The Recording Industry Association of America is a powerful organization. As the primary outlet through which music sales are certified and tracked, it has the power to make or break careers. Yesterday, the RIAA announced that after a year of internally tuning its methodology for tracking music, its gold and platinum rankings will now include streaming services. This update had an immediate impact: over 30 singles were instantly propelled into the upper echelon of music sales, giving the songs some prestige and granting the artists some [more] visibility.
On one hand, this is a positive development that rewards the artists who circumnavigate the traditional outlets for selling and distributing their music by selling it on the internet. For these artists, the internet allows the gap between fan and artist to be dramatically shortened. Rather than forcing purchases to be mediated through a label, then then through a distributor, then through a wholesaler, then through a store and so on, the internet shortens the chain of mediation and strengthens the artist-fan link via hyperlink. How could that be a bad thing?
The issue with this “positive development” is that the internet is now one of the traditional outlets that it was formerly an alternative to. There certainly was a time where fans and artists were more closely interlinked (For some artists and fans, this is still the case), but at the collective level, the industry-wide level, this was a brief moment. As the vibrancy and potency of the internet was gradually realized, all of the mediating chains that existed outside of it were slowly absorbed into it. Labels, stores, wholesalers, distributors and all the other groups and individuals comprising the music industry weren’t out of the loop for very long. And now, after years of being back in the loop, the chain of mediation is just as long as it used to be.
Despite the professed power of the internet, it is clear that the-already-powerful reap the greatest benefit. For instance, even though Spotify is free, alongside all this free music are ads endorsing certain artists. Put more critically, these ads endorse the artists who can afford ads.
What does this all have to do with hip-hop?
Everything. For the artists who can’t afford ads and labels and publicists, i.e., most hip-hop artists, with the exception of Youtube (which has its own limitations), the streams that they use will simply flow into the vast ocean of the internet, probably to be forgotten forever. In other words, none of the artists who use Soundcloud, Datpiff, Bandcamp, Livemixtapes,Vimeo or their own blogs to release their music are counted in the new streaming update unless they also utilize the limited list of streams that the RIAA tracks (Note that many of these streaming services require artists to pay a fee to be hosted).
One could argue that perhaps hip-hop should just branch out and use more diverse sites, but that would just be a response to the RIAA rewarding artists with gold and platinum certifications, not a cause. Plus, other genres with large swaths of broke artists will feel similar effects.
In the end, though the RIAA is not the only organization tracking and publicizing the success of songs, its methods for tracking don’t affect all genres and artists equally, which can have big effects, like last year when Billboard’s change in method put Psy at the top of the rap charts for “Gangnam Style.” For the big hip-hop artists, this update to its methods is awesome, but for the smaller artists who are more vulnerable to the tides of the music industry, the RIAA is doing a grand disservice. As fans of hip-hop, a genre with an abundance of such vulnerable artists, we should celebrate cautiously, if at all.
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