2014 marked a devastating moment for American music. Well, not really; just consider this year the next step in the industry’s digital evolution. For the first time since the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began certifying platinum records domestically with the 1971 release of The Eagles’ Greatest Hits 1971 – 1975 compilation, not one album released this year had achieved platinum status, that is, until Taylor Swift broke up the pity party. Since January 1, the soundtrack to Disney’s animated film Frozen has moved more than one million units. However, the compilation featuring viral sensation “Let It Go” was released in 2013 while collectively selling 3.2 million so far. The second and third best selling projects so far this year, both also released in 2013, were Beyoncé’s self-titled fifth solo album and Lorde’s Pure Heroine selling over 700,000. Comparing that to last year, the only project released to hit platinum in 2013 was Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience making it the third year in a row where just one album reached the million-sold certification. The best selling album released in 2014 is, of course, Talylor Swift’s 1989, which hit a one week mark of 1.2 million. The second so far is country artist Eric Church, whose The Outsiders project has sold well over 642,000. From the looks of things, traditional methods of acquiring music are on their way to extinction. Meanwhile, artists, consumers, industry execs and everyone else are all scrambling to survive.

According to Forbes, overall album sales in the United States are down 14.6 percent. Even the digital space is no longer a safe haven as online music sales have fallen 11.7 percent, and the number for albums and singles rests even taller at 12.8 percent. This is compared to 2013, which saw an overall dip of 6.3 percent from 2012.  There’s also hope that the holiday season may have an upsurge in sales but projections for album releases ranging from Nicki Minaj and Kendrick Lamar to the Foo Fighters don’t seem promising either. So is the music industry in trouble? For those who can’t or won’t adapt, the writing is absolutely on the wall. Does someone seem to have suggestions buffing those newly found bumps? Not as of yet. Where does that place Hip Hop in the grand scheme of things? That answer isn’t easy. 

It only seems like yesterday when Run D.M.C.’s 1986 classic Raising Hell became the first Hip Hop album to go platinum. Now the current spiral in music sales may have congruently affected the genre.Since 2009, only eight Hip Hop albums have gone platinum; this includes Drake, Kanye West, Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Nicki Minaj and Eminem. Sales wise,Nielsen SoundScan reported that Hip Hop has been on a steady decline. Between 2008 and 2009, Hip Hop record sales fell by 6.97 million. Besides a small million record raise between 2010 and 2011, 2012 sales dropped by around four million. Last year looked a bit better with a 2.2 percent increase in Hip Hop sales, most likely on the very capable backs of Kanye West’s Yeezus, Jay Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail (remember #newrules), and of course, Eminem’s The Marshal Mathers LP 2. In fact, the only Hip Hop album to crack the top 20 best albums sold this year is Eminem’s The Marshal Mathers LP 2, which has already gone double platinum, and sold another 419K this go round. While many artists within Hip Hop have a hard time even making gold, Eminem could be considered the genre’s biggest seller within the MP3 era. Since making his big comeback in 2009 with Recovery, Slim Shady is one of few MCs to make multi platinum consistently. To the cringe of most Hip Hop purists, the best selling album within the genre released this year is Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” featured debut The New Classic selling around around 400K records to date. Interestingly enough, that would make her the only female to outsell her male counterparts since Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation in 1998. Rick Ross follows closely behind with Mastermind around 375K. From the looks of things, it’s clear that the biggest winner this year is Interscope and Def Jam home Universal Music Group. The house of Eminiem, Azalea, Ross and Swift cohabitate and account for an almost ungodly 39 percent share of music revenue. In relation to the statistics mentioned previously, it seems as if Hip Hop is simply a casualty of a changing industry. However, Hip Hop isn’t the only genre being thrown to the wayside. In fact, it could be a lot worse for other genres outside of Pop. Michael Jackson’s post-mortem release Xscape and Pharrell’s GIRL are arguably the only R&B albums which dropped this year to even place itself in the top 20 album sales chart. For rock, things could be considered horrible as The Black Key’s eighth studio album Turn Blue is the only album in the genre released this year to make it on the list so far. Interestingly enough, country seems to be having the best 2014. Alongside Church, Brantley Gilbert’s Just As I Am and Miranda Lambert’s Platinum makes the genre the most impactful this year. Reasons for Hip Hop’s current predicament isn’t as simple either but recent trends could lead to some intangible and tangible assumptions.

