It’s hard to discover new artists without trying. If enough people haven’t bought or listened to a new artist’s music to form a “People who like this also liked…” algorithm, they’re shit out of luck.
It seems rarer and rarer for new music to find a large audience. There are no more Euro-dance crazes, no Latin pop explosions, and any type of K-pop or J-pop becomes old hat as soon as everyone learned “Gangnam Style.” And like Psy, by now it’s obvious that OMI’s “Cheerleader” was not the coming of a trend but a one-off. The machine no longer cranks out new groups to fill an unseen need—instead, it’s replaced by the grown man who follows Justin Bieber around and Taylor Swift’s insatiable hunger for everyone to like her. This trend has most affected hip-hop, the increasingly marginalized genre in the streaming music era.
In late September, New Jersey rapper Fetty Wap released his long-anticipated debut album, Fetty Wap. The week the album dropped, Fetty by then had his third single, “679,” enter the Billboard Top 10. The first, “Trap Queen“—which mainly fueled the rapper’s meteoric rise—was uploaded a year and a half ago. The second single came out so long ago that LeBron James was singing it during last year’s NBA playoffs. None of this timeline looks like an artist with competent management capitalizing on each success. It looks like he’s making it up as he goes.
Fetty Wap is currently signed to the music label 300 Entertainment. Often shortened to just 300, the record label is the vanity project of former Def Jam label heads Lyor Cohen and Kevin Liles. It was started in 2012 as an “independent, creative-driven record label that focuses on intense artist development.” In all fairness, 300 is different in that they have the investment money and industry connections of a major label while not technically being one. The label didn’t make waves until last year when they signed rising rappers Migos, Fetty Wap, and Young Thug, the latter of which the label plucked from one of the more convoluted deals in recent memory.
Fetty Wap is the third high-profile release this year from 300. The first was Barter 6, Young Thug’s debut album, which had its name changed because of lawsuit issues and was also sort of a mixtape. It sold under 20,000 units its first week, a disappointing number for such a promising rapper and a label looking to make a splash. Thug’s follow-up (or true debut depending on the definition) Hy!£UN35, was originally scheduled for August but has since been pushed back to next year.
Migos released their debut album on 300 at the end of July, two years after their most well-known single came out and a full year since any notable hit. The album, Yung Rich Nation, barely had an advance single, and has yet to sell 15,000 units.
This is not to single out 300 as an outlier, as they’re kind of doing something different. There are a number of artists on major labels who can’t crack a release date either—and not just Rihanna or Kanye, who are already established enough to have a surprise release and still do numbers. Even DJ Khaled has charting singles dating back to last year with nary a release date in sight.
This is not new, of course. People still have cassette tape inserts advertising then-future releases with written dates that are months or years off. Virginia duo the Clipse famously had to stop recording their second major label album as their record label was dissolved in a corporate shuffling.
That was a sign of things to come. Since Universal bought EMI Music in 2011, there are now only three major labels with a monopoly on the money that can be made from music. Independent labels need them for distribution deals. Supposed artist-friendly labels like Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music or Rick Ross’s Maybach Music Group end up burying artists like Cyhi the Prynce or Tracy T further down the ticket. The rosters of on-the-pulse labels like Fool’s Gold or Mad Decent are filled with skeletons of former music blog flavors of the week. I’m not sure Stone’s Throw does more than putting their artists on a Cartoon Network compilation. And all that a label as storied and reputable as Def Jam will provide is getting out of the artist’s way, which is why the hope and mystique of a label like 300 was so high.
Fetty Wap debuted at No. 1 with about 129,000 units sold, streaming included. This is a relatively huge success compared to many of Fetty’s contemporaries, but it feels a bit hollow, all things considered. The album dropped a few months late, and would’ve ideally been available for purchase as each follow-up single came out, but just about everything else went right and the album will still be nowhere near gold status, even with more singles. Fetty had four top-40 singles on the pop chart, a compelling backstory, and a legitimate connection with fans. If that can’t go gold, there might not be any reason to.
Album sales for new artists are just not a goal anymore, and a look at other rappers who debuted in 2015 makes that obvious. Atlanta rapper/singer K Camp broke onto the radio a couple years ago with both gold and platinum singles, but didn’t release an album until last month. He was actually able to conjure two more charting singles in advance of its release, but has still barely sold 10,000 copies.
Teen rapper Silento has had the most ubiquitous single of 2015 with “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” but Capitol Records has encased him in amber since its release with no album or follow-up single on the horizon. Labels seem content to just buy up the talent they find on the Internet and do nothing with them. Even if they aren’t developing talent and maximizing the profitability of their artists, at least no one else is.
The Internet was supposed to change all of this, with its huge democratizing force that didn’t need old established channels of communication to reach a large audience. However, with the Internet came free music, and there’s still not enough money to make a dent in what’s left of the major labels. A fat check from Sony looks a lot more appealing than the bitcoins from iTunes and streaming services, so I can’t really blame any artist who wants that money. But somehow we’re still at the point where the most innovative thing a record label can come up with is to delay an album.
Screengrab via KCampVEVO/YouTube