The Rap Producer in the Streaming Era
Penny Fractions is back this week, even better than the last time you read it—or at least I hope so. This week I interviewed Daniele Yandel of the Washington, D.C. band Gauche, who just released a new record, A People’s History of Gauche, last week on Merge Records. Thus, I’ll just dive into the main topic and leave the mouthy introduction for another week!
The Joy of Type Beats
A couple years ago, after I was let go from MTV News, one of the first stories I reported on was about the YouTube trend of “Type Beats”. This particular phrase slowly became the default way up-and-coming producers would game YouTube SEO (search engine optimization) to allow aspiring rappers to find beats in the style of their favorite artists. The trend arrived from the SoundClick community of the late 2000s, where producers would upload and sell beats during the height of Myspace.
I’ve always held an affinity for rap producers, and have thought about how the internet’s changed what was previously a job where one would be hard pressed to recognize anyone but the superstars (e.g., Swizz Beatz, Mannie Fresh, Kanye West). Rap producers were often early to things like selling music online and joining new audio and video streaming platforms, allowing them to make a name in an industry that so often takes them for granted.
In May, Rob Markman interviewed producers !llmind and Statik Selektah about what it really means to be a producer in 2019 for his Genius show On the Record. The entire interview is worth a watch, but I wanted to highlight a few candid moments that intersected my two passions of labor and streaming. While this is a slightly odd format for the newsletter, Markman’s conversation seemed worth highlighting, so let’s jump right into that.
12 Ways to Get a Check
(See 3:35 - 6:25 for the discussion)
Answering Markman’s first question, Statik Selektah warns young producers that there isn’t a living to be made simply selling beats. Even though the most visible part of being a producer is selling beats, he advises others to look beyond that model. In fact, !llmind and Selektah list all the ways they bring in money beyond selling beats: publishing, streaming royalties, selling drum kits, DJing, and working with major brands like Nike and Rockstar Games.
This opening exchange grabbed me because oftentimes—across industries, but especially music—the best ways to make money or even how much one can earn can feel intentionally obscured, as if to create an artificial barrier between those in the industry and the outsiders. If an up-and-coming producer can expect to sell beats for four or five figures each, it's easy to see the path to a sustainable career; yet, as the two constantly restate, it may actually be worth waiving some cash upfront for more royalty points. There is no singular way forward in a career without any real guardrails or playbook for how to make it.
The different paths described by the two producers described are open to everyone and show the breadth of options open to aspiring producers. One doesn’t need to hit the lottery and get a string of Billboard hits to make it; the internet can help illuminate more opportunities for people with this unique skill set. That’s why it’s not hard to find producers that offer tutorials on YouTube or attempt to do soundtrack work. Even if I’m always a bit skeptical of crediting the internet for solving all worker problems, it’s really opened new doors for producers to reimagine their careers.
Is Streaming Helping the Producer?
(See 10:30 - 13:30 for the discussion)
I’ll just quote Markman because he states a core tenet of this entire newsletter: “Is the money back in the music business, especially for producers and songwriters and those behind the scenes, or is it not what it used to be?” !llmind and Selektah waffle a bit in their initial response. Both state that while not much of their income arrives directly from music streaming, for producers of their stature it could be an increasingly greater part of their income, as they’re working with artists who are getting those millions—not hundreds—of streams.
With that being said, I appreciate Markman for even asking the question. Later in the interview, Markman mentions Spotify along with other streaming services fighting back against a Copyright Royalty Board ruling to increase pay to songwriters, seemingly raising the question: if the music industry is thriving, why are these companies fighting so hard against increasing the pay of working musicians? My running theory is that any such concession to music workers would put the entire streaming business model in an even more precarious position, as it’s already a money-losing proposition. That tension raises the stakes for producers and songwriters, because if streaming services can’t payout more than they do now, then these workers may want to ask whether this system can work for them.
Tangent over. That’s why I appreciated Markman’s question and even !llmind’s wait-and-see response. History would say the music industry doesn’t let such profits trickle down, but perhaps without pressure, this system could change.
A Producer’s Union?!
(See 27:15 - 29:15 for the discussion)
My last note is about the idea of a music producer’s union, which !llmind mentioned. Chatter about a rap producers union certainly isn’t new. The Atlanta producer Sonny Digital mentioned the idea a couple of years ago and it continues to linger in the air without any forward momentum.
What’s interesting is that in an environment where there is organizing in digital media and tech (e.g., Kickstarter, the recent Amazon strike), these discussions seem more common across industries that run parallel with music. (Yes, this isn’t to forget that the American Federation of Musicians, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Writer Guild of America exists; I just wanted to highlight more emerging spaces of organizing.) Still, what exactly a rap producer union would look like is certainly up in the air. It’s clear from the interview, however, that there are plenty of labor issues within music production that organizing—not simply more tech—could solve.
I really do encourage people to check out this interview. I don’t know if I’ll do another write-up in this particular format, but it’d be great if a few more people could join the interesting discussion happening within the rap producers community.
This week’s Unheard Labor features a first for Penny Fractions: an interview! In June, I spoke to Daniele Yandel of the Washington D.C.-based bands Gauche and Priests about running an independent record label (Sister Polygon), YouTube culture, and ways to fix the broken parts of music streaming. I’m splitting the interview into two sections, so the second half will arrive next week.
(The interview was condensed and edited)
When I saw [Gauche] last year and you performed [“Conspiracy Theories”] live, and it wasn’t out or anything, I just remember being like, “What is this fucking song?” What led up to that track and what it’s sort of been like performing it, and performing more while you have it on the new record?
