If an Album Isn't Streaming Online, Does It Really Exist? A Theoretical Discussion

Illustration for article titled If an Album Isn't Streaming Online, Does It Really Exist? A Theoretical Discussion
Photo: Bryan R. Smith (Getty Images)

I did something recently that I haven’t done in probably 10 years—I made two compact disc (CD) purchases. That’s right, in the year of our lord 2020, I purchased Adriana Evans 1997 self-titled debut album and De La Soul’s Five-Mic classic, 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead. I spent $21 and $25, respectively, of my hard-earned money because neither of those albums is streaming on any platform.


In the case of De La Soul, that album (along with their classic debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, and post-De La Soul Is Dead albums, Buhloone Mindstate and Stakes Is High) isn’t streaming because of issues with the owner of the label the albums released under Tom Silverman of Tommy Boy Records. The two sides cannot come to terms on ownership rights and sample clearances (and thus, financial stakes), which basically means if you don’t own physical copies you ain’t listening to them and it’s a lot harder to find quality downloads of those albums than you might think on Beyonce’s Internet. As an aside, in 2014, De La Soul released their entire catalog online—for free— for a very limited time, probably out of frustration (and to somewhat stick it to Tommy Boy) and to address the very thing I’m talking about right now. I don’t know what is keeping Adriana Evans’ album (along with her next two) from streaming services, but I would guess it’s a similar label issue/financial split issue.

Both of the albums I purchased on CD—just to burn them to my computer so I could have access to them via my phone (or iCloud really)—are great. De La Soul’s album is critically acclaimed; one of the original batch of The Source’s Five Mic albums, back when that really, really mattered. Adriana Evans album has some pure bangers on, but I legit purchased that whole ass album for the song, “Hey Brother.” That song bayangs. It bayanged in 1997 and still goes in 2020.

But again, it’s not streaming. I can’t just share it with other people. De La Soul is one of the groups largely considered one of hip hop’s great groups and their most critically acclaimed art—in a world where streaming is all that matters, where Drake breaks records as a rule via streaming—isn’t available in the place that matters most. If your music isn’t available in the place where it matters most, does it exist?

In December 2019, Barry Hankerson—the record producer and manager who owned Blackground Records—teased that Aaliyah’s catalog, held hostage for over 18 years since her death, would soon be released to streaming services. Presumably, her records on Blackground (One In a Million and Aaliyah) along with a bevy of albums by the likes of Toni Braxton, Tank and others, would finally be available to stream. That never happened. Unless you own physical copies (or a quality download), One in A Million and all of its hits (“Four Page Letter,” “If Your Girl Only Knew,” etc) and the hits from Aaliyah (“More Than a Woman” “Rock the Boat,” etc.) are basically Black history.

As of this writing, none of those albums are available to stream. This is stupid.

Aaliyah, still a highly revered artist, is basically reduced to her 1994 R. Kelly-produced album Age Ain’t Nuthin’ But a Number, which is understandably dated AND yech. Young folks today have no idea how much of music can be traced back to Aaliyah’s One in A Million album. All most folks know about her now is that she is both dead and Drake has an interesting affinity for her, to include a tattoo of her somewhere in his ode to Zoom calls, collage-style back tattoo. Who knows how much money is being left on the table or how many folks who might love her work—because they love the Kehlanis and Jhene Aikos of the world—have no real idea who she was as an artist. Sure you can buy those albums in physical form, but then you also have to buy a CD player and what the fuck is that? I hear how often artists talk about how influential Brandy is, and I think that has merit; but if that’s the case, based on the sounds of these young artists, Aaliyah is also extremely influential. Think of fans that have no idea how good that One In A Million album is. All because her uncle—I didn’t mention that earlier; Barry Hankerson is her uncle—has mysteriously decided to withhold her music from streaming services.


For as long as I can remember, and true story, since I first heard it on a bus heading to Holiday Park in Hassloch, Germany, in 1991, I’ve loved De La Soul Is Dead, largely proclaiming it my favorite album, regardless of genre. If anybody asks me my favorite hip hop record, without fail that was my go-to. Until more recently when A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders slid into that top slot (they do change back and forth on occasion). Part of the reason for that change was that I listen to Midnight Marauders incessantly. When I can’t think of an album to play, it is usually my fall back. Even if I wanted to do that with De La Soul Is Dead, I couldn’t. I own a physical CD but it’s packed away in storage among boxes and boxes of CDs. Just to look for the CD, I’d have to unload my storage unit, and then go through each box of CDs I have—and I own thousands of CDs, so it’s many many boxes—just to find it. That wasn’t about to happen. I haven’t opened those boxes since 2010 when I moved into an apartment and felt like unpacking them was useless since I usually put music on my iPod.


I also couldn’t find a good copy online so basically the album faded into the background of my life. I’d still tell you it was my favorite but it was based purely on memory and reflex, meanwhile, Midnight Marauders was in constant rotation and burn and thus I could find new things about it or just share it with others when making my case for why it’s so good. It exists. It can exist to my nephew who I’m trying to introduce to 90s era hip-hop in a way that De La Soul’s first albums can’t. And all of their records are amazing, but they’re not...present in the convo. To me they exist in my mind; to my nieces and nephews the up-and-coming hip hop generation, they don’t at all. They’re basically Hector in the movie Coco, trying to get his photo on the ofrenda, afraid of being forgotten.

And that’s what I think is happening with a lot of albums and artists whose labels either refuse to stream or cannot come to terms with artists, etc. I remembered Adriana Evans’ song “Hey Brother” and wanted and was willing to pay money for a physical copy and then a CD burner. But that’s a lot.


Obviously, the music exists and if you are familiar and interested enough, you can go find physical copies. But streaming is so easy and convenient for so many of us nowadays. And it would be a shame for albums like Aaliyah’s or De La Soul’s to continue to move further and further from consciousness, especially since they’re already afterthoughts to the general public because of how old they are. But when you can’t share classics and re-introduce them to new audiences, similar to how sampling in hip hop has done for new audiences, those artists….slip. Those albums...slip. They’ll always be part of the culture, but do they impact the culture any longer? That’s the question. I hate that we’re even having these convos largely because there’s nothing anybody not directly involved can do.

But I’ll bet those artists want their art out there and they know the stakes are high, no pun intended. Ultimately, its history and Black history at that. History has a way of being rewritten and sometimes without its major participants. And however it’s happening, I’m afraid that’s what might happen to all of these artists.


Because real talk, I feel like the last person alive buying CDs so I can listen to my favorite albums.

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Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.



If there is a mechanism to listen to the music it exists.

Ex-record biz chick says you would be surprised at how many artists do not want their music to stream because they don’t like the format. The payment fees are inconsistent from service to service and there are issues with algorithms, metadata and pro rata making the accounting dubious. You are a 500K + Albums Act, your songs are streamed hundreds of millions of times annually, and you clear a 1MIL (to be divvied up with the label, songwriters, publishers, managers, lawyers, etc) you’re mad. Aaliyah’s family appear to be taking a conservative approach when it comes to licensing her music. De La’s issue is Tommy Boy wants to pay slave wages.

For other artists the lack of interaction between the listener and the song is the problem. Streaming presents songs interchangeably. Auditors don’t have to make a playlist or curate their collections they can click, press or instruct can an endless loop reducing music to elevator hits or white noise. Artists want to give music lovers an unique experience.

I have a record player and a CD player to keep me covered.