How Should We Measure Rap Success in 2015?

For some people, album sales continue to be the sole metric for tracking success. Here are some other alternatives.

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Aug 10 2015, 2:06pm


Drake's Hood Grammys meet the charts

The last couple months have been full of heated discussions about who’s doing well and who’s not in the world of hip-hop. There have been debates about album sales, a new crop of unexpected viral hits, and one particularly high-profile rap beef. There have been new Vine memes and periods of nothing but Fetty Wap on the radio.

Troy Ave became the butt of online jokes after selling fewer than 5,000 copies of his album in its first week and found himself arguing with fellow New Yorker Joey Bada$$ about respectable sales figures. Tyga quickly followed in Troy Ave’s footsteps, barely moving 2,000 copies his first week. Meek Mill, seemingly headed for a spot in rap's upper echelon after notching the year’s third highest-selling rap album, fumbled his way through a beef with Drake and emerged the consensus loser. Then again, he’s still on one of the summer’s biggest tours, so it’s hard to say what he’s losing. Drake, meanwhile, sauntered through a coronation at OVO Fest, but not without a few blows to his credibility. And then there’s Future, the quiet people’s champion, whose latest album has been a blockbuster event—yet was still arguably overshadowed by his previous mixtape, 56 Nights. What are fans supposed to make of all this? How can you even tell if a rapper is successful in 2015?

People have been debating whether album sales are still important in the internet era for a decade, and every time the conclusion has been more or less the same: “Yes, but no.” Album sales still mean something—arguably a sale counts for more now that it’s an optional choice for hearing the music—and if you sell a lot of albums it still earns money and makes a statement. However, sales remain the sole metric by which many people attempt to understand success in the rap industry, as they speak to a time when that success could be gauged by a single number.

In 2015 there are many more—maybe too many—ways to keep track of numbers in rap music. Beyond record sales, there are digital streams (which are actually factored into chart numbers), live show attendance, music festival performance slots, and possibly even ad syncs. YouTube views, Instagram likes, Twitter followers, Soundcloud listens, Vines revined, and Snapchat views probably should probably be factored in as well. Some of these are accounted for by the Billboard charts, and they are certainly on the radar of record labels and music industry professionals. But for an average music fan that can be a lot of different numbers to keep in mind. For anyone, it can be hard to make sense of what even matters.

“I don’t think it’s a number, I think it’s looking at everything well-rounded,” Selim Bouad of 300 Entertainment told me. The label has quickly made a name for itself by paying attention to nontraditional metrics like Twitter virality and using that data to inform decisions to sign artists like Migos, Young Thug, and Fetty Wap. They’re not the only ones paying attention, though.

“Hip-hop as a genre is very contextual—it’s about people, places, things, Uber,” explained William Gruger, former associate director for charts, social, and streaming at Billboard. “It’s about something that lends it into being more popular among social media because of how social media on the internet works.” In other words, the fact that rap lyrics are more likely to make good Instagram captions means that things like figuring out whose lyrics are showing up Instagram captions matter in determining who is really popular. Buzzfeed’s Reggie Ugwu recently echoed this idea on the New York Times’ Popcast podcast, noting, “If you’re a young, 20-year-old rapper on the rise in your career right now, I don’t know if you care as much about sales as about maybe getting on Drake’s Instagram.”

So how should we track success? It’s not an exact science—at least not yet—but these are a few possible metrics:

The Billboard 200

Who still buys rap albums in the 2010s? More than 215,000 people were ready to spend money on Meek Mill’s sophomore album, Dreams Worth More Than Money the week it came out, and Future’s DS2 moved nearly 150,000 copies its first week—so, some people. Yet although it’s been prevailing logic that real fans buy albums, the growing number of ways to consume music—combined with a new generation of fans raised on iTunes coming of age—means it might be time to retire such thought. The Billboard 200 chart does now account for both sales and streaming, but when rappers can find real success with a Soundcloud or Instagram hit, the metric of the album sale feels increasingly dated despite the history attached to it.

Success Gauge Rating: 3/10

The Billboard Hip/Hop Airplay Chart

In the last couple of years Billboard changed the way they did their Hip-Hop/R&B chart to more closely resemble the Hot 100 chart, including factors like streaming and sales in addition to radio airplay. It was a reasonable step, but it very much changed the value of the chart. Radio airplay may be one of the least interactive ways of engaging with music in 2015, but until we live in a world with aux cords in every car, it will continue to alert people to when a song is popular by playing it 12 times an hour. To track what’s actually playing in the background and seeping into our heads, the Hip-Hop Airplay chart is a great determinant.

