Last week, Forbes ran a smart piece by Gary Suarez on Rick Ross’s Black Dollar, focusing heavily on Rozay’s decision to give the project away for free rather than make it a commercial release.
Forbes readers may have been surprised by the lack of big names in the Black Dollar story; Ross premiered songs from the album on SoundCloud and released the project through the long-standing streaming site DatPiff. That is, arguably one of the 10 most famous rappers on the planet put out a star-studded album without the services of any blue chip company. As I write this, Black Dollar is not on Spotify. It is, however, on LiveMixtapes, DatPiff’s main competitor. And it’s also available on both sites’ very good mobile apps.
The Black Dollar release must be incredibly confusing to the business and tech communities following the so-called Streaming Wars, waiting to see which service will emerge as the one that becomes a verb synonymous with streaming music (like how Bing is for internet searches). The only competitors are supposed to be hypercapitalized behemoths like Apple and Spotify; how does a company like DatPiff land what could otherwise be a major label album? What does it say that an artist as prominent as Rick Ross is content to opt out of ostensibly mainstream distribution? After all, his decision wasn’t revolutionary, it was routine: Juicy J, 2 Chainz and Boosie Badazz all put out free projects in the recent weeks.
This is the problem with watching the music industry through the lens of Wall Street or Silicon Valley: there is no dominant business model. Music’s value is entirely fluid, dependent on artist, genre, scene, level of fame and method of playback. Sometimes the music is a commodity, other times it’s part of a larger strategy to cash in on fame and celebrity. Rap economics is an inexact science with multiple revenue streams; it’s fine to forfeit album sales if it means more shows, guest verses, paid club walk-throughs and Instagram product placement. At its core, making a living as a musician is a balance between promotion and monetization. The business is a series of decisions about when to work for free and when to tax. There’s rarely an objectively “right” answer to any of these questions.
From a tech and business perspective, Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal and friends seem like a sure bet because they corral the most streaming plays into the same uniform monetization scheme. But, again, their viability assumes every artist cares about making money off of every possible play. While Rick Ross definitely didn’t give DatPiff Black Dollar out of the goodness of his heart, DatPiff is an important tool for rappers at all levels. Anyone can upload their music and very few expect to make any money from the site.
And DatPiff and LiveMixtapes are only the latest in a long string of internet outlets crucial to modern hip-hop that don’t always pay (if ever). MySpace’s music streaming ability launched untold rap careers in its years as the dominant social network. And while highly curated blogs like 2 Dope Boyz and Nah Right broke plenty of rappers, less discriminating clearinghouses like Digital Dripped, easily accessed DJ Pools like Digiwaxx, and straight up generic download sites like YouSendIt, zShare and Hulkshare all formed (and still form) an informal but effective democratic distribution network. The recently shuttered Sharebeast may have been a hub for illegal downloads, but it was also the site several DJ pools relied on for no-nonsense, evergreen links for their clients. Nobody gave much thought to officially monetizing any of this.
Obviously the big streaming services have their place in the market, but the disproportionate attention from the tech and business communities has crafted a narrative around the Streaming Wars that fits their worldview. A focus on the companies with the most market share or capitalization ignores the fact that we are in a golden age not only for the creation of independent music, but also for its promotion and marketing. The future of the music business will look less like the discrete, hard-wired apps competing for streaming dominance, and more like the flexible mosaic of smaller, ever-changing companies that defines the last 15 years of hip-hop. Black Dollar is proof of concept.