Shows are canceled. Studios are shuttered. What’s a young rapper to do while sheltering in place?
A lot of acts are turning to recording feature verses for other artists as a way to stay sharp, stave off boredom, and pad their bottom line during the quarantine caused by COVID-19. “The most understated commodity of this craziness right now is the barter-and-trade for features,” says Norva Denton, SVP of A&R at Warner Records, who works closely with Wale and Freddie Gibbs, among others. “It’s a very quiet frenzy. ‘Hey, how you doin’? You doin’ nothing? How ’bout you do this record I asked you for two weeks ago?’ ”
“There’s no touring right now, and no new movies or TV coming out, so no syncs, but artists need income,” adds Dizzy Flores, an A&R consultant for both Roc Nation and Universal Music Latin, and the man who helped DJ Snake link with Selena Gomez, Ozuna, and Cardi B for the guest-laden “Taki Taki.” “I have been chasing some of these people [for features] for two years, and now I’m getting everything,” including verses from Karol G, Tyga, and Jon Z.
Some rappers are even ready to record verses at a cut rate. “Everybody’s offering discounts,” says Jae Brown, senior director of A&R at Rostrum Records. “[They’re] throwing out Instagram deals like, ‘Cash App me for features!’”
It was already boom-time for features before the rise of COVID-19. The average rate of collaboration across all genres has doubled over the past 10 years, according to a January report from the analytics company Chartmetric. Almost all that growth has taken place in the past three years, when streaming cemented itself as the music industry’s commercial engine. Which genre is at the leading edge of collaboration nation? Rap — Chartmetric found that more than a third of hip-hop tracks had a featured artist at the end of 2019.
The benefits of these collaborations are obvious. “You can get both a co-sign and the opportunity to dip into a market that you might not otherwise get, become known by a group of listeners that maybe haven’t discovered your music yet,” says the writer-producer Robin Hannibal (The Black Panther soundtrack, DVSN). “It’s a great sales tactic, and it’s worked wonders” — it’s probably not a coincidence that rap is the most popular genre today.
For in-demand artists signed to a major label, features seem like one of the easiest ways to make money while stuck at home right now: Cut a verse, often just 16 bars, send it off, watch the Cash App balance pile up. “It’s a way to keep money flowing, but also to keep your name out there at the same time,” says Shawn Barron, vp of A&R at Motown, who recently asked Ty Dolla $ign for several features. And saturating the market with guest verses was a key part of several recent breakthroughs — look at Cardi B, Lil Baby, DaBaby, and Gunna.
But exchanging money for a guest verse is just the first step in a complex process. “The kids sometimes don’t understand — ‘here’s your verse’ doesn’t mean that you can commercially release it,” says Matt Buser, an entertainment lawyer. A rapper hoping to use a feature has to come to separate agreements with both the featured act and that act’s label. “These people are exclusively signed,” Buser continues, “so their label has exclusive rights for their performances on master recordings.”
Many artists aren’t aware that they have to hack through a lot of red tape to put out a collaboration, and are subsequently surprised at the difficulty of getting labels to approve features. Why won’t a label clear a collaboration that would in theory bring one of its artists more attention? “Maybe they say, ‘Well, we have a project coming up in three months, and this would interfere with our rollout,’” Buser explains.
“I’ve seen artists get into big beefs because depending on where the label is in the album-release process, they won’t clear [a feature],” adds Yaasiel “Success” Davis, vp of A&R at Atlantic Records. (Some of his signings, like YBN Nahmir and YBN Almighty Jay, are also ready to cut features while locked down.)
If all the parties involved are signed to major labels, there’s at least a chance that a clearance will come through eventually. “It’s a revolving door; we all need favors from each other,” Denton says. Labels will try to work out some sort of compromise.
But even then, there are various levels to feature clearance, and an artist may not get through them all. “Maybe you’re granted video rights and DSP rights [so you can put the song on streaming services], but you must come back for radio rights,” Davis explains. That means “there are only certain levels of promotion that you can do contractually” — shooting a video is allowed, as long as both artists approve the clip, but no one can call radio programmers and urge them to play the collaboration.
A&Rs and managers say gaining proper feature clearances at the right time is crucial to turn a collaboration to become a hit. “Sometimes a record is putting up its hand, but if a label hasn’t given you certain levels of clearance, you’re not really able to promote,” Davis acknowledges. “After a while, the song’s on streaming services, but it’s just kind of hanging there.” Without the ability to draw attention to a track, it withers on the vine.
But at least major-label artists probably have enough clout to get a feature clearance in some form at some point — even if it takes months. In contrast, if one of the rappers asking for clearance is an independent act without much leverage, he or she is in a far more vulnerable position. “Young rappers stack up their money to go get a feature from a big artist, they pay him $100,000 on the spot to cut a verse, and it never comes out because his label will never clear it,” Buser says. “Then you’re back chasing the money because you can’t release the song. And [the featured rapper’s] position is, ‘well I did my job.’”
The indie act will be hard-pressed to get that $100,000 back, especially if the payment wasn’t carefully documented. “I’ve dealt with that more than you want to know,” Buser says. That’s when a profile-raising exercise becomes a costly mistake. “Know your connect at the label to make sure it’s clearable,” Davis warns, “before you allocate that money.”
Still, if the bureaucratic stumbling blocks can be overcome, nabbing features can be a great deal for the rappers on the receiving end, providing not only a boost in streams but a co-sign to tout in press releases or win over streaming service curators. “For the indie guys looking to get to the next level or get a song that’ll possibly get on a good playlist on Spotify, they’re gathering their coins,” Davis says.
Landing a guest verse worked well for the independent rapper Big Havi, who recently added Lil Baby to his buzzing single “9 Times Out of 10.” The remix “immediately went on to the Most Necessary playlist [2.4 million followers on Spotify] its opening day and also got playlisted in New Music Friday in over 10 different countries,” says Austin Chase, an A&R at Big Havi’s label, Commission Records. “We also started seeing a rise in radio spins and the record is currently sitting at Number 31 on the urban radio charts.”
Stories like that are why A&Rs predict a deluge of collaborations are on their way to a streaming service near you. “You’ll see some features come in on notable records very soon,” Barron promises. “June, July — it’s gonna be flooded.”