On Valentine’s Day, 2006, a 19-year-old rapper known as Drake dropped his first mixtape. Titled Room for Improvement, it featured 22 tracks of bare-bones, radio-friendly rap. At the time, Room for Improvement made little impact, but songs like the sleepy basement recording "Come Winter" and self-referential spoken-word interludes like "Drake’s Voice Mail Box #1" hinted at the sonic evolution of Drake. Room for Improvement was released as a physical CD and was available to download for free on the popular mixtape hosting site DatPiff. In the following two years, Drake released two more mixtapes, Comeback Season and So Far Gone, the latter of which was available as a free download on Drake’s own website. It saw millions of downloads. Drake signed to Lil Wayne’s label Young Money. Drake became Drake.
The mixtape has always been what the artist needs it to be
On Sunday night, Drake premiered another mixtape, What a Time to Be Alive, (a collaboration with Atlanta’s foremost AutoTune trap savant Future), on Apple Music. It will be available exclusively on the streaming service and on iTunes for one week before migrating to other services. It’s been labeled a mixtape (mostly by media outlets) largely because it’s a one-off project that exists outside of the album cycle. But it’s missing one important signifier of a mixtape today: it’s not free. Hopeful listeners can pay $10 per month for an Apple Music subscription or $9.99 for an iTunes download. The idea of charging for a mixtape seems strange now, when in the past five years, artists like Wiz Khalifa, Big K.R.I.T., and even JoJo have offered up free music under the mixtape umbrella. But Drake and Future’s decision to sell this tape isn’t that unusual. The mixtape has always been what the artist needs it to be. What a Time to Be Alive was released on Epic and Cash Money, the latter of which is currently embroiled in a contract battle with Drake. If Drake, like Lil Wayne, signed a contract that legally required him to release a certain number of albums with Cash Money, WATTBA could be a strategic move: a way to release an album without giving it the implicit cultural gravity of an actual album.
The reason people will pay for this mixtape, and why rappers will continue to charge for mixtapes in the future, is two-fold. First, mixtapes have always reflected musical modes of consumption, and in 2015, the consumer listens to a mixtape the same way they listen to an album: as original, well-produced long-players that fans can either consume from beginning to end or cherrypick their favorites from. Second, by placing WATTBA behind a paywall, Drake and Future are mirroring streaming services, which are rapidly changing how people listen to music and responding to the way they already do. Drake and Future are betting on the eventuality that streaming services will render download sites irrelevant; Drake’s deal with Apple just makes it easier for him to choose which streaming service to side with.
Mixtapes emerged in the early 1970s to fill a gap conventional records could not: recreating the club experience outside the club. Funk and soul DJs like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and Kool Herc transferred their live sets to tape for fans to listen to whenever they wanted. And, like WATTBA, these tapes cost money. In an interview with MTV, Flash recalls charging as much as a dollar per minute, and some of his tapes were over an hour long. "The people that was buying my customized tapes were the scramblers, the dealers, people that had money," Flash said. "I was making a couple thousand dollars a month, easy, just doing this." The mixtape paradigm shifted again in the 1980s and '90s as hip-hop and R&B gained steam on the coasts. Rappers would freestyle over popular songs, or offer exclusive verses to DJs as a way to gain traction with new listeners.
But when mixtapes stopped being physical things, we stopped paying for them — as we did for most other recorded music. This was partly due to the emergence of DatPiff in 2005, and partly because the free mixtape had morphed from a club-to-street artifact into a useful promotional tactic. The first mixtape ever uploaded to DatPiff was Are You a Window Shopper?: G-Unit Radio 15. It was one of a 25-part mixtape series composed of outtakes and scrapped singles G-Unit seemingly didn’t know what to do with. Stylistically, it was a far cry from the bulk of major mixtapes today — rappers are more careful when curating mixtapes now. A mixtape used to be a B-side treasure trove for super fans, now it’s often an essential listen.
A mixtape used to be a B-side treasure trove for super fans, now it’s often an essential listen
In recent years, streaming services have chipped away at download numbers, and streaming is poised to surpass digital downloads as a top revenue source. The technological conversion is mostly unavoidable, and it’s having a tangible impact on mixtapes. Drake’s last mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, was also available only as an iTunes download. Young Thug’s recent Barter 6 mixtape is available as a free download, as an iTunes download, and on services like Google Play and Spotify. Los Angeles rapper Mykki Blanco released his 2014 mixtape Gay Dog Food for free on his website and Bandcamp; on iTunes it’s $9.99. Rising pop singer Raury released his Indigo Child mixtape for free and for $4.99 on iTunes. The free mixtape isn’t going anywhere yet — Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, and Juicy J have all released no-cost, original full-length mixtapes this year — but it is overlapping with the priced mixtape. If the free mixtape is eventually cannibalized by a for-profit one, it will be because the way we listen to music has shifted.
With WATTBA, Drake and Future have created a mixtape that tries to outpace the future of consumption, but that’s impossible. What would’ve been a free tape 10 years ago is now a $10 album. SoundCloud has ads, and Apple Music has no free tier. The mixtape of the future will be whatever is the logical extension of an Apple exclusive.