10 Things ‘Empire’ Gets Wrong About the Hip-Hop Industry

FOX’s Empire is only expanding, emerging as this season’s top-rated network drama and enjoying steadily rising ratings since its January premiere. It’s easy to see the show’s appeal: Taraji P. Henson does a stellar job at portraying the brutally honest, ‘hood fabulous, and always fiercely dressed Cookie Lyon, ex wife of music mogul and record company CEO Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard); there’s plenty of catchy music in every episode, all which can be downloaded on iTunes; and most importantly, there’s no shortage of drama.

That said, the music industry is very different from what we see in this over-the-top, soap opera-esque drama so, in order to separate fact from fiction, here are 10 hip-hop industry realities Empire gets way wrong:

1. Record company CEOs don’t sit in on artists’ studio session

1. Record company CEOs don’t sit in on artists’ studio session

Sure, a real-life Lucious Lyon might occasionally visit his son Hakeem while he’s recording in the studio, but why would he be sitting in on a recording session for his soul artist Veronika (played by Veronika Bozeman)? Remember the first scene in the pilot, when Lucious walks up to Veronika and asks her to sing “What Is Love” as if she were dying and it was the last song she would ever perform? That would never happen IRL. Why? Because music industry CEOs, even those overseeing independent record labels, are too busy making decisions at the exec level and so they rely on artists’ managers to supervise these studio sessions.

2. There’s a difference between being an executive producer and a music producer

2. There’s a difference between being an executive producer and a music producer

When Cookie (played by Taraji P. Henson) first moves into her broom closet of an office, she hangs up a number of framed Lucious Lyon albums on one wall, declaring: “I produced all those albums.”  But based on what we see later, what she meant was that she executive produced the hit albums — an important distinction. It’s the same role she’s taken on with Jamal’s (played by Jussie Smollett) debut album. Thus far, she’s found studios in which Jamal could record (including the sketchy one uptown), given input regarding song ideas and vocal arrangements, and sought out potential collaborators — all duties of an executive producer. A record producer, on the other hand, is typically responsible for actually crafting the instrumentals within a song through the use of samplers, drum machines, DAW sequencers, live instrumentation, synthesizers, and so forth. We haven’t exactly seen Cookie the Beat Maker just yet, so the show’s writers might want to choose their language more carefully.

3. In-house recording studios are largely extinct

3. In-house recording studios are largely extinct

All those scenes in which Jamal and Hakeem (played by Bryshere Y. Gray) are crooning or rapping in the Empire-owned recording studio? That steamy scene in which Cookie and Lucious get kinky on the mixing board in the studio? Not exactly realistic. These days virtually no record company owns their own studios. Why? First, because the artists on their rosters live all over the country (or even the world) and it’s simply more cost-efficient to pay for time within a studio close to their home base. Second, since the launch of sophisticated recording and editing software like Pro Tools, more producers are building at-home recording studios, bypassing the need to visit traditional studio establishments. Rappers, beat makers, and singers can email verses and beats back-and-forth without spending countless hours together in one space.

4. Where are the Latinos?

4. Where are the Latinos?

Though it’s an exciting, juicy, melodramatic show, Empire does the Latino community a huge disservice by positioning the entire hip-hop business as black and white — literally. In the pilot episode, when Lucious announces the upcoming IPO, he looks upon a conference room filled with black executives, with only two or three white businessmen in the group. The same is true of the A&R executives over which Anika (played by Grace Gealey) presides in the “False Imposition” episode. There are plenty of Latino publicists, managers, agents, lawyers, and executives within every record label, so why don't we see any on the show? Not a single one? C’mon now! To ignore the Latino community in a series centered on hip-hop music is to perpetuate the myth that, somehow, we weren’t involved in the birth and evolution of this genre, which is not only offensive, but also inaccurate.

