Relevance: Drake and The Carter’s

Over the weekend I read a post from Bob Lefsetz where he brought up how Drake’s entire new album is in Spotify’s Top 20, yet the conversation in the media seems focused on The Carter’s, who don’t even have a song in the top 50.

Lefsetz was focused on the scale, speed, and coming-in-waves feel of modern media, but it really had me thinking about this word: relevance.

Not just in the surge / crash dynamic he described as we shift from sales to listening (or physical sales to streaming), but in the Ryan Holiday Perennial Seller sense of how do you both survive and stay in the game?

Lately I feel like I am constantly looking at the world for these four variables in order to solve for relevance: content, distribution, connection, and market.

Formulaically, it seems that relevance = content + distribution + connection. In order to make comparisons to others however, we also need to define (and probably divide by) market. Market is in the denominator to sort of help answer (or normalize for) “relevant to who?” When we include the market, we can start talk about impact, reach, and critically – profits.

There’s no science and plenty of bias here, but basically:

Content = how appealing; breaking news vs. old news, intriguing vs. boring

Distribution = how do people access the content; journey vs. instant, free vs. paid

Connection = how many degrees of separation does the average fan or consumer feel from the source

Market = how broad vs. how narrow is the potential, and target market, as well as what is the composition of that market (kids? adults? mixed?)

In agreement with Lefsetz’s criticism, I’d say that Drake is more relevant because of his content, distribution, and connection to the broadest market – teenagers with smart phones. He’s accessing this crowd in all of the right ways. Drake is positioned for maximum impact. He’s ever present (or so I am told) in the endlessly scrolling feeds that make up modern life.

Where I disagree (but only slightly, he does throw in a jab about their high ticket prices that makes my point), is that we shouldn’t weigh The Carter’s success or media-darling status on pure relevance against Drake via Spotify charts. Spotify tells us about that market. The Carter’s widest range of appeal is not going to be to those teenagers, but to late 20 – to early 40 somethings that have been listening to Jay-Z and Beyoncé independently since they were teenagers without smartphones. They have different life priorities and learned consumption habits.

The surprise release strategy in this light actually makes the most sense for The Carter’s, as they want to make the content feel like breaking news, interrupting into people’s worlds. What 20 to 40-something has time for a slow rollout like Drake’s? Not the ones who are paying for Tidal and On The Run II concert tickets. They are best surprised with a bonus album to listen to on the way to the concert they overpaid to see.

There’s so much more to dive into, but I’ll leave you with two more thoughts: Drake will eventually need to figure out how to age and stay relevant too, but for now, he should keep playing the same game.

The grand experiment The Carter’s have embarked down is how to officially be mass-market luxury. Venkatesh Rao would call it “premium mediocre,” and perhaps that’s what they should be most scared of. The $150-$700+ concert tickets and album drops on their own platform, these all feel like well MBA’d profit maximizers.

As long as the market thinks they deserve a premium value they are safe – contingent that they also know they are at risk of being the pre- E. coli Chipotle burrito of the music industry. I’m more worried for Jay-Z in this regard than Beyoncé.

Everyone knows that Elvis in Vegas is not the same as Elvis on Ed Sullivan. Every aging pop artist has to come to terms with this.

So long as their market is engaged and wants to pay, The Carter’s can still secure relevance. Over time, this takes a different set of skills that are very hard to pull off. Understanding relevance and the target market required to prevail is everything.

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