Today's Mathematics: How Hip Hop Measures Commercial Success

posted Friday January 25 ,2013 at 09:00AM CST | 0 comments

Today's Mathematics: How Hip Hop Measures Commercial Success

Sales have been declining for over a decade, and the concepts of gold and platinum are over 55 years old. It's time to change how commercial success is measured in Hip Hop.

“Back to back / Double plat / I did what you won’t / Men lie women lie / Numbers don’t…” –Jay-Z, “Reminder.”

In early January, Kid Cudi took to Twitter and essentially threatened to launch a jihad against his record label because he didn’t see a proper correlation between his YouTube/VEVO views and his plays on terrestrial radio.

And in December of 2012, during a periodic audit, Google reportedly deleted 2 billion views from Sony Music Entertainment and Universal Music Group’s YouTube channels. Why is any of this important? I think we live in a culture infatuated with numbers. I’m not talking specifically about Hip Hop, but Popular American culture—and particularly music—in general. The rise of sabermetrics, Google Analytics, and the popularity of books such as Freakonomics have created a climate where even casual followers can dig deep into the numbers at a granular level. Recently, when talking to a publicist that also trades in Hip Hop, we had a friendly disagreement over placing their client on HipHopDX. The civil back and forth ended when I was told, “That’s cool. You guys are still behind AllHipHop with that Alexa rating.” Just in case you’re wondering, Alexa provides traffic data and rankings for thousands of websites, Hip Hop or otherwise, throughout the world.

As much as numerical analysis has spread throughout every aspect of pop culture; the music industry is still lagging behind. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Major labels, and the industry as a whole, have been embarrassingly slow adapting to formerly groundbreaking technology such as printed sheet music, compact discs and mp3 technology, to name a few. After decades of price gouging consumers, that slow adaptation was one of the reasons people like Shawn Fanning of Napster and Apple’s Steve Jobs stole the record industry’s business from right under their nose.

What does all or any of this have to do with Hip Hop? For the better part of two decades, people like 50 Cent, Jay-Z and Sean Combs have been telling us to equate wealth and sales figures with talent and skill. And Hip Hop listeners have been blindly following this logic. I’m just as guilty as any other Hip Hop fan. I can’t sit here and pretend that HipHopDX doesn’t run a weekly SoundScan tally as well as an annual list of the artists that earned platinum and gold plaques. I think there’s certainly a correlation between all of these elements. But as platinum-selling artists Vanilla Ice and Ying Yang Twinz prove, popularity doesn’t equal talent. Given the above statements, maybe it’s time for a change in how we measure artist’s commercial success.

Analyzing Sony And Universal’s “Fake” YouTube Views

Google’s December audit of their YouTube views is just the latest in many cases where listeners feel major labels are skewing the numbers. We’re bombarded by press releases about the billions of YouTube views accumulated by artists like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. I feel this trickles down to Hip Hop. Sometimes high profile artists representing different genres are genuinely drawn to work with each other. Kid Cudi’s 2009 effort featured truly organic collaborations with Indie Rockers MGMT and Ratatat. But more often than not, as artists hope to crossover into other markets and expand their reach, we see artists like Nicki Minaj and Big Sean working with Justin Bieber. I get the impression that this perpetuates itself. And media outlets ultimately cover these numbers-based offerings as opposed to finding material reflective of their audience’s tastes. And we’re no exception. Artists want sales, and we want and need pageviews.

As it turns out, this YouTube story may not be much of a story at all.

“The company recently decided to remove view counts for videos that are no longer live on the channel, or so-called ‘dead videos,’” offers Alex Pham of Billboard, in a comprehensive article that cites YouTube, anonymous music industry executives and Music analytics company, Next Big Sound.

“For Universal and Sony, that meant thousands of music videos that over the past three years slowly have migrated to the VEVO channel, which is jointly owned by the two companies. A senior label executive confirmed the migration. In other words, those views happened; they weren't ‘faked’ or even double counted when they went on to Vevo. But because the videos are no longer on the channel, YouTube considers them ‘dead videos.’ They still live on in YouTube, just under a different channel.”

How We Discover New Music

The precious BDS spins Cudi ranted about and the YouTube views Google audited—whether real or imagined—matter because they’re the primary ways people discover new music. They’re also ways labels and artists monetize their product.

“The bottom line is going to be about the impact of what you do,” offers Bruce Waynne of Midi Mafia. In addition to working with his partner, Dirty Swift, on projects for 50 Cent, Frank Ocean and Bieber, Midi Mafia help develop new artists. “It’s moving into something else. People don’t listen to the radio anymore, and when they do it’s from a different perspective. The radio is more about commercials now. It’s almost like, if you hear that one record playing, it’s the most popular commercial playing right now. Then you probably go home and jump on YouTube to listen to it again. The mentality is, ‘Who’s coming up? What’s the next thing?’ Before, you couldn’t really tell what the next thing was. The next thing was dictated to you, but that doesn’t really exist anymore.”

