by Sandy Bonnington
It has been a busy and exciting couple of months for hip-hop lovers, with the Tidal-exclusive release of Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Drake’s Views for the Six—which is exclusive to Apple Music streaming and iTunes. Alongside these major releases, Chance the Rapper released his third free mixtape, Coloring Book, available to stream free from Apple Music. Having previously distributed his highly successful mixtape Acid Rap for free on Datpiff, the “authority” on free mixtapes, Chance has repeatedly claimed he will never make fans pay for his music. Subsequently, his loyal fanbase have continued to support and fund his career during his extensive touring, allowing him to have total creative control over his music and spend his time improving his local community in Chicago.
The issue of ‘free’ music has posed a problem for the music industry in the age of the internet with the emergence of online sharing websites, like Napster, and now the rising use of streaming-exclusive platforms, like Spotify and Tidal, which are further shaping the future of the music business. Recently, a petition asking the National Academy of Recording Artists and Sciences, who organise the Grammys, to allow musicians who provide free music to become eligible for nomination has ruffled feathers in the music industry. Currently, the rules state that artists only qualify if their music has been available for sale commercially in the United States during a given time frame. This excludes musicians such as Chance the Rapper and others who wish distribute their music for free as well as leaving those who use streaming-exclusive platforms in an ambiguous position in the eyes of the industry.
Chance has discussed his rationale behind avoiding record labels as he sees music as “a dead industry”, preferring to stay independent and true to his art despite the fact that his music remains unrecognised as “official releases”. As he states in his new album “I don’t make songs for free, I make ’em for freedom”. Let’s not forget that many successful hip-hop artists began their careers handing out free or very cheap mixtapes after shows and within the local community in order to build up a fanbase. This may well be the future of the music industry, particularly if major institutions like the Grammys begin to recognise free music as it would indicate a shift away from “commercial” success towards “artistic” achievement.
The distribution of free music reflects the influence that fans can have on artists and the wider music industry. Some musicians have taken this idea even further by using crowdfunding to fund their projects, like the famous example of Amanda Palmer, who raised over a million dollars to fund her passion projects. In Amanda’s infamous Ted Talk, she explains the “art of asking” which has helped her fuel both her lifestyle and music. While this is more direct than Chance’s approach, the underlying principle is similar as it allows new avenues and opportunities to be opened up for artists to take creative control over their work by providing free music in return for support from fans.
The idea that musicians and fans can collaborate and work together, unmediated by restrictive record labels, to produce an environment of mutual benefit and enjoyment is an interesting one which has already been supported through the success of Amanda Palmer’s campaign and Chance the Rapper’s music. Perhaps the notion of the ‘sharing economy’ can be applied here in order to understand this move from the ‘ownership’ to ‘access’ of music. This shifts the control from the record companies towards a more collaborative and peer-to-peer model in which musicians give their art away for free in exchange for reciprocal support including the promotion of their content and money. The ‘sharing economy’ or ‘collaborative consumption’ is currently on the rise with organisations and businesses across the world turning to this access-based model, with some like While there is relatively little anthropological research currently surrounding the ‘sharing economy’, there have been a number of key studies, like Botsman and Roger’s What’s Mine is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way we Live, which explores what collaborative consumption actually is. As studies are slowly beginning to emerge, many of these peer-to-peer organisations, businesses and services are going from strength to strength and diffusing further into the mainstream consciousness.
Artists who choose to provide their music for free are carving out a space within this competitive industry for themselves and future musicians to thrive independently with active help from their fanbases. As the music industry is forced to change and adapt to the current trends of online streaming and begins to recognise the “success” of free mixtapes, in the near future there may be many more artists who chose to share their music for free.
Sandy Bonnington is a student on the MA in the Social Anthropology of the Global Economy at the University of Sussex.