In January 2019, an album sold 823 copies and still topped the charts.
Aside from a few novelty headlines, the news didn’t faze mainstream rap listeners; everyone was too busy streaming A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s Hoodie SZN. But the record-breaking moment served as a symbol for one of the most important music storylines of the 2010s: By 2019, every aspect of rap, from the business to the creation of music itself, had been reshaped by the rise of streaming.
Traditionally static concepts like genre labels, project lengths, and even what counts as an album sale have shifted dramatically in the post-streaming landscape. Independent artists have unprecedented ability to reach audiences without label assistance, and a hot track can turn an unknown into a household name in the span of a few weeks. Young musicians are growing up with a world of music inspirations at their fingertips, and making genre-defying records that would have been considered wildly unconventional a few years ago. Meanwhile, A-list stars have revamped their approaches to align with the new economic and creative realities, and increased numbers of international acts are finally breaking through in the States.
Most changes in the streaming era have been undeniably positive, but others, particularly those driven by the revamped commercial landscape, are less so. There are new ways to game the charts, resulting in albums that sometimes swell to exhausting lengths; the influx of streaming money into the industry doesn’t always make it into the hands of the musicians themselves; and some of the artists who are thrust into the spotlight from a viral streaming hit don’t have the infrastructure around them to support a lengthy career, so they disappear as quickly as they emerged.
From Kanye West and Drake’s post-release tweaking to the rise of the SoundCloud rap scene, here’s a sweeping look at how streaming shaped the 2010s, and where things might head in the next decade.
Music streaming hasn’t just changed how music is distributed; it’s had a major impact on the way music projects are actually constructed. Because of the way album sales are counted, with an increased emphasis on individual song streams, artists are adjusting the length of their releases—not only for creative reasons, but also financial gain. This has led to an increase in extremely long projects (think Migos’ Culture II, Post Malone’s beerbongs & bentleys, or any of the Quality Control compilations). In most instances, however, this comes with an artistic tradeoff. The muddying of a project’s main message with superfluous tracks often ends up feeling like a cash grab.
The speed of uploading music to streaming services means that, in many cases, the traditional timeline of turning an album in weeks or months in advance no longer applies, and artists can indulge their perfectionist (or procrastinator) tendencies by working up until the last possible moment. Famously, Drake’s guest vocals on Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” were submitted at 2 a.m. the day the song came out. For musicians of Drake’s caliber, who are constantly dealing with jam-packed schedules, the more malleable timeline for putting music together allows them to maintain their status as omnipotent forces in the industry while still touring and fulfilling various obligations. As the speed of music consumption increases, it also allows rappers to keep up and stay relevant, and not fall behind due to slow-moving infrastructure. If Drake wants to release two songs in the middle of the night, with no warning, he can.
Just because music is released doesn’t mean it’s reached its final form. Changes are now made to records after they’ve been uploaded to streaming services, including adjustments like additional features that either weren’t submitted in time. Such was the case with Young Thug’s “Ecstasy,” which initially dropped as a solo song on his 2019 record So Much Fun before a belated Machine Gun Kelly verse was added. Although, that widely maligned change proves that just because technology means you can do something doesn’t always mean you should.
More ambitiously, entire albums are being altered. The most noteworthy example is Kanye West’s seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo, which was updated several times after its initial release on February 14, 2016. Kanye once billed the album as “a living breathing changing creative expression,” which, while highfalutin, is a reflection of what the streaming era can do the once-static album format. Many of the tweaks to Pablo were relatively minor and involved adjustments to vocal mixes, production, and volume levels—not to mention the infamous “Ima fix ‘Wolves’” meme—but the experiment proved to be influential. The trend of post-release tweaking has continued in recent years, with Reddit sleuths and diehard fans compiling lists of adjustments made to records like Drake’s Scorpion and West’s ye.
Per the RIAA’s 2018 year-end report, streaming accounted for 75 percent of recorded music revenue in 2018, compared to 7 percent in 2010.
Over the course of the decade, the sound of rap has also evolved, and genres have become increasingly fluid. Some of this can be attributed to the increased volume and variety of musical inspirations available to young musicians. Artists coming up in the streaming age have access to millions of songs that they likely never would have been exposed to years earlier. That intermingling of rap with pop, rock, and alternative music has specifically led to an emphasis on melody in hip-hop. Gone are the days when MCs needed an R&B singer to handle hook duty; most are more than willing to do it themselves. Rappers with roots beyond hip-hop have become so common, so quickly, that it almost feels trite when a new artist proclaims their love for pop punk or indie rock. But when Lil Uzi Vert first credited Paramore’s Hayley Williams as a formative influence, and acts like Lil Peep blended trap drums and 808s with Panic! At the Disco and My Chemical Romance toplines, it was genuinely paradigm-shifting.
