Is It Better to Release Too Much or Too Little Music in 2017?

By | Posted June 15, 2017
In an era with more freedom to release music than ever before, the timing of those releases remains a delicate, high-wire act.
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Photo Credit: Nicolas Welty

I did something equally terrible and amazing the other day; I listened to a bunch of Gorilla Zoe music. Not just the old classics, but rather Zoe’s eerily unremembered series of 28 mixtapes that he released in February of 2010. That is not a typo either; there are 28 full mixtapes, one for every day of the month, released by Zoe in what I believe to be a government-sponsored stress test to challenge the mental capacity of the normal rap listener.

This was easily my second most regrettable moment in recent memory, trailing only the time I wrote 5,000 words, for free, examining dollar for dollar whether or not the kid in the movie Blank Check actually spent only a million dollars. Yet, through all of it—including Gorilla Zoe’s incredible mixtape names like Shaquille Zoe’Neal, The Mighty Zoe Young, I’m Zoe Good, and my personal favorite, You Don’t Mess with The Zoe’Han—there was value in what I initially considered time wasted, like when I discovered the kid in Blank Check had actually spent way more than a million dollars.

It wasn’t Zoe’s music that intrigued me, necessarily, but the way in which he released it. It was a flood.

On the opposite end of the spectrum of Zoe’s mixtape series is an artist like Jay Electronica. Anyone who’s ever known a Jay Electronica fan knows that discussing his long anticipated debut album, Act ll: Patents of Nobility, is like discussing Voldemort in the Harry Potter books. Fans of Jay’s have been punished and tortured with the idea of new music from him for the past 10 years, and with each new song he releases, which tend to be separated by what feels like 4,600 months, his base’s patience wears thinner.

What Jay Elect has done is restructure the parameters of what it means to release music, choosing to hook his fans to a line from which he seemingly never planned on unhooking them in the first place, and instead, leaving them flopping around in the boat without water. Whereas Gorilla Zoe’s strategy of oversupplying his fan base with music was an attempt to re-enthuse his listeners, Jay Elect has mastered the art of the drought; the demand for his music comes from his sheer lack of supply.

The internet boosted our accessibility to music, allowing artists the opportunity to release more material without the confines of a traditional label, shaping and shifting how we as fans digest and contextualize music. It isn’t as simple as quantity vs. quality anymore. In fact, the quantity of one’s own catalog of music has the potential to affect how we view its quality. The problem of supply and demand now bleeds into the traditional narratives of music quality, and we are burdened with an entirely new question: Is it better to release too much or too little music as an artist?

The idea of releasing too much music feels like the easier place to start. Just last week, Yoh covered this same concept in regards to Future’s back-to-back album releases, and how his second album, HNDRXX, was self-sabotaged commercially by Future’s need to flood his own market. In the article, Yoh stated that “What we’re witnessing with FUTURE/HNDRXX is a rare occasion of an artist cannibalizing his own music,” and to an extent, he’s exactly right. While in Future’s case, especially for an artist of his commercial caliber, the idea of flooding the market does seem self-sabotaging. However, how might that affect an artist with a much smaller fan base?

At the root of Gorilla Zoe’s ill-fated attempt to give his fans more music than they could literally ever ask for is a specific release strategy that is more common than most fans might realize. For instance, take Curren$y and his massive collection of mixtapes. Since 2007, Curren$y has released over 40 mixtapes—not to mention 12 full-length albums—and over this period of time, there is a direct correlation between his popularity and his production. Upon his departure from Young Money, Curren$y could’ve ended up another mid-level emcee without the means or support to create something truly impactful. Yet, instead of trying to start a fire by setting one giant log ablaze, Curren$y placed enough kindling down through his mixtapes to ignite and sustain a career.

Another artist who revolutionized “the flood” is Lil B, whose infamy is primarily rooted in his run of music releases from 2007 to 2011, including his mixtape 05 Fuck Em, which clocked in at 101 songs and isn’t even his longest project. Lil B’s releases, much like Gorilla Zoe’s, tested both the patience and fortitude of his fan base, ultimately garnering him enough publicity and support to become an internet rap legend. Especially in Lil B’s case, the goal seemed to be less about providing fans with new music whenever they wanted and more about creating buzz from the actual act of having too much music. In other words, Lil B’s music wasn’t just popular because his fans liked it, but because the actual feat of creating that much content was a spectacle itself.

So, is releasing too much music a successful strategy in today’s industry? The signs point in all directions. Many of the core components of Curren$y and Lil B’s catalogs can be found in the way music is released today, especially with some of the industry’s most successful artists. Drake’s More Life, for instance, in any other scenario may have been seen as a bloated and long-winded album. Yet, because it was marketed as a “playlist” in an industry dominated by streams over album sales, More Life worked because it made sure that whenever you turned on the radio or opened a streaming app, you were going to be satiated with more Drake songs than you knew what to do with.