Success Gauge Rating: 8/10

The Car Test

There is no exact science or data behind measuring songs blasting out of passing cars, but that doesn’t stop the Car Test from being constantly invoked to prove what’s hot. Though it didn’t start out as music for cars—and in fact struggled to get onto radio in its earliest days—nothing sounds cooler than rap coming out of a car. What’s playing out of cars can be tied to radio, but it also offers a good indication of what’s too ahead of the curve for radio. Chatter about a record being big in the streets can mean many things—it might refer to specific parts of a city, strip clubs, or certain nightclubs—but when a song can be heard from multiple cars within a block of each other, then it’s easy to say that a rapper’s moment is solid.

Success Gauge Rating: 3/10

Datpiff and Livemixtapes

The two preeminent sites for downloading rap music should be a pretty good barometer of rapper’s success. Both keep their stats pretty out in the open, and Livemixtapes even keeps a running ticker of their Top 25 rappers at the moment—measured though some mysterious combination of search, download, stream, or who really knows—but it usually looks pretty solid. Though the raw numbers of these two sites can be appealing data, there are reasons to take these self-reported figures with a grain of salt. Did Meek Mill’s mixtape Dreamchasers 2, the most downloaded tape ever on Datpiff, really get all those millions of downloads? It’s hard to say, but the popularity of these sites means it’s better data than many more conventional sources might be.

Success Gauge Rating: 7/10

Live Show Bookings

Rap shows have a somewhat deserved reputation for being mixed in quality, but, if anything, that makes the popularity of a rapper’s live show a better indicator of their success. The range of a successful live rap career can go from Drake headlining basketball arenas to Rich Homie Quan touring the hell out of small southern cities to an indie rap crew cleaning up on the college circuit. No matter the size of the venue, if artists can put on the show and sell tickets, then they’re hitting their fanbase. Conversely, the live show is where the much-vaunted metric of online buzz is tested: A buzzy interent single doesn’t mean people are ready to pay $20 for a show.

Success Gauge Rating: 8/10

The Shazam Charts

If you’re a rap fan and you don’t own the Shazam, stop reading. Stop. Got it? No?! Get it! OK, cool. Now that you have it, go to the explore feature and prepare to be amazed at just how deep cities like Greensboro, North Carolina, go and how boring most major cities are when it comes to their most Shazammed songs. The Shazam charts are fickle, quick to change, and a pretty small sample size. But if you want to get an idea of what is getting played on the radio and out at nightclubs around the country, it’s a fun tool. Just don’t assume that because regional R&B song number eight is getting played in the middle of Alabama it’s going to be a major hit. It ain’t.

Success Gauge Rating: 4/10

Vine Memes

The six second video’s potential for spreading music was clearly underrated when Vine came out a couple years ago. But the app quickly showed its utility for spreading funny memes—and breaking songs in the process—two summers ago when it helped turn YG’s “My Nigga” and Sage the Gemini’s “Red Nose” to legitimate hits. Yet the next wave of rap meme hits, like OG Maco’s “U Guessed It” and T-Wayne’s “Nasty Freestyle,” came and went so quickly that Maco continues to distance himself from that hit and T-Wayne is still getting confused for the collaboration project between Lil Wayne and T-Pain. The main issue with a rapper finding unintentional success via Vine is that they have little control their narrative or song once the music spreads on Vine. Memes might be able to make a song a hit, but they don’t necessarily make people care about the artist who made the song in the first place.

Success Gauge Rating: 2/10

YouTube/Soundcloud Plays

When it comes down to numbers, the easiest statistics to see and track are on the ones on services like YouTube and Soundcloud, which keep a counter on the song or video. A video with 100 million views is clearly more popular than one with just a million views; that’s pretty simple. Simply clicking play on a video doesn’t translate into buying someone’s music or seeing them live, but these two sites are perhaps the easiest places to stream music, making them many people’s preferred platform. There are still ways to game the system, but, as the frequently anemic numbers for ostensibly popular artists show, these platforms tend to be pretty transparently honest. As streaming increasingly becomes a dominant model, the transparent statistics on these sites are one of the most accurate indicators for charting real success.

Success Gauge Rating: 9/10

David Turner killed the radio star. Follow him on Twitter.