Even within more conventional hip-hop, regional sounds are flattening. Artists are growing up listening not only to the music of their hometown, but sounds from all around the world. Though he’s increasingly embraced Houston and paid homage to its chopped-and-screwed aesthetic, Travis Scott became a star by making music that was nominally Southern but much more overtly born of Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak and Kid Cudi’s early music. ASAP Rocky also turned heads for emerging as a Harlem rapper with Southern influences.
Dallas Martin, senior VP of A&R at Atlantic Records, brought Roddy Ricch to the label. A major part of Ricch’s appeal came from the fact that he didn’t sound like a product of his environment.
“When I first heard his record ‘Fuck it Up,’ I was like, ‘Wow, this kid is from Compton, but he doesn’t even sound like he’s from the West Coast,’” Martin reveals. “There’s a new generation of artists on the internet, and it’s like, he was influenced by Young Thug, too. You can tell his influences in his music.”
On the global music spectrum, streaming has helped expose people within the U.S. to sounds from other countries, leading directly to more Latinx and Asian hip-hop artists achieving mainstream commercial success in the States. At the same time, it has also led to rap’s overall increase in popularity. In 2018, hip-hop officially became the most-consumed music genre in the States, which was “powered by a 72% increase in on-demand audio streaming,” per Nielsen.
A key aspect of that uptick in fans is due to the emergence of subgenres like SoundCloud rap—a wild, DIY-minded movement so closely identified with a streaming service that it adopted its name. This is a direct product of the new ability to upload and distribute songs without traditional industry connections or recording tools. As Tariq Cherif, co-founder of the rap-centric Rolling Loud festival, explains it, these MCs had no choice but to embrace a DIY style of music-making that ended up seeming significantly more relatable to its fans than some of the A-List artists from earlier eras.
“They were close to the age of their fans, who could see hope and say, ‘Hey, I could also be big,” says Cherif, who also manages Ski Mask the Slump God. “When a lot of people look at guys like Rick Ross or French Montana, they’re like, ‘This guy’s a superstar with huge label backings. I don’t know what to do about that. He’s on the radio. I don’t even know how to get on the radio.’”
Though the creation of music has gone through significant changes this decade, streaming’s effect on the art itself pales in comparison to how it has affected the way songs and albums are sold, marketed, and measured.
In terms of raw profit, the rise of streaming has been a godsend for the music industry.
After years of decline, the industry finally turned a profit again in 2013, for the first time since 1999. At the time, Spotify was beginning to pick up steam after launching in America in July 2011, while Tidal and Apple Music would arrive in subsequent years. Throughout the rest of the decade, the popularity of those services has been the primary driver for consistent growth in revenue.
Per the RIAA’s 2018 year-end report, music industry revenue has grown from $7 billion in 2015 to $9.8 billion last year, while streaming has grown from $2.3 billion total in 2015 to $7.4 billion in 2018. The increased earnings have been driven by the pervasiveness of streaming, which accounted for only 7 percent of industry revenue for recorded music in 2010 and 75 percent in 2018.
One of the most positive effects of the rise of streaming has been a dramatic reduction in the popularity of illegal downloading. The sheer volume of file sharing and torrenting was a major reason that overall music business revenue declined throughout the 2000s and early 2010s. At the beginning of the decade, many industry experts worried that the profitability of recorded music would never recover. Fortunately, streaming services dropped financial barriers for music consumption and increased the convenience of listening to songs online. In turn, people were willing to pay low monthly subscription fees (or listen on free, ad-supported platforms) instead of illegally downloading albums and songs.
Artists like Chance the Rapper have been able to use streaming services to get valuable lump sum payments, receiving $500,000 to make his 2016 release Coloring Book an Apple Music exclusive for two weeks. Of course, it’s important to note that there is still a long way to go, though. While there is more money in the industry as a whole, it’s still difficult for some middle-class artists to exist, and it has become increasingly challenging to rely on a devoted fan base to pay for digital downloads or physical copies. An August 2018 report from Citigroup claimed that only 12 percent of the money made in music is actually going to artists. As Chicago rapper Joseph Chilliams joked on the song “Mortal Kombat”: “’Bout to make two grand when my streams hit a million.”
