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Did the Web Help Kanye Outsell 50 Cent?

No one really believed that 50 Cent would stop recording if Kanye West outsold him, did they? Some wanted it to be true though, as was witnessed when this latest hip-hop rivalry played out heavily on blogs, as well as community and social networking sites.

“Goodbye, 50 Cent? I will buy as many Kanye albums as it takes.” So declared one group among hundreds on Facebook devoted to ensuring that Kanye West’s latest album, Graduation, outsold 50 Cent’s Curtis in its first week. And according to the sales figures for the albums, both released on September 11, they succeeded: Graduation sold 957,000 copies, 266,000 more than Curtis, which trailed with 691,000 copies.

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Hip-hop rivalries, or “beefs,” as they are more commonly known, have been equally lauded as inspirations for legendary tracks and decried as gimmicks to boost record sales. But 50 Cent’s statement that he would no longer release solo albums if Kanye West’s album outperformed his on the charts upped the ante. Hip-hop fans rooted for their favorite in hopes of seeing 50 Cent, born Curtis Jackson, either return to the mic or hang it up.

The media blitz sparked by 50 Cent’s threat to retire only illustrates the growing advantage that the Internet, once seen as a threat, now offers to the recording industry. “There’s been a change in the past couple of years. New media was the underdeveloped stepchild. Now it’s first on the marketing plan,” new media specialist Greg Trani, whose company The Room Service Group has worked with 50 Cent, rapper Ghostface Killah, and R&B artist T-Pain, says. “As opposed to the old media, where you pay to play, to get radio spins, the Internet’s larger, it casts a larger net, it has many more niches. A blogger doesn’t really care how much a song’s been on the radio.” As a result, artists like Kanye West, whose music is not necessarily single-driven, can vie on the charts more successfully with “old media giants” like 50 Cent, whose popularity stems largely from heavy radio rotation of party anthems like “In Da Club.”

On Facebook, users created more than 430 groups related to the Kanye-50 Cent “beef.” On September 17, the largest group, “!!Buy Kanye Wests [sic] Album so 50 CENT will stop rapping!!” had a membership of 7,701. The large majority of groups favored West over 50 Cent, demonstrating the power of West’s larger Internet fan base. John Bartleson, vice-president of digital media for Island Def Jam, who worked with West to promote his album, is well aware of such support. “You close your eyes and envision the typical rap fan, and then you see Kanye, and they don’t seem to match up. Who are the consumers? Where do they live? My answer is that they live on the Internet.”

Curtis was far from lacking online support, however. Facebook hosted at least 60 groups betting that 50 Cent’s album would outsell Graduation because, in the words of one online fan, “Everybody knows who 50 Cent is no matter if you love him or hate him.” And as Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur, co-founder and CEO of AllHipHop.com, the largest online hip-hop community, explains, “50’s fans are passionate. They’re like soldiers in his army.”

Ultimately, the rivalry between 50 Cent and Kanye West has benefited both artists, who are well on their way to platinum sales. “In the era of extreme marketplace clutter, it’s a smart strategy on both sides,” Jason King, CEO of Superlatude Music Group and assistant professor of recorded music at NYU, says of the rivalry. The high sales of both Graduation and Curtis mark the first time since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking album sales that two albums by different artists sold over 600,000 copies each in the same week.

Activity on the Web certainly reflects this mutual benefit. AllHipHop.com, for instance, saw only a slight increase in traffic but witnessed a spike in comments posted in its forums, largely about the two rappers. And both artists’ heavy presence on various blogs raised their spots on Billboard’s Buzz 100, a listing of the artists discussed online most in a given week: Kanye at #1 and 50 Cent at #22. For 50 Cent, this position represents a 12-place jump in online visibility from the previous week.

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The numbers show that although some members of online communities exhorted others not to buy either album, mutual fans saw an opportunity to support 50 and Kanye simultaneously. And as the 50-Kanye “beef” boosts album sales, Universal Music Group, the parent company of West’s Def Jam and 50 Cent’s Interscope, receives a double payout.

Even with the opportunities available through new media, there remains a line between clever and opportunistic marketing. “Music is so easy to experience online relative to other media,” says Bartleson. But, he adds, “The mistake that record labels make is to create the illusion that the artist is [personally] involved.” For Bartleson, the key is channeling Web consumers’ existing excitement for particular artists and releases in order to create an organic result.

In the case of Graduation, this approach has proven successful. West’s redesigned Website, UniverseCity — which actually looks like a futuristic city — offers alternate versions of videos for his top singles. One of his videos for “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” for instance, features comedian Zach Galifianakis and folk/post-punk artist Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy), illustrating West’s diverse influences and crossover appeal. Thanks to West’s online popularity, Graduation set a record for first-week digital sales, with Nielsen SoundScan reporting 133,000 downloads. These numbers likely result from Def Jam’s efforts through ad campaigns to direct the online buzz about the album toward iTunes, where West also generated record-breaking sales, according to Bartleson.

And just like in any other industry, the outcome of this marketing drive will influence future products to come. The ability of Kanye’s “thinking man’s” rap to go head-to-head with a club favorite like 50 Cent may usher in a new musical trend. “I think Kanye will influence younger people to take chances in their music. He’s talking about different things,” says Trani. In fact, given the polarity of the two rappers involved, its impact may be even greater. “It’s an election, not unlike John Kerry, George Bush, Al Gore,” says Creekmur. “This could very well sway hip-hop in another direction.”

Of course, whatever new direction hip-hop takes, it won’t include 50 Cent’s retirement. After early sales indicated Graduation would outsell Curtis, 50 Cent promised to release his future albums head-to-head with those of Kanye West’s fellow rappers at Def Jam. The “Kanye Vs. 50” sales battle proves that the hip-hop “beef,” gone digital, is not only here to stay — it’s a winning marketing strategy.

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