A few weeks ago during a bout of nostalgia, we launched a new Spotify playlist called Blog Era Hits. That playlist and the songs and artists included (or missed) started a lot of conversations, and one of those was with Tim Larew. Tim is an artist manager, writer, and blog founder, and we decided it was time (once again) to look back at the music blog era.
This is not about me, but I’ve had countless conversations about this subject in the past few months, and almost everyone that participated in that era has a different version of the same story, so I’m going to share mine.
The blog era was the wild west of music distribution and discovery. There was no standardization of music release timing or “best practices” that artists and management were pressured to adhere to; everything was powered by instinct, especially if you had not already fully “made it.” If you were an A-list artist signed to a major label in the early 2010s, your music would go live on iTunes at midnight, Monday night into Tuesday, and in CD form (remember those?) in stores like Best Buy and Target at 10 am Tuesday morning. If you were unlucky, a single or two—sometimes even the whole album—would leak somewhere on the internet a day, or two days, or a week before it was set to release.
One of the biggest albums of the 2010s, Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, surfaced in zip file form and spread like wildfire online several days before the official drop, prompting K.Dot to reactively record and upload the beautiful, frantic “The Heart Pt. 3,” featuring his label-mates Ab-Soul and Jay Rock, to Soundcloud in the tiny window between the leak and the project release date. I was 21 years old at the time, a wide-eyed blogger myself, and when I pressed play on that song and heard, “Even when my album leak, fans still buy it for proof,” goosebumps blanketed my body. As one of those fans, I was instantly mobilized. When Kendrick ended the song with the question, “Will you let hip-hop die on October 22nd?” I mentally cried out, “No! I will not!” My friend Goodwin and I drove around NYC on October 20th playing the leak, stunned at the masterpiece we were hearing, then I walked to the Best Buy by my place in Boston the morning of the 22nd and proudly purchased my physical copy, proving my then-favorite artist right.
I bring up that example for two reasons:
1) An artist like Kendrick did have somewhat of a standard release schedule when it came to his album. Physical CDs were released in stores on a predetermined day of the week, much like the majority of new music today comes out on midnight Thursday into Friday. Aside from that, there were no rules. With “The Heart Part 3,” someone on Kendrick’s immediate team, or maybe even he himself, pressed “publish” on Soundcloud and served it up to the world, instantly. There was no middle man. We knew and felt that as fans; that was part of the experience.
2) In 2012, the height of the blog era, narrative mattered more for artists than it does today. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City in itself was a masterfully composed story–both the album itself and everything around it. “Swimming Pools” didn’t need to sit at the top of Rap Caviar on its release day for hype to build or for streams to be automatically generated. It just happened. Kendrick and TDE were their own marketing and distribution, and the music and story reeled everyone in. When Kendrick responded to the GKMC leak by pouring his soul, his real-time feelings into “The Heart Part 3,” he spoke directly to fans and the writers he knew would be listening rabidly, racing to translate the story he was sharing. Kendrick, the artist, never lost control of the narrative and was able to let listeners peek behind the curtain in real-time. His album leaked—something that could have been devastating—but his verge-of-tears delivery on “The Heart” corralled his audience and implored upon them the importance of financially supporting his art, not just listening. Without that moment, without blogs and Soundcloud as focal platforms, what happens to the magic? What happens to the album? Do we even care about the story? Or do we just want the songs?
As a writer, a multi-faceted participant in the blog era, and a current artist manager myself, I often think of the blog days and how special they were. While generating revenue as an independent artist has in theory gotten easier as Spotify and Apple Music (along with Instagram, Twitter and TikTok) have taken center stage as the music distribution platforms, I still long for the days when consumers were more interested in the narrative. It was cyclical—artists were generally more focused on the bigger picture, seeing beyond the moment and identifying how their career could unfold—and fans, via blogs, could experience the journey alongside them. There’s no reason to sugarcoat it: blogging as a medium by which to cover music is nearly obsolete. Articles have been replaced with short-form video, blurbs have been replaced with playlists.
The currency in the blog era was press coverage, interviews, and general chatter. Today, it’s attention by any means necessary.
As the internet has evolved and social media platforms have become completely congested with photo and video instead of text, consumers’ attention spans have nosedived. There was a clear transition from pre-2015 to post-2015, from compelling stories and creative music videos being the center of attention to all-out meme culture, where sensational, viral content is usually the primary driver of views (and thus, streams). The currency in the blog era was press coverage, interviews, and general chatter. Today, it’s attention by any means necessary. It’s not as much about who an artist is and how they got to where they are, but instead is the content loud and colorful enough, or does the music slot into a mood playlist easily enough to catch the algorithm? Sometimes it feels like we’ve traded drawn-out storytelling for fleeting moments where the audience bounces from one to the next, and where true fan bases are more difficult to establish every day. If artists can’t keep up with these one-off moments of virality, the attention fades, and the story can end.