5. Legalities greatly delay the process of releasing music to the public

5. Legalities greatly delay the process of releasing music to the public

In Empire, Hakeem can go into the studio, cut a song, and — boom! — it hits the airwaves. In the real world, before any single can be released, a dozen lawyers and executives fret over music sample clearances, publishing rights, licensing, and royalties, drafting up a series of contracts that would need to be approved by all parties. Otherwise, the artist won’t see a nickel for all of his hard work.

6. Most signed artists have iron-clad contracts they can’t break

6. Most signed artists have iron-clad contracts they can’t break

In Empire’s “Unto the Breach” ep, the Lyon clan declares war on Creedmore Records, the label owned by Lucious’ long-time rival, Billy Berretti. Given Anika’s backstabbing ways, everyone panics about their artists jumping ship to Creedmore, so they buckle down and go into battle mode. Fact of the matter is this scenario would never transpire in real life. Recording contracts are notoriously constrictive — so much so that artists have been known to publicly plea to be freed from these agreements. Even Lil’ Wayne, a bona fide star, is fighting to leave Cash Money, the label he’s been signed to since he was 13 years old. Bottom line: you can’t move from one record label to the next on a whim.

7. No one is making videos costing over $1 million these days!

7. No one is making videos costing over $1 million these days!

While Hakeem is filming the cliché-laden video for his horrendous “Drip Drop” single, his brother Andre (played by Trai Byers) points out that the production is $1 million over budget. This, of course, begs the question: How much does the average hip-hop video cost these days? Well, to put it in perspective, the Hype Williams-directed video for Kanye West’s “Stronger” cost $1.2 million, and it ranks among the top 25 most expensive music videos ever made. Sure, there are other, albeit few, hip-hop videos on the list — among them Busta Rhymes’ 1999 video “What’s It Gonna Be?!” which cost $2.4 million and Puff Daddy’s 1998 video “Victory,” which cost $2.7 million — but these costlier productions date back 15 years or more. Even today’s biggest acts, from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift, wouldn’t dole out that much cash for a video. But Hakeem would? Please!

8. Where are all the publicists and marketing mavens?

8. Where are all the publicists and marketing mavens?

With all these scandals being leaked to blogs — from Hakeem’s Obama-bashing rant, which was caught on video, to the saucy photos of Tiana on PerezHilton.com, canoodling with her lady love while being romantically linked to Hakeem — you would expect an army of publicists to be working on damage control. But somehow, Empire never shows the masters of the spin, the media-savvy masterminds who ultimately mold artists’ images and deftly shelter them from scandals. Cookie alone can’t fix everything!

9. There’s no getting past security!

9. There’s no getting past security!

Record labels, particularly profitable ones like Lucious Lyons’ Empire, are typically housed in tall buildings with lobbies filled with security checkpoints. To visit an employee, you must first step to the front desk area, present a valid ID, sign in, and wait as the person behind the desk dials the your contact and verifies that he/she is, in fact, expecting you. Next, they typically print out a label with your name, identifying you as a visitor, and make you wear that bad boy right on your chest. And, even once the elevators open on a specific floor, you still need someone to buzz you in to make it through he big glass doors on either side of the corridor. Yes, that scene in the pilot where Cookie strolls into Lucious’ office with her trench coat draped over her shoulders makes for great soap-y drama, but it’s also beyond implausible.

10. You need to work with the Internet, not against it–

10. You need to work with the Internet, not against it

While trying to sign an artist, Andre Lyon actually uttered the following words: “You won’t be robbed by streaming services because you’re not going to need streaming services.”  Huh? Streaming services like Spotify and iHeartRadio represent the future and actually work with artists and record labels so that all parties can turn a profit while working with, rather than against, the realities of the digital age. These streaming services steer users away from online piracy (the real danger here) and, instead, encourage them to play the songs of their liking and to customize their listening experience by making and sharing playlists with friends. As these services have evolved, their business models have become more sophisticated. Any current business model should embrace streaming services, not eschew them!