Making a career in the music industry today is a very unique animal. As an emerging artist, you have to launch a business. You have to create a product (i.e. your music), find your consumer base (i.e. fans), and market to them (use social media, play shows, brand yourself….etc.). Many artists in the urban/hip-hop genre do this by releasing mixtapes. The mixtape industry has become so popular and effective that even major label and established artists drop mixtapes of their in between officially released albums. I know you are probably wondering, what in the heck is a mixtape?? A mixtape is a compilation of songs used to promote an artist. Sometimes used as a pre-release by more established artists to promote upcoming “official” albums. More commonly in today’s music industry, it is an independently released album by an emerging or unsigned artist, used to showcase their musical talents. According to Complex Magazine, “Mixtapes are rough around the edges. Often, they don’t have the sheen of high-cost record company studio time. It’s a mishmash of showcases: What’s happened, what’s to come, who someone holds as favored friends, as far as rappers and producers go. It’s rapping over other people’s beats. It’s disses. It’s gritty. It’s f***-ups kept on the track, skits that would never make it past a label, and samples that could never pass clearance.” These qualities are what make a mixtape so appealing to the public. It is spontaneous. It is raw and scruffy. It is getting an insight into an artist mind and workflow. Fans love it, because it is essentially taking a snapshot into the production process of an artist. It makes the bas feel like there are present during the creative process. A great mixtape relies heavily on luck, and sheer promotion and engagement with an artist’s fan base. As Complex Magazine continues to say, the success of a mixtape depends on “the essential elements coming together the right way at that perfect moment in time.” No artist in today’s music industry has been able to reach the success from mixtapes as Chicago based rapper “Chance the Rapper” has. Especially because he has been able to have his recent mixtape “Acid Rap” chart in the Billboard top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. A few months back I wrote a very informative blog about Chance’s rise to independent stardom. If you have not read it yet, check it out here.
“Chance The Rapper,” born Chancelor Bennett in 1993, exploded in the indie hip-hop market this year due to the 2 self-released mixtapes. Chance’s mixtapes ‘10Day’ and ‘Acid Rap’ set a new standard for the independent hip-hop artist, with ‘10Day’ being download over 50,000 times on datpiff.com, and ‘Acid Rap’ being downloaded an astounding 500,000 times during its initial release day. The success Chance the Rapper has achieved has garnered him widespread acclaim, and industry buzz that has had major labels clamoring to sign him.
Mixtapes have been a major part of an artist’s career, especially in the hip-hop genre, for well over a decade. You would think that over this length of time, the industry, music retailers, and distributors would have been able to adapt to it the mixtape market and figure out a way to allow artists to monetize on this format. But mixtapes are still in a weird stage of limbo. The sales of mixtapes and royalties they create offer such a problem, that some retailers have refused to carry them. One reason retailers decided to refrain from carrying mixtapes on their shelves was that the RIAA started to create legal nightmares for entities selling mixtapes. In some cases, retailers would be subject to police raids. Police raids were not limited to just retailers, even mixtape pioneers like DJ Drama had his offices raided by authorities in 2007. Through all of this trouble, mixtapes have remained a major part of the music business, and in some cases the critical acclaim and commercial success rivaled that seen with some official album releases by mainstream recording artists.
In July, Chance the Rapper’s mixtape ‘Acid Rap,’ which was released as a free download, hit an unprecedented level of success for a mixtape; it landed at No. 63 on the Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. The album sold over 1,000 copies in the week ending at July 7th. Although this was an amazing and celebrated feet to be achieved by ANYONE, it posed a few problems for Chance and his team. ‘Acid Rap’ was being sold on iTunes and Amazon, but Chance’s reps claimed that this was being done without their knowledge or consent. Meaning, without Chance receiving any compensation for these sales. Chance the Rapper’s team forced both Amazon and iTunes to take down the digital versions of the album. Unfortunately, a company called “Mtc” continued to sell physical copies of the album via Amazon for $14.83.
Patrick Corcoran, Chance’s manager, was quoted in THIS ARTICLE in Billboard.biz, “I’ve Never heard of Mtc, so this has take us by surprise. But When I first saw it, I showed Chance, and his lawyers are trying to stop it.” If Chance had a record deal, he would be able to have protection from the RIAA in the fighting and preventing the illegal sale of his music. But he doesn’t have a recording contract with a label. Since his mixtapes are doing extremely well, it is not a surprise that people want to cash in on it. In this case, a third party company feels they can make a profit from pressing physical copies of his album, since the demand is so high for Chance’s music. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to track down a small third party company that illegally sells bootleg copies of music. It has been proven extremely difficult for Chance’s team fight this and track down Mtc to slap them with a cease and desist letter that, which might prevent them from continuing to sell ‘Acid Rap,’ or at least force them to pay a royalty to Chance. In any other case, the RIAA would be able to protect the artist’s music and interest. Billboard Magazine was able to track down an employee of the distribution company Mtc uses. Mtc uses Houston based “1 Stop Music Distributor” to distribute their physical and digital product. The employee from 1 Stop Music Distribution confirmed that it is indeed selling “Acid Rap,” but they refused to reveal how and where they obtained any rights to sell the mixtape. Billboard Magazine also mentions they have had difficulty reaching anyone from Mtc for a comment on this issue.
1 Stop Music Distribution has been selling Chance the Rapper’s highly successful “Acid Rap” to many distribution companies like SuperD, which then turn around and supply sites like Amazon.com and various others. CEO for SuperD, Bruce Oglive, recently admitted that even he knew little about 1 Stop Distribution, or whether “Acid Rap” was legal to sell or not. He said, “It’s a new world out there and there are always people trying to figure out how to break the rules. But if we find out someone is a bad actor, we shut them down. We don’t need that headache.”
The importance of knowing the ins and outs of the business today has been proven essential in this case. There are very few resources an unsigned artist can use to protect their work, and prevent any infringement. Without being signed to major record label, an unsigned artist without much knowledge of the new music business paradigm has limited resources to prevent or combat any illegal sales, piracy, or copyright infringement of their music. As an unsigned artist, if your greatest asset today is your music, then you need to know everything possible in order to protect that asst. Because if you cannot protect this asset, and the value of it becomes watered down and decreases because of illegal sales or bootlegs, then no record label will want to invest into such volatile asset.
Chance and his manager have seemed to find the silver lining in all of this. Corcoran recently said, “This shows that there’s a strong appetite for Chance in the marketplace. How often does a bootleg hit a Billboard chart?”
Artists like 50 Cent, J. Cole, T.I., Wiz Khalifa, 2 Chainz, Kendrick Lamaar, and many more have launched their career from releasing mixtapes prior to be singing by a major label. Even artists have been able to use mixtapes to revamp their career. Music industry vets like Lil Wayne, and Rick Ross have used mixtapes to rebrand themselves to a newer and larger audience, as well as using these rough and raw releases to keep the buzz and anticipation high for many of their forthcoming releases.
Take a look at this link from Complex Magazine about the 50 Best Rapper Mixtapes for some more successful mixtapes.