Even Chief Keef, who would undoubtedly be racking up hundreds of millions of streams if he launched a career today, broke during the blog era in part due to his compelling story. The videos and the music itself were enough—”Don’t Like” was unlike anything most of us had seen or heard at the time—but I also remember being equally intrigued when I learned about his real-life experiences, and most notably his age, along with the song. He was the perfect subject for any young writer in the music world. Real artist, real music, real story, and intrigue that extended far beyond his local scene in Chicago. Chief Keef wasn’t reverse engineered to work within a system, he brought the blogosphere into his world, and the blogosphere reacted to his rise accordingly.
There’s nothing wrong with evolution in the music discovery process. It’s exhilarating, and I am so grateful to work in a space that’s ever-changing, that keeps everyone on their toes and forces adaptability and nimbleness. I love the opportunity new platforms have provided, and the ability for independent artists to monetize their music today in a way that Soundcloud and Datpiff didn’t allow for in the early 2010s is important. I don’t necessarily yearn for a yesteryear that’s never coming back, but I do recognize the frustrations for so many artists and managers (some of which I and artists I work directly with have felt personally) are battling today.
The blog era provided a way in, and a very active, personalized music discovery experience. The landscape was segmented in the best way possible. Pick a blog: 2DopeBoyz, Illroots, Pigeons & Planes, FakeShoreDrive, Fader, Pitchfork, Rap Radar, Complex, NahRight, Smoking Section, Ruby Hornet… the list doesn’t end. Each had their own unique following, their own voice and taste; each was their own sub-genre. I remember going to 2DopeBoyz early on because they were always first to the punch. The writeups weren’t meaty, but they had the basic information the quickest, and then you stayed for the comment section. Illroots was the coolest with cutting-edge visuals. Pigeons was literally breaking artists and was your favorite A&R’s secret sauce. FakeShoreDrive and Ruby Hornet (like my own Fresh Heir, Jeremy Karelis and Nate Welch’s Steady Leanin and Tebs Maqubela’s No Fillers in Boston) were Chicago launching pads that bridged that city to the rest of the world. Fader was hipster-y and Pitchfork was snarky, but gracing their webpages was a potential game-changer.
Artists were telling stories, and there were platforms to share individual versions of and takes on those stories, all for the enjoyment of the fan and the promotion of the music.
Half the fun was deciding where you were going to discover music and what made you care. Was it the elitist criticism within Pitchfork reviews? The Complex premieres? The breaking news on 2DBZ and NahRight? The mainstream rap on Rap Radar? The underground finds on Pigeons? The local gems on small market blogs? The experience for consumers and writers alike was simply… fun. Artists were telling stories, and there were platforms to share individual versions of and takes on those stories, all for the enjoyment of the fan and the promotion of the music.
Similar to Kendrick’s “The Heart Part 3” in 2012, when Chance The Rapper was riding his incredible wave into the release of Acid Rap all the way from 10Day in April 2012 to AR in late April 2013, one of the most special moments for me (and many others) as a huge fan came in late February 2013 when Chance released the poignant, gutting “Acid Rain.” Like “The Heart,” “Acid Rain” was an unplanned Soundcloud drop.
“Juice” was the big single the team was promoting heavily. In today’s world, “Juice” would’ve premiered on Spotify’s New Music Friday and Apple’s New Music Daily, and there would be an Instagram ad spend supporting it. But as I found out a month later when I interviewed Chance, “Acid Rain” was a song he made in the spur of the moment to get some of his deepest, darkest emotions off his chest because he felt he needed to. It wasn’t part of a rollout plan, and it wasn’t ingested into the backend of DSPs ten days before the release with the hope of playlist support. He made the song after combing through his email and finding a beat from “a random producer named Jake One” (he did not know who he was at the time) and then released it as soon as he finished it. Ultimately he trusted his fan base as well as the blogs and writers to pick up on the emotion he was surfacing and conveying in real time and share his words and feelings with their own followings and readerships.
I remember exactly where I was when that song came out—it was my senior year of college and I was in my friend’s grimy basement apartment where we threw parties four nights a week. It was a random weeknight, around 9 p.m., and when I saw Chance tweet a new song link, I rushed to grab my laptop and opened my Wordpress account before I even got through a single listen of the song. I know how excited bloggers and writers were in that era, regardless of the readership their platform had, so I can only imagine how many others across the country and world were doing the very same thing I did in that moment.
