Say that mainstream success on a massive scale—without the backing of a major label—is the rap game version of discovering the Mississippi River. In that case, Macklemore discovered the Mississippi River.
If he hadn't been the first rapper to do it, someone else would have figured it out eventually.
Breaking out and becoming an independent success story on a massive scale was an inevitable result of the Internet. Connecting with fans became easier than ever, obliterating the necessity of certain music industry jobs overnight. Labels have survived on inertia and their connection to radio and distribution alone—and the importance of the latter is waning. Dom Kennedy recently created an arrangement directly with Best Buy to release his records without an intermediary. Labels are worth something as long as they control certain propriety information.
The truth is, while information wants to be free, entrepreneurs want it to be in their possession, so that they can bank off of it. What's happened in the last few years is that buzz has attached itself to artists before labels get involved. Artists who recognize their value before the labels have locked on aren't liable to share the profits with a support staff that weren't in on the ground floor. Enter what Forbes has called "Moneyball for Music": predictive technologies that use streaming data to make artist development less art than science.
Shazam Headquarters. Image via WhatCulture.com
For example: Warner Brothers recently partnered with Shazam, the app that tells you what song you're listening to. Forbes quoted Warner Brothers' COO Rob Wiesenthal: “By partnering with Shazam, a brand synonymous with music discovery for fans, we have forged a potent proposition—the first crowd-sourced, big data record label."
For those of us who've enjoyed paying close attention to what's popping in hip-hop over the last few years of Wild Wild West Internet, these kind of stats are awesome—although the threat of seeing them go solely to those who would profit off of buzzing artists is disheartening.
But in a context-free environment, those stats are also somewhat meaningless. For example: Shazam predicts a big year in 2014 for Kid Ink, because that rapper's "Show Me" and other singles have caught the ears of numerous radio and club listeners. You don't have to tell me why; "Show Me" is fire, flipping a club classic for a modern context. But it also doesn't have much to do with Kid Ink, who feels very much like an industry cipher who needs only to play the role of Tyga's Tyga for the song to work its magic.
At the end of the day, data is only as good as you make it. So we're going to try to make use of it. Utilizing Shazam and various other data streams, context, experience, and our own tastes, Complex is going to make an effort to read the tea leaves and predict the future ourselves. The goal isn't to identify all the hits, but to contextualize them, filter them through our own perspective, and get a handle on where things are headed.