Friday, June 20, 2008

What The Music Industry Could Learn From Lil Wayne’s Success

The whole music industry is abuzz this week because the third album by rapper Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III, is expected to sell a million copies this week, an event that has become all too rare in recent years.

What’s incredibly interesting about this is that according to conventional wisdom, there is no way that this CD should be a hit, a wisdom that perfectly reflected in a headline in today’s New York Times: Despite Leaks Online and File Sharing, Lil Wayne’s New CD Is a Hit.

Despite? Actually, I think it’s the other way around. Because. And that the music industry could learn some things from this.

As a matter of fact, I think that there are three lessons that the record industry can learn from the success of Lil Wayne:

File Sharing is Promotion — All that we’ve been hearing for the past decade is that file-sharing is the slow poison that is killing the music industry. File-sharing, like used CDs in the 1990s and home taping in the 1980s, was killing music. Period. End of story. Which is why the RIAA has spent untold millions of dollars perse–prosecuting college students and housewives for file-sharing.

Now, here’s a case where an artist’s music was heavily traded and he is still a huge success.

How could that be possible? Because file sharing is promotion.

Like the radio, like iPod ads, like mixtapes and mix CDs and clubs and parties, file sharing is all about the human impulse to say “hey, have you heard this? Because you totally need to hear it right now.”

For every sale that might not happen because somebody did a download, it’s equally possible that someone else is turned onto and becomes a lifelong fan of that artist, and buys the next record, or goes to a concert or buys a T-Shirt and contributes to the revenue stream in a totally different way.

It’s a big world, and there is a ton of music out there, and I don’t know how many artists I’ve discovered — and then bought something from — over the years that would have never crossed my radar had someone not given me a tape or a CD or an .mp3.

Furthermore, It’s not a one-to-one relationship between downloads and purchases. The most evil RIAA assumption of all is that every single file share represents a lost purchase. What bullshit! I would argue that the vast majority of what people get through dodgy means is stuff that they had no intention of purchasing in the first place. That’s part of the point: to sample as much as music as possible, because you never know what will stick.

In the case of Lil Wayne, the fact that his files were shared obviously served far more as promotion, as people who might not otherwise have cared got caught up in his music. Whether it was the leak of this particular album, or one of his infamous mixtapes, the promotion was widespread enough that a million people — out of a potential audience of 300 million — decided to buy it.
Bootlegs Are Good — Obviously, not all bootlegs, because quality varies, but there’s never been any evidence that widespread bootlegging of an artist has ever actually hurt that artist, either critically or commercially. Usually, they are manna for hardcore fans who are going to end up buying the official releases no matter what.

And Lil Wayne seems to have gone into a totally completely different dimension with his mixtapes. Like Pearl Jam with their live albums, he decided to bootleg himself, and while the mixtapes are sitting in a grey legal area to be sure, they somehow simultaneously de-mythologized his studio process and made him an underground legend.

And, they were apparently pretty great. Which brings me to the final lesson . . .
Quality Makes a Difference. Apparently, Lil Wayne is pretty great. I’m sad to say that I wouldn’t know. I’m so disconnected from 21st Century hip-hop — my problem, not hip-hop’s — that I won’t make any kind of judgement on his music, but I can read any number of reviews, critics polls and see the high Metacritic score for Tha Carter III, and figure out that the music of Lil Wayne is considered higher quality than that of, say, Scarlett Johansson. (Which, sadly enough, I have heard.)

This matters. Yes, you can always hype and push and payola any artist once or twice, but not forever. You can leak and bootleg and have hit singles and do all of the other things I mentioned above, and if the goods aren’t there, nobody is going to care.
Whether or not the music industry is going to heed these lessons remains to be seen. I’m going to guess probably not — they they’ll write off Lil Wayne’s success as a fluke convergence of right place, right time, and not as a blueprint on how to try to manage other prolific, talented artists in the digital age.

Which might make this a last gasp of breath, as opposed to the beginning of figuring out a new way to do things.

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