A recent study by Nielsen—the analytics group behind TV ratings and the weekly SoundScan reports—supports Bruce’s theory. According to their annual Music 360 Report, “64% of teenagers listen to music through YouTube than through any other source.” Older consumers prefer discovering music via the radio, but you don’t need a detailed report to tell you that most major labels are targeting young people between the ages of 16 and 24 and not “older consumers.” But that coveted youth demographic doesn’t really buy physical albums anymore. Most of them are aware the album probably won’t be as good as the free mixtape that preceded it. Besides, the album is available as a free, illegal download on a torrent site. I guess it ultimately comes down to who we want to believe as consumers, and I think Cudi is in a no-win situation. The YouTube views indicate that young people are still very interested in his music. Somehow, he can’t parlay that interest into more radio airplay, and what we assume, is more revenue.

New Standards For Commercial Success

I think it’s time for some totally new metrics altogether. Rappers and their labels are always bragging about their platinum and gold sales, despite all of the concrete data we have proving people are no longer interested in buying physical albums. After doing a little bit of digging, it seems fairly easy to fudge the numbers. The Recording Industry Association of America created the concepts of gold (500,000 copies sold) and platinum (1 million copies sold) in 1958. It’s safe to say a lot has changed in the 55 years since then, yet we’re all hanging on to this outdated standard. Additionally, labels and artists can use club sales and “club free goods” to count towards their certification tallies. These club free goods are often albums or singles shipped to retailers for free, and sometimes they can account for up to 15% of the total sales of an album. So when a rapper is posing on Instagram with his platinum plaque in the background, and you feel something just doesn’t add up, you’re probably right.

“Digital albums are sort of a stopgap in the meantime—just like iTunes—but I think we’re still progressing towards something else,” offers Dirty Swift. “Who knows what that is? I think at the moment, there’s really no other way to measure it, so you have to keep those things in place. But in 10 years, I don’t know. Are albums gonna be albums anymore? I don’t know if we’ll still be doing albums the way we’re doing them now. They may be something different. At that point you may need to reevaluate what success is and what it isn’t when you award something. There are things that exist now that didn’t exist 10 years ago, like phone apps. Five years ago, what was Instagram or Twitter? In 10 years, who knows what’s gonna be around and how people are gonna be consuming music?”

This may explain the heavy use of Nielsen SoundScan figures instead of the RIAA’s. Nielsen SoundScan is a wholly different entity from the RIAA, and they also provide weekly sales reports. The SoundScan numbers are a step in the right direction, but again, physical sales don’t really reflect the current marketplace. As long as they’re not signed to a 360 deal, artists can always count on touring as a good way to generate revenue. And with the advent of subscription services such as Spotify, listeners aren’t really paying to own physical copies of music. They’re paying for access to music via a subscription. The Federal Court battle between Interscope (also under the UMG umbrella) and F.B.T. Productions over Eminem’s digital royalties underscores that we’re still in the process of redefining success in the Digital Era.

What Major Labels Aren’t Telling Us

In the meantime, we’re how labels can spin the concept of a “Number One” album. In May of 2010, we heard a lot of talk about B.o.B.’s number one debut, The Adventures Of Bobby Ray. In a convenient bit of record industry spin, what we didn’t hear was how the 84,000 copies sold made it the lowest sales total for a number one album since Chrisette Michele’s Epiphany registered 83,000 the previous year. While B.o.B. earned his gold certification and number one debut without any shady business tactics, recording industry veteran, Tom Silverman of Tommy Boy Records, explained how labels can easily resort to less scrupulous means to lock down a more favorable spot on the charts.

“People are telling me that the majors have teams of people who actually buy singles on iTunes to try to drive it up the charts—buying their own songs,” Silverman told Wired.com in a 2010 interview. “It blew my mind. I mean, we’re not learning anything. So if they buy 50,000 songs, we’re talking $50,000 less 70 percent, so it would cost about $15,000. For $15,000 in a week, they can buy 50,000 more song downloads, which could drive the record up three or four positions on the chart. And the hype of it all would make people believe it, and then the next week it would be real, which is what always used to happen.”
Again, my stating that numbers can be manipulated and record companies often lie isn’t exactly a groundbreaking opinion. But the larger question is, after decades of using the same old standard, why isn’t anyone in or outside of the industry proposing a new metric for how we measure commercial success?

Winning With Increased Revenue Streams

The impact of licensing deals, merchandise sales and touring income are a few things we rarely see on the charts. I think if we’re going to reduce artists to numbers on a spreadsheet and only compare their monetary impact, we may as well level the playing field. Why continue to use an outdated metric like record sales, when the average major label recording deal only gives artists a small percentage of those sometimes inflated sales figures anyway? Artists, such as Frank Ocean, Theophilus London and Cee Lo Green are licensing their songs to various sitcoms and television shows. A recent episode of the WB drama “Gossip Girl” included no less than five tracks from Ocean’s Channel Orange album. While Theophilus London got some exposure to the teenie-bopper demographic when two of his tracks were used in an episode of “90210.” As it currently stands, there’s no way to measure that kind of engagement.

I think major corporations will always find ways to manipulate data to their advantage. And if an artists opts to do business with one of the big three record labels, they can more or less expect to be treated like chattel. But in an age where we can access a wealth of statistical data at the click of a mouse, independent artists can have much more of a say over their financial future. And a return to the good old, boom bap days of artists refusing to get in bed with major corporations is out of the question. If we’re really going to measure an emcee’s success by the bottom line, we should take all the available data into account.

Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has  been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @OmarBurgess.

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