The Digital Age and Mixtape Culture

Of the myriad of moments for which the year 2016 will be remembered, it is tempting to ignore the landmark year it has been for rap music. The year has provided a seemingly never ending supply of high profile releases from major label artists to independent, underground darlings. Yet, what sets 2016 aside from other seminal years in Hip-Hop history is the breakneck pace of releases, and the nearly immediate advance to the next one. The accessibility of music in the digital age has dramatically altered the relationship between artists, record labels and consumers. No longer are album releases events.

The digitalization of music and music media has had far reaching reverberations throughout the music industry and all music subcultures. The effects of widespread music piracy and advent of streaming services have revolutionized the way recording labels, artists and audiences relate and interact. In Hip-Hop music specifically, the rate at which artists record and release music has changed dramatically over the course of the 21st century. The cycle of album promotion, single release and album release has been disrupted, and Hip-Hop’s newest generation consumes music quickly and in niche markets. The digital music age is defined most by changes in old and established profitability models and artist to audience interactions. These changes have altered the ways audiences value artists. Artists are now legitimized based on their relevancy to artists, and not how well their records sell.

In order to analyze this change, it is necessary to define key terms. Artists are largely measured based on album or soundtrack releases. However, this is an oversimplification of a very diverse range of musical output. In Hip-Hop music particularly, music projects are not just limited to albums. While albums generally represent a totally finished project, Hip Hop artists present this output in various forms. Mixtapes in Hip-Hop are complete music projects that may not have been mixed, mastered, cleared samples, properly credited contributors, or any of the many intricacies specific to the recording industry and album design. This essay addresses changes to the purpose of the album, the artist, and what constitutes a “finished project” in the digital age.

Contemporary Hip Hop culture is hallmarked by unprecedented transparency around its artists and industry inner workings. The ultra-fast, ultra-visible nature of this society has pressured artists to create and release music at a rate startlingly faster than that of the album-release-process era. The accessibility of music in the internet age has changed the nature of the audience from anticipatory to expectant. Hip Hop culture and greater popular culture has become accustomed to the standards of the 24-hour news cycle society. Digital media institutions — from social media to streaming platforms — have simultaneously made music ultimately consummate and ubiquitous, giving way to a new cycle of hyper consumption and a resulting exhaustion, a society that receives and discards new releases at a rate which has polarized and sensationalized reception and criticism of projects (“Music Streaming, Festivals, and the Eventization of Music”).

The prevalence of social media has not only altered the ways in which artists communicate and cooperate with audiences, but also shifted the way consumers receive and process music. Social networks have facilitated the rise of highly Socratic and interactive forums and “think piece” criticism; critique networks that the accessible and communal nature of Hip-Hop culture in the 2010s. The interconnectivity of the digital age has made the interactions between content creators and consumers highly visible. New age artists are more defined by “the interplay between blog buzz, radio play, and music sales at both the album and song levels of analysis” (“Social Media, Traditional Media, and Music Sales”). Digital media sources promote primary participation in the music industry. The consumer is no longer separated from the artist by the media; they are connected to them. Because consumers can interact with artists at the social media level and simultaneously review and share music, consumers have become the new media. Consumers controlling the media and music they consume has eliminated the need for collective barometers for artistic success. Musical validity has become hyper personalized, allowing consumers to act as consumer and aggregator, creating niche communities that can demand the attention of mainstream music culture.

One of the largest contributing factors to the changes in the Hip-Hop industry has been the horizontal integration of the artist-to-consumer process. In traditional music industry models, Album promotion, distribution and then release was the only way for consumers to receive product. With the internet and digital production interfaces, such as Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) like Ableton Live or Logic, artists can now create and release music at their pace.  Becaue of this, audiences do not have to rely on labels and distributors to access content. While consumers still have to opportunity to purchase this content, the vast majority of it is distributed online for free, either directly through free music outlets like mixtapes, or illegally sourced via torrenting methods or other piracy practices. The effects of piracy on the recording industry have been well documented, with all figures indicating a dramatic decline in record sales (“How Piracy is Changing the Music Industry Landscape”). This same research has pointed to an inverse relationship with the overall popularity of music. In his book, The Music Industry: Music in the Cloud, writer Patrik Wikstrom notes that the availability of free music is raising consumer interest in artists, manifesting itself in significant increases in live music ticket sales and record numbers of plays on streaming sites like Spotify or Apple Music (“The Music Industry”). While artistic output has lost its significance in sales, music is still a cultural force. In other words, despite changes to traditional measures of the way audiences receive music, music still matters very much to audiences.

