Over the past few years, the hip-hop listening event has transformed from an intimate way to share new music with eager listeners into the perfect opportunity to pummel corporate branding into the brains of free-riding party people. This was painfully apparent to me a couple of weeks ago at West Coast rapper YG’s _My Krazy Life _album event, held at the Converse Rubber Tracks studio in Williamsburg.Rubber Tracks is a free venue and recording studio built on the north side of Brooklyn. It’s Converse’s gift to Brooklyn’s starving creative class, in exchange for their cultural cache. The walls of the space are covered in “graffiti,” a faux police line-up backdrop (perfect for the internet thugs like myself), and dozens of red, white, and blue trainers arranged to resemble the American flag. Avión tequila also sponsored the event, serving up free drinks and subliminally implanting their name in the minds of attendees.
I was excited for YG’s listening party mostly because of his imminent rise out of the West Coast to what I’m sure will be nationwide fame. He’s mesmerizing the hip-hop fans right now with his songs about robbing houses that boast the addictive beats of DJ Mustard. But this event wasn’t about YG’s music. It was about bombarding the attendees with free goodies in the hope that they’d buy into the branding and spread the good word.
Of course, the listening party was hosted by none other than the self-proclaimed “GOAT of hip-hop journalism,” Elliott Wilson. I’ve worked alongside Elliott since 2011, at Respect magazine. Since then, I’ve watched him turn hip-hop “reporting” into an all out cash grab—just buy a ticket to one of his CRWN Conversations and watch him drink rosé and have unassuming small talk with the world’s most famous and press-averse rappers. In true form at the listening party, Elliott lobbed a few softball questions at YG. They landed right next to the perfectly positioned, glistening bottles of Avión tequila on stage.
As sad as the state of affairs was at the YG’s party, listening events weren’t always this way. The practice of holding listening sessions began as early as music criticism, before hip-hop blessed the aural landscape. At the start of the digital era, these events became essential as a way for journalists and critics to hear and review an album early without the risk of its leaking to the world. Music writers were invited to a label conference room during a specific time slot over the course of two days. They were served food and drinks and the label played the album front-to-back, twice. Then, in a moment of uncharacteristic vulnerability mixed with genuine curiosity, the artist would walk in, surprise everyone, and ask, “What did you think?”
If the artist wanted to offer a more genuine experience, he would hold the listening session in a recording studio. One of HOT 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg’s first listening events was for Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth, at the legendary EMT Studios back in the late 90s. He described it as being full of “nerdy” DJs who were just excited to see DJ Premiere in person. Back then, if the artist wanted a party to celebrate the album, that would be a second event. They separated church and state.
Today, the terms listening session, listening party, and listening event are used interchangeably. And because albums don’t make money anymore, listening events are being used as a way to cash in. “Major label’s are broke and operating off of long lines of credit,” said Richie Abbott, owner of Juggernaut Sounds, who previously ran urban publicity for Capitol Records and Warner Music Group. “The people responsible for getting the music heard need to get creative to make money to do these events. Brands still have money; labels don’t. It makes perfect sense for them to come together and cross-promote.” Labels can no longer spend money on listening events, so to offset the costs, the artist are selling themselves through brands and sponsorships.
For YG’s party, it turns out Avión and Young Jeezy, who signed YG to his CTE imprint, have a preexisting relationship. Jeezy once gave the brand a shout-out in a song, so the owner reached out and the two became fast friends. By extension, YG gets the “friends and family” hook-up, so all the liquor was provided free of cost out of mutual love and support.
That’s not always the case. Not being able to bank off record sales for cash flow, the artist will often make money from sponsors for listening events, according to Michelle McDevitt, industry veteran and cofounder of Audible Treats. A smaller-name brand matched with a big name talent means the artist will likely make money to support the name.
So revving up the hype machine for both the brands and the artists is much more important than wining and dinning music critics. To generate the relevant buzz, the guest list for modern listening events is almost strictly scenesters. “You would be amazed at how many listenings I don’t get invited to. I’m not even a priority, and I’m a DJ who plays records on the radio!” Peter Rosenberg said. “It’s the brand trying to talk through the people who are there, rather than about the album.” Those people are now bloggers with big Twitter followings, sponsors and their clients looking to smash free drinks, and radio-contest winners, just so the plebes think they still matter.
“Because record sales are so lacking and the internet is a gigantic beast, the listening session has become a giant advertisement,” Kathy Iandoli, music editor of HipHopDX (and, full disclosure, occasional VICE contributor) said. “It changed the function of the listening session. It should be renamed as hanging out with YG and maybe listening to his album.”
At his own party, YG only played about half the album and rapped over one song. Before they cut off the flow of free booze and kicked everyone out, YG screened his latest video for the “My Nigga” remix, featuring Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Meek Mill, and Rich Homie Quan. One minute and 20 seconds in, Jeezy makes a cameo with a giant gold chain. His necklace is just a blurry detail in the background, but the Avión tequila he’s holding is in focus, front and center.
_Follow Lauren Schwartzberg on Twitter. _