Gucci Mane is another interesting case. Always known for his prolific output, post-prison-release Gucci seems to have cranked up his work ethic to yet another level. The recently released DropTopWop project capped off a 12-month period that saw the Atlanta mainstay deliver an incredible four full-length projects and another four EPs. On one hand, Gucci has maintained a consistent spot in the hip-hop conversation and even scored his first Platinum single (thanks to Drake). On the other hand, no other single has fared nearly as well, and the conversation around Gucci always seems to be centered around what's coming next, instead of focusing on the actual music he's released.

The success of “the flood” strategy is risky, though. Unintentionally, many artists end up drowning in their own overstock. As Yoh pointed out, even the most successful artists find that their best material is often overlooked by other, more commercially appealing material. In essence, by flooding the market, the artist removes any control they might have had as to what damage that flood can do, including to themselves.

“The drought,” on the other hand, feels like a much different monster. The appeal of an artist like Jay Electronica has always been in that perceived control over their own supply in a way that leaves most fans perpetually thirsty for more. In other words, fans of Jay Elect crave his music because of the belief that a lack of music is something intentional and, therefore, more interesting. Even for an artist who only boasts three songs on his entire page, Jay Elect’s monthly Spotify listens still topple over 120,000, and that sustained popularity derives from several places.

The art of “the drought” plays on our wildest desires and imaginations for what we hope music can become. It’s an idea that thrives under the idea of music, as opposed to the reality. We as fans don’t continually tune into Jay Elect because “Exhibit C” is that unimpeachable (it might be), but because our continued hope of another “Exhibit C” feels stronger than our perpetual disappointment. 

The Lil Wayne of the late 2000s was an absolute monster who went on, arguably, the greatest output run in hip-hop history. Yet, since then, fans and critics alike have awaited the release of the next chapter in Wayne’s infamous Carter album series, Tha Carter V. It’s been two years since Wayne’s last album, 2015's Free Weezy Album, and even longer since the last truly relevant piece of Weezy F. Baby material. Although one could make the case for Wayne as a rapper who has released too much music over his career, it is his more traditional material—less Auto-Tune, less terrible—that has been stuck in a never-ending drought.

Wayne’s situation, albeit abetted by his ongoing legal kerfuffle with Cash Money head honcho Birdman, is a shining example of the biggest flaw in releasing too little music in this day and age. Although artists have much more control over which pieces of their music are given the proper amount of time to digest, they also relinquish the control of how the material is judged against the rest of their career. The artist in “the drought” doesn’t have the luxury of going right back into the lab if their product is a dud. They must own it, good or bad.

The decline in Lil Wayne’s output has meant that with each subpar release, his legacy takes a bigger hit. It’s why an artist like Jay Z has to make sure his next album can course correct any damage done by the lukewarm, microwave dinner bars he dropped on Magna Carta Holy Grail. Although the artist in “the drought” circumvents drowning their own careers with too much music, they leave themselves dependent on supplying us with a big enough swig of water to keep us conscious.

The perfectly timed release of music feels adverse to the path of the music industry at this point. The line in the sand is growing thicker, and on each side are rappers attempting to please their fans with wholly different methods. Is it better to release too much music in this day and age? Under the right circumstances, creating vast and extensive catalogs of music at rapid rates can keep rappers’ fan bases satisfied in a way that allows them more opportunities to appreciate the artist's work, and their work ethic as well. However, as simple economics will tell you, increased supply runs a major risk of losing its demand, and artists of both the past and present run the risk of creating white noise within their own catalogs. 

Does that mean that the artist who releases too little music in this era is better suited for success? Although it may seem so, the risk is ultimately the same, with artists living and dying on the scarce products they do manage to produce. For an artist of a higher caliber, such as Future, less music means they're less likely to damage their own brand. Yet, if Future went the next five years without music, the lost greatness of HNDRXX and the critiques of his music release strategies would only amplify. The artist with too little music functions much like a mirage, constantly baiting fans closer and closer. The problem with mirages, though, is that eventually, we figure out it’s all in our heads.

We are a society constantly trying to contextualize the music we listen to into some higher meaning. Whether we are stuffed to the brim with new music, or starving for any morsel of new creations, we as listeners want to be satisfied. Although it may seem like newer artists are better suited to flood the market, while artists with established names may be better suited to keep their fans wanting more, both “the flood” and “the drought” are hard lessons that should be learned about how artists should look to connect with their fans.

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