Schadenfreude is the cornerstone of social media. Long before Twitter sparked social justice movements and Instagram launched burgeoning hip-hop careers, we were all laughing at “fail videos” online. Watching our fellow human beings fall short of success at their grand attempts seems to be one of the few things we can all agree on in these contentious times.
DJ Khaled is learning this lesson right now. While social media has been a tremendous boon to his uber-positive, say-yes-to-seemingly-every-opportunity brand/persona, right now, he’s experiencing the dark side of too much exposure to the always-online masses. The social media mob can turn bloodthirsty given the right circumstances and his recent blowup over the Billboard chart placement of his album Father Of Asahd is pretty much steak tartare.
Page Six recently reported that DJ Khaled is planning a lawsuit against Billboard after his latest, star-studded album landed at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart, just behind Tyler The Creator’s Igor. Unfortunately, the report was taken by some as fact despite Page Six‘s tabloid nature. The timing of the report also coincided with the sudden viral resurgence of one Khaled’s recent Snapchat videos to form the picture of a bitter DJ Khaled spitefully lashing out against Igor‘s success at his expense.
The video finds him defending Father Of Asahd from “purists” who took issue with his use of an Outkast sample for the song “Just Us” with SZA, saying: “I make albums so people can play it. And you actually hear it… It’s playing everywhere; it’s called great music. It’s called albums that you actually hear the songs. Not no mysterious sh*t, and you never hear it.” When the video first appeared on Snapchat, it was pretty clearly a response to backpack rap fans who’ve long decried his music for relying on guest stars and radio appeal, rather than esoteric lyricism and dusty beats.
However, when the rant was reposted context-free to Twitter following the Billboard reveal, many decided that it was a shot at Tyler. Even Tyler himself fed the narrative, joking: “Who tf listens to tyler the creator?” and “His MSG show sold out but FR I never heard a Tyler song my life.” To all parties involved, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to crow about DJ Khaled breaking his motivational speaker kayfabe and revealing a secretly sour “true” personality who hated to lose to the competition.
Reading the actual report, though, it’s clear that Khaled’s beef is with Billboard, because he was apparently given inaccurate information regarding the publication’s counting practices. The New York Times followed up with the full story. As it turns out, DJ Khaled and Tyler had almost identical streaming numbers, so the No. 1 spot on that week’s chart came down to their actual sales — and whether or not Billboard chose to count their merchandise bundles in those sales.
While Igor was bundled with mostly clothing, Khaled’s bundle included energy drinks sold through e-commerce site Shop.com. Billboard disqualified Khaled’s units from those bundles — supposedly around 100,000 or so — because of Shop.com’s marketing, which encouraged members to buy the collection in bulk. Khaled’s management company, Roc Nation, criticized the decision, which amounts to basically a weekly judgment call on the part of Billboard. One week, bundles are okay, the next, they aren’t, and the decision of which bundles actually count is largely left open to debate. You’ll recall that Nicki Minaj had a similar complaint when she barely missed the No. 1 spot last year with the release of Queen after Travis Scott offered tickets to his Astroworld Festival in his album’s second week. Those sales helped him to edge out Nicki, leading to an epic — and viral — tirade from the Queen Barb from which her image has yet to recover.
Roc Nation CEO Desiree Perez told the Times:
“We dispute their decision on behalf of DJ Khaled and, frankly, every artist who is forced to navigate bundling an album download with an inexpensive item that still effectively represents their brand. It’s confusing and demeaning to the art. We’re obviously not fans of bundling, nor should anyone who cares about artists making music. But our hands are being forced by Billboard’s desperate, last-ditch effort to keep streaming from eliminating what’s left of music downloads.”
From that standpoint, DJ Khaled has a point. He seems like a pretty principled person and these decisions probably wouldn’t seem entirely forthright for someone who’s used to doing things his way. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d be pretty steamed too if I sold the same amount of product as a competitor, only to be told that my sales wouldn’t count toward a sales award because of how I’d sold them. If the customers still paid, the product still shipped, and I wasn’t told about whatever rulebook technicality in advance, it’d be worth a conversation.
It’s a conversation that Billboard has been having — and frankly, struggling with — since the advent of streaming. Now that more listeners are consuming music via services like Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, and Youtube, Billboard has had to revamp its counting formula while staving off the possibility that it will likely become obsolete as fanbases continue to splinter. Reaching No. 1 on the Billboard 200 is still an accomplishment, but artists can get just as much recognition and reach for their music by uploading a minute-long freestyle on Instagram. Billboard success doesn’t necessarily relate to financial success for musicians anymore — streaming and sales are only one part of an equation that now includes licensing, brand partnerships, touring, and direct fan engagement.
Artists who still care about Billboard charts, though, should be able to rely on a consistent formula. Billboard shouldn’t be able to arbitrarily disqualify a huge chunk of sales just because. On the other hand, with all the new tools available to artists, Khaled still can’t lay all the blame on Billboard. His strategy of holding back all his singles and releasing them all at once over the course of Father Of Asahd’s release weekend didn’t allow any of them to gain any proper momentum and forced them to compete with each other and Tyler’s Igor singles at the same time. His appearance on SNL was less exciting because no one actually knew the songs he performed, despite his squadron of high-profile guests.
If nothing else, Khaled’s plight highlights the ways in which all these new digital tools both help and hinder artists’ success — and have forced the industry to completely reconsider just what success actually looks like. While Khaled couldn’t possibly have known that the impassioned defense of his music’s artistic value would be recast as a bitter denunciation of Tyler’s album, those are the risks artists run with the use of social media. It’s a brave new world, and the rules are changing as quickly as they can be learned.