The major streaming services still have some slight barriers to entry compared to the free-for-all mixtape era—Spotify tried and scrapped a direct upload program for artists—but it has become relatively easy for musicians to have their music uploaded through intermediary services like DistroKid, CD Baby, and TuneCore. Being able to record and release music so quickly has created unique new circumstances for marketing and public relations teams of high-profile acts, which previously had longer lead times to promote projects.
“The level of work and engagement with the artists is still 24/7, but the tactics and outlets have changed,” says Chris Atlas, Warner Records’ head of urban marketing. “Without the right support, you could release records and you could put them out on streaming, but you still need that engagement with the artist, with the labels, with the people, to really ground it and give it focus that helps it take shape.”
“When you get organic playlisting, that’s when you know you’ve got a record that’s really working” - Chris Atlas, head of urban marketing at WARNER RECORDS
Even the concept of a hit song has changed in the streaming era. In July 2019, Rolling Stone launched its own set of charts to challenge the industry standard set by Billboard. The RS chart is updated daily, meant to better capture the rapidly changing music ecosystem, and notably does not factor “passive listening” (in essence, radio plays) into its numbers. The streaming services operate their own charts, as well. The Spotify Viral Top 50, in particular, is closely followed by labels and media because of its history of forecasting mainstream hits.
The Billboard charts will likely remain the primary measure used for the foreseeable future, but even those are facing existential questions in the streaming era. Since creating the streaming-equivalent album, a unit that counts a certain number of streams as an outright album sale, Billboard has tweaked the algorithm regularly, and as recently as June 2018. That update gave more weight to paid streaming, minimizing the impact of YouTube and the free edition of Spotify while empowering subscription-only DSPs like Apple Music and Tidal. For reference, the aforementioned A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie record actually moved 58,000 equivalent album units, buoyed by roughly 83 million streams.
A decade ago, making a radio hit was the biggest goal for many mainstream rappers. By 2019, the all-important “streaming hit” is a slightly different breed. A streaming hit is prized for its uniformity and its ability to transcend genre lines and blend into any playlist seamlessly. This music is rarely jarring, and accomplishes the main goal of streaming services: keeping listeners engaged on platforms without stopping. With some obvious exceptions, hit songs of previous decades have been uptempo, percussive, and hook-driven, but streaming hits are often slower, woozier, and far less cheery in their outlook. When the sheen of mainstream pop is mixed with the narcotized production and somber subject matter of today’s genre-agnostic artists, we get acts like Juice WRLD, Billie Eilish, and Post Malone.
In 2019, getting a song placed on an influential playlist can make a young artist’s career.
Atlas refers to playlisting as “the equivalent of a radio show or video outlet” in an earlier era. “Playlisting upon the initial launch of a record is fundamental,” he explains. “Then, after the initial launch, it’s about whether you can maintain that level of playlisting, enter into more playlists, and into genre- and region-specific playlists. Hopefully, from there, you can build organic playlisting, and when you get organic playlisting, that’s when you know you’ve got a record that’s really working.”
One key side product of streaming is data. A&Rs and talent buyers frequently use data to forecast trends. Rolling Loud founders Matt Zingler and Tariq Cherif have long been using streaming data to help select talent for the festival, which began as a standalone event in Miami but has since expanded to cities like New York and Los Angeles, with intentions to go global.
“I would say we saw numbers for people like XXXTentacion, Ski Mask the Slump God, and Lil Pump on SoundCloud first, and that was before anybody else was really looking at that,” Zingler says. “A&Rs were definitely on SoundCloud, but as far as people booking shows, whether it was booking agents or promoters, they weren’t really up on it yet.”
Everyone Complex spoke with cautioned against focusing solely on data, however. “I think the A&R role is becoming more important than ever, because it’s still a gut thing,” says Martin. “I think that there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors with these numbers and things like that, so I think it’s an even bigger responsibility for us to be able to identify true talent and make sure that the people that are true and big stars have a real shot.”
“It’s about assessing who is taking the time and putting in the effort to craft a fan base,” adds Cherif, citing Wiz Khalifa as an example of someone who worked hard to build an invested audience. “The greatest artists with the biggest fan bases, they have an ability to connect with their fans and unite them and make them feel like they’re part of the movement. Streaming numbers are cool, but there’s way more to it.”
