Mixtape vs. Album, Free vs. For Sale, It’s All Meaningless NowBy Nathan S. | Posted November 13, 2015
It's almost the end of the year, which means it's almost time to roll out our annual Best of the Booth awards, which means it's time for the DJBooth staff to sit down and begin planning out those awards. And that, of course, means it's time for a little annual tradition I like to call Nathan Annoys The Bejeezus Out of Everyone By Yelling About Terms Like "Mixtape" and "Free." It goes a little something like this. Hit it.
First, someone will ask if we should still have separate Mixtape and Album categories, which will set off my first rant.
"Come on guys, do mixtapes even exist anymore? Back in the day, it was easy, a mixtape was people rapping over previously released beats mixed by a DJ, how many of those are even released anymore? I can think of....what....one prominent example this year? Lil Wayne's Sorry 4 the Wait 2? That's one example. One. 99% of what everyone still refers to as a mixtape is now made up of all original production and songs, so what's a mixtape? A project that a label didn't release? What is this, 1999? Only labels can release important music? So then people try to make the difference between an album and a mixtape about quality, but again, how many high quality 'mixtapes' are there? Like there aren't shitty, low quality 'albums'? I know we can all think of a hundred so-called mixtapes better than most so-called albums - just take Big K.R.I.T. Isn't he the epitome of the 'mixtape was better than the album' artist, and if that's true then there's actually no real relationship between quality and whether something's an 'album' or a 'mixtape' anymore, right? Let's use a real example from this year, Drake's IYRTITL. That shit was completely original, it sold over 500K, he toured off it, it had multiple radio hits, but in interviews, he's calling it a 'mixtape"? How is that possibly a mixtape by any existing definition? It sounds more like Drake just wants all the perks of releasing an album while ducking any criticism of his album's quality by saying it was 'just a mixtape.' So it's a mixtape if an artist says it's a mixtape and it's an album if the artist says it's an album? Fuck out of here. That's not a definition, that's proof that there's no real difference between mixtapes and albums anymore. We need to stop using the term mixtape, it's dead, and it's actually been dead for years."
There's a lot of uncomfortable silence from the staff, they're clearly dealing with a mentally unstable person. But in order to placate me, someone else will suggest that fine, we won't use the word "mixtape." How about we have Free and For Purchase categories? That'll work, right? No, of course, that won't work. I feel a second rant coming on.
"Am I the only one listening to music in 2015? All music is free now. All music. ALL. And I'm not talking about illegal downloads. Pick an album this year that you'd put in that For Purchase category? To Pimp a Butterfly? I just went on Spotify and listened to it legally for free. And that's not the exception, that's the rule. 300 thousand people bought TPAB in the first week, it got streamed on Spotify 10 million times in the first day. 10 million! In the first DAY!!! And the vast majority of those streams were free users, but somehow TPAB is a 'for purchase' album? I can guarantee you that any album that you'd say was for purchase was primarily consumed for free. Compton? Free. Summertime '06? Free. Dark Sky Paradise, Mr. Wonderful and The Album About Nothing? Free, free and free. And then, of course, there's Surf. Chance and the crew could have chosen to also sell the album, but they purposefully released it solely for free. So what, Surf doesn't deserve to go head to head with all the albums that were also for sale, even though those albums were all also free? Surf's somehow in this other category? Ten years ago paying for music was the rule and getting it for free was the exception, but now that's completely reversed. When all music is free, then what does it matter that some of that music can also be paid for by a smaller group of people? Fuck out of here with free vs. paid, it's meaningless."
It's around that time that the staff starts looking at me like on some One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest type shit and I exit the room to continue to vent via my keyboard. And so here we are.
To be clear, my DJBooth brethren are far from alone, this is a conversation I've been having in some form of for years now, and when I say that words like "mixtapes" and "free" have now been rendered essentially meaningless, the majority of people I speak to look at me like I'm that guy outside the 24th St. train stop who's always yelling about how the Intergalactic Space Council is going to destroy Earth.