Even when you grabbed a song directly from an artist’s social media, you almost always wanted to know more because context was the norm.
There was no predictability—that whole fan/listening experience was engaging and active. If you were in it, you were in it. Whether you were a blogger or a reader, you had to consciously pick and choose where your energy was directed. There was no central hub, like a Spotify today, where all the playlists and means of discovering music are organized neatly within the platform. You had to search, to dig! Even when you grabbed a song directly from an artist’s social media, you almost always wanted to know more because context was the norm. So you’d go to your favorite blog, which is what everyone did the night “Acid Rain” surfaced out of nowhere, and you’d get the full story. That song became arguably the biggest jolt of energy into that whole mixtape rollout, all because of how rapidly and passionately blogs propagated it and highlighted Chance’s voice.
Fast forward to the release of Acid Rap on April 30, 2013. It was the most highly anticipated mixtape of the year at that point, and we were all sitting on Illroots and FakeShoreDrive refreshing their homepages waiting for the drop. Both of the sites crashed! I remember being one of the first to successfully download, hastily loading the zip file into my iTunes and onto my phone, then grabbing my keys and walking up and down Commonwealth Ave listening to it while watching half of my Twitter timeline enjoying it alongside me, and the other half still scouring for a working download link.
That’s no issue today. There’s no such dejection as arriving at Best Buy an hour too late, met with an empty rack where Take Care should’ve been, and no such obstacle as broken servers temporarily preventing any more downloads of Friday Night Lights. Spotify and Apple Music aren’t going to crash, and if you want to listen to the new Nav album when it drops at midnight, you’re going to have no problem doing so. But is that seamless experience more fun? Do we want perfect? I’m sure some do. Some movie buffs probably prefer being able to access virtually any film, any time, digitally from the comfort of their own couch. I, however, miss going to Blockbuster because it forced me to actively discover, to take in more elements of the art beyond just the film file. Did the cover catch my eye? How about the description on the back? Did it rope me in? Was the film I wanted not in stock, forcing me to search for something new?
Part of the allure with Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and later Yeezus (the last CD I purchased in a store on release day), was the physical packaging. And beyond the product itself, album packaging gave blogs yet another element to highlight and write entire posts about. Artists put more thought into everything because the blog era was about so much more than just the song. If you could create an engaging 360-degree experience, powered by a compelling, authentic story, you were almost certainly going to cut through. And if you lacked in every other department besides the song, it was going to be hard to get people to care. The blog era conditioned fans to expect an experience, and that’s what they received, even when the delivery was flawed.
The blog era represented freedom and opportunity. It may have started with sharing songs and albums, but it carried far beyond that, and the ripple effects are still present for so many today. Within the blog ecosystem arose a deep-rooted community. I created my personal blog in mid-2011, and within six months, while I was attending Boston University, I found myself in the trenches of the local scene. I had a platform through which I was thrilled to share music and cover local events, and in turn, I was fully embraced by a community that wanted writers to help tell their individual and collective stories.
A few months down the road from that point, I started unearthing blogs from other cities—FakeShoreDrive and Ruby Hornet in Chicago, Madbury Club in NYC, Greedmont Park in Atlanta—as well as the then newly launched Rap Genius that I became affiliated with and exposed me to an entirely new network. I went to my first SXSW and met Mahbod and King Eljay from the Rap Genius circle, the legendary Bauce Sauce from Mostly Junkfood, Mike Boyd from Hip Hop At Lunch, and so many more. The internet—at least the corner of it that spent time and found joy in writing about music—all congregated in Austin, TX and shared stories, show itineraries and drinks. It was a testament to the power and authenticity of the online community of that era.
As the relationships converted from URL to IRL, an incredibly strong web was born, and artists were a key beneficiary. When the blogosphere got tighter knit and the tastemakers in all these different pockets of the country grew more connected, as soon as a new artist popped onto the scene, that music circulated effortlessly.
A slot on a playlist today is equally if not more desired, but there’s far less real estate space and so many more artists clamoring for it. Even when an artist gets a playlist look, there’s no proof that anyone really cared about their journey beyond whether the song was hot or not and if it fits the vibe.
Another thrill of that first SXSW experience, being a young blogger from Boston, was when I was approached by Joey Purp and KAMI, two artists from Chicago, then a duo called Leather Corduroys, and told by them how much they appreciated my support from afar. They had seen my interview with their SaveMoney affiliate Chance and read all of my posts about them on my site. It was then I realized how much blogs and write-ups meant to up-and-coming artists; it let them know they were being heard. A slot on a playlist today is equally if not more desired, but there’s far less real estate space and so many more artists clamoring for it. Even when an artist gets a playlist look, there’s no proof that anyone really cared about their journey beyond whether the song was hot or not and if it fits the vibe. And I know for a fact that most playlist curators are deeply passionate about artists and music, so it’s no knock on them or the art of it whatsoever, but blog write-ups were naturally an even louder show of support with a tangible human touch required.