More Room At The Cool Table

For the intangible side of things, Hip Hop isn’t the cool anti-establishment self it once was 30 years ago in the commercial space. The culture lives in an era of The Swagger Wagonmulti billion dollar deals with electronics giants and becoming cozy with elected officials going as high as the U.S. President. Hip Hop has evolved into something that truly doesn’t scare or bother mainstream America anymore culturally. Creatively, Pop has absorbed Hip Hop culture in interesting ways. One of 2013’s biggest Pop albums, Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz, featured five rap features. Even Juicy J appears on Katy Perry’s nine million plus selling single “Dark Horse” from her PRISM album re-released this year. On the flip side, Eminem’sThe Marshal Mathers LP 2 features guest appearances from Rihanna, Skylar Grey and Nate Ruess of indie pop band Fun. The biggest single of 2014, Azalea’s “Fancy” features English pop darling Charli XCX.

More tangible reasons are that music simply lives in a singles driven industry. And, ironically, Hip Hop has dominated the singles chart in 2014. Though Pharrell is known for spitting more than his fair share of bars throughout his solo career, “Happy” is the biggest selling single this year and running second comes “Dark Horse.” The only rap lead singles to place in the top ten this year are Azalea’s “Fancy” and the Ke$ha assisted Pitbull single “Timber.” Rounding out the bottom half is Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love” featuring Jay Z and Eminem’s Rihanna guested “The Monster” sitting in the 20 spot. Last year’s biggest single was none other than the infamous Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” which featured T.I. and Pharrell while Macklemore & Ryan Lewis held the second and eighth biggest singles. Interestingly enough, none of the top selling country albums mentioned above even charted.

One can’t talk about singles these days without the biggest tangible reason for album declines; the Internet. In the “connected” age, digital music accounts for 39 percent of the music industry’s global revenue. Digital share of music revenue grew from 2.9 to 60 percent between 2004 and 2013 according to Nielsen. For paid music downloads, iTunes carries over 60 percent market share. Revenues from music subscription services like Pandora and Spotify grew by 51.3 percent and exceeded $1 billion for the first time. Some artists like Swift (whose father is part owner of her label Big Machine Records) are confident enough in sales to remove their entire catalog from services like Spotify.  In terms of Hip Hop, it’s the second biggest genre of music streamed through paid services. On streaming video series like Vevo, this was the biggest year yet for Hip Hop as Minaj’s “Anaconda” video broke the record for most views in a 24-hour span. Then there’s illegal downloading. Hip Hop is also the second largest music illegally downloaded through Peer-2-Peer applications and third for locker download sites like Rapid-Share or the once powerful MegaUpload. Simply put, the times they are a changin; word to Bob Dylan. 

Earlier this month, music icon Bill Withers put things in perspective by giving a small history lesson during a panel at this year’s Berklee City Music Network Conference:

“There was a time where you couldn’t record anything; you played something and it went into the wind whether or not someone heard it,” Withers said. “Someone like Thomas Edison has come up with a machine where you can sing into it and it’ll play back your voice. “So those people were going through the same type of transition that people are going through today.” 

Makes absolute sense thanks to three effects of the then new technology. Live music declined, recording artists began to take over and record labels became prominent. Even recording artists had their own monetary issues for years until the creation of music rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI. Were some people left by the wayside during that transition? Obviously. However, that’s life when paving roads within a relatively new industry. Changes in music consumption could be a reason why Hov used Samsung to go platinum before Magna Carta Holy Grail dropped or Activision putting free copies of Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP 2 with an initial copy of its 19 million copy selling Call of Duty: Ghost last year. Notice a trend there? Like any industry, technology dictates everything in regards to efficiency and bottom lines.  

In relation to major labels, album pushbacks are becoming more and more frequent. Just recently, the year’s biggest potential rap sellers, Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint and Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V, received changed release dates. Could it be that labels truly don’t have much faith in the material’s sales ability?With the added over saturation of mix tapes, free albums and leaks; it’s clear why Hip Hop albums don’t sell at higher rates. There aren’t enough albums being released. So was A$AP Yams right when calling 2014 the “worst year in Hip Hop?” 

