Now, this isn’t a new trend. This tango between music made by people on the margins rapidly gaining popularity before being absorbed by the record industry is a century old. Yet, the digital retelling of this tale follows a tight script. When digital downloads were first added to the Hot 100, a decade ago, the earliest hits were derided and labeled “Ringtone Rap.”
The catchy southern rap singles were aided by digital sales and would not have broken into the Top 40 through normal airplay. Though acts like D4L, Dem Franchize Boyz, Rich Boy, and Soulja Boy eventually reached traditional gatekeepers like MTV, BET, FM radio, and even early streaming sites, the only way for fans to directly impact their chart placement was to buy the music, which they did. When D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” hit no. 1, it was already a top song on the digital sales chart
, but still needed that extra radio push to make it to the top of the Hot 100.
Only a couple years later, pop stars like The Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry would surpass rap and dominate the iTunes charts, which served as a leading indicator of pop music trends through the late 2000s into the next decade. Rap’s early advantage was eventually erased not only as pop caught up to new trends, but as dedicated rap fans became focused on consuming music through free mixtape sites without needing to purchase their favorite songs. Thus, when the demographic that initially helped rap songs shoot up the charts moved to other parts of the internet, the charts began to reflect these shifting consumer habits.
I want to highlight a specific quote from the piece I originally wrote:
Now will the same transition happen with streaming, I would say not exactly. Not only are the platforms of music consumption more fragmented, but so are the splits among genres. The fact that so much of underground rap’s ecosystem went from illicit mixtape sites to legitimate streaming platform is an advantage that won’t easily disappear. Even considering that fact, pop won’t simply be trap rap going forward. The more people who use streaming will result in ever changing demographics and those who follow that wind, rather than what’s hot now will find success.
When I look at streaming charts across platforms in 2019 compared to 2017, there is a pretty clear increase in the diversity of musical genres represented. Not only are Pop acts (Jonas Brothers, Billie Eilish) finding their footing, but so are their R&B (Khalid) and Latin Pop/Trap (Ozuna, Bad Bunny, J Balvin) counterparts. This seems to suggest that similar to when the era of digital downloads started to mature, the dominance of rap may decline as streaming becomes more mainstream.
I say this because it’s often felt like there was too much
emphasis placed on streaming in the last couple of years, as if all other forms of music consumption ceased and were replaced by streaming. This is certainly what companies like Spotify would like to be the dominant narrative, but isn’t really true. Music consumption is simply splintering in ways that are increasingly harder to quantify, but streaming is the one most desired by the record industry and is thus given the highest order of value. However, the fact that one of the most popular rap songs of the summer is a leaked song snippet
is a sign that music’s underground is always ready to slip through the capitalist profit desire.