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The RIAA’s On-Demand Stream Policy Is Hostile to Hip-Hop

Chief Keef

As SPIN reported via Billboard last week, the Recording Industry Association of America announced that it will now count the number of streams an album receives towards its gold and platinum status. The services whose streams will be considered are MOG, Muve Music, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker, Spotify, and Xbox Music. Also, video views from, VEVO, Yahoo! Music, and YouTube are going to be factored in. A hundred streams will count as one download, because, well, the RIAA says so.

Although this looks like an aging-out aspect of the industry acknowledging the present, it will have devastating effects for hip-hop and, ultimately, may leave the genre further out on the margins of the pop mainstream. See, the RIAA has not taken into account many of the locations where streaming rap music is most significant: Namely, mixtape sites like DatPiff and LiveMixtapes, and populist video websites like WorldStarHipHop. These are the places where regular, work-a-day rap listeners are consuming their music. Often, rap songs that later make it to the radio or MTV, or get placed on albums and, therefore, land on streaming sites like Spotify, begin on free-to-download mixtapes via sites like DatPiff.

LiveMixTapes even has an excellent smart-phone application that allows you to stream, say, the new Young Scooter mixtape. These streams must be tallied if the RIAA is looking for an accurate representation of hip-hop popularity. Consider rapper Chief Keef, who broke into the mainstream by way of a Kanye West co-sign and the “I Don’t Like” remix, but whose success was significant well before those industry accolades. When Keef began receiving mainstream attention, the video for his song “Bang” was already pushing 500,000 views. Currently, the DatPiff statistics for his 2012 mixtape Back from The Dead are as follows: 396,567 streams and 506,225 downloads. And that’s just from one mixtape-streaming website. If the goal of the RIAA is to reflect how people are consuming music, then taking into account the anomalies specific to hip-hop seems necessary. As is, all other genres receive a leg-up in terms of quantified success by way of streams.

Last fall, when Billboard made the decision to now consider digital download sales and data based on streaming music, the intention was to move away from genre charts, which are “fueled solely by radio airplay.” It significantly diminished the importance of radio, a corporate-controlled monster in most other genres, but one that is far more listener-friendly in the world of hip-hop. The effect for rap was pushing K-pop phenomenon “Gangnam Style” to the top of the rap chart, even though the song received zero rap-radio airplay. By not acknowledging the contingencies of rap success in 2013, the same mistakes are being made by the RIAA.

The refusal to note the adjustments to hip-hop, at a time when the genre is being otherwise erased from the mainstream is not just a naïve oversight, but a misunderstanding of the genre and how it functions right now. RIAA Chairman and Chief Executive Cary Sherman told Billboard that the RIAA “felt that pure economics should not be the basis for acknowledging artistic achievement.” That quote sounds encouraging — a move towards accepting the free-culture elements of popular music in the 2010s. And rap’s free mixtape culture, which the RIAA has not taken into account, is a prime example of “artistic achievement” (“achievement” really just means “success”) separate from “pure economics.” If the RIAA’s goal is to adjust to changing times, they would be wise to consider the contingencies of hip-hop music consumption, as well.