Chance the Rapper did the Recording Academy a huge solid this year. He made the sexagenarian organization that hosts the Grammy Awards appear eerily in-step with the times by opening up nominations to streaming-only albums. Although, a spokesperson from the organization clarifies, that's not exactly how it went down.
The 2017 Grammy Award nominations were announced in tandem with a categorical tweak that permitted streaming-only albums to be considered starting this year. Before, only traditionally released, physical albums were counted, said the spokesperson. And because the nominations and the rule-change announcements were made together, it appeared as though Chance the Rapper's streaming-only album, Coloring Book, was directly responsible for the shake-up.
Because if a single artist could appeal to an industry stalwart, Chance the Rapper would believably be the one to do it. Chancelor Bennett, the 23-year-old rapper, new father and proud Chicagoan is the most successful independent artist in popular music. Not only has he never been signed to a label, he balks at the very idea.
Chance calls his albums "mixtapes," which even President Obama agrees, sounds pejorative for what he does. In a GQ interview, Chance said that during one of his visits to the White House, the president took him aside and told him he ought to be selling his music for profit. But despite his intense, public adoration of Obama and the former first family, Chance is determined to keep his music free. And by "free," he means streaming-only.
This year, Chance is nominated for seven Grammy Awards. His competition in each category is wildly varied. For Best New Artist, he's up against unknowns like Maren Morris and Anderson Paak. While for Best Rap Album, he contends with behemoths like Drake and Kanye West, not to mention hip-hop veterans De La Soul.
The nominations reaffirmed Coloring Book's already-historic roll-out. Coloring Book became the first ever streaming-only album to enter the Billboard 200. Excluding it from the Grammy Awards based on a technicality would have made the Recording Academy look tone-deaf. But, more or less by, well, chance, it didn't come to that. The Recording Academy said the decision to open eligibility to streaming-only albums had been coming down the pike for at least four years prior.
"The sensitivity in the past was whether accepting streaming-only album submissions would compromise the whole process by inundating voters," said the Recording Academy spokesperson. "As it is, we vet about 23,000 submissions per year. Members were concerned that changing the rule would make it even harder for independent artists – like Chance – to stand out."
The Grammy nods also turned out to be unusually beneficial for the young rapper. Comparing the week before noms and the week after, Nielsen data show that Chance's entire catalog saw a significant bump in audio streams, up 13 percent, against Kelsea Ballerini (3.6 percent), the Chainsmokers (-0.8 percent), Maren Morris (5.1 percent) and Anderson Paak (10.1 percent). Apart from the Chainsmokers, Chance was already out-streaming the others by a cool 15-million-unit margin.
"Grammy nomination announcements don't usually have a big impact on an artist's streaming or sales numbers," Nielsen Entertainment executive David Bakula tells Rolling Stone. "After a big Grammy performance or a win you'll see a big uptick, but not before."
In the Best Rap Album category, where Chance's Coloring Book is the inarguable underdog, he also saw the second-biggest boost in streams, up seven percent and well above Kanye West's Life of Pablo (1.8 percent) Schoolboy Q's Blank Face LP (4.3 percent), DJ Khaled's Major Key (0.4 percent) and Drake's Views (5.3 percent). Coloring Book streams were only outpaced by De La Soul's And the Anonymous Nobody, which had a 17.9 percent increase. But that, Bakula surmises, is probably because a lot of their fans didn't know the album existed until the news.
"We're in a unique time because of how streaming is changing the way artists release albums and how it's changing the album as an art form," said Bakula. Looking beyond Chance the Rapper's streaming-only album, this year's Grammy litter was full of nontraditional albums (audiovisual ones by Beyoncé and Justin Bieber, for starters) and roll-out strategies (like Adele proving streaming is, in special cases, irrelevant).
For hip-hop, the impact of streaming music is pronounced because the largest share of streamers are hip-hop fans, according to Nielsen. The convenience and discoverability that users enjoy is now spilling over into the music. An album like Coloring Book seems like a turning point. Freed from the tyranny of the hit single, rappers can make big, uninhibited tapestries that mimics the beautiful and bizarre discovery rabbit holes streaming services provide.
"Streaming is putting life back in the music catalog," said Bakula.
Access to music catalogs was the original selling point of streaming services. Spotify, for instance, had early success appealing to torrent-happy music consumers living at the mercy of hard drive space.
"Classic rock is filled with catalog artists," says Bakula. "These are the bands that can pretty much release anything, good, bad, indifferent and the same people will buy it because it's just part of the 'catalog.' But hip-hop hasn't really had that yet."
According to Nielsen, sales of older R&B/hip-hop/rap albums are virtually nonexistent in comparison. "With streaming, it's completely different," Bakula says. "Hip-hop fans, who we know are already more likely to use streaming services, are now increasingly streaming older influences, discovering older artists, in a way that isn't happening in stores."
Coloring Book's success also shows why audience targeting has become something of a digital art. Like Beyoncé, Bieber, Adele, Drake and virtually any savvy artist, Chance got ahead by putting his music where his fans are, something that might not be as simple for country artists, for example, whose fans stream less, according to Nielsen.
And streaming, with its buffet-style setup, carves out a larger place for dynamic get more attention than albums that revolve around a few transient singles.
The person who figured this out first was, of course, Drake. At the end of 2016, Drake became the most-streamed artist with five billion audio streams in a single year, according to Nielsen. That's about four times more than Beyonce and about five times more than Adele. Drake's Views alone was streamed about two million more times than either Beyonce's Lemonade or Adele's 25. Because of audio streaming, Views was 2016's top-selling album – and Drake the top-selling artist – by a landslide.
Currently, Drake has five albums long-nestled in the Billboard 200, years after their respective release dates. That consistency is new for hip-hop and it's almost entirely driven by audio streaming, Bakula says. It also shows that in this unknown streaming world, albums that are more dynamic, slower-burning, nuanced, and frankly longer – are rewarded in repeat plays.
"Historically, the pop world operated with a 'what have you done for me lately?' attitude," says Bakula. "If you don't have a single, you're forgotten more quickly." But with streaming, that paradigm may be changing as listeners become more engaged in an artist's entire body of work. An independent artist like Chance can – and very likely will – feel free to work at his own idiosyncratic pace.
Regardless of whether Chance takes home any Grammys on Sunday night, Coloring Book represents a significant victory for a young artist skillfully navigating a rapidly changing pop world – leaving arbiters like the Recording Academy scrambling to catch up.