It's not as much of a story as the music industry would like you to believe.
When Chance the Rapper won the "Best Rap Album" Grammy award for his "Coloring Book," much was made of the fact that this was the first time a Grammy had been given to a "streaming-only" album.
The following week, Future hit the news for making Billboard Chart history. His self-titled album debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 200 chart on Feb. 17. His second new album this year, "Hndrxxx," was released last Friday, and is predicted to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard list next week.
This would make Future, according to a news release issued by the artist's publicist, "the first artist in the six-decade history of the Billboard 200 to have two new albums make their debuts at No. 1 on successive charts."
Both Chance and Future represent the full assimilation of the "Mix Tape Culture" – where multiple releases can saturate the market within a brief period, flying in the face of the traditional industry take on the spacing, scheduling and promotion of new releases - into the broader pop culture.
After years of ignoring hip-hop-based ethic that "the artist releases what the artist wants to release whenever the artist feels like releasing it," the mainstream music business is finally acquiescing. It's also eager to find ways to control and monetize the movement.
The industry is all hot and bothered about the new "multi-metric consumption" formula being employed by Nielsen and Billboard, in which artists' sales are being graded on a curve, one where streams are afforded credit and added to total album sales. So Future's first week sales of 60,000 copies for his self-titled album were rounded upward based on the 109 million people who streamed it. Billboard and Nielsen now claim a "virtual sales figure" of 140,000 for the album's debut week.
Even with the benefit of streaming-based inflation, Future's numbers aren't all that hot. Consider that, in 2001, Creed – in many ways, the mainstream alt-rock version of the equally generic hip-hop that Future churns out – sold 887,000 copies of its wretched "Weathered" album. Let that sink in. It should be said that some great albums have been huge sellers during their first weeks, too.
Since Soundscan started tallying the figures in 1991, the likes of Pearl Jam (950,000 for "Vs."), Justin Timberlake (968,000 for "The 20/20 Experience"), and the Beatles (885,000 for "Anthology Vol. 1"), have all hovered just under the 1 million first-week sales ceiling cracked by Eminem, Britney Spears and 50 Cent.
Billboard's new math interprets 1,500 streams and 10 digital downloads as 1 hard album sale. If you don’t spend much time thinking about it, this makes sense. But if we pick at the edges a bit, it starts to all seem sad. Streaming, after all, does not connote love for the artist or immersion in their art.
If you pay your $10 a month to Spotify – or if you simply ignore the commercials, take the free "introductory" version, and then re-up it each time it runs out – you can easily spend an hour each "New Music Friday" scanning through the new releases and seeing what appeals to you and what doesn't. Perhaps you'll give that new Future ditty a stream. Does that mean you dig it? Not necessarily. Will you make it through the whole album? Does it matter?
The music industry is primarily a business, even if what it peddles is ostensibly "art." That means that if you "like" something, you denote that like by opening your wallet. Or more accurately, it used to mean that.
Today, you are paying a monthly fee (or finding a way around doing so) in order to subscribe to the idea of music. And the industry is watching what you do, gathering this information in order to more accurately pinpoint where its investment is yielding positive results, and where it isn’t. The stuff that's getting positive results will be pushed harder – celebrated during awards show and pitched as a buzz-worthy story to the entertainment media. Most consumers won’t notice, or won’t care, if they do.
The result? More music that sounds the same, interchangeable and safe. For which you might reasonably read "easier to sell."
Full albums don’t sell much anymore, but even soft sales numbers like Future's are a boost to the industry. Concert ticket prices for "No. 1 artists" go up. Other less commercially successful artists follow suit, wringing as much as they can from the sponge. Ancillary deals are made, product lines are introduced, and everyone makes money. It's the NBA model.
The Chance the Rapper Grammy win at least comes adorned in something resembling real cultural change. However, as much as has already been made of the fact that Chance is the first hip-hop artist to win Grammys while going it alone – no major record label, and thus, no broadly-hyped physical release – the bigger story is the fact that he actually is helping to make hip-hop relevant again by deflating it, making it less grandiose, returning it to an accessible art form.
Until now, he hasn’t really made the music industry any money. But now that industry has embraced him, this is likely to change. Let's hope his activism and his advocacy for other independent rappers doesn’t change. These have been refreshing.
Who cares if sales numbers are being artificially inflated? And who cares if streaming continues to reign supreme, despite the fact that no one knows how artists are ever going to squeeze a reasonable royalty payment out of the deal?
You should. But only if you actually care about music. If you don’t care, well, let's hope you enjoy all the Creeds and Futures to come.