Record sales and album releases are no longer the most significant measures of an artist’s viability. Now, artists are measured more in their ability to establish lasting relationships with audiences. In Hip-Hop specifically, artist validity is inseparable from credibility. Hip Hop and rap music are based on the artist’s authority and value as a legitimate source and authentic vessel for the stories and images they produce. In 2016, rapper 21 Savage has experienced the highest level of success in his career to date. He has put out three self-released projects, all distributed as free mixtapes. Savage has also garnered recognition for his adamancy on remaining an independent artist. In an interview with music and culture publication, The FADER, Savage’s success is attributed to his uncompromising personal aesthetic. “…while his peers dream of widening hip-hop’s scope, Savage cinches it tight. He raps nearly exclusively about guns, drugs, and loveless sex, and he is insular to the point of claustrophobia” (“Savage World”). Savage’s image of a hardened street veteran reporting the day-to-day realities of life in Southern black poverty cultivates a hyper relevancy with his audience. His refusal to conform to the norms of the Hip-Hop industry, whether it means remaining independent or loyalty to a sound, allows him to be a commercially successful artist while remaining free from the confines of music industry tradition. The event and significance behind 21 Savage is not his music necessarily, but his will established and maintained persona. 21 Savage’s unlikely success signifies an important change in the music industry, shifting importance from output to creator.

Artists like 21 Savage could not experience success in the forms that they do without a platform for audiences to receive their content. The rise of mixtape and streaming culture have drastically changed the mediums in which music is accessed, and with it the philosophies behind music release and marketing. The mixtape and the idea behind it is a unique Hip-Hop institution, and its rise in popularity foreshadows an intriguing trend in mainstream music. The mixtape was originally just that, a cassette tape of crudely recorded, mixed and mastered songs. Initially, the mixtape gained popularity because it was a cheap and portable alternative to vinyl records. Mixtapes were easy to manufacture and share, proving to be a precursor to the file sharing platforms that facilitate free music distribution today. Cassette tapes were also far less durable and lower in quality than vinyl records, giving the music on them a reasonable expiration date, creating a certain immediacy and necessity unique to the format. The mixtape further developed a do-it-yourself (DIY) culture in Hip Hop, allowing regions without significant recording industry presence like the South to produce music. This reinforced the authenticity factor of artists producing mixtapes by removing the layer of corporate influence that is inherent to traditional album releases. Mixtape culture in Hip-Hop was an early indicator of the shifting value from content to content creator.

Mixtape culture has had profound impacts in the digital age. In digital form, mixtapes accomplish the same goal in far more efficient and cost productive means. Mixtapes can now be produced in an entirely digital format –from production, recording and mastering to release. Because mixtapes are released as free downloads and can be produced totally independently, independent artists that did not otherwise have the means to clear expensive samples or otherwise fund the very expensive costs of music production could release content and reap the external benefits while avoiding the economic and legal obstacles of music production. “Freebie digital emporiums like Livemixtapes and Datpiff pushed the street vendors and hand to hand dubs out of the mixtape market almost entirely” (“History of the Hip Hop Mixtape”). Eliminating the explicit monetary ties of mixtape production promoted a sense of populism in Hip Hop culture, facilitating new relationships between major artists and their audiences. Following the release of his 2014 studio album, Honest, rapper Future experienced unprecedented success with the release of three free mixtapes over the course of the next year: Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights. The mixtapes were highly acclaimed and lead to a resurgence in the rapper’s career. Fans and critics would point to the lack of features and creative freedom Future explored on the mixtapes, often limiting his work to just one producer per project. Studio albums, hallmarked by their high sample and production budgets, did not necessarily translate into better music. When limited to his own resources, production and music, Future released the most impactful and resonant music of his career to date, proving that music audiences in the digital age champion quality over presentation. Furthermore, Future’s notable financial success from touring and subsequent album releases proved that revenue generation in Hip Hop had moved to different streams. Superstars in the genre now measure their success based on how audiences respond to releases, not whether or not they purchase them.

