Hustle in hard times

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U Don’t Hustle U Don’t Eat, the appropriate title of the March 2009 album by up-and-coming Menlo Park-East Palo Alto rapper A.G. Cubano, pretty much sums up the state of the once vibrantly lucrative local rap music economy. Profit-wise, it has steadily slid and deteriorated during the past decade amid an extremely tough and competitive environment, forcing artists into creative ways of generating cash.

"It’s ugly out there," said Walter Zelnick of City Hall Records in San Rafael, which has distributed independent local hip-hop since its beginnings in the 1980s. "Numbers are down all around. The numbers of stores out there are down. I don’t think kids even buy CDs anymore." San Francisco’s Open Mind Music, which closed on Halloween, and Streetlight Records in Noe Valley, which closes Jan. 31, are just two of latest retail victims.

"Just getting in the stores is hard as fuck nowadays. I didn’t realize it had gotten so bad," said Dave Paul, whose prolific long-time local indie label just released the Bay Area artists-filled Bomb Hip-Hop Compilation, Vol. 2, a sequel to the 1994 premier volume, which sold way more than the "maybe 600 or 700 CDs" he expects to move of the new disc.

Zelnick also fondly recalls the golden 1990s when local rap compilations like D-Shot’s Boss Ballin’ (Shot, 1995) and Master P’s West Coast Bad Boyz: Anotha Level of the Game (No Limit, 1995) would sell in numbers that now often qualify as No. 1 on Billboard‘s national pop albums chart. "When [E-40’s group] the Click first came out, they were selling over a 100,000. But then sales for artists went down to 50,000 or 40,000," Zelnick said. Now "average CD sales are more like 2,000. And many people are lucky to sell that."

"It’s not as nearly as easy as it once was out here when we could fuck around and sell 50-, 60-, 70,000 copies independently," said longtime Fillmore rapper San Quinn who just released From a Boy to a Man (SMC) and will soon follow up with the collaborative Welcome to Scokland (Ehust1.com) with Keak da Sneak. "I literally grew up in this Bay Area independent rap scene."

Known for his affiliation with JT the Bigga Figga’s Get Low Playaz and more recently for his ongoing feud with his cousin rapper Messy Marv, the 30-year-old rapper is a well-established artist. But even a high-profile performer like Quinn accepts that he will be lucky if he sells the 22,000 that his last solo CD, The Rock: Pressure Makes Diamonds (SMC) tracked on SoundScan. That was in 2006, two long digital years ago. As with many veteran rappers, downloaded music has hurt San Quinn. "The majority of my fans are white boys and Latinos and Asians that have that shit mastered," he said. "And it’s even harder for someone like me who is based out of the capitol of technology here in the Bay Area, home of Silicon Valley."

"Since the selling of CDs in stores has gone down, way down, everyone has had to step up their game," Cubano said. Two months before the release of U Don’t Hustle U Don’t Eat, the shrewd rapper will pave the way with the Feet to the Street mixtape in collaboration with Oakland’s Demolition Men, the accurately self-described "Bay Area mixtape kings," whose trusted brand has helped further fuel the careers of such local rap faves as J-Stalin, the Jacka, and Shady Nate. San Quinn and the Jacka, as well as C-BO and Matt Blaque, are among the names the ever-resourceful Cubano has enlisted for his upcoming releases.

"But then there are so many different ways to make money nowadays," Cubano added. "You can get money out of ringtones. You can sell your songs one at a time for $1 a piece on iTunes or from your MySpace even now. I love MySpace. It is great in so many ways, like connecting with artists straight away and not beat around the bush, waiting for a phone call, or waiting for a nightclub to see someone."

MySpace is also San Quinn’s lifeline where, the rapper said, his music’s daily plays are in the thousands. San Quinn generates money beyond CD and digital music sales. "I do ringtones. I do shows. I have a San Quinn skateboard that I put out through FTC," the rapper said. "On our first pressing we just had, I sold a thousand skateboards at $50 a piece and I get $25 off every skateboard."

He also makes a tidy income doing guest appearances or "features" on other artists releases ("They pay me for a verse"). "I’ve done over 3,000 features," he said of the feat that earned him an inclusion in Guinness World Records for the most collaborations with other artists. Landing on television or video game soundtracks can be highly profitable but also highly competitive.

But for an up-and-coming Bay Area hip-hop artist, it is even more challenging to make a buck. On one recent evening on the Pittsburg/Bay Point-to-San Francisco BART train, Macsen Apollo of Oakland’s V.E.R.A. Clique was putting a new spin on the "dirt hustlin’" sales approach pioneered in the 1990s by Hobo Junction and Mystik Journeymen by walking from car to car hawking copies of his hip-hop group’s CD, keeping a watchful eye out for BART police, in an effort to make some money from his music.

Meanwhile back at the City Hall Records offices and warehouse, where Zelnick works on orders for new releases from local rap cats Balance and Thizz artist Duna, things have changed a lot in a decade. "We’re really at a turning point here," he said. "We’re still here and someone is buying music, but I don’t know how much longer." Last week in the UK, with just a few weeks till Christmas, Britain’s key indie label distribution company Pinnacle Entertainment declared bankruptcy, leaving 400 imprints with no way to get their music into the diminishing number of music retail stores.

"Next year I ‘m going to put out Return of the DJ, Vol. 6 and that will be the final physical release I will ever do," said Bomb’s Paul, who believes the only way for rap artists to make money is to be increasingly innovative and to constantly tour and sell merchandise, including music, along the way. "In the very near future I think the only place left to buy a CD is to go a show. Artists have to come up with new ways to generate cash. I heard of some artists who will sell backstage passes for $300 — or whatever they can get."

Cubano concurs. "If you’re sitting around waiting for that call, it ain’t gonna come," he quipped. "You have to get out there. You gotta be in traffic. People have to expand their hustle. Otherwise you don’t eat."