Digitization refers to the conversion of analog information into digital information. This has enabled film, television, music, book, and gaming industries amongst others to reach the global market and increase collaboration between consumers and producers.
In the music industry specifically, distribution and consumption mediums have arguably faced the highest disruptive force as a result of the aforementioned movement. Historically (recent history!), recording companies/labels were responsible for physically producing the final product in collaboration with their artists and pass it along through predetermined distribution channels, to be sold in retail stores. The marketing and promotion of the product were handled by the former.
As such, the single biggest factor leading to a change in music consumption throughout the world has been the rise of online streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music, Google Music, Pandora, and Tidal. If this may seem like a lot of examples to state, it is only because every one of them is a major player in the music streaming industry, but they are still only a selected few of the total number. While it may not seem like a lot today, simply clicking on any song from anywhere in the world was a game-changer compared to physically purchasing a CD (from a store that is presumably limited in variety that is comparable present-day) and using another device to read its analog information. These streaming platforms have also become the industry’s biggest source of revenue while “overtaking physical sales and digital downloads for the first time…” and accounted for 38 percent of all recorded music, up from 29 the previous year. Apple was the first company with iTunes to convince music labels of the profitability in allowing consumers to purchase music digitally at the click of a button, for less than a dollar. Since then, there has been a disruptive change in the distribution of music, with today’s eventualities running physical sale locations and hardware such as CDs and cassettes, obsolete.
While digitization has decreased the cost of distribution and even consumption to an extent—transportation costs to reach the retail location and cost of the physical product itself—it also led to an increase in piracy issues that “diminished the economic rewards afforded by copyright”. This resulted in the music industry taking drastic steps to curb piracy and introduce extensive licensing and security measures at the start of the century. The fact remained, however, that the advantages of the internet were too many and too profitable to miss out on. Marketing and promotion are other areas where digital reach has proved to be cheaper and most conducive to effectively driving the aforementioned consumption.
An important underlying change to acknowledge during this exponential growth is the novel and enhanced connectivity between the consumer, music, and artist. Whereas earlier physical mediums only connected consumers to the music, online streaming has the artist and their entire collection of social media accounts and other detailed information only a click away from a phone app or website. This is arguably the first time that fans or aspirants of a certain musical genre or of an artist can peek into the latter’s candid world, inspirations, and most importantly personal life. While certain artists always had an astronomical level of success and recognition even before the aforementioned digitalization, the culture of constant spotlight and attention following celebrities and causing them to live a more public life than ever before in history.
Hip-hop artists, in particular, have always been very explicit, passionate, and loud in their artistic expression and as such, it is not a surprise to see them benefit more than most other genre-artists by articulating their message in energetic and appealing ways. After surpassing Rock as the most popular genre, hip-hop has continued to lead the music industry in total consumption of songs and albums in 2018 and is expected to do so in 2019 as well. In such an environment, unique singing ‘flows’ and controversial content to complement the new medium, hip-hop has perhaps experienced the highest amount of upheaval in both artistic and financial terms. The main evidence of this digital endeavor of self-expression is the “Soundcloud rappers” movement through the SoundCloud mobile and desktop application and website. Since its advent, the company has ensured that today’s artists would not require to go to great lengths simply for a label to sign and agree to produce their music for the masses, which has, in turn, removed the limitation on the number of artists and music to reach an audience.
A prime example of this is the late Juice WRLD. I would like to take this opportunity to express my condolences for his demise this month. He started as a DIY SoundCloud artist that built off of the new-age flows and popular movements in hip-hop to effectively convey his message. His social engagement with fans was an example of the intimate yet complex relationship artists can now have with their fans which contributes to their success in a multitude of ways. Ultimately, Juice WRLD was the subject of a heated label courtship and signed a reported $3 million deal with Interscope Records, showing how SoundCloud can lead to mainstream success and popularity.
