Why Rap's Reign Over Streaming Will End
7 min read

Why Rap's Reign Over Streaming Will End

Hello, hello, helloooo! This week’s newsletter is a throwback, but I’ll explain more about that in a second. The only piece of news I wanted to mention is that on June 26, I’ll be removing people who haven’t opened the newsletter in the last six months, since it costs money to send these emails and I’d rather they go to people who are opening them! Ironically if you’re reading this, then it won’t matter for you! Also, if you want to support the newsletter, tell a friend, co-worker, or mortal enemy about it!

I wanted to give a little context for this week’s newsletter. The majority of this week’s content is from a newsletter I sent back in January of 2018, titled “Why Do Rappers Love Apple Music.” My reason for re-upping this piece is that Tinyletter’s CMS ruined the readability of that newsletter, which I find increasingly frustrating whenever I want to properly cite it. I edited and updated the original with some additional commentary, which I hope y’all enjoy.

So...Why Do Rappers Love Apple Music?

In late 2017, Carl Chery, Apple Music’s former Head of Artist Curation, joined Complex’s Everyday Struggle for an interview. DJ Akademiks, one of the show’s hosts, pointed a finger at Apple Music and other streaming platforms for killing the traditional mixtape sites like Datpiff and LiveMixtapes. Chery struggled to respond, because to Akademiks’ credit, the often-trollish host was correct. Towards the interview’s close, Akademiks asked a specific question about Apple Music’s demographics that Chery shrewdly avoided.

Chery, now Spotify’s Head of Urban Music, didn’t need to disclose that information. Apple Music’s target demographic was clear from its top tier releases: Chance the Rapper’s free iTunes release of Surf, Drake’s OVO Sound Radio show, and Frank Ocean’s exclusives of Endless and Blonde. Even the crossover artists the company championed post-launch—6lack, Daniel Caesar, and Sabrina Claudio—were targetted towards R&B. Demographic information doesn’t need to be made public when one’s taste is so narrowly defined.

When prompted to consider the success of rap in the streaming era, Chery pointed out how labels are scrambling to adjust to this new normal and that Apple Music’s Pop music editor wondered if pop artists should shift towards a more “rap-like” release strategy. Nearly two years later, that’s exactly what’s happened. Ariana Grande said that she wanted to mirror the release freedom of rappers’ promotional campaigns for Sweetener and thank u, next. Similarly, Billie Eilish’s team cited Chance the Rapper and Travis Scott in the release plan for the teenager’s debut album,When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Still, I’d like to complicate the story of rap’s success in the streaming era both for proper context, and because this moment is already proving to be fleeting.

The Mixtape Era

The concept of the rap mixtape—at least in its current form—dates back to the late 90s and early 2000s. Yet, it was the online sites started in the 2000s, such as Datpiff and LiveMixtapes, that helped popularize the form. 50 Cent and G-Unit along with Cam’ron and The Diplomats were early pioneers, constantly releasing new music for fans by rapping over other people’s tracks or putting out early versions of their own material. In sharing these mixtapes online, rappers weren’t just flooding these platforms with free music, but offering direct, non-label filtered communication between artists and fans in a pre-social media era. Lil Wayne’s stoned mixtape interludes might have lost a bit of their charm now that rappers are constantly on Instagram Live, but these were early examples of direct-to-fan communication not mediated by a media gatekeeper.

The value of mixtapes began to wane just as social media grew and YouTube started to become the place where songs and videos were re-establishing themselves as the way artists expressed themselves. Even though Chief Keef and many Chicago rappers released excellent free mixtapes, it is the music videos on YouTube and WorldStarHipHop that sparked national interest in the scene. As a result, downloading mixtapes started to feel more antiquated. Then, as users migrated from desktop to mobile, these platforms were beat by newer sites like Audiomack, Spinrilla, and MyMixtapes that prioritized the mobile experience and built higher quality apps. Within ten years, the legally dubious digital underground ecosystem for music was cannibalized by a few billion dollar multinational companies. Even the frequent release pattern of mixtapes that ultimately existed to serve fans and self-starting DJs alike was absorbed by the major label system, so all the profits could funnel upward rather than spread outward.

Again, History Repeats

Now, this isn’t a new trend. This tango between music made by people on the margins rapidly gaining popularity before being absorbed by the record industry is a century old. Yet, the digital retelling of this tale follows a tight script. When digital downloads were first added to the Hot 100, a decade ago, the earliest hits were derided and labeled “Ringtone Rap.” The catchy southern rap singles were aided by digital sales and would not have broken into the Top 40 through normal airplay. Though acts like D4L, Dem Franchize Boyz, Rich Boy, and Soulja Boy eventually reached traditional gatekeepers like MTV, BET, FM radio, and even early streaming sites, the only way for fans to directly impact their chart placement was to buy the music, which they did. When D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” hit no. 1, it was already a top song on the digital sales chart, but still needed that extra radio push to make it to the top of the Hot 100.

