Amazon, Bandcamp, Weezy F. Baby, and a lament for “The Carter V”
Jay Z? Naaaah, I’m here for Lil Wayne’s latest, because of where and how he could/should release it
On June 19, the internet was abuzz as semi-retired father of three Jay Z announced that 4:44, his 13th studio album, would be released on June 30, 2017. The surprise nature of Jay’s announcement left little time for contemplation, but rather spawned significant excitement regarding the new Songwriting Hall of Famer’s latest output. Interestingly enough, when thinking about Lil Wayne — another semi-retired father (of four) — and his (yet again) announced 13th studio album The Carter V, there’s likely to be considerably less excitement. However, maybe take a second and consider a series of “what ifs” worth pondering regarding how Wayne, similar to Jay, could release The Carter V. In thinking about how upstarts like Amazon or Bandcamp could aid that process, there’s a chance that getting as excited for Weezy (and for the music industry in general) as we have for Hova could occur.
LIL WAYNE WAS SO CLOSE TO “JAY Z” LEVEL SUPERSTARDOM
In 2007, Jay Z released Kingdom Come, an album that began a six-year critical decline for his mainstream pop-crossover work that ended with 2009’s massive crossover Alicia Keys duet “Empire State of Mind.” Similarly, a decade ago, Lil Wayne was in the midst of a unique, mind-blowing, and both underground and mainstream run of 22 albums and/or mixtapes. In just under a decade, that content spanned 400 released songs, freestyles, remixes, covers, and more.
In the 10 years from 2007 to 2017 though Jay, as well as most any mainstream musician, has been a little bit less-than-successful as a commercial artist. During this time, industry-wide album sales alone dropped 80-plus percent. To counterbalance how his career output has slipped in pop appeal due to this issue, Jay has upped the ante in his business dealings. Unlike 2007, since 2013, his releases — like June 30’s 4:44 — aren’t released as they were back then. 4:44, in a manner similar to 2013’s Samsung app-debuted Magna Carta Holy Grail will be released on Sprint smartphones enabled with the Tidal app. Intriguingly, given that Jay owns his music, as well as a stake in both Sprint and Tidal, will likely be one of the few artists who will ever literally pay themselves to release an album.
Lil Wayne has been markedly less successful in counteracting the tides of the past decade in the music industry. Between Wayne’s 2011 The Carter IV and 2014 I Am Not A Human Being albums, his sales slipped 85%. Add this as well to his January 2015 issues with Cash Money Records that included Wayne filing a $51 million lawsuit against Cash Money, stemming from a claim that Bryan “Birdman” Williams was not allowing Wayne to earn the cut he deserved or release the albums he had completed as the label boss of Drake and Nicki Minaj’s Cash Money subsidiary label, YMCMB. Regarding his woes, Wayne noted, “I want off this label and nothing to do with these people but unfortunately it ain’t that easy. I am a prisoner and so is my creativity.” Though Wayne was once known for voluminous creativity, he’s had a 41% drop-off in amount of material released since The Carter III. For some artists, less is more. In the case of the seemingly perpetually rhyming Wayne, though, more was arguably best.
IS IT TIME FOR WAYNE TO DITCH UNIVERSAL FOR…SOMETHING ELSE?
Maybe the biggest problem with The Carter V is that there’s probably less of a need than ever before for the album to be released via a traditional label. Yes, Wayne is still signed to Universal/Cash Money, but let’s also presume that there could be more worth in streaming and licensing with Wayne’s older masters that Universal, if they were to let Wayne free, could still use as profit earners. We’ve been promised a release of The Carter V 11 times since 2012. The “boy who cried wolf” effect regarding Wayne’s new material could easily impact any significant mainstream profitability of such a release as compared to his classic material.
Lil Wayne is uniquely both an an independent and mainstream musical icon, having dominated both popular culture as a free internet mixtape artist, and the pop charts as a major label releasing artist. Wayne, if cut by Universal, could easily seek alternative sources for release of his music. If Wayne ends up looking, then there’s two logical homes worth contemplating for his content: Amazon or Bandcamp.
In 2012, Universal Music Group reportedly earned $1.552 billion. Yes, that’s, adjusted for inflation, a number that’s half a billion dollars less than Amazon Prime subscribers paid in 2016. Yes, by 2016, UMG’s earnings have risen a frankly shocking 260% to $5.57 billion, but that’s on the back of a streaming-based income that’s not necessarily well-supported many other revenue sources in the label-driven model. As well, when one looks at how streams trickle-down from executives to artists, that doesn’t necessarily leave much money for Wayne.
