The topic for my final project is ‘digitalization’ in the music industry and more specifically, the case of drastically declining physical sales for music coming out in the hip-hop genre. This will be followed by exploring the subsequent rise of D.I.Y music sharing platforms like SoundCloud- acting as catalysts for a new dimension/direction for the art and artists of this music community.
As a daily consumer and avid follower of the musical genre of hip-hop, this line of discussion is highly relevant to my life and especially as it pertains to the increased role of digital media and technology around me in general. I ventured into hip-hop music only in the latter half of high school and after coming to Atlanta, my interest and curiosity deepened. I came across a culture that was based around eccentricity in the music, the personalities, and marketing and distribution of the product itself. The public persona of an artist and consequently their music was so different and distinct in every sense than what I had previously come across in other genres. The average hip-hop artist arguably leads the most ‘public’ life in relative terms and had a more engaging and frequent social media presence. In this age of increasingly digitalized online music consumption, I concluded that the same was unlikely to be a coincidence. For example, some artists portray themselves as ‘tough’ and short-tempered while others are interested in becoming known for their fashion and expensive accessories. I think this seemingly designed public image is considered necessary because the music and artist are both easily available on the world wide web and there is increased pressure to effectively link the two. Fans- and many of these being friends and colleagues in my immediate vicinity- of these various artists observe and a lot of times want to reflect certain parts of these personas and value systems of their favorite artists. As such, this digitalization then becomes a significant catalyst for cultural shift/evolution in the genre and for its stakeholders, stemming originally from falling physical sales and an increase in online streaming.
On a similar note of public image and relevancy for artists, the hip hop industry has seen the emergence of D.I.Y independent artists around the genre and has further experienced a sharp rise in acceptance for the same in mainstream space. These are artists who essentially produce and distribute from the comfort of their homes- without being backed by a talent agency or record label or any other kind of sponsorship. At first, I assumed such an open and seemingly fair system of gaining popularity and success had been long established in the United States. However, after discussions with my friends who’ve been around the culture and country itself longer, I found that this is very much a recent trend that has solidified itself within the last decade or so. This trend came about due to the rise of music streaming platforms and consequently an under-the-radar change in the rules of relevancy and metrics for success. Companies such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and SoundCloud have eased and completed the transition from cassettes to CDs to digital consumption today. This drop in physical sales and the movement towards the aforementioned digitalization have made online ‘streams’ of songs an equal if not better indicator of the popularity and success of the music in question. As a result, D.I.Y artists have been able to create enough of a buzz in hip hop circles to build a following and experience commercial success as a by-product- still without signing a record deal.
One particular streaming service that has perhaps been the torchbearer for catapulting D.I.Y artists into mainstream hip hop is SoundCloud. It was responsible for providing the initial platform for hip hop stars of today such as Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yatchy to put their music out and grow through feedback, metrics, and plain old trial-and-error. In the past, artists would not be able to gauge the potential response for their music or afford to release the music in multiple stages and hence have a larger margin for error and consequently a failure. My reason for choosing SoundCloud specifically is the relatively lower or almost non-existent barrier to entry. While Spotify and Apple Music are considered more premium services as compared to SoundCloud, they achieve this while trading off the ability of users (active audience in a way) to simply create an account and upload whatever they want- instead requiring more credibility in the form of barriers to entry such as upload fees and content-sharing contracts. SoundCloud itself is now facing competition from Audius which is another streaming service debuting with even lower barriers to entry and upload, hence giving us a glimpse into the future of this space.
My reason for choosing hip hop to portray digitalization in the music industry is the cultural narrative around it and the need for technical skills. Whereas rock and pop music requires more knowledge of musical instruments and the traditional rules of production and composition, hip hop is relatively more free-form and as such, places less onus on the artist to master different facets of the art. A beat can be downloaded and used from platforms that provide such beats from other independent producers, rendering the lyrics and voice of the artist enough to distinguish it from others. This also brings me to mention the emergence of independent studios and music production software that has allowed D.I.Y artists to master the basics and start creating without the need to afford and/or attend traditional courses. While this is not the focus of my topic, digitalization of the over-arching production technology and devices cannot be ignored when discussing the aforementioned developments and will be referenced at various points during my final creative project.
In conclusion, the various facets at play in this digitalization process and the nature of the gradual evolution of this culture before our very eyes have piqued my interest in the framework behind this universal genre of music. I will unpack and explore all of the aforementioned themes and events to understand the changes that have led to a fall in physical sales and consequently changed the rules of relevancy and success for new-age artists.