Since people began streaming music (legally or illegally), labels have struggled to get a hold on how to make money off of artists and pay them for their music. These struggles are present today as streaming services like Apple Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, and others have been called out by artists who feel they have not been appropriately compensated for their work. Even Jay-Z has attempted to remedy this situation by launching his own “artist friendly” streaming service, Tidal. He too was put on blast by Kanye West who claimed the company owed him money. As a result, artists are now making more money by touring off of their music and selling their merchandise at their shows. Now, I must mention of how the 360° record deal was created as a way for labels to make money off of artist while physical music sales fell as a result of streaming. Labels are legally able to get a cut of an artist’s tour money, merchandise sales, and outside ventures as well. That being said, I would not attribute this type of deal to the greed of the labels because they have a business to run and their bottom line must be met. As artist become more knowledgeable of how the music business works they are less likely to sign these types of deals, but I think it’s important to note to lengths record labels have gone to make money.
Today, rappers no longer look to create a lasting body of work. The goal now is to put out a smash single and control the radio for an entire summer. Music labels then sign that artist to a record deal based off of that single and have no intent on putting money behind a full-length project because they know the money is in the touring and performing that single rather than a full 15-track album.
With artist now having to make the bulk of their money off of touring, the type of music they create had to change for people to want to attend these concerts and shows. In the last ten years, mainstream Hip-Hop has noticeably become less lyrical and more party-centric. Many people have gone on to say they no longer listen for content but instead for the beat and the vibe it creates. If you feel frustrated because of the lack of lyrical content in today’s music, then I suggest you seek your music from outside the confines of what is considered mainstream. In The Science of Mumble Rap, The Black Dot relates this to how it feels when you attend a party late after everyone there had already been drinking. It can seem loud, and you might feel out of place because the people there are on a different frequency or “vibe.” Artists now have to make their concerts larger spectacles; they must do more than stand in one place and rap or sing. To do this, the music they create has to be more party or concert focused, and if you think about the artists who have gained notability within the last 3-5 years, you will realize there has been an apparent shift from anything lyrical.
If you notice, when new rappers are called out for their lack of lyrical ability, they are quick to correct people and say they aren’t rappers they are “rock stars.” Lil Yatchy once said in an interview that he could say the word “yah” on a track and if it bumps so be it. Hip-Hop purest were pissed. Rapper, Famous Dex recently page homage to the greats who came before him and told people if they want to listen to someone who makes you think—who creates an emotional reaction, listen to Tupac, or Biggie. Then he said if you're going to listen to someone who is about fun and partying, listen to him. When I think of a rock concert images of drugs, artist jumping into the crowd, mosh pits in the audience will begin to take shape in my imagination. That sounds exactly how some artist’s concerts look now.
With social media, the “fake it ‘till you make it” culture is more prevalent than it has ever been. People go places and take pictures just to say they were there. At parties, you’ll see both men and women looking in their phones, rapping the lyrics to songs for 30 seconds, post the video and portray the idea that they are having a good time. Parties have become less and less about actually being social and more about being there. Now, attending these events say more about you than they ever did. Before, attending a Nas concert meant you were a fan of his music. You went to see him perform your favorite hits live. Today, people visit concerns to post on their Snapchat stories to let their followers know they were there no matter if they ever really listened to a Nas album a day in their life. According to Statista.com, 14.07 million people attended a Hip-Hop/R&B concert in the spring of 2017, that is more than double the number of people that participated in a concert in the spring of 2008 (6.98 million). This significant difference can be attributed to many different things; one example could be the recession in 2008; many people did not have money to spend on necessities, let alone a music concert. However, I do think these numbers paint a fascinating picture of how we as a culture consume music in such a social media heavy world.
So with people spending more to attend these events, artists must have a catalog that creates a vibe for their entire show. Gone are the days when a rapper can put out an album, and it is digested for days, months, or even years by the listeners. People give an album one listen and grade it “Hot or Not.” There is little room for error anymore. Songs are no longer made for the headphones; artists must create for the clubs and concerts since record sales are not an accurate barometer of how successful you are as an artist anymore. If your song isn’t poppin’ in the clubs or on the radio, you don’t exist to the public. To combat this, rappers put out music at a high volume, hoping that one will catch and allow them to be relevant again. These songs can be rushed, and are of low quality. The beats carry most of the song, and little attention is paid to what is said, i.e., mumble rap.
So who is really to blame for the music we hear today? Is it the artists who only look to tour off of their “rock star” music, and hope for a song that might hit? The record labels that are looking for any way to make money off the music? Or are we as consumers to blame because we are impatient and are only looking for a vibe? While not all of the music is bad, there are a few artists I like, the shift in the music is very noticeable and seemed to happen overnight. Many old-school rappers love to place the blame on the newer generation of rappers but fail to realize a change such as this happens over time and is a result of many different circumstances out of the control of one group of people. Many parts had to occur together. Everyone is to blame.
Malcom X. Bowser is a writer, curator, and founder of Urban X.