Are Paid Streaming Services Relevant In A YouTube, SoundCloud, DatPiff-Dominated Hip-Hop World?

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Some of the biggest Hip-Hop albums of 2015 were released without much advanced notice. In August, Dr. Dre released Compton, his first studio album of the millennium, and the third in an illustrious lineage that includes The Chronic and 2001, just a couple weeks after it was announced. However, at a time when many music consumers rely on free samplings or multi-platform album streams, only those holding the Apple could hear the surprise LP that made massive, mainstream news. Apple Music subscribers and iTunes buyers were the beneficiaries of a strategy move from the musical icon who’s breathing down the neck of billionaire status. Is this transition from free to paid subscription services ‘the next episode’ or just something that will become old news?

Music’s technological shift is textbook. As anticipated, since the early 2000s, the rise of digital music consumption has resulted in the fall of physical album sales. Total revenues for CDs, vinyl, cassettes and digital downloads in the U.S. dropped from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $9 billion in 2008. As Best Buy relegated its once sprawling music section to a few novelty aisles, Tower Records and Sam Goody closed their doors. In the new music world, online retailers led by iTunes became the commonplace venue to engage with music. Existing streaming platforms like Rhapsody were soon joined by differing streaming experiences, such as Pandora and Spotify, and the burgeoning Tidal and Apple Music joined the share. Like the historical Wild West, the shift yielded a place without rules, that is seemingly still figuring out what is best—for artists and for fans.

Just in recent months, some of Hip-Hop’s biggest artists have used exclusive platforms to parse out content. Diamond-certified alum Eminem promoted the video for his single “Phenomenal” off the Southpaw soundtrack on Apple Music, while Drake premiered the “Energy” video there as well. Rihanna gave a visual effect to her hit “American Oxygen” first on Tidal, while Prince pulled the plug of his entire discography off all authorized digital platforms, except Tidal. He and Tidal investor Jay Z offer exclusive concerts through the platform, as Dre digitally rolled up his Chronic exclusively for Apple. As the music leaders aim to define their legacies, is it as possible when it only reaches a few?

While Dr. Dre grabbed the spotlight in benchmark fashion, his Aftermath Entertainment artist Kendrick Lamar also had one of 2015’s finer offerings. Lamar’s sophomore major label album, To Pimp A Butterfly was released a week early on March 16 via Spotify. T.P.A.B. broke the previous streaming record, which was held by Drake’s February 2015 release, the If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late mixtape. Both Kendrick and Drake achieved #1 albums on the Top 200, with widespread consumption on a platform with a free option. For artists like Dr. Dre, and his generational peers, subscription-based services are alluring. However, free platforms may be the more viable ticket for this generation’s artists and fans in the clearing dust.

Almost every active, relevant Hip-Hop artist that has come to prominence this decade uses one or more free platforms such as YouTube, Soundcloud, the free version of Spotify and mixtape giant, DatPiff. Still cultivating a retail base, Chance the Rapper is a great example of amassing a following through free music. The Chicago MC released his Acid Rap mixtape on Soundcloud over two years ago. Since then, the Social Experiment member has created his own path without signing to a major label, or asking for fans to purchase his music. Chance has yet to release an LP for sale, but he continues to headline the biggest festivals, and perform with some of music’s biggest acts, like Earth, Wind, & Fire and Kendrick. With his Social Experiment side project, C.T.R. and Donnie Trumpet even used iTunes to release a free album in Surf. If the biggest artist in Hip-Hop without a retail LP and the platform known for digital music commerce are coming together for a freebie, what’s that saying about what is strategically savvy?

Across the Hip-Hop landscape, this appears to be the modus operandi. Remy Boyz front man Fetty Wap received his biggest notoriety from SoundCloud, when his hit “Trap Queen” managed to get an impressive 86 million plays, and reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100—behind only Wiz Khalifa, an artist who also transformed his career through game-changing mixtapes like Kush & OJ. Revered artists like J. Cole, Big Sean, Curren$y and Big K.R.I.T. also built their bases through similar free releases. Open platforms like Soundcloud and DatPiff really exemplify the power artists have when they release free music to their fan base. Jay Z, who released his 2012 ballad “Glory” on his own Life+Times may have said it best: “Men lie. Women lie. Numbers don’t.”

So, what is best for the artist and what is best for the fan? Are they one-in-the-same? From comments and ratings, to data, free platforms provide communication tools, critical evaluation, and fan-base building all in one. In April when Chance The Rapper spoke at Harvard, he praised these features. “SoundCloud is awesome. It’s an artist’s space, you can upload your music whenever you want. You get the craziest metrics that anybody can offer you: sex, age, region of the world these people live in, a very detailed account of who’s your fan and what they like.” Moreover, copyright holders have to the ability to claim advertising revenue on YouTube and other platforms. Not only are these services convenient and easily accessible for fans, they can be profitable to artists and labels, long after album cycle promotions and working relationships have ceased.

An artist’s work is the outcome of a lot time, dedication, and perfected practice. Certain projects hold a lot of value to musicians, and the creativity and expression of the piece could become popular among the masses. Constant downloading and torrent sharing could have potential of devaluing the music. Producer and MC will.i.am spoke about how free music can hurt the artist. “That’s a very, very, very touchy, touchy, touchy subject that no one’s talking about, as far as technology killing the music industry. Actually, the music industry has been redefined, utilizing the technology, leaving the artist out of the equation,” said the Black Eyed Peas front man.

will, one of the biggest artists of the last 10 years with more than 32 million albums sold, clearly believes that artists should be compensated for their recorded music, as a part owner in Beats By Dre. On the flip-side, acts who receive increased exposure by releasing free music have created more touring opportunities, and many would argue that in all cases, except with respect to mega superstars like will.i.am, Dr. Dre and Jay Z, album sales sustain labels more than artists. MCs such as Chance The Rapper have been able to achieve lifestyles and careers through touring, merchandise, and brand sponsorship, based off of free releases. This may best explain the reason why rappers like Chance stay unsigned, or why veteran artists between labels sustain careers without deals. A label is concerned with the sale of recordings, whether hard copy or digital file. In many cases, the record company owns the legal rights to these recordings, so the sales generate income for the company to make profit. In the new independent model, which applies to many MCs, the artist owns the rights, and shares the content with the people who may value it most.

Whether it is retooling the traditional label model, challenging the pay walls for audio platforms, or releasing free, easily accessible product to the people, the music landscape is still undecided. The recording industry and streaming companies like Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal are making a big push for paid subscription when it comes to music. The popularity of free sites like YouTube, DatPiff and Soundcloud are proof that the masses want free music—and will support artists in other ways after that trusting bond is built. If history in technology is an indicator, there may soon be a winner.

Additional Reporting by Jake Paine.

Related: What Makes A Hip-Hop Album A Classic? (Editorial)