That answer is relative to what one defines as worse. Sales wise, the data above proves that Hip Hop is just another casualty in the music industry’s decline. Even critically, albums from Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, CommonDJ QuickRun The Jewels,YG and Schoolboy Q among others prove that the genre is as healthy as ever. Technically, the worst year could have already passed. According to Metacritic, the top ten albums of 2007 averaged around 79.9 percent. Not bad for albums that include MIA’s Kala, Jay Z’s American Gangster, Kanye West’s Graduation and Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool2007 also marked the first time in twelve years a rap album almost wasn’t among the top ten sellers with Graduation at the back of that line at number 10. Compared to 2014s top ten average of 81.3 percent and sales data above, this year looks a lot better. 

An Independent State Of Mind

Depending on who one asks, 2014 has been an amazing year for independent Hip Hop artists if they’re not on Interscope or Def Jam. One of the biggest underrated music stories this year was Lecrae’s seventh album Anomaly landing the number one spot on the album charts. Then there’s the big Behemoth that is Run The Jewels, which proves indie releases can be a true threat to majors.  If one hasn’t noticed already, a majority of the highest reviewed albums were released independently. Major label wise, the highest reviewed albums this year comes from Def Jam with Common’s Nobody’s Smiling, Logic’s Under Pressure, The Roots’ And Then You Shoot Your Cousin and to an extent YG’s debut. In regards to album sales, the empire that Russell and Rick built has had an amazing year sales wise thanks to solid sales from Ross and YG. This means that Hip Hop may be entering its Jazz phase where rawer, more traditional forms of the genre are being phased out by creative commercial evolution and heading underground. Major label or commercial Hip Hop is always going to lend toward the sounds that resonate more with the majority 

Where does Hip Hop go from here? It’s going the same path it’s been going in for years — for better or worse. There is a glimmer of hope in that Minaj, Wayne, Drake or Lamar can deliver by the time their projects are released at the end of the year but there’s one obvious fact. The traditional retail model for album sales overall could be considered on life support. This could be why many artists use music as a gateway to other moneymaking moves from liquor to owning fast food franchises. Separating expectations for categories within Hip Hop, indie is picking up the slack in output from majors quality wise. Will we ever see another platinum selling, big budget, quasi indie / major label backed album like Good Kid m.A.A.D. City? That’s the real question. Glorious debuts by the world’s next one percent are some of the most celebrated achievements in Hip Hop. While album sales are incidental to the quality of an album, it is also a badge of honor, and not only that, it’s a way for artists to stay celebrated in the wider overall culture. 

The Age Of The One Percenter’s

So, it could take a long, long time, as there is less room at the top. This isn’t the pre-music download era where albums including Vanilla Ice’s debut, Will Smith’s Willennium or Master P’s MP da Last Don were going multi-platinum. Music listener’s expectations are higher for complete bodies of work than ever. Hip Hop complicates things simply due to hyper competitiveness where weaker artists are eaten and discarded. Those in the club could be considered Hip Hop’s one percent. Where there was a large buffet of artists at various tier levels going platinum, it’s now a small round table. A particular reason why Hip Hop has yet to go platinum this year could be because none of the top five proven sellers have actually released anything this year yet.

Nothing from emcees such as Hov, Kanye, or Eminem make things even more unlikely. In a year when five of Hip Hop’s super elite do not put out an album, no one goes platinum. The harsh reality is that in this age, the Chingys and Soulja Boys who were comfortable selling millions just won’t cut it anymore. However, just because the filtering method has become more discriminatory doesn’t mean the industry may have an issue with over distillation. Though this year was filled with various think pieces and editorials on Nas’ pivotal Illmatic, many Hip Hop heads should figure in the fact that the Queens native’s Columbia debut sold less than under 60 thousand its first week while taking years to go platinum. In today’s climate, Mr. Jones would have been dropped and eventually labeled a has-been.

With that in mind, sales really don’t matter as much anymore. Whether or not it did is another discussion. What is known now, is that Hip Hop artists are becoming more than music pushers with occasional endorsements. They’re becoming brands within themselves where mixtapes and albums mainly serve as platforms for future endeavors like clothing stores and moscato. Artists can’t afford to rely on music sales anymore due a transitioning industry. Going platinum takes a huge amount of label support, quality product and shear luck; something only available for a chosen few. Everyone else, get in where you fit in.

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