How Young Thug Became The Prototype For The Streaming Era Star

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Just over a year ago, 300 Entertainment’s CEO Lyor Cohen gave the world a brief but fascinating glimpse into the world of artist development at the highest of levels when he was the subject of an episode of CNBC’s Follow The Leader. In one scene, the legendary music executive sat across a table from his most prized pupil and discussed strategy for his career and the direction he should be focused on next and the artist was blunt: “This year I want 10 No. 1 singles.”

Cohen was as polite as could be, first entertaining the exuberance, asking “Ten?” and getting a silent nod in response, then imparting the advice to Young Thug that’d he needed most at that very moment. “Listen to me carefully,” he pleaded with Thug. “You’ve got to make songs. I’m trying to be helpful. I know you can make songs. I know that. I want you to make more of them. You’re always making records and discarding them. I want you to go back and look at them and say ‘Could I make this song better?’

It was a tense exchange, much like the relationship between artist and label has been at times, and Cohen likened Thug’s randomly released, underdeveloped songs as “little orphans” that he leaves in the earth to fend for themselves. The meeting ended in hugs and smiles, and if you look at all of Thug’s output since then, he’s followed Lyor’s advice to a T.

So why, even with the advice of one of the most astute sages in music industry history, is Thug still not a superstar a year and a half later? Well, maybe he is.

As the industry transitions into the streaming era, the barometer for success has changed, and so too has the archetype of a superstar. Platinum is too rare to be a pillar of stardom as sales continue to dwindle, and streaming has become as prevalent as ever, even as labels and artists struggle to find ways to make that a lucrative revenue source. Artists tour seemingly non-stop, as that has become the surest way to make a buck, and labels continue licensing their material to turn profits on their end.

In this climate, Young Thug’s pure sales numbers have plateaued. His last three official releases, 2016’s Slime Season 3 and Jeffery and this year’s Beautiful Thugger Girls sold 38,000, 37,000 and 37,000 albums in their first week of availability, respectively. Those numbers indicate a strong, dedicated core fanbase, but little variance and more importantly no growth, but they don’t exactly tell the whole story.

The promtional cycle for each project was next to nothing. Between all three projects, Thug released exactly one video for a song from the album before the album. Instead he — and surely 300 — chose to release random tracks that had no connection to either album. He does very little media, instead — as revealed in that same meeting with Lyor — choosing to maintain secrecy and the mystique that surrounds him. His albums receive very little to no lead up, and therefore continue to mostly register with just his core fanbase.

But if you scan through 300’s actions and not their words — requests to speak to 300 for this piece went unanswered — it’s clear 300 just doesn’t value Thug’s albums as much as they do his development at the moment. None of his albums were given hard copy releases, instead relegated to strictly streaming services, online sales and for a few projects, special edition vinyl copies. Thug, still almost two months shy of his 26th birthday, is still developing and 300 is fine with sitting back and allowing him to do that on their dime, in their house and under their watchful eye.