One last joy of the blog era that has seemed to gradually fade away is the link between artists and their hometowns. Part of the hustle as a blogger was finding out as much info as you could about a new artist, so that when you wrote about them, you could potentially provide some info to your readers that they wouldn’t find somewhere else. That meant more than just a listen, it meant research. I recall the thrill (excuse the unintentional pun) in 2009 of discovering Wiz Khalifa, immediately tying him to Pittsburgh, and then learning about local references and, soon after, Mac Miller. Listening to Taylor Allderdice and Blue Slide Park and realizing the former was the high school they both attended, and the latter was a cherished local park, was part of the fun. Blog era icon Dom Kennedy subtly branded himself as the “Leimert Park Legend,” which became something all sites touched on at one point or another. My first ever trip to Los Angeles in 2013 was soundtracked exclusively by Dom and 2Pac, and I immediately typed “Leimert Park” into my GPS upon landing at LAX because I had to know where one of my favorite artists was from.
During my aforementioned interview with Chance The Rapper that same year, a month before the release of Acid Rap, he told me he would not be in the position he was in at that point had it not been for Andrew Barber and Alex Fruchter, the founders of Chicago blogs FakeShoreDrive and Ruby Hornet, respectively. Those blogs and their writers amplified Chance and other local artists like him when they needed it most, and their own individual blog networks across the country caught wind and followed suit. I was in that network and ended up doing everything I could in my own city to sing his praises, including booking his first show there opening for Joey Bada$$ in a 120-cap basement venue. He was headlining 3,000-cap venues a year later.
Cousin Stizz, one of the artists I manage, shared his debut project called Suffolk County in June 2015, a direct ode to where he grew up. Behind the scenes, all I cared about initially was building energy within the local scene. I knew if my own site (obviously), Steady Leanin and No Fillers supported the music, we would be off and running because each of those three blogs had their own networks that connected other cities to Boston. And naturally, a key component of Stizz’s rise was the fact that he was proudly from Boston, but didn’t “sound like Boston.” It was part of the narrative, and who would have told that story if it weren’t for the blogs?
In that same time period, I also watched it work the other way around during the Makonnen, Key!, OG Maco & Awful Records movement out of Atlanta. I found out about what was going on there through my friends Mike Boyd and Stevo, both one-time bloggers rooted in the ATL scene. My blogger friends and I in Boston did the same thing we had with other exciting movements out of other cities in the past—broadcasted every bit of information we could find about what was happening down there that made the music even more compelling. A year later, Billboard did a magazine spread on that movement called “The New Atlanta.” The music and visuals were great, but the story made them even more compelling.
As the blog era has become increasingly distant in the rearview, I’ve found many upstart artists and managers feeling increasingly helpless or on their own when it comes to trying to get music off the ground.
A hit song is a hit song, period. I believe to some degree that no matter the era during which a song comes out, if it is truly special, it’s going to find its deserved audience. That being said, as the blog era has become increasingly distant in the rearview, I’ve found many upstart artists and managers feeling increasingly helpless or on their own when it comes to trying to get music off the ground. If nothing else, the blogs provided another element through which artists could drum up interest. The blogosphere was its own ecosystem, with writers and tastemakers constantly sharing new music in a very involved, participatory way, at the very least showing artists a heartier level of interest than they’re receiving from most passive listeners today.
There’s not necessarily a solution, and there doesn’t necessarily need to be one, but it’s certainly an era in music to look back on and celebrate and to appreciate for the unique collection of “hits” it provided, songs that wouldn’t necessarily be considered hits today. Aside from YouTube views, there weren’t really front-facing metrics during that era, and they certainly weren’t the focal point that they are today. The only comparison to Spotify monthly listeners (the intentionally highlighted stat on an artist’s profile) from the blog era is possibly the number of websites posting a song, but even then consumers knew it was quality over quantity.
As a fan and someone who works directly with talent in 2020, I’m finding myself excitedly digging deeper and finding new pockets of music discovery that remind me of my early days as a blogger, hubs like NOT97, Fashionably Early, Overcast, Che Pope’s Temperature Check, and more. The late 2000s, early 2010s blog format will never come back, but that energy has never tapered off. It’s up to all of us to create what we feel is missing from something we once loved.