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"The mixtape has kind of replaced what I'd call artist development. Artists are developing themselves in front of an audience, instead of in a woodshed," says Slug. "It's good for the artist if they can use it to build their fan base... but if it doesn't reach that point some of these artists are going to go back and see how the mixtape ruined their careers."
This is where mixtapes are a double-edged sword: They make it easier to command attention, but harder to monetize it. This has only accentuated the underground/mainstream dichotomy versus albums.
"Rap is pop music now, and there's this sort of understanding with rappers nowadays that you rap on your mixtapes and sell records with your albums, like the Jay-Z line 'I shoulda gave it to the mixtape Weezy,'" says Astronautalis, paraphrasing "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)." "Lil Wayne doesn't do shit on his albums. His albums are pop for teenagers. It's on the mixtape that he crushes verses. A lot of the mixtapes they don't have choruses. It's just him doing crazy long verses over a beat."
"I don't mean to sound gender-biased but it's almost like albums are for girls and mixtapes are for guys," he continues. "Obviously that's a sweeping generalization, but there's something to be said that you make these hits with these choruses with whatever R&B sensation of the month, it plays in the club and girls dance to it. But it's rare that a mixtape track is getting played in the club. Those are the things you and your boys smoke hella blunts and cruise to."
Onward and Upward
Credibility's thin gruel to feed a family, but as more talented artists like Kendrick Lamar, Jay Electronica and Danny Brown emerge based only on their mixtapes, it's hard not to see the value, particularly at time when major labels are so risk-aversive. Obviously that's part of the mixtape's appeal – it's a natural proving ground.
As mixtapes have become a door to mainstream success, they've also pulled the music toward more club-friendly sounds. Whether this is responsible for Southern Rap's success or the vice-versa, it's a staple in bars and clubs, and much of the music on LiveMixTapes reflects this.
"Now you have the Caucasian Americans singing it at the top of their lungs and that's what fuels the industry. That's what fueled the industry when Eminem," says Pesh. "Everyone loves hip-hop. It's the new age rock. So in the '60s when everyone was jamming out to it, now they're jamming out to hip-hop music."
Astronautalis agrees. "All these old rap dudes are like rap music isn't what it used to be. In fact rap music is exactly what it used to be – it's party music. That's where rap music started. It's about style, it's about dancing and fun. Rap music is what it's always been, it's just that white people are into it now and my mom knows the term bling-bling."
Because LiveMixTapes developed out of the Ivans' and their compatriot's tastes, they actually have a brand of sorts. Indeed, Dan has been a fan of 2 Chainz since the days when he was known as Tity Boi. This has accentuated their hold on Southern markets like Atlanta, where they draw the highest traffic.
It's fortuitous because Southern rap is so hot, but they've been diversifying and building DJ contacts on the coasts and in the Midwest. While PA-based competitors like DatPiff may hold sway on the East Coast, they've still scored exclusive placements from New York artists like Joey Bada$$.
"It's happening, but it's a slow process," Pesh says. "We're not going to just put out a lot of West Coast artists to get more West Coast presence."
LMT isn't pinning their hopes on just dominating the mixtapes game. In December they premiered TrillHD, a video site which gets its title from Southern rap slang meaning "true and real." The concept is the same as LiveMixTapes: provide an outlet for artist videos, with the potential for more. "We're focusing on music because that's our in," he says. "But visually it could be anything, a documentary or an indie film."
They're also working on building traffic for their dance and electronic music site, clubmixtapes.com, working with artist such as Gladiator, Heroes and Villains and trap-step (trap rap & dubstep, naturally) trailblazers Watch the Duck. (It's probably not a bad idea to diversify into a genre with less illicit sampling.)
Indeed, one wonders if and when the RIAA will take its bite out of mixtapes. The music industry's never demonstrated much long-term vision. If so, you can bet that mixtapes will evolve again, though the idea will remain because it's fundamental. When you strip away the fashion and the critical plaudits, it's all about finding a way to reach people with your music without a label's support.
Mixtapes provide an avenue labels aren't always willing (or able) to provide. Like sampling, it's an adaptation, and at its base, a hustle.
"That's the beauty of rap culture," says Astronautalis. "It's all a hustle. It's all about rehashing, recycling, reinventing, taking what's old and making it cool again."