memo 011: drop now or drop later?

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by Dan Runcie

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Hey! Hope you enjoyed your weekend. My wife and I left town for a couple of days to celebrate our third wedding anniversary. Came back just in time to see the Dodgers reach the World Series. Is LA about to have two pandemic championships? Can Clayton Kershaw finally get the job done?? We’ll find out soon.

This week’s memo covers the decisions artists face to drop music now or wait till the pandemic is over, TDE’s “weird” 2020, and the hip-hop legends giving us October surprises weeks before Election Day.

Drop an album during the pandemic

WATCH: You'll recognise these famous faces in The Weeknd's new music video | Channel

Travis Scott and The Weeknd (via YouTube)

Facing a dilemma. Many artists have albums that are finished. If they release them now, they can keep the momentum up. But they can’t make money from live performances. And by the time the artists can perform in a venue, fans might have moved on to newer music.

If the artists wait till the pandemic is over though, they risk missing the moment and will fight for attention with everyone else waiting for restrictions to be lifted.

Different perspectives. Two artists who have had strong 2020s have different approaches. Travis Scott is reluctant to drop until after the pandemic because he wants his album to “hit the streets.” But he’s still dropped loose singles and has done collabs with every corner of pop culture.

Meanwhile, The Weeknd successfully dropped After Hours at the height of shelter-in-place restrictions, and might have another album “ready to go” before the quarantine is over.

What’s the verdict? I could say “it depends” but that’s too easy. Let’s break it down. First, there’s no guarantee that an artist who’s hot now will be hot when the pandemic ends. Popularity changes quickly, even for the superstars. Gotta strike while the iron’s hot.

Second, hip-hop is the most-streamed genre of music. Despite the low payouts for a single stream, plenty of hip-hop artists make meaningful revenue from streaming. While other genres will wait until the pandemic is over, hip-hop artists can both plan for the post-pandemic world, and move on the current advantage they have.

Most artists stay hot for 3-4 years. It’s unfortunate for those whose peak lined up with the pandemic, but it is what it is. Even if an artist doesn’t want to drop the whole album now, they can drop loose singles or a mixtape in the meantime.

They can also save the club bangers for 2022 when the clubs and pool parties will be back in full effect. That said, “WAP” was still a huge hit without the clubs that it definitely would have run through.

Lesson: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.

TDE’s drama shouldn’t surprise us

TDE Rapper reason said what many have been thinking: it’s a weird time for TDE. But that shouldn’t surprise us.

The elevated perception. Let’s go to the NBA for a second. For years, the San Antonio Spurs were the definition of organization excellence. The Gregg Popovich era created a wholesome image that overpowered the weird shit that actually went down on that team.

Remember when Tony Parker had an alleged affair with one of his teammate’s wives? Remember when Kawhi Leonard and his uncle stopped trusting team’s doctors? If those things happened on the New York Knicks, First Take would STILL be talking about it today. But it was “The Spurs,” so they got a pass.

Well, that’s the position that Top Dawg Entertainment is in. Kendrick Lamar’s record label has been called the Golden State Warriors of music. Snoop Dogg said it’s a better version of Death Row Records. Those glowing accolades elevated the label to heights that few hip-hop record labels have ever reached, and most can’t sustain.

The last few months. Here’s a few public things that have happened recently at TDE:

  • SZA said that the situation at TDE is “hostile” and she’s done all she can do to drop her music. She later downplayed the incident by saying her and TDE president Punch “be disagreeing… he’s never steered me wrong.”
  • In May, Kendrick Lamar announced pgLang, which fueled recent rumors that Kendrick was leaving TDE. He jokingly responded to the rumors by making fun of Top Dawg’s head in a short video clip.
  • Reason, who signed to TDE in 2018, said right now he’s the glue that holds the label together, TDE is going through a “weird time,” certain situations were unavoidable, and there would be no new TDE music this year without him.

Drama happens everywhere. Sure, that’s a few more headlines than usual. But the reaction has more to do with fans’ perception than the reality. Hip-hop culture lionizes the labels we love and gets surprised when regular conflict happens.

All record labels go through it—whether it’s a legacy label that gets both love and hate like Atlantic Records, or a beloved label like TDEDreamville, or Quality Control Music. Conflict is inevitable. Fans should be less surprised when shit occasionally hits the fan. And like Kendrick said himself, “when shit hits the fan is you still a fan?

Just because the drama isn’t public doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And plus, 2020 has been a weird year! We shouldn’t be surprised.

Read Reason’s full interview on HipHopDX.

Get next week’s Trapital memo in your inbox. Read the memo that the execs read each week:

Hip-hop’s October surprises

Diddy announces Our Black Party, Ice Cube’s Contract With Black America influenced President Trump’s Platinum Plan, and Kanye West is still pushes for The White House.

This past week, Diddy, Ice Cube, and Kanye West have been criticized for their political statements within weeks of Election Day. Each public figure has taken a unique approach to fight for what they believe in, but the underlying intention is similar: they don’t want the Black vote to be taken for granted.

That same statement has been echoed by Charlamagne Tha God and other Black celebrities who feel that Black folks are too quick to align with Democrats before ensuring our priorities are met.

Free speech? The events of 2020, especially the George Floyd uprisings, have hit Black folks the most. The frustration with America’s two-party system is understandable since the Black Lives Matter movement has lived on regardless of who’s in power. Many Black celebrities want to use their platform and money for change.

But there’s also a ton of Black people who understand that their ideal policies may not ever align 100% with either Democratic or Republican candidates. They would rather vote for the candidate whose policies they align with on 70% of issues than the one they agree with 10% (or less).

That said, those outside the two-party system can still have influence. There are reasonable requests in both the Contract With Black America and Our Black Party. Many of those requests can be used to hold Cube and Diddy’s partners accountable in their various business ventures. There’s a number of ways to achieve progress.

Today is the last day to register online to vote in AL CA, MI, and PA. Register at vote.org.

Trapital Player of the Week: Pop Smoke’s team

The late rapper’s album Shoot For The Stars, Aim For the Moon has topped the charts again. He’s had some of the biggest songs of 2020. And it’s a shame he couldn’t live to see it through. It’s a bittersweet moment for Steven Victor and everyone else involved in his success.

For more on Pop Smoke, read this Variety interview with Steven Victor, Pop Smoke’s manager and longtime record label exec.


Coming soon from Trapital

  • I’ll send out the Apple Music essay later this week!
  • Webinar recording. Will be uploaded later this week. To watch and listen when it’s up, please subscribe to Trapital on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and YouTube.
Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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