Recently I came across an article from Billboard, the music industry trade publication, by Antony Bruno titled, “Late Registration” (this is not the full article). The article is about Boston-based rapper, Sam Adams. Never heard of him? Neither had I. But if you go to college in the Boston area there’s a good chance you have heard of him. It turns out that Adams and his manager, a high school pal, are using Facebook’s appeal with the young college set to build a fan base. When Adams debut album, “Boston’s Boy” appeared at the top of iTunes hip hop album charts Billboard reported on the rumor that the rapper purchased 7500 downloads to inflate his sales. The rumor has never been confirmed.
The use of Facebook to promote Adams got me to thinking about hip hop. Most of the conversation about rap music these days is about the steady decline in album sales. Hip hop, allegedly, is dead. Here’s some perspective on the state of hip hop in the digital age.
No entertainment industry has been hit harder by the rise of the young and the digital than the pop music business. Rarely a day goes by that some development, deal, or new application does not remind us of the woes the music industry has been experiencing lately. The steep decline in album sales is stunning. By 2002 album sales were falling from the historic highs achieved in 1999 and 2000. The music industry sold 649,500,000 albums in 2002. Seven years later, 2009, the industry sold just over half that amount, 373,900,000. Between 2008 and 2009 overall album sales declined by 12.7%. Amidst the haze of change one thing was clear by 2009: music buying behavior had shifted decisively to digital. The music industry sold more than one billion digital downloads in 2009, up 8.3% from the previous year. Digital album sales increased 16%. And in its end of the year summary of music sales Nielsen SoundScan reports that digital music accounted for 40% of all the music purchased in 2009. Among the young and the digital the percentage is certainly higher.
As the transition to digital continues rap music has been hit especially hard. Starting around the early 2000’s the sale of rap music albums began to drop precipitously. As recently as 2002, rap music was still the third leading genre in the music industry selling 84,553,000 albums that year. In 2009 rap album sales were less than a third of what they were seven years earlier and the genre placed sixth overall. Why the dramatic drop?
When the popular press began reporting on the declining fortunes of rap music album sales in 2006 many journalists attributed the fall to a lack of artistry. Rap, critics charged, had become formulaic, predictable, and creatively exhausted. The lure of money and celebrity had eroded hip-hop’s greatest qualities, creativity and authenticity. Others claim that the drive-by thrills that gangsta rap gave young whites in particular lost their shock value. Several of these charges can be leveled at most of the popular music genres including pop, rock, metal, and country.
Rap’s commercial demise is actually being driven by forces the hip hop industry simply can not control: the historic migration of young people to the digital media world.
Hip Hop’s commercial problems began when young white males abandoned CD’s for free online music and TV for video games. This was, as the music industry and its entertainment counterparts, regrettably realized, a true shift in power. Digital media platforms allow consumers to assert greater control over their media use and experiences. In some of the earliest survey data that we collected nearly four years ago it was clear that young people’s expectations regarding pop music entertainment were undergoing a dramatic shift. Our initial fieldwork showed that in addition to abandoning CD’s young people had a preference for music clips via YouTube, sites that streamed online music, and free downloads. Their preference for digital content and peer-to-peer media was undeniable. Among young men, the preference was palpable. Why, you ask, would young white males shifting media behaviors impact hip-hop?
One of the great cultural mysteries of the 1990s was the appeal of hard-core rap music among young whites living in America’s heartland and suburbs. Some described the mystery as a case of “cultural tourism.” Others believed it was simply the latest example of young whites using black expressive culture as a source of societal rebellion and sexual exploration.
In my book Hip Hop Matters I argue that after 1991, the year that the music biz began using sales data from SoundScan, there was a growing recognition within the industry that the market for rap music was much wider and whiter than previously thought. For the first time in rap music’s history young white consumers emerged as a primary market in the making and marketing of rap music. Corporate hip hop, though few of its producers would admit it, was manufactured first and foremost for teenage white boys. This, of course, was also the segment that abandoned CD’s for MP3′s and legacy media–radio, TV, and print–for new and interactive media platforms before most everybody else. In our research, for example, young men were far more likely than their female counterparts to report that they had no inhibitions about illegal downloads, preferred games over TV, and participated routinely in peer-to-peer media.
Hip-hop’s album woes can also be attributed to the changing media habits of black and Latino youth. As the contours of the digital divide shift (see my post Changing the Conversation: Rethinking America’s Digital Divide) black and Latino youth—armed with computers, iPods, and most notably mobile phones—are consuming most of their entertainment content through new media platforms. When I asked black and Latino youth in a recent focus group if they still paid for music downloads the look they gave me made me feel stupid for asking the question.
We hear a lot about the death of hip hop these days. Nas, a widely respected hip hop MC, claimed as much in his 2006 album, “Hip Hop is Dead.” But let’s not write hip-hop’s obituary too soon. What is dead is the hyper-commodification of rap music. And that is a good thing. What is emerging in its place is a hip hop culture that is closer to what hip hop use to be back in the day–creative, fun, insightful, experimental, and participatory. And that, too, is a good thing. I tend to think that young hip hop enthusiasts are recreating their own hip hop experience largely through social media.
For a few years now the most vibrant practices in hip hop have been happening in what I call the digital underground. You can see hip hop searching for new modes of expression and purpose in the form of the mixtapes, blogs, and the social media content that young hip hoppers create online through social network sites like MySpace and Facebook. Today, aspiring MC’s display their musical prowess and earn street cred through a savvy use of social and digital media. As NPR’s Andrew Noz writes in his piece, “The Decade In Rap Mixtapes”: “The future of the genre [rap music] lies not in the hands of the industry, but at your corner bootleggers or favorite blog.” Hip hop’s digital underground reminds me of what hip hop use to be–homemade, folksy, and wildly independent.
Hip hop may not dominate the charts like it did in the late 1990s but it still matters in the lives of young people all around the world. This point was made vividly clear to me after an interview I did with a high school student from a suburb a few miles outside St. Louis. She was interviewing me. Her questions about race, hip hop, youth, and commercialism were insightful. She had chosen the topic as part of a class project that required students to do research in preparation for a thirty-minute presentation they would make in front of their peers. I asked her what her friends thought about rap music. Her answer is intriguing.
“My friends seem to be split about their opinions of hip-hop,” she told me, adding, “they either like it, but only really listen to what can be heard on the radio, or seem to be turned-off by it, because of what is played on the radio.” In the interview we talked about how the lines between hip hop and other genres of pop music have been blurred. She believes that many of her friends listen to music that may not be classified as hip hop but, “actually has a lot of the same elements as hip-hop.”
She’s right. Today, hip hop pervades digital youth culture. You see it in the video games young people play. All over the world teenagers are creating with hip hop and using it to construct their online identities, computer-mediated bodies, and communities in MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and elsewhere. And while rap albums sales may not be what they once were digital downloads of hip hop are strong. Young hip hop heads helped build ringtones into a real revenue stream, mobile media, and expression of identity play. When the Nielsen Media Company began tracking ringtone sales in 2006 hip hop and R&B dominated Nielsen RingScan’s chart, making up 87% of scans generated by the top-ten sellers over the first six months of the chart. When I looked at a recent RingScan chart, rap and R&B songs represented twelve of the top fifteen sellers.
Album sales are not the only barometer of young people’s music taste. In fact, they may not even bee a good barometer. Young people are growing up with a very different orientation toward pop music. For them, music in not a commodity you must necessarily buy. Rather, music simply exists to be discovered, shared, listened to, remixed, and woven into their daily lives.
Hip hop is not dead. It’s alive, well, and homemade in the digital worlds young people are building.