Streaming has practically single-handedly saved the music industry.
In 2015, the global music industry enjoyed a 3.2% increase in total revenue, its first sliver of growth in almost two decades following a dark period of decline plagued by rampant piracy and dwindling sales. The driving force behind the resurgence was, of course, streaming, which has since surpassed physical sales and digital downloads as the most common—and valuable, accounting for 62% of all U.S. music revenue in 2017—method of music consumption.
As the streaming revolution roars on, analysts predict that by the year 2030, the global music industry could balloon into a $41 billion business, with a whopping $34 billion of that coming from streaming. That would be more money than the music industry has ever made. More than when Baby and Slim were turning Hot Boys into Cash Money Millionaires. More than when Dre was polishing up diamonds in the rough and making them go Diamond. Even more than when Thriller was selling like popcorn in cinemas.
Streaming has been especially kind to giant music conglomerates like Universal, Sony and Warner, who together were responsible for 80% of total on-demand streams in 2017 (thanks in part to streaming's playlist-driven culture). But ask an independent artist like Roc Marciano, and streaming doesn’t sound like such a lifesaver.
Over the weekend, the legendary Long Island lyricist revealed on Twitter that his 2017 album Rosebudd’s Revenge earned him “sneaker money” from three million-plus streams. Each service offers their own payout rate for artists, but according to the latest numbers, three million streams on Tidal nets you $38,520. On Apple Music, $23,490. And on Spotify, just $11,400.
That’s considerably more than “sneaker money” for most people. Mind you, Marcberg Slim does have expensive taste in shoes.
So, in a system increasingly dominated by streaming platforms, who are generating billions of dollars for the music business but paying less than a penny per play to the actual creators, what’s an independent hustler like Roc Marciano to do? Good thing he was chopping O’s since a snot nose.
On February 27, Roc Marciano released his new album, Rosebudd’s Revenge 2: The Bitter Dose, the fifth installment in his series of grimy, intricate and extravagant kingpin chronicles. Instead of offering it up on your favorite streaming platforms, though, he’s been selling digital copies of the project exclusively on his website for $30. No streams, all sales. Just like the good old days. And it’s paying off.
“It’s been amazing. This shit is printing money. The return on investment happened in a day. I was in the black in a day. How you like them apples?” he says over the phone with a trademark sneer. Unsurprisingly, Marci isn’t willing to divulge specific figures, but rest assured he’s made more than sneaker money off Rosebudd’s Revenge 2 sales so far. “Oh, hell yeah. Easy.”
Same goes for last year’s Rosebudd’s Revenge, which he sold for $20 on his website three days before releasing it on streaming platforms. This time, though, Marci is still debating whether to pull the trigger, despite promising that RR2 would be available for streaming soon. “I’m still not sure I want to stream it. I’m thinking about it,” he admits. “I just don’t wanna turn back on my word, you know what I’m saying?”
For Roc Marciano, the release strategy behind his Rosebudd’s Revenge series is a statement about the value of his music: “I feel like I’m creating projects that are quality enough for people to support me on this kind of level.” It’s also his way of combating the paltry royalty payments artists receive from streaming platforms: “That’s a part of the music business they gotta fix. Ask Pharrell. Ask Adele. If they unhappy with the payout, you know I’m unhappy with the payout!”
But more importantly, it’s about a businessman looking out for his bottom line—a concept that’s as celebrated as it is criticized within hip-hop, but a crucial survival skill for an independent artist nonetheless.
“Hip-hop is a business where everybody expects you to give, give, give and get nothing in return. Give me a free CD, give me this, give me that. Let me get a verse! [Laughs] But this is a business model that makes sure that from here on out, whenever brothers put out music, nothing is in vain,” he says. “Also, I put my money behind this project before anybody believed in it! Thousands and thousands of dollars. I feel like I should get my return first.
“Don’t get it twisted: I want people to have the art. But if you’re not supporting me, then I can’t give you the art.”
Roc Marciano’s release strategy has not only proved successful, but influential. “After I put out [Rosebudd’s Revenge], other people have been following suit,” he says. “I’ve had other artists hit me up to tell me they doing the same—and then did it.”
But the reality is, everybody isn’t built for this business model. Roc Marciano is because he’s an established name with a loyal fan base who can afford to exist outside of the streaming—and major label—ecosystem. An ecosystem in which 68% of all listening on Spotify now happens in playlists and the top 10% of songs accounted for 99.2% of all streams in 2017. It’s hard not to feel like streaming is a rat race won only by the reigning champs. And even then, the prize isn’t worth flaunting at the finish line.
Like punks and pussies, Roc Marciano doesn’t make music for popularity or playlists, which is why he focuses on catering directly to his core fan base. And if he’s going to cater directly to his core fan base, he might as well sell his album for $30 a pop than make less than 20 cents ($0.19, to be exact—and that’s on Tidal) each time someone streams it all the way through. It’s simple math.
“I’m not in this game to be famous,” he says. “I’m catering to the people who really rock with me.” The people who do rock with Roc Marciano can expect him to adopt the same release strategy for forthcoming solo albums (any collaborative projects will be a collective decision). No, he hasn't started work on those yet, but you can expect the same level of quality he’s delivered thus far. I’d put money on it.