Bodak Yellow: The Moment Streaming and Social Overtook Radio in Music Discovery
Renowned for its natural diversity (at certain points of the year you can hike in the desert, ski and surf on the same day), there was one thing that unified the state of California on my recent visit last month. Bodak Yellow, a track by Instagram influencer turned hip-hop artist Cardi B, was ubiquitous across the west coast’s sepia-stained evening skyline, from rooftop clubs to open car windows on the endless freeway. By the time I left LAX, it was clear this was no regional craze; the song had quickly ascended to number one in the US, astonishingly the first time a solo female MC has achieved this feat since Lauryn Hill with Doo-Wop (That Thing) in 1998.
Bronx native Cardi B’s narrative reads as a modern American dream. Escaping an abusive relationship at the age of 19 via a stint as a stripper, she launched her rap career through a formidable social media following (now 10 million plus on Instagram) and appearing on the popular reality TV show Love and Hip-Hop. Such personal leverage over her audience allowed Cardi B to bypass the conventional path of hip-hop success. The route has typically required features on established artists’ records in order to generate buzz (think Snoop Dogg’s numerous features on Dr Dre’s The Chronic and more recently Nicki Minaj on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). This success-by-association technique is a common marketing tool in music, yet Cardi B’s achievement is not just another validation of the power of social media. Arguably, it represents something bigger, a break from one of the oldest institutions for building a fan base for new artists in the US: the radio industry.
Music in the US has historically been a radio centric market, with the lack of national radio play often cited as a reason why acts, who may enjoy success in coastal cities, never crack the critical middle required to truly achieve success in the world’s largest music market. Breaking the US historically has meant grinding away territory by territory until a critical mass was reached. However, in the UK, BBC radio’s national influence has meant an artist supported by the station’s A-list can garner a nationwide following quickly. With the popularity of playlists on streaming however, we are witnessing a changing of the guard and this has great implications for how artists are broken in the US. True, albums could often sell without the support of mainstream radio, yet singles success, even in the early digital era, remained at the mercy of radio programmers. The growing weekly consumption of a combination of streaming, social media and video content means artists in the US can now out manoeuvre this previous necessity to success.
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In a recent Billboard magazine piece profiling the song’s growing popularity, Spotify’s head of hip-hop programming, Tuma Basa, recounted how the song ended up on the streaming service’s influential Rap Caviar playlist, which at last count boasted around 7.6 million followers. Basa initially added the song to the Get Turnt playlist, which has more than three million followers, primarily because of the song's stylistic similarity to Kodak Black's No Flockin. Cardi admits to borrowing Kodak's flow for her track, as No Flockin had performed well on Get Turnt two years prior. After a month on Get Turnt, the song grew from 10,000 listens to 50,000 and to 149,000, Basa says. Once it landed on Rap Caviar, however, the streams began to shoot through the roof: 280,000 listens, then 380,000, then 500,000. Within a week, it climbed to north of 800,000 listens, eventually racking up 76 million global streams on Spotify to date.
Bodak Yellow is not the only song that demonstrates this new route to the upper echelons of the charts. Post Malone and 21 Savage’s latest release, Rockstar, broke Apple Music’s single week streaming records with 25 million streams and has already reached number two in the US, again receiving minimal initial play from mainstream radio. (It is also, the first song on Rap Caviar this week). The industry has clearly reached a tipping point if the top two songs in music’s largest market have landed there with minimal influence radio play. Whilst the medium continues to be hugely influential in other genres, that hip-hop artists are now beginning to have genuine chart hits outside of the traditional framework means we may look back on late 2017 as the moment streaming and social truly began to leave radio behind as the rulers in music discovery.