Though the optics of streaming and the digital download era are similar, the best practices are not. Atlas cites Wale, who achieved significant commercial success in the late 2000s and early 2010s, as an example of someone who needed some strategy adjustments to thrive in the streaming ecosystem. First, they focused on getting some of his earlier mixtapes onto streaming platforms, a move that has also been done by artists like Wiz Khalifa, Drake, and Future. Wale also found success by collaborating with streaming-friendly artists and releasing music in a more timely fashion. In 2019, Wale’s Jeremih collaboration “On Chill” became his highest-charting solo single since 2013, and his album Wow… That’s Crazy debuted in the top 10, with 38,000 album-equivalent units moved (against just 5,000 pure sales), a marked increase over his 2017 LP, Shine.
“As we were releasing these records, we were building his streaming and consumption engagement, and putting new music out in a way that’s timely for how his fans were consuming it, while also picking up new fans at the same time,” Atlas says. “If you use streaming the right way, you’re appealing to your current base but picking up new fans, which led to ‘On Chill.’”
Having an overarching development plan is important for new acts who skyrocket to success in today’s more chaotic landscape. A song becoming a meme on Twitter or through the video-sharing app TikTok can lead directly to it leaping onto the mainstream charts, as shown by records like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” Y2K and bbno$’s “Lalala,” and Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up.” But a successful out-of-nowhere hit isn’t a surefire path to a stable career, something that industry veterans like Atlas emphasize: “We’ve seen a lot of huge artists that exploded off of streaming. But once the trend moved or the sound changed and that development didn’t happen, they’re gone.”
Streaming revenue grew by 26 percent in the first six months of 2019 alone, though its growth may begin slowing soon because of overall saturation. A projection from Hypebot hypothesizes that the year-over-year increase will begin to taper in 2020, but projects $45.3 billion in streaming revenue in 2026, which would be more than all recorded music earned in 2018.
As on-demand listening occupies an even larger share of the market and radio continues to adapt to the predominant mode of consumption, the difference between a mainstream hit and a “streaming hit” could completely erode, and genres will continue to flatten. “I think hip-hop music is turning into popular music,” Martin says. “I think that as music ascends, it’s going to become harder to make a format into whatever genre people think it is.”
As physical releases continue to decline, and artists like Drake release bodies of work as “playlists,” the term “album” may no longer be the industry standard. Niche mediums like vinyl will likely still be popular for audiophiles and diehard fans, but use of the term “album” might fade. So start thinking about what’s going to be on your Best Projects of the 2020s lists. Even music’s oldest institutions are beginning to adjust to the new reality. In 2017, Chance the Rapper became the first artist to win Grammys for a streaming-only release (Coloring Book), and it’s likely plenty more artists will follow suit in the years to come.
As the streaming industry matures and develops, experts predict the low barrier for entry that was leveraged by artists like Chance or Ski Mask the Slump God is likely to be raised. “I think it’s going to become harder to enter this space, instead of easier,” Zingler says. “You’re going to have to go through a lot more steps to get circulation, because there’s only so much content people can absorb in a day. And all the platforms are controlled, realistically, by algorithms, and by all this other shit. SoundCloud used to be free. That shit ain’t free anymore.”
Streaming will almost surely remain the primary way people consume music in the next decade, but as the novelty wears off, industry insiders warn that a knowledge of how to use streaming won’t be the thing that breaks a new artist. “When everybody starts doing that same thing, it becomes like the situation we used to be in with radio, pre-streaming,” Cherif points out. “A new way of popping off will have to come about.”
Until that new way of popping off emerges, though, streaming will continue to reshape the industry, fueled by intense competition between platforms. Spotify sued Apple in Europe, upping the ante in a streaming war nearly as heated as the one between video services like Netflix and Disney+. And upstart services like Resonate, a streaming co-op, are also launching, with the hook of greater payouts to artists, though they’ll likely struggle to acquire much major-label catalog.
For now, the momentum behind music streaming in the 2010s seems poised to build in the next decade. In the 2020s, expect to see the reverberating effects of streaming continue to chip away at genre concepts within hip-hop, shape the picture of a more egalitarian music industry, and alter our perception of what a rap album can look and sound like.
Complex is celebrating the best in music, pop culture, style, sneakers, and sports this decade. Check out the rest of our 2010s series here.