Anyone overhearing Randy Weaver say he wants to change artists' minds and restore independent Hip Hop's viability through a nonprofit Web site might assume he has a Napoleon complex. Yet Napoleon censored and policed artists.
Weaver sees his Web site, passthe mic.com (PTM), as "an A&R taxi" that helps artists get their feet wet; where they land is strictly up to him or her.
"We would like to be the first stop," says Barb Kendrick, artist manager and PTM committee member. "If you're thinking about a career in Hip Hop, we'll school you."
Relatively unknown leaders of the new school, Weaver and the Cincinnati staff of PTM see potential for independent labels to build infrastructures that outgun the majors — if they band together as an "independent army."
"It is a revolutionary concept to bring the music back to the independents," Weaver says. "I feel (major labels) are big and sluggish and they need too much money to operate. But what if an organization like PTM grouped several thousand indie artists under one umbrella and approached Sam Goody (for distribution)? I believe we can use that clout to revolutionize the music industry, because we're artist-centric and the record labels are big, fat and clunky right now."
Streamlined, PTM offers artists a "do-it-yourself" approach. Offline, PTM benefit concerts build stage presence and compilation CDs give recognition. Online distribution, CD duplication services, MP3 peer-rating and an indie label, Movement Records, guide artists a step further. Artist and producer Jay-Wiz says the feedback to PTM also helps.
"Some guy from Brazil heard one of my songs on PTM and asked me if he could play it overseas," he says. "I'm like, 'Go 'head!' "
But like Jay-Wiz, artists have to be willing to do his or her own promotion.
"The artists should know when they come in we don't have a large budget, so this is a 'help yourself' kind of deal," Kendrick says.
One leisurely Sunday afternoon, Weaver, his wife Angie and their two children return from a weekend camping trip to their routine of work. While the kids busy themselves with chores, Weaver prepares notes on his laptop for a committee meeting scheduled in a few minutes. In another room in their West side house that looks like a computer lab, Angie, the PTM site administrator, points to a wall encased in hardware.
"That's passthemic.com right there," she says. "This is the nerve center. But Randy can tell you more about that."
It isn't every day that people talk about Hip Hop giving back, and today Weaver is ready to share. The first thing he'll tell you is that he promotes being independent by choice, not by conviction.
"It's one thing to say you're independent because you haven't got a deal yet, but it's a whole 'nother thing to be independent by choice," he says.
He derived his abstract — part mission statement, part hard-knock testimony — from learning that the music business mostly discovers artists who already sell units, which is why he says he wants to school artists' expectations. When Weaver and T.K.O. won high school talent shows, he says they naively thought record scouts were in the audience.
"I was totally clueless about the industry," he admits. "(But) a lot of people are completely surprised. They think that the music industry is this magical place where you just gotta have talent and you'll make it. I did find that, when I first started out, what I needed was to learn the basics. I needed a 'place' and it wasn't there; it was just people I knew who taught me, and then I'd learn more and more. It was all scattered."
Self-taught in computer technology, Weaver created an online community and hoped people would trade advice and piece together scattered information.
After the site launched in 2000, Weaver realized PTM wouldn't just appeal locally: It became part of a movement. Globally, growing numbers of artists were independent by choice and, to the chagrin of major labels, file-share programs like Napster filled in for A&R.
Similarly, Weaver sees PTM as a tool capable of selling and promoting CDs. But since glitzy music videos parade the misconception of overnight success, PTM's staff agrees that education is needed to change artists' perception of the industry.
"Even if a major deal is where you'll end up going, a major label isn't gonna sign you if you haven't sold units already," Weaver says. "I've even heard of artists, really good artists, who've released their work but didn't focus on a promotion campaign. They've got their CD in all the stores, but nobody knows to go buy it."
"(As artists) we got a lot of knowledge about how to try to get a deal, but we don't have a lot of knowledge about doing it independently, and I think that's where PTM makes a difference," says Chestah T, promotions director. "PTM is trying to build templates of independent success. First we're trying to find already moving 'set in motion' examples."
Searching for artists, producers and individuals who are exemplary and independent, Weaver says PTM will honor Cincinnati by presenting the first independent Hip Hop awards show.
"Why shouldn't people be rewarded for their work in the independent music industry?" he says. "I see people that I've worked with forever who put in work — who gets the lifetime achievement award for that? They need to be recognized. We all should recognize ourselves. And we've gotta take ourselves seriously as artists. We're not amateurs right now, we're professionals in an independent setting."
Tim Savage, Web master of cincyhiphop.com and CEO of consulting firm Savage Syndications, says that an award show will give nominees industry credibility.
"In my experience, when we had the phillyhiphop.com awards, it was something so needed because (the recognition) wasn't there beforehand," he says. "Those awards really meant something. Outside of street credibility, it gave artists and companies real-life credibility."
But a laundry list of "to dos" loom ahead — creating a Who's Who database, hunting for investors and gathering nominations. Chestah says the hardest part is tracking CD sales and locating artists.
"We're talking about doing something majorly different, and it's not going to be simple," he says. "We need feedback from the community."
PASS THE MIC hosts a Hip Hop industry showcase in November at Top Cat's, 2820 Vine St., Corryville. For details on the showcase and the 2006 Cincinnati Independent Hip Hop Awards, check out passthemic.com.