These days, rap album sales still dominate the conversation amongst the more dedicated fans of the genre. Major sites report first week numbers as if they’re box scores, and fans violently hurl SoundScan data amongst one another and back @rappers via Twitter. A strong first-week outing can define the popular perception of an artist’s relevance, a weak one can instantly destroy a career. The only problem is: Sales don’t matter anymore. At all.
Never mind that there are a bevy of other (and sometimes more reliable) ways for an artist to generate revenue these days– tours, endorsements, reality shows, merchandise– these numbers mostly measure success outside the culture, amongst casual listeners and neophytes. They are crossover scans. Actual Rap Fans have little to no purchasing power and yet they argue about record sales constantly as if it were an accurate reflection of their interest.
While the myth that young people don’t buy music isn’t entirely true, their attentions have definitely been divided across mediums– some paid-for and legal and SoundScan-approved, others less so. The Wall Street Journal reports that teens under the age of 18 are most likely to listen to music on YouTube, a service that falls into the freebie gray area and for which it would be virtually impossible to index views on an artist-by-artist level. Naturally, this survey did not cover hip-hop-specific free music outlets like WorldstarHipHop, DatPiff, and LiveMixtapes.
These sites do huge numbers and self-report them, though the accuracy is unclear. In any case, their existence has de-incentivized the album purchase amongst dedicated rap listeners. The freebie mixtape, once a format of liberation for unsigned rappers and those being suffocated by the expectations of their major deal, has backed artists into a corner where it’s absolutely necessary to give music away to generate and maintain a buzz. At this point we know that the album is going to be worse than the mixtape and that we can get it for free on DatPiff and that the big single was leaked via YouTube or Rap Radar six months ago and that we’re already kinda sick of it. So when an Actual Rap Fan does buy an actual rap album, it’s a largely symbolic gesture.
Continue reading the rest of the story on Pitchfork