Once upon a time, in era of cassette decks and boomboxes, the “mixtape” consisted of a DJ blending and scratching popular songs along with exclusive songs together for the sake of promotion. My early saturday afternoons consisted of spending about an hour flipping through a book of playlists at a storefront choosing what to play from my radio as me and the crew walked the streets of Paterson that day.
Record sales declined in the early new millennium, mixtapes proved to be the perfect promo strategy for not just a new single but the artists as a whole. While advances in recording and distribution increased production, so did the amount of mixtapes to the people. Aspiring artists praised the mixtape because it got their music into the public's hands quicker. If the song’s a hit then came high demand for the artist and ultimately record deals. Today every artists striving to break into the industry is promoting and releasing a mixtape.
Many view this as the way of the future. Mixtapes appears to be an essential part of artist promotion and the missing link to achieving record sales. All for a good reason, Drake, 50 Cent and many others can credit the demand for their mixtapes as one of the main contributors to their success. For them, mixtapes had evolved to using instrumentals from songs already released and adding new verses. Today, mixtapes have become whole FREE albums of original music and removed blends and scratches almost entirely. This created a new standard that in order to sell music, you must first give some away for free. The definition of a Mixtape today is more of a free EP. With so many hit projects given for free, I ask you, what if your favorite mixtape was an actual album release? Would you spend money on it? If more artists produced albums as genuine as their mixtapes would there be such a slump in sales?
Just as many view this as the way of industry, there are still others who are not a fan of the role this "new" mixtape is now playing. There are some who argue free music, although economical for the consumer, in the end devalues the work of the artist. Playing devil’s advocate I must say the argument serves a good point. These days artists are only good as their last hit. If you gave that hit away for free, you lost a chance to capitalize on it. For those who may not know, there is a little money to be made in mixtapes if one is creative enough to think outside the box and bold enough play chicken with modern copyright law. Either way, eventually you will need to market and sell that hit for more broad appeal just to keep it from getting lost in the endless sea known as the internet. Meaning basically you gave the music to your fan base and now relying on a new market to help you make money.
Thinking further into the argument brings the concept of quality control. It is common to hear “I love their mixtapes, but not feeling the album.” The pressure of sales put many artists in a corner where they are only a hit if they release certain songs; making mixtapes their only way to express themselves creatively. Now this brings up the whole issue of the state of popular music, creative integrity and the machine known as mainstream, but that’s another discussion, and a whole other article. Furthermore I have noticed a growing trend of album releases being collections of greatest hits of the mixtape discography. Die hard fans are left cheated since they have already gotten the music prior while new fans feel cheated because they could have downloaded the album for free.
If you are looking for examples of those who work contrary to mixtapes, examine artists like Jay-Z, T.I. or in R&B Ne-yo or rising star Karina Pasian. Yes, they do use mixtapes as a source of promotion, but are extremely particular with what they release and most importantly they do not release any full original projects for free. R&B crooner Trey Songz jump started his career releasing songs over popular instrumentals. It was only recently he begun to release original free EP's. Other genres would not even dream of releasing original work for free. In fact, other genres are known to wait years between albums and at best release either a live project or re-release a prior project to keep fans satisfied. I often wonder if the over saturation of one person’s music for free eventually staggers the impact of the main release. Most importantly, does the business and mechanics of the industry suffer most of all?
I do miss the days of anticipating an album and the curiosity of an unknown song. At the same time I appreciate the liberty of being able to screen an artist and their music before a single is even released. As I sit back and enjoy a good mixtape download binge I can’t help but realize I am listening to a work that an artist recorded released for free. I no longer spend hours flipping through CD listings, I now download whole mixtapes and decided whether it will make it to my iPod or not. I stand like many others torn between ethics and convenience.
This can very well be the way of urban music. The quality and popularity of a major release may soon rely on the quantity and quality of their mixtape series. The days of DJ Clue and Kid Capri shout outs are over and is now about "the album before the album before the album". History’s shown that urban music is the best at making margaritas out of any lemons, so is this simply the matrix correcting itself?