As I write this, I’m neglecting the most important and menial activity I need to accomplish today: getting ready for SXSW. Yes, with the dawn of spring each year, the Austin, TX-based festival takes over its lovely home city and, at least as far as I’m concerned, truly kicks off the festival-going season. But while I prepare for my second year in a row at SXSW, I find my thoughts slipping toward other festivals (and how many pairs of socks I’ll need). SXSW has always been one of the more diverse festivals, the kind of destination where you can see an all-girl sludge metal band at one location, walk down the street and see a Japanese pop band at another. But what brings my head to other festivals is a seemingly over-night rise in hip-hop in the festival circuit. With this year’s killer Paid Dues festival line-up, not to mention the coup of both Eminem and Lil Wayne nabbing headlining spots at Bonnaroo, Em headlining Lollapalooza, and Kanye West as a headliner on the final day of Coachella, it’s clear to me that hip-hop and rap are clearly asserting their dominance on the festival scene and raising their stake from low-level openers to bona fide stars who are in more of a demand now than their rock and roll contemporaries. How’s that taste, Noel Gallagher?
In the grander scheme of things, this shouldn’t be seen as some fluke, a freak shift in tastes. If anything, we can only expect this kind of genre change-up to become more prevalent. The answer as to why, though, has nothing to do with rock’s demise or fall from grace, as good rock music still lives and breathes and will always be the driving force for many of the more established festivals. But this conquering of sorts by rap’s biggest names does highlight a huge concept perhaps most of us don’t think of: rap is the financially superior model, routinely taking to school the rock music of the world in the school of business.
(Also, as a quick note, I don’t care if you prefer one genre over the other. Whether you bump Jay-Z or blast The Black Keys, this has next to nothing to do with their creativity and everything to do with a perceived abundance of hustle. As well, pop music isn’t being considered in any of the comparisons, as the addition of 12-year-old girls hot for Justin Bieber complicates things beyond such reasoning.)
The actual data is staggering (if you got beat up a lot as a kid). Take, for instance, this chunk of text from a recent Billboard.biz article about album sales and trends in 2010 and rap in particular. Be sure to read it a few times and really let the magnitude of that sentiment settle in:
“While its bump was not huge — just 3% — …, scanning 27.3 million units, up from 26.4 million units in the prior year — and five straight years of declining sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan. 2009 saw a nearly 21% drop from 2008’s 33.4 million sales, continuing a plunge from 2007’s 41.7 million, 2006’s 59.5 million and 2005’s total scans of 75.1 million. Moreover, in each of those years, the rap decline was larger than the overall U.S. album market’s decline.”
Even if you’re not a numbers geek, it’s got to be fairly telling of the state of rap game (read: things were bad; now it’s raining 100 dollar bills forever). While rap’s 3% growth is impressive in and of itself, other musical mainstays saw nothing but decreases, from the fairly minimal 5% (country) to more disturbing trends of 16% and 21% (metal and alternative, respectively). As disparaging as those last numbers may be, one would have to think it’s all bad news, especially since overall music sales (which is all albums, digital downloads, and videos) are down 2.4%. But it gets even more interesting when you look at the top-selling albums of 2010. With two rap entries and not a single alternative/rock/metal indie entry, there’s two really telling tidbits to discern from all of this:
1) With the bottom 5 albums all pulling in less than 1.9 million units each, it’s soul-crushingly depressing that one of the most tried and true genres/business models, rock and roll, didn’t perform better. Yes, a number of factors, from a lack of big-name releases to the rise of the digital download, could explain rock’s performance, but that doesn’t make it any less dismal.
2) The best-selling album of 2010, Eminem’s Recovery, did an impressive 3.4 million sales after being released on June 18, 2010. The best-selling hard rock album of 2010 was Nickelback’s Dark Horse, certified 3x platinum as of December 2010 and released on November 18, 2008. Surely this is a fluke (and not just because it’s Nickelback), but it stands as fairly powerful proof of the inadequacies between the genre’s numbers.
As the proof began to pile up, I thought perhaps that as indie had a big year in 2010 (with both Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire hitting No. 1), it might have been better. Yet again, though, the numbers tell a different tale. Drake’s debut, Thank Me Later, the eighth best-selling album of 2010, did just under 1.3 million. Both Contra and The Suburbs combined generated just 913,997. You’d have to throw in LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening (126,288) and The National’s High Violet (211,615) just to edge out Drizzy. And, yes, I’m aware of the superior marketing and overall sales bump major label artists get over their indie counterparts. But when one of the lower-end best-selling rap albums takes four of the best-selling indie releases to outdo it, that’s got to be enough to succinctly highlight rap’s dominance in sales, especially in this ghost town we call the modern music biz.
