As Vibe.com pointed out last fall, when it comes to hip-hop, everyone’s a music critic. This tenement is especially present in the digital era with fans able to access artists and their entire body of work in a matter of minutes. This gives fans the opportunity to compare albums and mixtapes side by side, often ignoring the inherent functions of either medium. Reflect on that for a second; we’ll come back to it.
For a minute, let’s review the four basic principles of the hip-hop/urban market music industry:
1) Create Hype…Get Attention: This is step one for new artists, but over the past three decades the logistics behind it have evolved. Whether you started rapping at parties that your friends DJ’ed; or if you used “trap” money to finance your demo; or if you just recorded an EP and uploaded it to SoundCloud…the overall goal is get someone’s attention.
2) Paperwork for the Paper: Okay, yes there are rappers who own their labels, distribution, and masters. But if we look between the lines here you’ll see that all of those artists have something in common: sponsors. That’s right, Jay, Master P, Diddy, even Russ and Dre all accrue income and financing for their respective projects from endorsements. Most other artists are signed to some type of publishing/distribution entity such as label, where a bureaucracy exists that can only be compared to DMV.
3) Drop More Music; Go on Tour: Notice I didn’t say drop an album or mixtape. We haven’t gotten that far yet; although it should be noted that either of these can be released at anytime in this process. However, to reap the tangible benefits of self-expression for capitol gain, one has to actually turn a profit, preferably a significant one. Choosing whether or not to drop an album or mixtape is typically a game of numbers, no matter how many times your favorite rapper is just “doing it for the fans”. Going on tour helps generate more hype and sponsors, which just leads of us to the last point…
4) Repeat, Retire, Return, Repeat: Those hip-hop giants I mentioned earlier all followed this same format. Hip-hop, like pretty much everything else in the universe, is cyclic; no matter how large the genre goes; the elements of the culture are still the base. Whether your pushing upscale, cheap alcohol, or starting a new TV network, gentrifying all of Brooklyn so Jason Kidd can coach a barely .500 team; every outward move from hip-hop only increases the scope of what an urban consumer market entails.
All of the above brings me to my title point: stop comparing mixtapes to albums. If you’re scratching your head trying to figure out how we got here let me reiterate: giving away music for fans to enjoy and advertise to others via social media, word of mouth, blogging, etc. is a part of hip-hop. Releasing music in order to satisfy a third party for capitol gain via endorsements, touring, and record sales, are apart of hip-hop; and both of these things are good.
Mixtapes provide artists with the opportunity to give fans exactly what they want, while still being able to keep their day jobs as brand ambassadors for the industry. We place so much weight on great mixtape projects in this day and age, because they’re technically for us, the enthusiasts. We can download a mixtape whenever we want, hell, we can make a mixtape whenever we want. Of course we expect the best from these projects, but sometimes, when rappers actually deliver on these terms, we tend to jump the shark in our haste to dismiss the backers that made the project financially possible.
If you want hip-hop, or any other music genre really to thrive, you better be believe albums are still relevant. We might find the red tape of sample clearances, the costs of guest features, or politics of distribution and shipping to be useless; but remember hip-hop became a business a long time ago. Every industry needs two things, invested consumers and financers. We know people aren’t buying albums anymore but that doesn’t mean they don’t listen to them. Those sponsors that we constantly revile rappers for consorting with provide us with the very same entertainment we’re craving. Artists aren’t always being label whores (in every sense of the word) sometimes they’re doing what’s necessary to break the glass ceiling of a lucrative commercial market dominated by the “other”.
I can’t make you buy more albums, but at the least I can ask you to support those who have made repeat tangible investments in the industry. If you want high-quality mixtapes and a dominating hip-hop urbanity; you must support those who make it so! If we must compare the apples and oranges then let me end on this: mixtapes can increase your chance of getting in and staying in the game; albums, however, increased your chances of accumulating long-term earnings and achieving that legendary status. You’ll need both if you want to make it an impact.