MP3s are bubbling thanks to the influx of streaming and the fact that a whole generation of classic hip-hop songs and mixtapes are not available on streaming services.
Last year, vinyl sales surpassed CD sales for the first time since the ‘80s. Americans spent well over $200 million on vinyl, a much-needed boost — however short term it might be — to physical music sales. But even as vinyl breaks out of the nostalgia tag to become a viable revenue stream, the question remains — what is the next collectible music artifact that will engage fans and potentially present opportunities for new revenue streams?
MP3s, an all but forgotten relic of the days of Limewire and the hip-hop blog era, are bubbling back up to the surface thanks to the influx of streaming and the fact that a whole generation of classic songs and mixtapes are not available on streaming services, due to sampling and licensing issues. This climate has created an underground group of MP3 collectors who have held on to some of the past era’s most treasured audio.
The “blog era”
In hip-hop, the mp3 era is closely tied to hip-hop’s “blog era.” This was a time in the late 2000s and early 2010s when music blogs dominated. During this era, record labels were in a tug-of-war love/hate relationship with the likes of game-changing blogs like 2DopeBoyz, NahRight, TheSmokingSection, and countless others (including Okayplayer).
“We were one of the first to debut a snippet of Lil’ Wayne’s “Lollipop,” Ty “John Gotty” King, founder of The defunct Smoking Section, said. “We also partnered up with artists and released their music like Freddie Gibbs. We had relationships with artists and access to the material.”
During this era, artists — and sometimes the labels themselves — would frequently leak music, including “loosies,” (one-off tracks that may or not have ended up on official releases). On the other end, labels would be fighting these same outlets with takedown notices for certain songs they didn’t want to be made available for download. It was a confusing but exciting time when hour to hour and day by day music fans were on a proverbial treasure hunt for the next pot of hip-hop gold.
“There’s a lot of stuff I have sitting on hard drives that didn’t release,” King said.
The era also birthed some of the biggest names in music today. Artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Drake gained their footing in a time when established artists like Kanye West would routinely release multiple versions of the same song. “I probably have eight to 10 versions of [“All of the Lights”] on my hard drive somewhere.” Navjosh Singh, founder and editor of HipHop-N-More.com, said. “Some with Rihanna, some without Rihanna. Some with a Drake verse, some with an alternate Drake verse. The early version was called “Ghetto University.”
In Kendrick Lamar’s case, the multi-platinum, Pulitzer Prize-winning artist lays claim to what may be one of the most notable single tracks of the blog era “Cartoons & Cereal.” When it comes to the greatest tracks, that’s the one,” states Michael Apple, music fan and MP3 collector from Holland, Michigan. And while “Cartoons & Cereal” is still readily available on YouTube and for download on some file-sharing sites, it’s absent from streaming services due to sample clearance issues. (“That’s just one of those records. That’s one of those b-sides that’s going to be around and ain’t really attached to nothing,” Punch told Complex in 2012.)
For its part, songs like this represent a wealth of music that has either become scarce or wholly lost as streaming services grew, old ZShare and Sharebee links broke, and downloading music from file-sharing services and blogs became as irrelevant as the CD. Unless someone was an avid downloader during this era, compiling a heavyweight external drive by scouring blogs daily or downloading music from Limewire, rarities from this era are relegated to YouTube (where your favorite song might be at the mercy of a multi-billion dollar tech company).
“Instead of storing vinyl in a crate, I view my 1TB hard drive as the crate that stores my MP3s,”David Singh, avid MP3 collector and Senior Writer for Canada’s Sportsnet, said. “If I lost my 1TB hard drive, I don’t know what I’d do. I make jokes all the time with people that I want to be buried with it. So much of this music isn’t available on streaming and I’m always going back and listening to it off the hard drive if something pops into my head.”
There is another home for much of this lost blog era music, and that is DatPiff. The mixtape website, founded in 2005, hosted some of the most prominent rap mixtape releases of all-time, including Lil’ Wayne’s No Ceilings series, of which the latest installment hit the site on November 27 last year. (A water-downed version of No Ceilings is available on DSPs.)
“People were surprised Wayne went to Datpiff with his latest one,” Khris “Khal” Davenport, Deputy Editor of Pop Culture at Complex, said. “But imagine trying to clear 20 some odd tracks where 18 of them are someone else’s instrumental?”