But why is rap and hip-hop so unstoppable? What makes that genre so much more lucrative as opposed to rock and roll, which has much more time as an accepted and viable industry than rap, which as recent as the early ‘80s was seen as a waste of time to record industry execs and insiders? Like the truly great businesses of the world, rap and hip-hop decided to grow and shift and reinvent, whilst rock music as a whole has gotten rather dated and predictable. Even great acts such as Radiohead, who rocked the recording world with their embracing of the “pay as you want” model, have turned back to the standard operating procedure (though bonus points for still being so damn unpredictable). So, what specifically gives rap the clear supremacy when it comes to getting records in the hands of their fans and money in their pockets (so that they may be like walking banks)? It’s simple, really– just give the fans what they want most: free shit.
Like the tiny bottles of shampoo you get in the mail, rappers both big and small readily implore one of the most brilliant marketing moves around with the use of the mixtape. While having completely different and seemingly more altruistic origins, the mixtape in modern hip-hop culture is an offering to fans’ insatiable hunger for more music before the LP is ready. Throw together a couple remixes, put your own verse on someone else’s beat, and voila, a ready-to-consume collection of sonic goodness. Since their relative ease to assemble doesn’t merit putting any money behind it for marketing and distributing, the tapes are usually free on various MCs’ sites. It’s not only brilliant in those terms, but in a way perhaps unintended by the rappers, producers, and DJs. By lining certain tapes with hard-to-find cuts, they’re creating a groundswell for the booming underground hip-hop circuit to create hype and to spread the mixtape around like fire, thus taking over a lot of the work the MC and his camp would normally be left with. It’d be hard to say that rock could take that formula and make a linear transition. The music itself takes more of an effort to create (especially with multiple musicians involved), but the fundamentals are the same: Keep people satisfied, and when the time comes to make the big purchase, they’re more than ready to bite.
While rock is missing the mixtape boat, some musicians are at last experimenting in giving away free songs. Sadly, though, it’s not a grand enough effort. Beginning with Kanye West and his GOOD Fridays, a slew of rappers got on board with dishing out new songs once a week. Whether it’s Swizz Beatz’s Monster Mondays, RZA offering up Wu Wednesdays, or even the more-recent Timbaland Thursdays, big names in the rap world are giving away songs like they’re going out of business; rare is the rock act that is willing to do the same. Sure, The Flaming Lips have gotten wise, but even their plan is just a song a month. Much like the mixtape model, this idea has its share of benefits, the least of which being to further hype the artist and keep fans entertained. More so, it’s a great conditioning tool. If fans expect songs every week, and they enjoy these offerings, you instill within them the sense that the songs on the album, when they do come, must be better because they’re clearly separate and deserving enough of a unique treatment. Sure, the opposite effect could occur, and fans could just stick to freebies, but they’re more than likely to at least buy the album to see if that relationship holds weight.
While most of my arguments until now have been seemingly financially motivated, this last one strikes at a less cerebral subject: genuine creativity and the free-flowing exchange of ideas. Before you get your studded or hemp bracelets in a bunch, rock fans, rockers from the softest folk strummer to the hardest sludge metal guitar god are creative and powerful and make awesome music and blah blah blah. Rather, there seems to be a stratification occurring in the rock world. For instance, when Danger Mouse announced he’d be working with Jack White on his Rome project, the world reacted in slack-jawed disbelief. However, while the upcoming collaboration between Kanye West and Jay-Z merited an equal reaction, fans also knew they’d done tracks together in the past and there’d be more to come long after Watch The Throne drops. The point is that if one artist sells 5 million albums, and another artist sells 5 million, then putting them together at multiple occasions would clearly be what some might call a “brilliant fucking idea”; somehow, though, rockers just don’t seem to get that concept as often. Call it stubborn pride or bad work on the part of greedy labels, but truly mesmerizing collabos are few and far between in rock, while being an everyday, just-as-amazing-occurrence in rap and hip-hop. This dynamic is especially strange, given the “dog eat dog” mentality of rap and the mushy lovefest of jam-band-proportions that is a whole chunk of rock music.
Undoubtedly there’s going to be some flannel fans and headbangers angry at this piece. Either way, I think I’ve raised some important questions that can only help to do some good for fans of both genres as they continually analyze their place as consumers and how the artists whom they employ and simultaneously worship better engage them. Regardless, though, at least I’ve avoided folding t-shirts for a couple hours.