Opinion – On Hip Hop’s Growing Popularity Over Rock Music

Last month, the Nielsen company’s music division released their mid-year report for 2017, showing the various developments and ups & downs of the industry from a commercial perspective for the first half of 2017. If you pay a good amount of attention to the music world, then many of the highlights and stats on display will probably not be all that surprising, but there are quite a few interesting things of note here. Before we begin, I want to outline some basic terminology so we’re all on the same page, because this piece will get dense, and it will involve… MATH! In addition, the Nielsen report is available to download from their site, so if you’re curious about the full scope of the information for the past half of the year, I recommend giving it a read yourself by clicking right here.

So first, a vocabulary lesson:

  • TEA: “Track Equivalent album” – A measure of how many digital purchases of a track equals an album sold. 10 Sales = 1 Album unit.
  • SEA: “Stream Equivalent Album” – How many streams equate to an album sale. 1,500 Streams = 1 Album unit.
  • SES: “Streaming Equivalent Song” – How many streams of a single song equal a song sale. 150 Streams = 1 song unit.

With that out of the way, there was one set of stats in particular that caught everyone’s attention a couple of weeks after the report came out. For the first time since Nielsen starting tracking music sales, the combined efforts of the hip hop and R&B genres have now overtaken rock music as the most commercially popular style of music. When total album sales, TEA, and SEA are taken into account, hip hop/R&B make up 25.1% (a quarter of the market) while rock is 2nd place at 23%. What’s even more interesting is the specifics of how this came to be. When factoring in only proper album sales, rock music is still overwhelmingly at the top, with 40.1% vs. hip hop/R&B’s 17%. Looking at it further, physical album sales see rock music at 42.7% vs. hip hop’s 15.6%. However, when looking at the streaming side of things, hip hop gains some pretty big leverage over rock:

  • Total on-demand streams: hip hop at 29.1% and rock at 16%
  • Audio streams: 30.3% vs. 18.1%
  • Video streams: 26.9% vs. 12.2%

Streaming clearly plays a big role in hip hop’s dominance of the market, especially considering how audio streaming as a whole is up 62.4% from this time last year. You can see some of this play out when looking at the rest of the document and seeing what albums and songs were the biggest of the year so far. When accounting for total album sales (including TEA and SEA), 6 of the 10 biggest albums of the year have been hip hop or R&B. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN is the #1 album of the year with 1,772,000 total album units, and the rest of the chart includes Drake’s More Life (the most streamed release of the year at over 1.85 billion streams total), Migos’ Culture, The Weeknd’s Starboy, Future’s self titled release, and even Post Malone’s Stoney rounding it out. DAMN additionally places at #2 for total proper album sales right underneath Ed Sheeran’s Divide.

A closer look at the streaming charts bears out the pattern of hip-hop’s dominance. For the various on-demand streaming charts, this same chunk of songs keep showing up: Migos’ “Bad and Boujee”, Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble”, Kyle’s “iSpy”, Future’s “Mask Off”, Lil Uzi Vert’s “Xo Tour Llif3”, and Post Malone’s “Congratulations.” Those first two songs were particularly huge streaming hits, to the point of both hitting #1 on the Hot 100 charts this year, and while Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” is still the big pop success story of the year so far, “Humble” ranks 2nd for audio streams (345,980,000, ~8.2 million short of Sheeran), and “Bad and Boujee” is the 2nd most video-streamed single, falling only 978,000 plays short of Sheeran.

Now that was a lot of numbers to take in, and I’m sorry for all the math and stuff, but I promise this is going somewhere comprehensible. There are quite a few interesting conclusions that can be drawn from here about how we interact with music, how hip hop has come to dominate the industry, and where exactly things could go from here.

Streaming Is King

As previously mentioned, the streaming side of the industry is where we see hip hop absolutely dominate things, and this was clearly a long time in the making since the late 2000s, primarily thanks to outlets like Soundcloud, Spotify, and YouTube, the three biggest music streaming outlets out there. While it’s become a cliché to describe Soundcloud as a place flooded with amateur rappers peddling mixtapes looking to make it big, there is some legitimacy to that as the site’s model/interface is very naturally conducive to how hip hop music has been recorded and distributed since the early days of the genre, and the industry has taken notice, especially considering how it’s possible to have a case like Desiigner, who had only released 2 other songs on his profile before hitting it big with “Panda”.

