worked as AMD on-air personality. Two years later, Donnie Simpson called and offered me a gig at the then legendary NBC-owned WKYS in DC.
KYS led to my first television gig “Fresh” at WRC-TV. The weekend public affairs show gave me a chance to interview acts like Stacy Lattisaw, Johnny Gill and Mtume. That led to Music Video Connection the Gannett-owned local Friday night video show which I programmed and hosted in the late 80’s.
On to BET. Started subbing for Donnie Simpson hosting Video Soul. That soon morphed into a music consulting role picking videos and implementing the radio software system Selector for video at BET. I hosted Video Vibrations, Midnight Love, Video Soul and a host of on and off camera gigs. Did all the voice work and eventually became Program Director when the network climbed into 66 million homes.
Radio in NY, DC, Boston and Miami. Worked for AOL Music, The NBA and got into publishing and management going way back with the Whispers and hip-hop management with Two Kings in a Cipher who evolved into D-Dot and Ron Lawrence who went on to produce B.I.G and a numerous platinum records in the 90’s.
TRU: What is the single biggest mistake new artists are making today?
Porter: They lack knowledge. Most artists have no plan or clue on how much it costs or how to get connected. Unfortunately, a Mac and Pro Tools make it easy for everyone to make a recording. But 99% of the time, it ends there. Social media and the web have provided too many false hopes. I suggest that they consult with a professional before they get started. Walking into an A&R office is useless because now they have a certain criteria needed before they will even begin to take a look.
TRU: Obviously, some of these new artists need a cosign to get ahead nowadays. How do you get noticed by industry vets to the point where they deem you cosign-worthy?
Porter: Industry vets in reality don’t have signing power. That job is left to a few heads that are looking for established artists and producers. You can showcase your life away all you want and you’ll get nothing more than a meeting while ringing up dollars to be part of what I think is nothing more than another modern day money scheme. Those MC battles that create deals only exist in movies.
TRU: Is it more important to have a radio hit or a big name cosign?
Porter: I think the cosign is the quickest way in. Most new acts on labels are assigned a list of producers to work with. Brain matter is scarce at labels today. Having a group or producer cosign at the majors is the easy way in. Radio spins are a costly way of gaining major label attention. Any Indie label or artist would need to buy or be blessed with over 2000 spins to get major label attention and that costs major dollars. Indie promotion men start at $10,000 for smaller markets.
TRU: Aside from music itself, what are some other lucrative aspects of the music business?
Porter: Publishing, music licensing for television, touring, commercials and films. Labels have expanded the digital marketing side while eliminating most aspects of promotion. Street teams and on the ground marketing is still present but has also cut down to a major degree.
TRU: How pervasive is payola? Is it safe to assume that every song on the radio was bought and paid for?
Porter: Pay for play has been and will always be the heartbeat of the music industry. Payola has grown in some extent. After consolidation, those at the top had more control and the pay for play rates increased. Fewer PD’s [Program Directors] and DJ’s are in control of what they play. Trust me, the money flow is alive and well. The marriage between radio and records needs a divorce, but radio has decided to go down with the labels.
TRU: How valuable are mixtapes in today’s business?
Porter: To me, mixtapes are dead. There’s way too many, and it is slowly turning into the 8-track of the digital era– big and clumsy. Most new artists need to get attention by establishing there best shit first. That 8 to 10 track compilation is not the way to go.
TRU: Can you see a music industry without major labels?
Porter: Of course. There are plenty of indie labels but none are getting airplay or major exposure. Major labels spend the major money that get artists into the system. I think there will always be majors but they will continue to scale down to fit the market. Indie labels must have the money to compete with today’s ever changing market. The days of having just a great hit record alone are long gone.
TRU: There’s a kid somewhere who is utterly saddened by the bleak outlook of the music business. What advice would you give that person?
Porter: I would have to say get used to it. The majors are losing money every year trying to figure things out. The good thing is whoever is first to figure things out is going to make a fortune. Keep your head up and remember we have gone from lyricist to the lyrically challenged. I am sure that great music will return. The great thing about this capitalist society is eventually folks figure things out.
TRU: Where do you see the music business 10 years from now?
Porter: Ten years from now, I predict one or two consolidated companies. Independent music should surge with ease. Picking up streams in vehicles will be a real boost to the music market. Now, who controls internet content will be the next frontier. With Net Neutrality the tiered system reminiscent of cable TV will most likely limit who provides what. Music is the heartbeat of culture and it will always survive. Who runs it and profits the most in the future is wide open.
Follow Paul Porter on Twitter.