Such is the problem for the music industry when it comes to MP3s. Based on a top 10,000 Alexa website ranking in the US for DatPiff, there is a hunger by music fans to stream classic mixtape material and lost one-off singles. A site like DatPiff provides some of the most acclaimed rap music of the last decade, including classic tapes like Rick Ross’s Rich Forever and Rich Gang’s Tha Tour, Pt. 1, but the need for a separate app to listen to this material is cumbersome, and DatPiff’s recommendation engine pales in comparison to that of core streaming services.
For artists, the mp3 and blog era represents a time of freedom, creativity, and experimentation that, while still exists in the streaming era, is more restricted due to more stringent sample clearances.
Given the freewheeling nature of eras gone by, many artists don’t even have masters of their material from the blog era in their possession. Such is what appears to have happened with Jay Electronica’s Act II. The album, originally announced in 2007, appeared out of nowhere last year following several leaks from the project over the years. The bones of the project were uploaded to streaming service Tidal; however, it was quickly removed due to Electronica wanting to release the official version of the album with unreleased Kanye West verses.
“If you saw how Act II came out, the exact file that came out as the leak was the file that was uploaded to Tidal,” Navjosh Singh said. “You can assume that Jay Electronica or his team did not have the original files. They took that leak and uploaded it. No new mix or anything.”
And then there are the artists who are a time capsule of the blog era who never truly transitioned to streaming. There are a number of these artists who released exciting material that all but faded to obscurity. Names like The Cool Kids, Charles Hamilton, Mickey Factz, and Asher Roth, while having music on your Spotify and Apple Music accounts, are more accurately engrained in the era of MP3s and loosies. In the case of The Cool Kids, once darlings of hip-hop’s blog era, they would release classic mixtapes like Gone Fishing and influence a generation of rap artists’ use of social media as a means to engage with fans.
“I think some artists when their music finally came to streaming services it was a little past their time to get their flowers, like the Cool Kids,” Apple said. “They were like one of the first artists where I felt like I was on to something different and genuinely cool.”
A chance for the music business to make amends
As seen with the way the music business has used social media during the pandemic, the industry is always seeking new ways to generate revenue, including how to leverage back catalog and make the music (and streams come to life again). We have seen TikTok become a significant driver of generating interest for older material, such as the wonder that was Doggface’s Fleetwood Mac “Dreams” video. And much like TikTok, the treasure trove of MP3 era material that is either hard to find or resides only on collector hard drives is an opportunity for the industry.
“It’s a digital commodity,” Singh said. “I have hard drives on hard drives of downloaded music from the Limewire days.”
But there are significant hurdles that exist for the music industry to be able to mine unreleased or lost music from hip-hop’s mp3 era and bring it to streaming services.
“Let’s be honest: a lot of the blog-era music is pretty poorly mixed/mastered and the audio is only in MP3 format with no high-quality master recordings to re-release and promote,” Jefferson said. “I don’t know who would want to go through all legal hoops for sub-standard audio.”
It’s hard to fathom that MP3s, a discarded relic of music’s early digital days and a faded memory of hip-hop’s blog era, are on the cusp of becoming one of music’s hottest collectibles. And while the music industry may think the freewheeling era of MP3s and the blog era is gone and the product of music is back in their control, they couldn’t be more wrong.
“I think the excitement still exists,” Gotty said. “With guys like Isaiah Rashad, he’ll play a song on his IG live and there will be an Isaiah fan account on Twitter who will grab the clip and host it. It doesn’t necessarily make blogs but fans are enjoying it.”
Other than appeasing music fans, there is also a historical context to getting much of this lost material back on streaming services so that a fan of the artist, or a brand new listener, can better trace the trajectory of a particular artist’s career.
“You can retrace the steps and see why someone like Freddie Gibbs is nominated for a Grammy and why so many people are riding hard for him,” Gotty said. “It’s because they had the Midwest Gangster mixtape or The [Labels] Trying to Kill Me mixtape.
There is obvious complexity with mining for songs and mixtapes, many of which have uncleared samples and less than sub-par audio quality. But beyond just the monetary possibilities that exist, MP3s and the burgeoning collector base behind them is an opportunity for the music business to make amends on an era that they fought rather than embraced.
Banner graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Adam Aziz is a music consultant and writer living in Toronto, Canada. He has worked with the likes of Dave Chappelle, T.I., Xzibit, to name a few, and has written for ESPN, Complex, VIBE, and others. Connect with him on Twitter @brokencool