Young Guru on the business of piracy

This past fall PopTech had an opportunity to ask hip-hop legend Young Guru (PopTech 2012) about surviving and even prospering in a music business in which the traditional money-for-music distribution model has been completely upended over the past 15 years. "I tell all the artists now, ‘You know, charity is the fastest way to get rich,'" Guru responded. "You are going to have to give away something to bring attention to yourself. And then you can sell whatever it is you are trying to sell."

Over most of those 15 years, the music industry has mostly behaved like a sclerotic, litigious bureaucracy, fighting tooth and nail against the ascendancy of easily transmittable digital music. But fighting piracy is a losing game, Guru says. 

"Once the consumer buys into something, it is there," he explained. "You shouldn’t fight it and you should try to figure out a way to deal with it."

Hip-hop artists know a thing or two about piracy, since the music is largely based on samples from another artist. Guru also shows how it is surprisingly difficult to define piracy in the first place. On stage at PopTech 2012 Guru breaks down a beat by Al Green. Is he stealing? Or is he making art?

If music piracy is hard to define and even harder to stop, how do artists make money? In his interview, Guru suggests embracing the free online buzz that comes with widespread piracy of music to help sell the perception of cool. That doesn't necessarily mean selling CD's, records, or even songs. It might mean building a brand through incessant touring and a vigorous online presence, and then selling music to advertisers or as part of a movie soundtrack, or selling something else entirely.

"Branding is the most important thing at this point," Guru says. "There are plenty of things that artists are doing now outside of just making music that brings them revenue streams." he adds. "I can sell whatever item or piece of clothing I want to sell because the person themselves are cool, versus just having a cool album that I am selling."

In his 2012 PopTech talk onstage, Guru further elucidated his prescription for nimble resiliency during monumental business shifts like the kind the music industry faces. Resiliency in his industry means embracing the exponential marketing power and exposure that piracy offers artists. "Piracy pushes culture and makes us adapt and change," he said. 

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