Chance the Rapper beats everybody at selling music without literally selling his music.
The Chicago hip-hop artist on Sunday night won three major Grammy awards, including best new artist and best rap album (beating out megastars Drake and Kanye West in the latter category). But if your instinct was to check out his "Coloring Book" on iTunes, you hit a dead end.
Chance the Rapper's Grammy wins weren't just his first -- they were the first for any streaming-only artist. It's the latest upshot of consumers shifting to streaming from the digital downloads typified by Apple's iTunes and CD sales before that. Streaming subscriptions are already the primary way recordings generate sales now. With his awards Sunday, Chance the Rapper underscored how big a streaming-only star can get.
Sunday's Grammys weren't the first time Chance broke ground for streaming. When he released "Coloring Book" on Apple Music in May, it became the first album to chart on the Billboard 200 solely from streams, debuting at No. 8.
And last month, market researcher Nielsen noted "Coloring Book" became the first album to surpass 500,000 sales -- what's commonly referred to as a record "going gold" -- through streaming alone. Nielsen counts 1,500 streams as equivalent to selling one album, so Chance essentially sold more records than anyone else who, technically, doesn't sell records.
Chance has Nielsen scratching its head about what to expect now that he's been elevated to Grammy-winning artist. Typically with big music awards, music marketers, labels, distribution companies and managers pull their hair out to make sure enough "stock" is available to meet sales demand from a "Grammy bump," according to Dave Bakula, a senior vice president of analytics at Nielsen Entertainment.
Sometimes the bump is more like a rocket launch. In 2012, Adele sold 730,000 units of her album "21" in the week after her Grammy wins that year.
"For Chance...that sales element isn't even part of the conversation," Bakula said.
Instead of recordings, Chance makes his money from touring and selling merchandise. "After I made my second mixtape and gave it away online, my plan was to sign with a label and figure out my music from there," he told Vanity Fair in a Q&A before the awards. "But after meeting with the three major labels, I realized my strength was being able to offer my best work to people without any limit on it."
Chance has been the most successful artist so far with this kind of streaming-age strategy. Instead of treating his music like the product for sale, he and other streaming-focused artists approach recordings more as a marketing tool to find and widen their audience. The more control he has over the music he releases, the better he's able to grow that fan base and capitalize on it directly.
Of course, for this strategy to work on a Chance-goes-to-the-Grammys scale, the artist must be crazy talented and willing to put in years of work leading up to accepting a gold statue.
"Chance the Rapper built his whole base off touring," Anthony Saleh, CEO of the artist-management firm Emagen Entertainment Group, said in October at the New Yorker Tech Fest. "It's crazy that everyone acts that he just popped up out of nowhere."
So not everyone who has rocked a karaoke bar one drunken Saturday night should quit their day job to start streaming on SoundCloud.
But in the case of Chance the Rapper, his popularity became hard to overlook. The Recording Academy, which presents the Grammy awards, had to tweak its own eligibility requirements for Chance and "Coloring Book" to be nominated.
Now that he's turned those nominations into wins, Chance the Rapper still has plenty of milestones to surpass. For one, no streaming-only record has ever gone platinum, streaming the equivalent of a million in sales. You can give "Coloring Book" spins on SoundCloud and Spotify, if you want to contribute to that goal.
It won't cost you a thing, and that's just how Chance wants it.
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