There’s a little bit in the [Baffler piece] that I wrote. I was just jamming with my partner and Mary in a practice space, just having a good time. My partner is kind of into conspiracy theories, which once all the Pizzagate stuff happened, I was kind of like, “Don’t talk to me about that shit. Get that away from me.” Conspiracy theories have a long history of being much more left-oriented and that’s how he got into them. He hates Alex Jones as well, but I was still kind of like, “Grrrr.” And so cause I was jamming with him and Mary, “Conspiracy theory” just kind of came out with the cadence I was playing on drums. Then that was what it was, we had those two lines: “Conspiracy theories, I hate Pizzagate / Alex Jones, fuck you too I hate you.” That was kind of it. Then we added all these instrumental moments, cause Gauche is a band of really sick instrumentalists; in a lot of our songs we leave spaces for people to solo, jam out, get weird.
The first time we performed it at [Comet Ping Pong], I think the people there really understood how frustrating it was having yourself painted as a pervert, a weirdo. There is a guy who works at Comet named Josh; he’s a popular drag queen around town and in a band called Homo Superior. And he really leans into being freaky or perverted on stage. He loved to troll all the right-wingers online and be like, “I’m a freaky pervert come right at me.”
We start performing it live and I see Josh and all my other friends who understand this feeling, and I just start moaning and making it weird. I got taken over by the feeling of like, “If you’re going to call me a pervert, well here you go.” I just leaned into that feeling and went hard. After performing the song like that, it just sorta became the shtick of the song. And in a lot of ways I thought it was unfinished, cause me and Mary jammed it and I was like, “This is a really good start to a song but we should do some more with it,” and Mary was like, “Nope, it’s perfect; just leave it how it is.”
Rap is always talking about the internet and internet-y kinds of things like Instagram. Obviously this is something that was happening IRL, but to me it was great to hear [that] those lyrics that [might] seem abstract can seem more real and far more vibrant.
A lot of rappers talk about the internet, because it’s so connected to their income and their ability to get by every day. They don’t have the buffer of Elizabeth Bishop [The 20th century poet] or other white rockers to be like, “My art is separate, different, etc.” It’s like no offense, but your art is now grounded in the internet, because you’re making your money off streaming, off YouTube, and off your social media profile. Some people have the privilege to ignore that social media is part of modern society—people like me, to be honest. I’m a middle class white person, overeducated, etc etc... A lot of people who come up in hip-hop don’t have that advantage and it’s interesting the way Pizzagate put me in that position. I didn’t have that privilege to see it as just an internet phenomena, because it came into my life in a very real, very visceral way.
There is a harder line to be like, “What happens online stays online.” No, it all kind of bleeds into one. So where does streaming fit in within your career and within the bands you’re in right now?
Gauche is entering a new phase right now, because Gauche hasn’t always been a commercial entity up until this point, but when we signed with Merge we kinda entered into the more commercial world. Before, we were essentially just a hometown punk band; we weren’t really making money. My other band, Priests, has been a commercial entity a lot longer, and because I help run a label, Sister Polygon Records, I see how different artists are plugged into streaming.
For Priests, we’ve been a band that’s always made more money off physical sales—sold a lot of records, tapes, and merch. Hit the road a lot, made our money off shows. We’re the old school version of a rock band or a punk band. I really got a new perspective on streaming when Sister Polygon put out Snail Mail; that was an artist who, yes, sold physically well, but was streamed incessantly. They were making a lot of money off digital sales and streams. I think a lot of that was related to their age and the age of their audience. They’re so young—they were like 16 when we put them out—and their audience is super young, so streaming is a bigger piece of the pie for making money. But for someone like me, who is 33 (everyone in Priests is over 30), our fanbase are the oldest millennials and Gen Xers.
6 Links 2 Read
YouTube's Trampled Foes Plot Antitrust Revenge - Bloomberg
YouTube certainly should be broken away from Google and made into a truly global public utility. Don’t worry, I’ll write a paper on this one day.
272m Americans listen to the radio each week – 7m more than in 2016 - Music Business Worldwide
People still listen to music on a platform that is entirely free. Big shocker.
YouTube Music vs Spotify vs Jio-Saavn: Music lovers spending more time on global streaming apps - Financial Express
I included this story because without seeing any meaningful demographic information, my gut would say that YouTube/Spotify’s audience—significantly smaller than Jio-Saavn’s—would be more engaged due to being early adopters, rather than the actual quality of the music apps.
YouTube adds Super Stickers and channel-membership tiers - Music Ally
I say this often, but the fact that there isn’t more post-record label experimentation with music on platforms like YouTube/Twitch is so strange to me. The more features these platforms add, the more I wonder what will be the breaking point for an artist to go all in. Maybe it could be a rap producer? : )
Independent Artists: The Age of Empowerment - MIDiA
To bounce off that idea of self-starting, MIDiA put out a new report on independent artists. Again, this does lead me to think that the labor of artists would always be better served if considered from the point of view of amateurs trying to make it a career, rather than the few who hit the lottery.
Is it time to rethink the music industry’s 24/7 relationship with social media? - Music Industry Musings
The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). If you’d like to support it, check out the Patreon page or follow it on Twitter. The artwork is by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel whose work can at his website. The newsletter is copy-edited by Mariana Carvalho, with additional support from Taylor Curry. My personal website is davidturner.work. My current job is Curation Analyst at SoundCloud, so all thoughts here represent me, not my employer. Any comments or concerns can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.