VIRANI: Streaming music may be eventual future of hip-hop
Opinions Column: From Breaks to Bars
In case you haven’t heard, Chance the Rapper won a few Grammys this year. His mixtape "Coloring Book" was the first streaming-only album to ever win a Grammy Award, and though his accomplishments are a win to independent artists everywhere, skeptics continue to point to his deal with Apple Music to discredit the rapper’s status as a true independent artist. Last Friday, Chance the Rapper revealed some of the specifics to his deal with Apple for exclusive rights to his mixtape "Coloring Book." His decision was based on the fact that “more people have tried to discredit my independence,” and he elaborates that Apple paid him $500,000 for exclusive rights for his mixtape for the first two weeks after its release, and after that period the album was available on sites like Soundcloud for free. And Chance is, in his unique way, a pioneer in hip-hop’s movement away from record labels and CDs and towards independent labels and internet streaming. Independent mixtape releases are the cornerstone of hip-hop, and they have existed long before Chance’s legacy. But mixtapes have always been seen as a way to eventually move up to signing onto a record label. Rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Flatbush Zombies and Logic have all gotten record deals after initially releasing mixtapes. But Chance the Rapper offers an alternative: He has proven that mixtapes don’t need to be reduced to a crutch for new artists. And he has proven that a mixtape can not only compete with albums, but they can win.
So will independent and streaming-only albums become the future of hip-hop? With artists like Jay-Z putting their money on music streaming and artists like Childish Gambino, Joey Bada$$ and Tyler the Creator going independent, big record labels are losing out on both the prospects of distributing physical copies of their music and recruiting the new popular rappers. Hip-hop is all about deviating from the norm. Are record labels the next authority that rappers are ready to reject?
With the growth of mainstream internet distribution, artists now more than ever have opportunities to promote their music without the help of record labels or distributors. Websites like Soundcloud are even beginning to offer popular artists the opportunity to get paid for their music. Sites like these also tend to keep track of total streams, creating its own form of ranking what’s popular and what’s not. Physical copies of CDs are no longer relevant — not when a simple link can give you free access to an album from any internet-accessing device. And though offering the music for free can decrease overall revenue, artists can easily make up for it by putting on shows, featuring on other albums and, like Chance did with Apple, offering exclusive rights to streaming sites for a finite period of time.
But there’s one critical setback that streaming-only albums face that threatens this entire transition altogether, and that’s billboard charts. Chance the Rapper discussed this issue in his cover story with Complex earlier this week. He describes how since charts primarily use the number of units sold as an indicator for rankings, albums that don’t distribute through conventional outlets like CDs and for-sale digital albums can’t place on the charts as easily. He states, “Fifteen-hundred streams is the equivalent to one (album sale), and that's just — that's unfair. Nobody listens to their songs (1,500) times when they buy it.” Chance also mentions that it’s this glaring flaw in the streaming system that’s making him consider actually selling his next album rather than giving it out for free and facing the burden of the crazy streams-to-units conversion rate. So it may be possible that even Chance, the symbol of hope for the streaming-only model, may be converting to its more conventional predecessor. And yes, music is more than just placing on the charts, but that’s easier said than done. Musicians, especially new ones who need to make a name for themselves, often rely on that Billboard placement to officially carve out space for themselves in the music industry. And that might be reason enough to give up full independence of their music and put themselves at the mercy of record labels and distributors.
So maybe a future of streaming-only hip-hop is just a utopian dream for fans like me who hope that one day hip-hop can escape the business and politics of it all and just make music. Or maybe the music industry as a whole just needs some time to accommodate for independent and streaming-only artists.
Jhanvi Virani is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in Computer Science and History. Her column, “From Breaks to Bars,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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