Speaking of popularity, SoundCloud is designed like a music streaming service with many aspects of social media applications such as the ability to send messages, follow friends and their musical ability, etc. Whereas Spotify and Apple Music both offer premium music streaming services by investing in music licenses and the kind, SoundCloud’s USP is its ability to be an industry-leading service for artists— irrespective of financial capabilities or professional experience— to upload music files on the company’s online database for other users to access with great ease and assistance. As a result, SoundCloud has never housed the newest singles and albums but instead relied on a peer-to-peer network of music put out by users of the platform. The low barriers to entry mean that aspirational artists and even seasoned veterans at times have a platform to release music to others without having to go through record labels, distributors, and other traditional mediums. This is especially important for younger musicians without the budget to strategize their exact growth and development, as they can gauge audience response and their areas of improvement for a cheap to no price at all. It is a testament to the success of this model that more mainstream artists (and Atlanta’s own such as Young Thug and Playboi Carti) have active SoundCloud profiles where they either release some of their official music and/or remixes to their music or others’.
This nature of the social media aspect of SoundCloud cannot be ignored as the aspiring musicians increasingly depend on word-of-mouth equivalents—retweets, likes, and public playlists and charts—to garner more attention and subsequently success. For this reason, potential hip hop artists need to maintain an active online presence in terms of engaging with their audience and not only limiting it to music launch events.
Going back to the novel connectivity between music, consumer, and now artist, Instagram in particular is the primary platform of engagement between the latter and fans and seems to be the “complementary medium” to SoundCloud in this case. Today, Instagram is a one-stop-shop for everything from fashion to shopping and recipes to raising social awareness, along with this little feature of being able to upload your photos and videos. Due to this amalgamation of culture, an artist is readily available, almost as part of the promotion of their musical product, for the public.
On the contrary, some disadvantages associated with SoundCloud’s functionality and ease of access have surfaced in recent years. Saturation in supply is one of them with there being 20 million SoundCloud music artists on the platform and 12 hours of music on average, which is uploaded every single minute. Artists themselves now have a harder time distinguishing their identity and music simply due to diseconomies of scale. There have been complaints from external stakeholders wherein traditional listeners lament the lack of quality in today’s generation as it is exponentially easier to create songs and subsequently ‘traffic’ than hone one’s skills over a period of time. Further, music labels and producers have argued that SoundCloud is reducing the “value of rap” because an increased number of creators with more economical or no investment bear the fruits of recognition and further financial rewards as opposed to traditional and expensive mastery of the genre.
Conclusively, the ascendance of SoundCloud, and with it the enhanced freedom of expression enjoyed by any and all artists is remarkable. Speaking back to my personal essay and connection to this genre, its nuances and significance have grown on me in the past months as a result of this research project. While it can be widely associated with negative connotations for certain social issues, hip-hop is a powerful MEDIUM in itself and so much more to the American and even global society. It is a testament to the robust and artistic culture that it has arguably been the only genre to experience such ‘digitized’ strides as a result of the internet and all its ensuing mediums. As we see the rules of relevancy and modes of expression being reshaped by technology, this combination between humans and technology is one of the happier ones discussed throughout the course!
- Ball, Tom, and Eric Auchard. “Music Streaming Overtakes Physical Sales for the First Time -Industry Body.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 24 Apr. 2018, http://www.reuters.com/article/music-sales/music-streaming-overtakes-physical-sales-for-the-first-time-industry-body-idUSL8N1S143H.
- Giannetti, Francesca. “SoundCloud.” Music Library Association. Notes, vol. 70, no. 3, 2014, pp. 499–503., doi:10.1353/not.2014.0039.
- Reed, Darren. “Performance and Interaction on Soundcloud: Social Remix and the Fundamental Techniques of Conversation.” Journal of Pragmatics, vol. 115, 2017, p. 82.
- “Hip-Hop and the Changing Music Industry.” The Economics Review at NYU, 2 Dec. 2019, https://theeconreview.com/2019/12/04/hip-hop-and-the-changing-music-industry/.