Mixtapes aren't just a rap thing anymore—they're beginning to reflect the diversity of pop music. Clockwise from top left, several artists who've had successful mixtapes recently: A$AP Rocky, Ryan Lewis & Macklemore, Jeremih, and Charli XCX.
Mixtapes aren't just a rap thing anymore—they're beginning to reflect the diversity of pop music. Clockwise from top left, several artists who've had successful mixtapes recently: A$AP Rocky, Ryan Lewis & Macklemore, Jeremih, and Charli XCX. Credit: Clockwise from top left: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images, Barry Brecheisen/Invision/AP Photo, Diwang Valdez, Dan Curwin

Late last year Billboard magazine revamped its genre-specific charts (Hot Country Songs, Rap Songs, Hot Rock Songs) by applying the same Internet-friendly methods for determining a song’s popularity that it had been using for its Hot 100 and On-Demand Songs charts since March: the data used in rankings was expanded to include digital streams or downloads alongside
radio plays or record sales. It was a timely if not overdue move from the curators of the charts that set the industry standard for judging a record’s success—traditional metrics haven’t accurately reflected real-world music consumption for a while, and right now YouTube views are just as important as spins on terrestrial radio.

The change had immediate and noticeable effects. Taylor Swift and Mumford & Sons suddenly had many more songs on the charts, bolstered by plentiful YouTube and Spotify plays that had finally started counting. Within a few months the viral success of Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” would result in the first Hot 100 number one based primarily on YouTube plays.

What didn’t change on any of the modified charts was the position of songs from rap mixtapes. When Billboard reconfigured its methodology to better reflect the way people listen to music today, it neglected to include one of the most important distribution channels for one of the most popular formats in one of the most important genres in pop music. And earlier this year, when the RIAA began counting streams toward sales awards (it’s counted downloads since 2004), it did the same thing.

If you listen to current rap music at all seriously, you probably visit DatPiff.com and LiveMixtapes.com on the regular. Every day these sites host dozens of new mixtapes, which have evolved beyond their early role as spiritual descendants of the freestyle compilation cassettes that rappers once used as promotional items and are now more like albums released without label backing. Some of these new mixtapes are from rappers unknown outside their circles of friends. Some of them are from multiplatinum artists. Some are bootleg compilations of tracks culled from other mixtapes. Some are glossy productions featuring producers and guests who are among the biggest names in the industry. And increasingly they’re not just made by rappers but also by R&B artists (Jeremih), pop stars (Charli XCX), and EDM acts (Major Lazer).

What they all have in common is that they don’t cost anything to stream or even download. Users with accounts at DatPiff or LiveMixtapes can download mixtapes more efficiently than those without, but getting an account doesn’t cost any money. And if you don’t have one, the highest price you’ll pay for even the biggest releases is to share the fact that you’re downloading them with your Twitter or Facebook networks through a widget that the site provides.

An artist with financial backing can get a mixtape noticed by buying beats and guest verses from big-name producers and rappers, or by paying to get it placed in the featured sections of the sites where it’s available for download, but anyone can have a record hosted by those platforms. The result is an anarchic marketplace where complete nobodies share virtual shelf space with the likes of Rick Ross and Young Jeezy.

The mixtape scene was once the exclusive realm of battle rappers and rap nerds, but it’s made a sharp turn into mainstream popularity in recent years as casual listeners discover the medium. And it’s easy to see why: the music is all free, and the format’s tendency to encourage experimentation means that mixtapes often contain better material than records with label backing. The numbers are getting impressive. The breakout mixtape from young Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky, LiveLoveA$AP, has been downloaded more than a million times through DatPiff alone.

The mainstreaming of mixtapes is the best argument for Billboard and the RIAA to treat them the same as “legitimate” label-backed releases. It’s probably also exactly why they haven’t starting doing that yet. Both organizations are essentially mouthpieces for the music-industry establishment, and mixtapes don’t work by established industry rules. LiveMixtapes and DatPiff give consumers the all-free, all-you-can-eat music experience they want, in the process making labels seem out of touch and unnecessary.

Mixtapes are making the traditional music industry seem unnecessary to artists as well. I asked Le’Roy Benros, president of a Universal subsidiary label called Noizy Crickets!! (he also managed Angel Haze and currently represents a young rapper named Bishop Nehru), how important a mixtape is to an artist looking to break out: “One a scale of one to ten, I’d say an eight,” he says. “The goal of dropping a project by a new artist is to create a fan base, create awareness, get people talking about you.” A smart artist, he explains, will turn that buzz into live gigs and merch sales, which is where the money is—only once they reach the limit of what they can do without a label’s money and promotional machine will they go looking to sign a deal. But he notes, “The last people to come knocking on your door is the label.”

And when labels do knock, some artists don’t answer. Benros points to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis as an example—after building a massive fan base online, they contracted with a subsidiary of Warner Brothers (the Alternative Distribution Alliance) to distribute and promote their album The Heist, but otherwise kept the record and its profits to themselves. Benros thinks that the mixtape could eventually replace label deals altogether “if artists are smart enough.” As record sales become increasingly irrelevant to a musician’s bottom line, it’s starting to make more sense to dispense with selling records altogether.

From the labels’ standpoint, the mixtape paradigm doesn’t look too different, at least economically, from piracy—except of course that with mixtapes the artist is on board too. As more users turn to mixtape sites to discover and listen to music, they’re starting to steal consumers not only from traditional broadcast formats but also from the few industry-approved online media platforms. It makes perfect sense that Billboard and the RIAA would ignore mixtapes—why would they want to call attention to something that’s pushing them toward extinction?