Originally published in Trapital, the hip-hop business newsletter written by Dan Runcie.
Your boy Drake gave quite the speech last Sunday when he won his Grammy. Here are his closing words:
“You’ve already won if you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your hometown. Look, if there’s people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don’t need this right here, I promise you. You already won. But—”
I left the “but—” in there because they cut him off before he was done! The Grammys were probably a bit relieved by the abrupt stop. His speech can be boiled down to five powerful words that The Recording Academy was not trying to hear, “Thanks, but Grammys don’t matter.”
A few days later, the “God’s Plan” rapper showed us what mattered. Wednesday was the 10-year anniversary of So Far Gone, his 2009 coming-of-age mixtape. He announced that the esteemed EP would be available on all streaming platforms.
Album anniversaries are often just an excuse for media outlets to create content. But Drake controlled the narrative with a long Instagram post that took fans down memory lane. It was an ode to the blog rap era that bolstered his mixtape’s popularity. He also “thanked” his frenemy Kanye West. It was an earnest, yet highly calculated move guaranteed to capture headlines and generate buzz for So Far Gone. As expected, the re-release has been highly publicized. Twitter has spent the past few days reminiscing about life in 2009.
Next week, So Far Gone’s most popular songs—“Best I Ever Had,” “Successful,” and “Houstatlantavegas”— will rise on the Billboard charts. Drake’s catalog may get a higher streaming boost than most other artists who won Grammys. It will reinforce Drake’s statement about fans mattering more than the “opinion-based sport” of music awards.
The re-release was a chess move, but it took time to pull off. Drake had to clear samples like “Say What’s Real,” a Kanye West song (which Ye initially refused to clear). Sample clearance is the primary reason why many iconic mixtapes are not on streaming services (I touched on this last week in an interview I did). Sometimes projects get re-released with a caveat. In November, Wiz Khalifa re-released his 2010 mixtape Kush & Orange Juice without two tracks that didn’t clear. But other mixtapes collect theoretical dust on websites like DatPiff, unverified YouTube channels, and old iPods.
Luckily, Drake made it work. So Far Gone’s anniversary rollout is a model for others to follow with their memorable mixtapes. The 32-year-old’s fans now want him to go on tour and exclusively play his old music. It’s a bankable opportunity that has helped other artists solidify their fanbase.
Hip-hop fans want to reward artists to monetize their old mixtapes and back catalog.
Clearing the samples
Most mixtapes have clearance issues because young artists don’t have money to pay the song’s original creators. According to music rights clearance expert Deborah Mannis-Gardner, most artists set aside $100,000 to $150,000 to budget for sample clearances when making an album. But mixtapes are much more heavily sampled than albums, so let’s conservatively assume it would cost $500,000. That’s a steep price tag for a SoundCloud rapper who spends several hours per day sliding into DMs with links to their new song. But it’s an easier decision for an established artist.
Let’s do the math. Artists earn $7 for every 1,000 streams on Spotify. An artist needs 70 million streams to justify a $500,000 clearance cost. That’s light work for Drake. In 2018 he got 7 billion streams—more than any other artist on Spotify. That’s 19 million streams PER DAY. And that’s just Spotify. The number is much higher when other platforms are included.
Drake also gets an extra boost because his music is always over-indexed on digital streaming platforms. The 10-year-old mixtape was featured prominently ahead of the new Cardi B and Bruno Mars song. Drake maintains his Walmart – Procter & Gamble type relationships with each streaming service:
Most artists don’t get billions of streams and valuable placement like Drake, but less popular artists can still justify the cost. A more realistic comparison for other mainstream artists is Tyga. The “Taste” rapper amassed 884 million Spotify streams last year. If he cleared his samples to re-release his popular 2012 mixtape Well Done 3, he would need to assume it would boost his streams just 8% to cover the clearance cost. That’s a low bar to cross for a higher potential return.
