We were amazed a few years ago when the RIAA, with the help of law enforcement, started going after
DJs who made mixtapes
, even though those same mixtapes were considered a huge part of the promotional infrastructure of certain parts of the music world (mainly hip hop, but certainly elsewhere as well). Of course, after shutting down and arresting a bunch of mixtape DJs, a bunch of artists just started making and releasing their own damn mixtapes, and doing so for free online. And even though we still see some stories of the RIAA going after
"officially released" mixtapes, it seems that even the labels are starting to recognize that free mixtapes help promote artists
and aren't worth freaking out about:
"The game favors people that can produce quality music and then turn right around and produce more quality music-which is not a given," Atlantic Records VP of A&R Zvi Edelman says. His signee, Wiz Khalifa, leveraged free, original mixtapes like 2010's "Kush & OJ" and 2011's "Cabin Fever" into the building of a dedicated fan base that helped, along with an intensive touring strategy, make his Atlantic/Rostrum Records debut, "Rolling Papers," one of the few hip-hop debuts to sell more than 500,000 copies (it's now at 570,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan) in 2011.
A batch of newcomers -- such as J. Cole, Big Sean, Dom Kennedy, Mac Miller and Smoke DZA -- has adapted to the consumer demand for free, original rap music. The philosophy is often described this way: As a reward for artists remaining loyal to them (by giving away original music), fans return the favor by buying concert tickets, merchandise and "real" albums from record labels. The result is a give-and-take relationship that keeps rappers in control of their brand and marketing, and iTunes playlists full of free albums disguised as "mixtapes." The payoff is an active fan base, which labels and management hope stimulates retail purchases.
This might be about as close as you can come to big record labels officially admitting that free music actually has value that is monetized elsewhere. But, still, apparently, we need special new laws to shut down the very same marketing that they now want to use to build a stronger fan base.