Since 2007, Amazon’s value as a company has grown 600%. The company is worth more than Walmart, Costco, and Target combined, and the company’s 12-year old subscription membership Amazon Prime service has exploded in popularity to include Prime Now, Prime Video and Prime Music, a one-stop shop for all physical and digital goods available on the service. At-present, Amazon Prime earns its parent company $1.9 billion yearly in subscription revenue alone.
Comparatively, Bandcamp launched in 2007 as an independent artist-friendly online music store and platform for artist promotion. By 2010, artists like Amanda Palmer stopped being “mainstream” label artists and started selling albums on Bandcamp, using Twitter as a promotional tool. By 2014, Bandcamp for Labels was launched, counting legendary independent labels such as Sub Pop as its early adopters. By 2015, Bandcamp announced that artists using the website had officially earned $100 million from music and merchandise sales. And, in 2016, the site launched an almost immediately critically-acclaimed daily blog (to which, full disclosure, I occasionally contribute) centering on conversation that served as a marketing tool for the site’s growing musical library.
On Bandcamp’s own website the company notes that “Bandcamp is more than a direct-to-fan storefront, we’re a retail music destination in our own right. Fans have paid artists $223 million using Bandcamp, and $5.1 million in the last 30 days alone.” If, say, an artist with the one-time mainstream industry-to-store-to fan marketing push and simultaneous independent appeal of Lil Wayne were to sell their music via Bandcamp, one could surmise that his output could dwarf that of every other artist on the site. Furthermore, Wayne’s placement on the site could allow for revenues to increase for all other artists as they would likely have new eyes possibly discovering their music for the first time.
At present, Lil Wayne’s wealth likely less than half of the $150 million that he was purported to be worth after signing a lucrative deal with Universal/Cash Money in 2012. However, he’s still regularly touring, currently has (via Migos, Justin Bieber, Chance the Rapper and DJ Khaled) the #1 song in America, plus owns numerous cars, boats, home, and other considerably expensive sale-able assets. Thus, for as much as a move to a situation with Amazon or Bandcamp could make sense. Foremost, Wayne’s need to make an immediate grab for significant income isn’t major. Concurrently, those portals also likwly have the capital, assets, and marketability to allow Wayne the flexibility and visibility to be successful (on some level) as the proverbial big fish splashing wildly in a comparatively smaller pond.
Imagine a situation wherein if/when you sign up for a year-long Amazon Prime subscription, you were given a choice of “new” and “free” albums from which to choose as a “user bonus” of sorts, and one of them was The Carter V. As well, imagine Lil Wayne monetizing via Amazon as an Amazon pitchman (as he was for Samsung, above). Or, imagine Lil Wayne being able to, via Bandcamp (in a manner similar to say, Brroklyn-based Sudancese-American indie star Oddisee), release albums and mixtapes full of music when, how, and for however much he wanted to charge. Whether you’re a fan of Carter III or I Am Not A Human Being-style Weezy, or unhinged 2006–2009 “mixtape Weezy,” either Amazon or Bandcamp as Wayne’s could have significant appeal.
WHAT WAYNE DOES NEXT COULD BE A GREAT SIGN OF THE HEALTH OF THE CLASSIC MUSIC INDUSTRY MODEL
“If one more label try to stop me It’s gon’ be some dreadhead niggas in ya lobby! You don’t want no problems, want no problems with me!”
— Chance the Rapper
On February 12, 2017, sans a traditional record deal, Chance the Rapper was awarded the Grammy Awards for Best New Artist, Best Rap Album, and Best Rap Performance. Chance’s success as a mixtape-driven artist hearkens back to Wayne’s 2007 era of being in the midst of 400 songs strewn over 22 releases. Chance is far more organized and focused it seems than Wayne seemed back then. His main income streams are touring and selling merchandise, plus now working with partners like Twitter for advertising. In many ways, Wayne’s greatest flaw was that the free mixtapes that drove his appeal were assuredly to be followed by albums that yes, contained hits, but also had less of a sense of “indie cool.” Am I saying that Lil Wayne should mirror Chance the Rapper? Absolutely.
Ultimately, Lil Wayne does not need a traditional record label to release The Carter V. In a case of chickens coming home to roost, between what an Amazon or Bandcamp has to offer, Wayne could easily aspire to once again be as similarly cool, independent, viable, and relevant as Chance the Rapper…and as successful, too. So yes, while getting excited for Jay Z’s 4:44 seems exciting, what about Lil Wayne? If released “correctly,” The Carter V could be just as, or if not more, important and impacting.