The digital dilemma: how will hip-hop survive?

Hip-Hop has always been the music for the young generation. It is the music that parents hated and kids loved. But now it has become the lucrative powerhouse that it is today because of the 90’s kids that ran to the stores every time an album dropped. But in the new-age of downloading, file-sharing and digital distribution (legally and illegally), the youth’s soundtrack is suffering a major spike in sales and is drastically seeking a way to correct it.

Who is to blame for this? Well,
you can say the loyal, loving and youthful fans.

While Garth Brooks is five-times platinum in his twelfth week, along with three R&B albums going at least platinum on Billboard’s Top 10, Hip-Hop favorites Lupe Fiasco, Beanie Siegel, Wu-Tang, and a host of other acts are not even going gold.

Hip-Hop cash cows Jay-Z, Kanye West, and 50 Cent, who usually score platinum status within the first week, are spending weeks on the charts before getting the platinum stamp.

Overall, Hip-Hop sales for 2007 were down 33 percent from 2006, doubling the decline for the entire industry. The digital world only mildly affects other genres, whose main consumers are the ones in business suits or computer-illiterate adults.

Hip-Hop has taken the biggest hit because of the tech-savvy, computer-wiz generation being internet-fed since elementary school who know the actual purchase of a CD is the slowest way to hear new music. The genre must find a way to remain a monetary force in the industry with its core fan base being the young generation doing the downloading. What will Hip-Hop do to survive? Here are a few outcomes.

Along with the many file-sharing Web sites, burning capabilities, and music-swapping techniques that technology has given us, distribution platforms like iTunes, Ringtones, and Youtube have emerged as well. More rap acts are putting actual CD’s to the backburner in favor of a platinum ringtone, top downloaded single and straight-to-the-web videos to gain exposure and money for their work. This method in turn creates a dilemma with the integrity and longevity of an artist, especially a
fresh face, sacrificing quality work for a quick payback to the label.

Another alternative, with the realization that CD sales are just not what they used to be, is the complete abandonment of them altogether. With rumors of artists Jay-Z joining forces with Apple to form a completely digital label and Joe Budden signing to a newly established all-digital label, it seems the industry is already heading in that direction. Before we know it, compact disc could be thrown in the same box as vinyl records, the 8-track tape and, more recently, the cassette tape.

One more expensive strategy that more big-name artists are taking hold of is using their name as a springboard to bigger projects like movies, television deals, and other marketing mediums. Two of the few platinum rap albums of the last two years came packaged with movies (T.I’s “King” and Jay-Z’s “American Gangster”) while artists like Nas, Jim Jones, and Irv Gotti have all pondered the idea of reality shows.

Numerous artists have also seen commercials and endorsements generate extra buzz for a new project. This alternative, however, would force the labels to go back to developing an artist and creating a brand name instead of a hot single, the opposite of the ringtone route. Most labels are not willing to invest in this direction.

Whatever direction Hip-Hop’s future takes, it has to utilize the new technology to its advantage or the loyal youth culture will leave it in the dust, left to crumble financially in the future.