Hip-hop heads know the value of the mixtape; it’s been a part of the culture from day one. Whether getting your hands on a coveted copy of a DJ’s legendary set, or making your own by recording the hot songs that come on the radio to a cassette, most of us have experienced that feeling of possessing something new and exclusive for little or no cost.
While for years, mixtapes were considered something reserved only for hardcore fans who really had to dig deep to find these hidden gems, today, thanks to new technology and an even heavier street presence, mixtapes have truly solidified their place within the hip-hop lexicon. Artists like Fabolous, Joe Budden, Young Jeezy and others have mixtapes to thank for never falling prey to the #FallOff phenomenon, because by releasing free music to the streets, their name remains on the tip of everyone’s tongue, whether or not their labels get behind an official product.
They’ve also catapulted the careers of several MC’s who could have remained local otherwise. The biggest example of this would be Toronto, Canada native Drake. While he was first an actor, and had prior relationships with different labels, it was not until So Far Gone dropped that the world outside of his own backyard began to really pay attention. In addition to promotional purposes, it’s also a way for artists to let their fans know that they’re appreciated, a move that the artist would hope to be reciprocated when their retail albums drop.
Of course, there are some cases where the artist feels that all output needs to produce money, even a mixtape with unoriginal beats that took a relatively small amount of money to produce. Lil’ Kim would be the best example of that, releasing her last mixtape, Black Friday through PayPal for $10.00 a pop. There is nothing wrong with an artist putting a value on their time and work, but very few charge for mixtapes because they are seen as promotional tools as opposed to a money making venture. Most of the money earned from mixtapes is made from hand to hands sales in swap meets, bodegas, etc. It is each artist’s right to sell however they choose, and with more and more mixtapes containing all original music, it is even understandable that artists would want to recuperate those costs. However, with free music so readily available (including that of said artist, as well as competitors), selling mixtapes in today’s industry could be considered bad business.
Whether free or for sale, mixtapes have made an impact not only on the fan-artist relationship, but on label politics. This extends beyond hip-hop into R&B music, especially in this age of technology and impatience. We all want what we want ASAP, and we can’t wait for an album to drop. Soul artists like Bobby Valentino and Marsha Ambrosius used mixtapes to excite fans about their studio albums to follow, and both ended up selling far more than projected even with relatively little promotion. This goes to show that even more than the thousands of dollars spent to market an artist, releasing 70 minutes of free music as a “thank you” to the fans can do so much more for both parties, the consumer and the artist.
– Jessica Bennett
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Jessica Bennett is a freelance music journalist who also goes by “Compton” and “Soulfullyreal.” All three of them are Hip Hop Heads with a column entitled“Welcome to Compton”. For daily musings, check her out at @soulfullyreal.