WHO BUYS HIP-HOP?
"Is this the new Z-Ro? Alright, score!"
I admit - I haven't had a chance to read Bakari Kitwana's new book yet, but I did talk with Joe Schloss about it and one of the chapters he found compelling was where Bakari disputes the oft-repeated "fact" that "70% of hip-hop consumers are white." From what I understand of Bakari's argument, he tries to track down the source of this truism and discovers, actually, no one is quite sure where it started from but once it did, it acquired a life of its own and has entered into the realm of "common sense" - unquestioned and unchallenged.
As it turns out, Bakari isn't the only person interested in this statistic. Back in May, the Wall St. Journal published a very similar article that examines the same issue except, in the case of author Carl Bialik, he discovers that going by what data-measuring services are out there (namely Mediamark Research Inc., and not SoundScan, who doesn't track racial information, despite assumptions otherwise), as it turns out, the percentage of rap buyers in 1996, 1999 and 2001 were indeed, white. However, Bialik goes on to say that when MRI changed their data collecting methods - asking people to self-identify by race instead of having the collectors make that determination (what do they use? A color wheel? Genealogy charts?), the number of white consumers actually slipped to 60%. (What I'd like to know is where did that other 10-15% go? To African Americans? Latinos and Asians? Other?) (BTW, there's some follow-up questions in a later Journal column that pertains to this one.)
If you stop and think about this, there are several implications and additional questions that get raised (and I, for one, would like to know what Bakari makes of the WSJ column since obviously, his chapter was written months, if not years, before).
For example, why does this matter? For a moment, let's go back to presuming the 70% stat was, in fact true. This could serve one of two purposes (at least):
1) It's "proof" that hip-hop has crossed over into the mainstream, though I hardly think we needed quantitative data to prove that point. However, they wa I've seen the statistic used is to help people argue that hip-hop is no longer "just a black thing" but has become part of the fabric of multicultural American life.
There's a certain naivete that comes with that conclusion unless people are willing to add: "hip-hop is popular but Black people still aren't." So much for the brave new multicultural world then. I just got off the phone with Jeff who also pointed out that a corollary to this would be that since white kids are the dominant consumer base, then record companies don't need to take Black community interests or desires into mind. Take this argument a little further and you arrive at:
2) It's "proof" that if hip-hop has gone to hell in a handbasket, it's not because the Black youth community has decided to embrace sex, drugs, violence and general nihilism, it's because that's what voyeuristic white kids want and since white kids are the main consumer demographic, record labels push their albums to fill that consumer desire.
While not a contradiction of Point 1, this argument has been used to explain why conscious rap is dead, dead, dead and why pimps, players and hustlers have become the new norm, and that, behind it all, it's white kids to blame. The unspoken corollary, as I just noted, is that more or less absolves the Black community from having to take responsibility for the content of "Black music" (whatever that term actually means these days).
Which Point you're more lenient towards probably also has to do with what you think of hip-hop right now. If you think rap music is still the greatest, coolest thing ever, then Point 1 only bolsters your case that hip-hop is en fuego and then some. On the other hand, if you think rap music has gone to doo doo, Point 2 is your back-up.
There's also a simpler Point 3 which could be made: hip-hop buying patterns are largely reflective of the American population at large, though as the Journal points out, if only 60% of rap consumers are white, then that's far under their actual population rate in the U.S. (which is 78%).
I'm putting out two questions for discussion.
A) How can one accurately determine this statistic anyways? Does MRI take into account records sold out the back of someone's trunks? This is where SoundScan, for example, is limited: it can only tracks sales through retail stores but doesn't take into account distribution methods that go outside of retail (and these are only getting bigger)? How do you model research like this?
B) Why does it matter? I think this is the question Bakari is getting at: why do we want/need to know what the demographic breakdown is of rap consumers? Is it to push across Points, 1, 2 or 3? Or for some other reason?
Already got a response via email from a grad student at Cal State L.A., pointing out that what's being ignored here too are int'l sales:
- "Pertaining to your last posting on the consumer demographics of rap purchases, there is also one very important area of purchasing power that always seems to be ignored: the global market. What is the actual impact of global sales among rap music? Which countries have had a strong foothold on this and what are the cultural impacts amongst the listener affecting their radio playlists?
We here in this country always seem to place our "voice" as the overbearing opinion maker (obviously our construction and overwhelming creation of the vocal element of Hiphop has a lot to do with it, but still....), but I tend to argue that sure, Hiphop is a multicultural fabric within our society now...but what about the world's impact and effect? I personally have traveled throughout Central America/Mexico and I could not believe the appetite the youth have had for rap music. For instance in Belize last September, I witnessed b-boys doing their thing amongst "G-unit" clones in literally the backcountry in the western mountain hills. I was floored. In my travels through Mexico, Hiphop is alive and well. Surprisingly, in Cuba, I couldn't believe the knowledge base of not only the youth, but 30-something people (my age group) who questioned and asked about this music's 80's heyday that I believe our youth here in America have neglected to hear and basically understand. Within the Multicultural Studies of Hiphop I believe we are bearly scratching the surface of ethnography on such issues because I truly believe the importance is beyond what is East/West Coast, but what is transgressing over seas in the culture beyond our borders."
And just add an additional layer here...as Mark points out in the comments to this post, the term "consumption" is ill-defined since "consumption" is typically thought of an actual cash-for-item exchange and doesn't include, for example, the ways in which certain albums get passed around via bootlegs, radio, parties, and these days, MP3s of course (though given the racial gap in technological access, one might argue that MP3 distribution would skew even more White but that's another issue).
However, this brings us back to the second question I left with: what does this all mean? What if you could measure the overall popularity of hip-hop - in any form, purchased or not - and that it showed that there were far more non-white listeners than previously presumed? Yet, if the cash register is still coming up "white consumer," is this where the most important act of "consumption" is taking place, as far as the music industry is concerned?
By the way - one also wonders how radio and video consumption factors in here and whether Clear Channel or MTV is able to gauge who their audience is, demographically speaking? I assume they have entire marketing depts devoted to this.