NBA YoungBoy and the Invisible Stars of the Music Industry

Only two artists have released No. 1 albums in each of the past three years. The first is Taylor Swift, who has as many Album of the Year Grammys as any soloist in history. (His peers in this category are Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon.) The other is a twenty-two-year-old performer who goes by NBA YoungBoy. (The “NBA” stands for “Never Broke Again.”) His hit records include “AI Youngboy 2,” “Top,” and “Truly, Kentrell.” But, despite his success, shared with one of the most recognized pop artists of all time, YoungBoy remains largely unknown.

YoungBoy is a follower of Baton Rouge hip-hop stars like Boosie Badazz and the late Lil Phat, and his sound doesn’t deviate dramatically from the rap music of the day. His music is snare-adjacent, bounce-heavy and self-tuned, and his nasal voice escalates into a growl. With his professed fervor for retaliation, YoungBoy has earned a reputation as a determined aggressor, but his more confrontational songs are dulled by a soft side. He also has a seemingly inexhaustible work ethic – he’s released nineteen full-length solo projects in just under seven years. Since 2017, he has earned four platinum albums and mixtapes certified by the Recording Industry Association of America, as well as nine platinum singles, six of which have gone multiplatinum. By most numerical standards, YoungBoy is among the most successful artists working today. Why doesn’t he want it?

YoungBoy is one of the most extreme cases of a recently developing phenomenon: invisible musical stardom. It’s easier than ever to be hit by all the standard industry performance metrics and go unnoticed by the general public – to have a huge audience that barely fits into the larger culture ecosystem. pop. This event is, above all, the byproduct of a streaming infrastructure that uses a per-song listening model to approximate record sales – a system that allows artists to bypass the old rack, even if they risk anonymity. But it also illustrates a gap between what is promoted and what is popular.

The music industry has always had its unlikely cult favorites, but it’s only in the age of streaming that an artist can enjoy pop star-like success and have little or no cultural footprint. beyond the community that connects. YoungBoy who are considered more fashionable: critical favorites such as Vince Staples, Freddie Gibbs and Phoebe Bridgers, or off-center pop stars like Lana Del Rey.) At least part of this is due to the intangibility of streaming. When the industry relied on physical sales, an artist big enough to ship a million CDs to stores was guaranteed a natural level of ubiquity, and a whole marketing apparatus existed to make those artists and their projects visible. Although we can imagine CDs stacked high, the collected streams look a bit like matrix code.

In 2014, as physical album sales fell below streaming for the first time, the Billboard 200 created a new formula for measuring music consumption. The metrics, which have been updated over time, attempt to estimate numerical units as album sales: equivalent album titles (TEA), for example, counts ten downloads of songs from the same album as a single album sale, whereas streaming equivalent albums (WED) counts 1,250 premium streams, or 3,750 free streams, of the same album as a single album sale. In 2019, video streams were added in the equation. The tracking of physical sales has not changed, but nowadays these sales only represent ten percent of all music revenue.

For a little while, it seemed like music streaming could democratize the listening experience and become a direct pipeline to the mainstream for stars and unlikely artists in overseas markets. As streaming increased, so did the metric position of black music: nearly a third of all audio streams in 2020, for example, were hip-hop and R.&B. (And nearly thirty-four percent of video streams were from the same genres.) K-pop groups such as BTS and BLACKPINK have benefited from streaming the platforms’ playlist framework, and music-sharing site SoundCloud has given bedroom artists such as Billie Eilish and Post Malone a megaphone to reach national audiences overnight. But there remains a colossal gap between megastars and DIY music makers. Data collected in 2020 revealed that 90% of streams go to the top 1% of artists. Artists like YoungBoy find themselves somewhere in the middle: they’ve carved out a slice of the streaming pie, but that hasn’t resulted in discernible cultural saturation.

In 2020, YoungBoy made almost as much as Taylor Swift in streaming revenue, according to Billboard. (The difference is that streaming revenue accounted for nearly all of his income for the year, and less than half of his.) Similarly, Florida blues rapper Rod Wave, whose last two albums debuted in the No. 1 and No. 2 on the chart, made its big buzz in 2020 without selling a single physical album, thanks to video streams (which accounted for twenty percent of its streaming plays). In a year with limited touring, YoungBoy and Rod Wave made gains as some of music’s top earners. Their success is largely due to one of the least recognized platforms in the industry: YouTube.

Although Spotify remains the dominant music platform in terms of subscriber numbers, YouTube has a much larger reach and, in September 2021, YouTube Music, the company’s only music streaming service, will exceeded fifty million subscribers, up twenty million from the previous year. (This marked a significant gain over rivals like Apple Music and Amazon Music, which have more than seventy-eight and sixty-eight million subscribers, respectively, according to recent estimates. However, Spotify is still far ahead, with one hundred and seventy-two million paid subscribers.) YouTube, which has lenient upload limits and allows musicians to earn revenue from video and audio streams, has become something of a haven for niche artists with d huge dedicated fanbases, especially rappers and Latin music artists in genres such as reggaetón. Late rappers like Juice WRLD and Young Dolph, beleaguered provocateurs like Kevin Gates and Kodak Black, and regional phenoms like Lil Durk and Moneybagg Yo headline YouTube Music and its charts, mixed with superstars such as Ed Sheeran and the Weeknd.

YoungBoy, who has dominated YouTube’s music space for the past few years, is the kind of artist the algorithm loves – consistent and prolific, generating a stream for endless playlists. It appears regularly at the top of the platform “Top Artists” awards, which lists views of official music videos, live performances, remixes, user-created videos, album songs, and collaborations. Most of YoungBoy’s own videos are low budget; many feature the artist alone, rapping directly into the camera. One of YoungBoy’s video directors, LOUIEKNOWS, said the rapper has no exit strategy other than to simply produce content, like any other vlogger or YouTube influencer does.

There’s also an unsavory side to the rapper’s stardom. YoungBoy has a lengthy rap slate, which includes an aggravated assault with a gun in 2017 and an attack on his girlfriend that was filmed in 2018. He was in jail when his 2021 album, ” Sincerely, Kentrell,” dethroned Drake from the Billboard 200. But none of that stopped the rapper from reaching his listeners. An obvious by-product of direct-to-consumer streaming, especially on platforms such as YouTube and SoundCloud, is that artists can circumvent controversy and cultural gatekeepers that may attempt to drive them out of the public sphere. YouTube, in particular, has several attributes that make it attractive to controversial cult favorites like YoungBoy: a low barrier to entry, a built-in social mechanism, and a community feature that promotes content directly to fans. YoungBoy then provides a blueprint for other backlash-prone artists: Skip the traditional device altogether and upload directly to your fans.

The fans, in turn, gained their own notoriety. In keeping with the rapper’s reputation, YoungBoy followers have become known for being defensive and territorial. That their favorite artist is so underrated is part of the appeal: they wear their displeasure like a badge of honor. Memes portray these fans as belligerent, bringing unnecessary hostility to everyday tasks – they are aggressive not only in their fandom but in everything they do. An April 2020 Twitter exchange sums up the dynamic perfectly. A user reposted a video mocking the passion of YoungBoy fans, suggesting that they run, eat and park their cars with wanton antagonism. Another replied: “Who the hell is young boy.”