Spotify has an absolutely massive user base, with 140 million users total and around 60 million paid users, and it’s an important part of the current landscape, especially considering how streaming as helped the big labels (Sony Music, Warner Music, and Universal Music) experience some pretty big financial growth. For any artist looking to get ahead in the industry, taking advantage of the modern streaming landscape is vital, and we can see the benefits of this model with Drake’s More Life. As previously mentioned, More Life is the most streamed release of the year so far, and a big chunk of that has to do with its promotion and marketing, primarily as a “playlist project” instead of a proper mixtape or album. While I’m not particularly fond of Drake’s music as a whole, I can’t deny the cleverness of this business move, showing that Drake (and his managers/PR people) are really in-tune with how people listen to music nowadays. And speaking of how we interact with music…

Hip Hop Virality

Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat” is still, to this day, remembered as one of the cringiest pop-rap hits of its decade, but it was also one of the most important songs of the decade because of what it symbolized and foreshadowed. When we remember the song, we mainly remember it as a relic of the internet’s Myspace era and the early days of Youtube, with everyone filming themselves doing the dance and spreading it around further and further. Cut to 8-10 years later and… things haven’t changed that much. Thanks to the advent of not just YouTube’s massive growth since then, but the rise of other social media sites like Twitter and even Vine, there have been more than a handful of hip-hop songs that gained popularity off the backs of memetic trends, to the point of legitimate chart success. Just to name a few examples:

  • T-Wayne’s “Nasty Freestyle” became a big hit thanks to soundtracking a Vine trend, peaking at #9 on the Hot 100.
  • Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” was a #1 hit last year, mainly owing to the spread of the popular “Mannequin Challenge” on Twitter, YouTube, and more.
  • Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” mainly spread around and topped the charts due to the spread of “Rain drop, drop top” as a twitter meme.
  • “JuJu On That Beat” by Two Guys Whose Names You’ll Never Remember peaked at #5 on the Hot 100, and this mid-year report even says it’s the 9th most streamed video this year so far at nearly 197 million views across all video platforms.

Viral video success is key to a lot of rap music charting nowadays, as one could even argue Lil Uzi Vert’s “Xo Tour Llif3” is mainly big because of the viral appeal of its bizarre-yet-minimal music video. It’s also interesting to note how virally-driven chart success clashes with traditional chart success via digital download. As a personal anecdote, despite knowing that guys like Kendrick, Migos, and Uzi are placing frequently in the top 20, I can’t ever say I’ve heard them on pop radio as much as their success dictates I ought to. Instead, the pop stations seem to mirror more of the digital download charts: “Shape Of You”, “Body Like A Back Road”, “Despacito”, “Something Just Like This”, etc. (although this may just be my neck of the woods).

Crossover Appeal

There’s no doubt that the biggest reason why hip-hop has gained such massive prominence is its various efforts to cross over into other demographics beyond its origins. Music snobs usually tend to act like the only styles of hip hop are mainstream pop rap, conscious serious hip hop, and old school boom-bap acts, but this is far from the truth. Hip hop is now more diverse than ever: in the mainstream, underground, and everything in between. Any outsider who’s looking to get into the genre will have a much easier time finding an entry point and then branching out from there, whether it be the electronic influences of Vince Staples, the moody low-key styles of guys like Earl Sweatshirt and KA, the more offbeat experimental tendencies of Danny Brown, or even metal-ish rap acts like Ghostemane and Death Grips.

Conversely, while one could argue that rock has a similarly diverse set of sub-genres and sub-styles, its general crossover appeal has somewhat deteriorated. Not that it’s completely gone, but the realm of rock (and metal especially) is often closed off from being as big and relevant of a cultural influence as hip-hop. It tends to exist as its own little bubble that’s a part of but also separate from the rest of the music world. There’s also the fact that hip hop is still seen as a rebellious style that the older generation doesn’t understand, while rock and metal have been incredibly normalized in the public eye.


Rock music has been the bedrock of my musical interests since my middle school years, but as someone who’s opened up his music tastes to more diverse influences and has slowly but surely gotten more into hip hop, it’s really interesting to see its popularity get statistically verified now. What I’m curious about now is for how long will this hold. As previously mentioned, hip hop is still seen as a young man’s game, but there’s the point where the genre will become normalized like rock and metal have. Streaming trends will keep filling the tank with gas as far as the genre’s exposure, so I’m sure its place as a cultural influencer will still hold for at least the rest of the decade. I’m really interested to know how the overall trends hold when the end-of-year report eventually gets released. I do know one thing for sure though:

If I have to hear that god forsaken Ed Sheeran song one more time, I’m going to punch a wall.

Leave a Reply