“In New York I Milly rock,” boomed out of my TV, echoing throughout my house. Standing in the kitchen, I was confused—did my phone accidentally sync with the TV, and magically play Playboi Carti’s summer anthem, “Magnolia”?
At first, I thought it was a sign from above to stop whisking pancake mix, and start performing my best Milly Rock impression. I did. It was cringeworthy—Jews weren’t meant to move like that. Catching myself in the window’s reflection forced me to stop immediately, reflect on my life choices, and soul search. After deep introspection, I walked into the living room to discover the source of Carti’s hit: a Tidal x Sprint commercial? Initial confusion cocked my head to the side, but realizing the A$AP Mob member’s alternative monetary play framed music’s evolving, and necessary, fiscal opportunities.
Back in the ‘90s, when Keenan and Kel played the pseudo, additional parental figures in my life, music’s revenue streams were more concentrated: artists got paid primarily off of record sales and concert tours. An artist would drop an album; kids would beg their parents to drive them to Tower Records; the parents would initially resist; kids would incessantly cry and complain; parents would reconsider their life choices; parents would cave, drive their kids to Tower Records, and purchase the album. The cycle would repeat itself when said artist went on tour. The music business’ relative transparency allowed artists to flourish within more conventional, structured financial lanes. But Keenan and Kel has been off the air since 2000, and the music industry now operates with less rigidity.
Playboi Carti’s Tidal x Sprint commercial represents a young artist adapting to this musical economic revolution. On average, before streaming services, musicians would make $0.12 per song off a purchased album (click here for in-depth breakdown). After streaming behemoths like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal redirected music’s direct revenue channel, artists now pocket about $0.005 per song streamed (these figures vary according to sources). To get to yesteryear’s $0.12 per song, a track must be listened to about 25-times. This 25:1 ratio isn’t exactly encouraging for an aspiring musician to abandon a conventional career path to pursue their dreams. Commanding an individual’s attention for enough time to convert them into a fan used to be the majority of the battle. Now, an artist’s worth is holistically evaluated—music piques initial fan interest; the brand converts the casual listener into a dedicated patron.
There’s an old saying in media and entertainment: content is king. Logically, if someone makes good music or produces enticing content, they should reap the benefits. However, people—as time has consistently demonstrated—are anything but logical. Streaming services’ widened and eased consumption parameters have abandoned the conventional revenue model, forcing artists to get creative by seeking out surrogate opportunities. In 2017, music is simply an access point to untraditional income generation means, achieved by brand leverage. The ultimate case study smiles wide with a multi-colored grill that lays below his dangling red dreads.
Lil Yachty’s debut album (Teenage Emotions) flop confirmed something we’ve all been suspicious of: he’s really not musically gifted. Put the pitchforks down Yachty lovers—I’m not hating. While his musical “skill” seems to be waning, the man compensates admirably by effectively utilizing his endearing personality and image for lucrative engagements.
One of Lil Boat’s breakout hits, “Minnesota”, garnered the Quality Control signee industry presence thanks to the song’s earworm nature: the simple yet melodic beat perfectly complements the bubbly, catchy hook. It’s light, it’s easily digestible. The addicting sonics caught the ears of Sprite’s ad agency of record, Weiden + Kennedy, incentivizing them to pair it with their crisp, refreshing soda, and company spokesman, LeBron James. By simply substituting “Sprite soda” for “Minnesota”, Sprite was able to create a memorable ad spot through subliminal messaging. After watching it only once, “Cold like a Sprite soda” will involuntarily vacate your lips, persuading you to quench that thirst with an icy Sprite.
Other artists have coupled their likeness with companies to bolster their awareness and bottomline. These ad spots are effective because they synergistically combine unique artist characteristics with the campaign, aligning commonalities to project brand goals. In 2012, the hair weave killer aka 2 Chainz received a Champs x Adidas endorsement, featuring the Atlanta rapper discussing how his individuality translated from the basketball court to concert stages, garnering him his superstar rapper status. Last year, fan favorite Chance The Rapper partnered with Kit Kat to create a new rendition of the iconic brand jingle. Using puns and Chance’s dry sense of humor, Kit Kat was able to give their 31-year-old song a facelift, and resonate with a younger generation of candy lovers. Artists’ brands have become critical in the music monetization fight.
With traditional fiscal avenue detours, the ability to explore outside opportunities has widened considerably. While becoming the Champs or Kit Kat spokesperson is attractive and profitable, these limited spots are reserved for the industry’s cream of the crop. But that doesn’t mean that musicians who live outside of this razor-thin margin aren’t exploiting their brand power.
As previously mentioned, concert tours were a main industry pillar before income dilution. Just like they were prior to streaming services, touring is still a primary revenue source. Artists—especially those with controversial images and cult followings like XXXtentacion or Ugly God—are able to capitalize on their loyal fans through live performances. They might not be the ideal Kit Kat or Sprite candidates, but they have effervescent, deep support groups—those supporters love delving into their favorite artist’s SoundCloud pages; they go Super Saiyan for shows. The more polarizing the artist, typically the more rambunctious the concert—X was just sucker punched at his San Diego performance on the heels of a now fully-fledged feud with Rob Stone. This past November, 21 Savage reported that he was raking in $25k per show ahead of his highly-anticipated HIHORSE’d tour with Young Thug. Yes, artists are certainly still getting theirs.
This brand reach lives at a deeper level for the musician with a fully-engaged fanbase. Nothing demonstrates artist support like repping their merchandise. Merch offers a dualistic utility of feeling a connection to the artist while advertising devotion. At one extreme, we have Kanye’s highly-coveted Yeezy sneakers and Drake’s OVO clothing lines; at the other end, we have lesser known artists—like 2017 XXL Freshman Kap G—who sell clothing on their website. As the old saying goes, when one door closes, another one opens.
Dwindling record sales present a mirage of the music business’ negative revenue potential. The paradigm shift away from conventional sales is only a detractor if one can’t creatively and effectively leverage their presence for nontraditional profit possibilities. The music industry is evolving, and with this dynamism comes new challenges, but also new opportunities. From commercial placements to merchandise, the chance to eat is very much still alive. I guess the only question artists have to ask themselves is this: am I hungry enough?