While Hip Hop’s major artists very much so still release and promote traditional albums, this cycle too has been considerably altered by pervasive mixtape culture. The digital age has facilitated an immediacy in the music industry that has never been experienced. Social media platforms and changes in release mediums have altered the way artists and labels perceive promotion (“The Music Business and the Recording Industry”). As mixtapes have become incredibly viable release platforms, albums are now prepared and released with the same secrecy. When record sales were the driving force behind album design and release, labels and artists planned elaborate marketing and promotion campaigns to ensure audiences were aware of and interested in content. The extreme connectivity and transparency of the digital age has allowed artists to handle project releases with the same guerilla marketing style as mixtapes.

The experimental Hip Hop Group Death Grips has experienced a great deal of success using this model. In 2011, Death Grips released their debut mixtape, Exmilitary, using this strategy. The self-released project generated considerable buzz, leading to their signing with major record label, Epic Records. While signed to Epic, Death Grips continued to self-release free projects, intentionally breaching their contract with Epic, leading to their subsequent dropping from the label. While this action angered Epic, it generated more buzz for the group than Epic would have otherwise attempted to garner for a small, niche group. Death Grips proved that innovative and deliberate marketing tactics would build a persona more effective at galvanizing audiences than label promotion. Because of their elusive character and unique musical style, Death Grips demanded the attention of mainstream music media without capitulating to the traditional practices of the mainstream music industry model.

Mainstream artists have attained similar results with this model. In December 2013, titan of popular culture and R&B artist Beyoncé Knowles released her studio album, Beyoncé, suddenly and with no promotion. The album was incredibly well received, achieving platinum status within its first two weeks of release, as well as an 85% positive review score on review aggregator, Metacritic, indicating what they describe as “universal acclaim”. The success of this for all intents and purposes, secret, album indicated that while Beyoncé was very much so still a musical force, her brand more than anything proved her artistic viability. Underground artists like Death Grips shifted the general tone of music consumption from expectant to reactionary, placing more power on the consumer to validate artists.

Shifting power roles amongst artists and labels have certainly altered the purpose of the album, but the role of the consumer in this shift cannot be underestimated. As audiences are buying music at a smaller rate, consumer tastes have forced the industry to adjust entirely. Digital age audiences stream music at high rates, and because of this on demand listening ability, audience command labels’ attention; not the other way around (“How Streaming is Changing the Music Industry”). This has led audiences to consume more music at faster rates, demanding specific output from artists and labels. The accessibility of music makes artists that cannot prove their viability to audiences replaceable in the eyes of consumers. Now that consumers have more options for the music that they consume and the ways in which they consume it, consumers and content creators engage in a panoptic relationship. The constant state of surveillance between audience and artist drives artist to compete and release, or otherwise become obsolete. Viable artists prove their staying power in the digital age with visibility and effect on audiences, an undeniable change from the monolithic value derived from album sales. Because of this panoptic relationship, the album is no longer the singular measure of an artist’s worth.

Digital media has had profound effects on our perceptions of artistic worth. Social media and streaming platforms have allowed consumers to act simultaneously as audience, media and radio. Consumers can discuss, consume and praise the music that they want, meaning that they no longer anticipate releases, they expect them. Because the dynamic of the relationship between labels and consumers has shifted in favor of consumers, the event that makes music significant shifted from the album, the label’s measure of an artist’s value, to the artist, where consumers then decide their relevance.

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