The real story of the 50 Cent and Kanye West showdown

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There are two fundamental lies that are driving the competition between Kanye West and 50 Cent, both of whom drop their new albums today.

The first is an innocuous one: that these two rappers actually have a beef with one another. By all accounts, they get along quite well – the behind-the-scenes footage of their Rolling Stone cover shoot makes their competition seem completely good-natured, and they actually appeared on stage together earlier this month (along with T.I., Jay-Z and Diddy) doing West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” Nas vs. Jay-Z, this ain’t.

The second lie is that the music industry still matters.

The reason why industry stalwarts like Rolling Stone and MTV are willing participants in this publicity stunt is because this really isn’t about which rapper is going to sell more albums this week. It’s a gimmick on a wing and a prayer, an attempt to jump-start a failing music industry that has spent most of the last decade trying to figure out how to get people to pay for music again and, largely, has failed miserably.

Oh sure, there’s been iTunes, but Steve Jobs deserves the credit for that success, not the record industry. Hell, behind the scenes, record industry leaders actually think that iTunes is underpriced and desperately want more control over it. Think about how backwards that is: the record industry begrudges the closest thing to a “good news” story it has.

Otherwise, things are dire. CD sales were down 20 per cent in the first quarter of 2007 compared to the year before. Hip-hop sales fare even worse, down 30 per cent. After a decade’s worth of sold growth in the 1990s, album sales have declined every year since 1999 (not coincidentally, the year Napster was born). The decline among young people is where the real drama is happening – even amongst my circle of friends, the number of us who actually buy music is getting smaller and smaller. What’s worse for the record industry, an entire generation is growing up without ever paying a cent for the music that they listen to.

Every year this decline goes on, the industry pins its hopes to its stalwart old successes, telling themselves that, “Things will turn around when ______’s album comes out” before _____’s album turns out to be a sales disappointment. Sure, Linkin Park pushed 630,000 copies of Minutes to Midnight but, really, ten years ago a band of their stature would have pushed a million copies easy. Only five albums have sold more than 600,000 copies in their first week in the past two years. This is why we’ve seen indie and alternative bands like Arcade Fire, the Shins and Modest Mouse crash the charts this year – sometimes it seems like only the indie kids are actually buying albums.

50 Cent’s Curtis and Kanye West’s Graduation are the latest _______s, but this time the entire record industry is lined up in support, doing everything in their power to push their customers into the record stores to pledge their loyalty to one rapper over the other. Don’t get me wrong: this would probably still be a worthwhile story even in better times. You’ve got two of the biggest names in hip hop, whose approaches to the art form could hardly be any more different, each releasing their highly-anticipated third album. The odds-on-favourite (Fiddy) has released three middling singles that were all dead-on-arrival, leaving an opportunity for upstart West – with “Stronger currently sitting at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 – to sneak in and take the crown. But with the industry desperate for anything resembling a saviour, this publicity stunt has been treated as a genuinely important event.

I’m sure that the effort will be a success; by that, I mean that the first-week sales for Curtis and Graduation won’t be as big a drop from their predecessors as they would otherwise have been. (In case you’re curious, first week sales for The Massacre and Late Registration were 1.1 million and 860,000 respectively.) But the sales numbers almost certainly will see a drop, and neither album will have much staying power. And then, the industry will move onto its next “quick fix,” neglecting the systemic problems that are making its business model more and more irrelevant each day.

Watch: Kanye West – “Stronger”

Watch: 50 Cent – “Ayo Technology (ft. Justin Timberlake)

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