Follow up with a mixtape tour
Since the announcement, Drake’s fans have called for a throwback tour where the rapper only plays songs from his mixtapes and the back catalog. Here’s a tweet from writer Brandon Caldwell:
if drake decided on a comeback season/so far gone/b sides concert (like “dreams money can buy”, “club paradise,” “draft day,” “0-to-100,” “days in the east,” “the motion”)
— Brandon Caldwell (@_brandoc) February 15, 2019
“boy. BOY.” is right. It’s a smart move. There are two ways artists can go about this. The first option is to follow J. Cole, who played the long game with his Dollar & A Dream tours. He only performed songs from memorable mixtapes like The Warm Up, The Come Up, and Friday Night Lights. He charged fans $1 to attend, toured in a limited number of cities, and kept the venues small. I broke down the cost-benefit in an article I wrote last April:
According to J. Cole’s 2014 interview with Noisey, each Dollar & A Dream show cost six-figures to run. If we assume $150,000 per each of the 19 stops, that’s almost $3 million total. Based on estimates, each small concert venue had an average of 3,000 fans. Across 19 stops, that’s nearly 60,000 day-ones who had their dreams come true. If we spread the $3 million across 60,000 fans, Cole created lasting connections with each fan for only $50. These connections become lifelong relationships—translating to future concert, album, and merchandise sales.
Cole is one of hip-hop’s testaments to the 1,000 True Fans theory. His day-ones can be obnoxious, but it’s a fanbase other artists wish they had.
The other option is to charge a premium. Kendrick Lamar did this with Kunta’s Groove Sessions, his 2015 tour to promote To Pimp a Butterfly. This was obviously not a throwback mixtape tour, but the strategy is similar. He picked 12 cities where he knew his fanbase was strongest and performed in ~3,000 capacity music halls. He offered several VIP extras, like $350 for a meet & greet and photo opportunity. (sidenote: I went to this concert in Oakland. Not for $350 though. Rent costs too much out here)
For most artists, the mixtape fans are likely older than the general fanbase. They might be more willing to drop good money on a unique experience.
Start planning ahead of time
The ideal roadmap is straightforward. First, identify the date for an upcoming anniversary of a popular mixtape. Then, start the process to clear the samples ahead of time. It took Wiz Khalifa over two years to clear Kush and OJ.
Next, do a social media blast to declare that the mixtape will soon be available on all streaming platforms. And lastly, announce a tour in select cities and select venues. Artists should let fans know that they will only hear songs from their favorite mixtapes and the back catalog.
Here are some upcoming 10-year anniversaries that should already be in the works:
- Nicki Minaj – Beam Me Up Scotty (April 18, 2019): A lot of Nicki fans long for the “old Nicki.” She could run through this mixtape and all her guest features leading up to her verse on Kanye West’s “Monster.” The “Chun-Li” rapper would have a much easier time selling out these concerts than her most recent tour.
- J. Cole – The Warm Up (June 15, 2019): It’s been four years since the last Dollar & A Dream tour. The 34-year-old rapper is an even bigger star today. It would be a great time to run it back. The Dreamville team has spoken about how exhausting those tours were to put on, but they probably have a few lessons learned. They could also wait until November 2020, the 10-year anniversary of Friday Night Lights.
- Lil’ Wayne – No Ceilings (October 31, 2019): This was the last great project from Weezy’s mixtape run. If the New Orleans rapper can also clear Da Drought 3, hip-hop might lose its mind. But hopefully Wayne doesn’t have to deal with you-know-who to make this happen.
Those are just a few prominent ones. There are many more artists with upcoming anniversaries who can execute a similar plan.
The driving force behind So Far Gone’s popularity is nostalgia. Music is a powerful vehicle to bring folks back to a moment in time. Drake’s OVO Sound team knows this. Most other artists do too, but some shy away from it.
There’s an aged perception that relying on the back catalog is a sign that an artist is past their prime. It’s the same stigma that was once applied to Las Vegas residencies. Jay Z alluded to this mentality in his song, “On to the Next One”:
“Hov on that new shit, niggas like how come?
Niggas want my old shit, buy my old album.”
There’s a tendency in hip-hop to avoid becoming like Billy Joel, who tours annually to perform songs from the 70s and 80s. But guess who makes bank, has loyal fans, and sells out Madison Square Garden like the 90s New York Knicks? Billy Joel.
Hip-hop fans want to reward artists to monetize their old mixtapes and back catalog. Fans will stream the music, attend concerts, and tell friends about it. Sample clearance will be an ongoing challenge. But if Kanye can clear a sample for Drake after all their recent drama, don’t rule anything out.
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Enjoyed this article? Why not check out The Business Behind The Beats: An Interview With Sample Clearance Expert Deborah Mannis-Gardner