For hip-hop fans like myself who managed to catch a decent portion of the pre-internet era of the genre, the vast changes the industry has undergone in such a short period of time never ceases to amaze.
Just 15 years ago, mixtapes were only starting to gain national traction as a response to an industry that seemingly only had time to promote a handful of artists at once. Today, we collectively cringe at the idea of ACTUALLY paying for an album outright, and why shouldn't we when we can pay $10 for unlimited access to a virtually infinite catalog of music?
Before the internet, an artist’s hurdles centered largely around exposure and the distribution infrastructure the labels had monopolized. Now, though? An artist’s archenemy is time. In a landscape where releases may as well be free and distribution is no longer even a thought for most artists (in a physical sense anyway), the album rollout has, by and large, been replaced by surprise or instant releases, and the very criteria of prerequisites to an album’s release have been drastically shifted to keep up with an exponentially quickening pace.
Labels used to spend months upon months developing an artist’s album rollout: scheduling grueling press runs, securing solid buy orders from major retail outlets and strategically picking radio singles to be promoted leading up to the album’s release.
In the digital era, however, all of that has seemingly fallen by the wayside, especially the necessity of having a radio hit prior to an album release.
To get a better understanding of this dramatic shift, we reached out to Lenny S, Senior Vice President of A&R and Artist Management at Roc Nation, who offered a succinct explanation via e-mail. "We’re living in an era where there is no more need for the once, traditional, long, roll out plan,” Lenny explained. “The label needed time to promote and the people needed time to prepare to purchase each release. Now we consume and download everything within minutes. The more we stream or download, the more our digital appetite is satisfied. So we don’t need radio, a hit record or a rollout in order to drop an album."
Take Logic, for example, an artist who has never had a hit single, and has only had one song chart on Billboard’s Hot 100 (and just barely, "Flexicution" peaked at No. 100), but has successfully released two major label-backed albums and one commercial mixtape.
Or how about Logic’s Def Jam labelmate Vince Staples, who’s about to release his third major label project without ever producing a radio hit or a Hot 100 charting single? Ditto Earl Sweatshirt, whose two major label projects were released without hits or charting singles.
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Most recently, DC artist GoldLink released his RCA debut At What Costwhich boasts, again, a total of zero "hits" or charting singles. When it comes to major labels releases, the game is now being played differently and the artists know it.
Both Vince Staples and Mac Miller have structured their deals with major labels to retain as much creative control as possible, clearly understanding that originality and artistic sovereignty have become a legitimate upper hand in a music industry once dominated by money and little else.
The labels are seemingly happy to oblige forward thinkers like Mac and Vince, as they too know that radio and extravagant rollouts are no longer golden tickets for a successful album release.
Mike Heron, an A&R at Shady/Goliath and manager to several sample composers, explained via e-mail, "In my opinion, if you’re making great songs, have decent streams, your merch is selling and hard ticket sales are climbing, radio is not necessary,” although he admits its value is not entirely obsolete, “That said, add a splash of radio to this mix and life changes almost instantly.”
Of course, the music industry never deals in absolutes, so for many artists, charting singles and radio hits are still of enormous value. Conversely, radio hits weren’t always the end-all be-all of commercial success in the pre-digital era, either.
Nas, for example, was able to release Illmatic through Columbia Records without a legitimate hit. “It Ain’t Hard To Tell” was the closest thing Nasir had to a smash before Illmatic’s release, and even that peaked at No. 91 on Billboard.
The album itself was a commercial sleeper, taking seven years to reach a million sales (and that was back when album sales mattered), but it’s also widely considered the greatest hip-hop album of all time, making it ahead of its time in more ways than one.
A few exceptions aside, the current reality of the music industry is that there’s no longer a rigid formula to fan engagement and, in turn, successful album releases. What might work for one artist would be a complete waste of time and resources for another.
Generally speaking, though, the importance of a hit single to an album’s reception is now at an all-time low, and radio is going to have to drastically change the way it operates as a whole if it wants to become part of the equation again.
Photo Credit:Mike Holland