And you know what? That's fine, Galileo was doubted, exiled and died without the world acknowledging that he was right, the Earth actually did revolve around the sun. So if I have to go to my grave before the world realizes I'm right, so be it. I'm prepared to live out the remainder of my life fighting the good fight. I feel you Galileo.
But maybe I shouldn't be fighting, maybe I should cave in and allow the world to continue insisting on dividing projects between albums and mixtapes, free and for purchase. In that case, allow me to lay out the world you're currently living in. If we apply the common definitions of mixtape, album, free and for purchase, that would mean that there are seven possible categories a project could fall into.
- Free Unoriginal Mixtapes
- Free Original Mixtapes
- Free & Optional Pay Original Mixtapes
- Free Mixtapes That Are Free For Most People But If You Happen To Have Subscribed To The Streaming Service You're Listening To Said Mixtape On You're Technically Paying For It
- Free Albums
- Free & Optional Pay Albums
- Free Albums That Are Free For Most People But If You Happen To Have Subscribed To The Streaming Service You're Listening To Said Album On You're Technically Paying For It
So with that in mind, let's go back and categorize some of the biggest projects to drop this year. Let's see here...
...that would make IYRTITL a Free & Optional Pay Original Mixtape, which is different than Surf which was a Free Album, which is different than TPAB which was a Free & Optional Pay Album, which is actually the exact same as WATTBA, which was a Free & Optional Pay Album.
And oh yeah, Surf, TPAB & WATTBA are on streaming services, which also makes them Free Albums That You're Technically Paying For If You're A Subscriber, which let's be clear, it different than IYRTITL, which is also on streaming services but is not a Free Album That You're Technically Paying For If You're A Subscriber, it's a Free Mixtape That You're Technically Paying For If You're A Subscriber. Good, I'm glad we cleared that up.
Have I beaten your brain to oatmeal yet? Feeling like that was all gibberish? Good, then that means you're beginning to understand just how nonsensical it is to insist on continuing to use terms like album, mixtape, free and for sale in the year of our Lord 2015.
Thankfully, though, I have a solution to the madness, and my solution invokes Occam's Razor*, which states that the simplest solution to a problem is usually the correct one. So we can either turn music into the BCS, continue to add exception onto exception onto exception until no one actually understands how the system works or...and stick with me here...we can just refer to every collection of music as an album. There are albums that are higher quality, albums that are lower quality. Albums that an artist puts together quickly, albums that artists slave over for years. Albums that you can pay for if you want to, albums that you couldn't pay for even if you wanted to, but they're all albums. Albums. The Baron von Albumstein. Album McAlbumsalot. AlbumsAlbumsAlbumsAlbums. We can either continue to slice and dice projects until we've broken them down into small, meaningless bits, or we can think of an album as "multiple sound recordings released as a single unit" and boom, we're done. End of discussion. Now we can have conversations about things like the Best Album of 2015 that really means something, that places the best music up against the best music, regardless of whether or not it happened to have an iTunes purchase link attached.
And that's a crucial point because this isn't a battle of mere semantics, the labels we place on music influence how we talk about music and how we listen to music. So if I can win over enough hearts and minds to my side, if I can convince a critical mass of people to bury these outdated terms once and for all, music will be better off. Because how an album is distributed and the potential revenue it can or can't generate is the least interesting, least important part of an album. The beautiful thing about living in 2015 is that all of the artificial divides that have separated artists and music have crumbled. Someone really can make an album in their bedroom just as good as a major label rapper, and they can put it out to the masses immediately and directly. So when you remove all those outdated labels what matters, really all that matters, is how good the music is. Everything else is just white noise that distracts us from listening to...wait for it....great albums.
* That's right, I'm invoking philosophical principles I don't really understand in rap articles. Y'all can't tell me nothin.