Only a couple years later, pop stars like The Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry would surpass rap and dominate the iTunes charts, which served as a leading indicator of pop music trends through the late 2000s into the next decade. Rap’s early advantage was eventually erased not only as pop caught up to new trends, but as dedicated rap fans became focused on consuming music through free mixtape sites without needing to purchase their favorite songs. Thus, when the demographic that initially helped rap songs shoot up the charts moved to other parts of the internet, the charts began to reflect these shifting consumer habits.

I want to highlight a specific quote from the piece I originally wrote:

Now will the same transition happen with streaming, I would say not exactly. Not only are the platforms of music consumption more fragmented, but so are the splits among genres. The fact that so much of underground rap’s ecosystem went from illicit mixtape sites to legitimate streaming platform is an advantage that won’t easily disappear. Even considering that fact, pop won’t simply be trap rap going forward. The more people who use streaming will result in ever changing demographics and those who follow that wind, rather than what’s hot now will find success.

When I look at streaming charts across platforms in 2019 compared to 2017, there is a pretty clear increase in the diversity of musical genres represented. Not only are Pop acts (Jonas Brothers, Billie Eilish) finding their footing, but so are their R&B (Khalid) and Latin Pop/Trap (Ozuna, Bad Bunny, J Balvin) counterparts. This seems to suggest that similar to when the era of digital downloads started to mature, the dominance of rap may decline as streaming becomes more mainstream.

I say this because it’s often felt like there was too much emphasis placed on streaming in the last couple of years, as if all other forms of music consumption ceased and were replaced by streaming. This is certainly what companies like Spotify would like to be the dominant narrative, but isn’t really true. Music consumption is simply splintering in ways that are increasingly harder to quantify, but streaming is the one most desired by the record industry and is thus given the highest order of value.  However, the fact that one of the most popular rap songs of the summer is a leaked song snippet is a sign that music’s underground is always ready to slip through the capitalist profit desire.

Unheard Labor

The Brooklyn Academy of Music will vote to unionize with the United Auto Workers Local 2110 on June 13th. The campaign received a nice write-up in Labor Press and Jacobin interviewed Kaitlyn Chandler, an editor/designer at BAM, about the campaign. The Chicago Reader followed on the reporting of KQED out in Bay Area that showed Apple stores across the country are not paying artists to perform at their stores.

Lastly, Clarie Stapleton, one of the organizers of the Google Walkout, left YouTube citing retaliation by the company for her organizing efforts over the last year. It’s been amazing to watch these events unfold from afar and see the organizers speak to the issues of sexual harassment and immoral labor practices, especially in regards to contract workers, within the company.

Big Mood Machine - The Baffler

Liz Pelly went very deep into Spotify’s advertising business and how the company understands its real audience to be potential advertisers, not musicians.

Goldman Sachs says 1.15bn people will pay for music streaming by 2030, as it ups industry forecast - Music Business Worldwide

Typically, I avoid these ridiculous articles about future projections of the music industry, but this was too outlandish to ignore.

Spotify begins testing curated podcast playlists - The Verge

Podcast discovery is often discussed as an opportunity for some company to capture. Still, I find this model much closer to what YouTube algorithm attempts to do, as opposed to Discover Weekly, so it’ll be interesting to see how this eventually shakes out.

Billboard to Launch Weekly Top Songwriters and Top Producers Charts - Billboard

I’m certainly happy to acknowledge the often-unseen labor behind popular music. However, I sense this list will show that within songwriting and production, there is a 1% that dominates over the rest.

How China's Boomplay beat Spotify and Apple to corner Africa's streaming market - CNN

China and western companies continue their efforts to colonize African music consumption, and at the moment it appears China is leading in the field. Neocolonialism always take new shapes!

What is Happening to Streaming’s Superstars? - Rolling Stone

Tim Ingham determined  that the top performing artists are seeing an overall market share dip year-over-year, and suggested this means there is a rising tide of “middle tier” artists. I slightly disagree with that conclusion; while it’s true the aggregate share went down for the top 25 most popular acts, those artists alone accounted for 11.04% of total streaming, which is an absurd concentration of streams at the top. Streaming consumption is starting to even out, but my hypothesis is that this reflects an increase in listeners who aren’t devoted to Top 40 music, rather than a bellwether of streaming materially improving the lives of thousands of artists all of a sudden.