Many debates have been had over the merits of "cancel culture," but how do these moments of outrage actually affect artists' numbers?
The cycle seems infinite: an artist is dragged online for controversial statements new and old, issues a carefully curated apology, repeat. Given the volume of these highly publicized incidents, a large debate has developed around the merits of what is now widely considered “cancel culture.”
Cancel culture’s defenders contend that we have a right as consumers to support or not support whoever we want, and there is nothing wrong with withholding this support from artists whom we find objectionable. Facing claims that his renowned musical whitewashed crimes of the U.S. founding fathers, Hamilton director Lin Manuel Miranda tweeted “All the criticisms are valid… It’s all fair game.” By making this statement, Miranda, although not granting that his show should be banned for its content, reaffirms the idea that artists can and should be subjected to rigorous public scrutiny.
Others have claimed that by financially supporting abusive artists, we actually become complicit in abuse. For instance, when asked if it is possible to separate an artist from their music, #MeToo founder Tamara Burke argued no, declaring that by streaming R Kelly we take on some responsibility for his crimes. On its face, the implications of this stance are substantial. If we accept that we cannot listen to problematic artists, the next debate that arises is where exactly to draw the line? The idea that the listener is equally complicit in the crimes of an artist is also convoluted territory-- does this mean they too should be punished? Still, Burke remained assured of her stance, declaring that “One of those ways [to stop abuse] is turning off that music and being vocal about why.”
R. Kelly's mugshot - Cook County Sheriff’s Office via Getty Images
On the other hand, many opponents of cancel culture argue people should be allowed to make mistakes. Appearing recently on “Red Table Talk,” Willow Smith denounced cancel culture, declaring that “shaming doesn’t lead to learning.” Her statement parallels that made by Trevor Noah after he was accused of racism and antisemitism when old tweets of his resurfaced. “We live in a society where people are more concerned with the platitudes of apologies than they are with the actual change in human beings,” he explained.
While certainly an interesting back and forth, the entire debate about cancel culture’s worthiness is ahead of itself. Before determining if cancel culture is good or bad, we need to determine whether it actually exists. What are the consequences of being “canceled?” Does widespread social media ridicule have any actual impact on artists’ sales, streaming numbers, follower counts, or any other empirical metrics of success?
Of all the artists that have been dubbed canceled this year, one of the biggest stories has been Doja Cat. Doja enjoyed a wildly successful start to 2020, doubling her monthly Spotify listeners in the first two months, reaching 41 million by mid-May, and earning her first number-one song in “Say So.” However, her career seemingly came to a screeching halt on May 22nd when videos surfaced of her hanging out with “incels” on Tiny Chat, causing #DojaCatIsOverParty to trend on twitter and google searches for “Doja Cat” to skyrocket. These videos prompted homophobic remarks and racist lyrics from her past to resurface, fueling further shaming.
Doja Cat performs at 93.2 Real Street Festival in 2019 - Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Doja Cat’s “cancellation” has produced measurable consequences for her. According to Soundcharts data, her Instagram followers, which were rapidly rising before the controversy, growing from 2.6 million on January 1st 2020 to 6.8 million on May 22nd, dropped by 45,000 that same weekend and have since plateaued, sitting at 6.9 million as of July 28th. Her Twitter growth has flattened as well; her followers had risen from 310k on January 1st to 1.6 million on May 22nd, but are now at 1.8 million -- 50% less growth than prior to her cancellation. Doja’s daily Youtube views have also fallen slightly, tallying 10 million views on May 22nd and then dropping to 6.6 million on July 23rd, although they spiked to 9.6 million on June 26th when she released her “Like That” music video. Most notably, Doja Cat’s Spotify popularity has dipped fairly significantly, with 34 million current monthly listeners compared to 41.5 million on May 22nd.
Still, while Doja Cat’s scandal was certainly not inconsequential, it would be incredibly surprising if the incident ultimately derails her career in any meaningful way in the long run. The week following the incident, “Say So” only fell to the number two spot on Billboard, staying in the top five for another two weeks, and it still stands at number 18 today. Furthermore, the original song, rather than Nicki Minaj’s remix, attained the majority of her radio spins, suggesting that Doja will not suffer from a lack of airplay anytime soon. While her rapid growth rate from the beginning of this year may not be sustainable, a resurgence is likely once she becomes active on social media again and releases music more consistently.
If Doja Cat can be considered the Queen, Hip-Hop’s undisputed King of Controversy this year is Tekashi 6ix9ine. After initially being canceled by some for sexual misconduct, 6ix9ine became rap’s biggest villain after committing the cardinal sin of snitching. On September 18th 2019, his also infamous sidekick DJ Akademiks posted leaked audio of the rapper admitting to testifying against fellow members of the Nine Trey Bloods, causing “6ix9ine snitch” searches to surge on google, going from a “2” rating on the week of September 8th-14th (indicating low interest) to a “50” the week of September 15th-24th (rising), and a “100” on the week of September 22nd-28th (peak interest). Simultaneously, a sketch of him ratting in court went viral that week, receiving attention from various media outlets.
Despite being fiercely roasted online, 6ix9ine's actual numbers were not immediately affected by his testimony surfacing. Still, the vast majority of prominent hip-hop media figures confidently predicted that his career was effectively over. Much to their dismay, the rainbow-haired troll emerged from prison to host the most viewed Instagram live ever on May 8th, racking up a staggering two million views before dropping his “GOOBA” video, earning the largest hip-hop Youtube premier off all time (38.9 million views in 24 hours) and hitting number three on Billboard (with controversy). The day prior, 6ix9ine gained a staggering 3.2 million new Instagram followers after announcing the single and plan to go live. His next Youtube drop, the aptly titled “TROLLZ” ft. Nicki Minaj made an even bigger splash, reaching 63 million views in a single day and charting at number one. Since dropping “GOOBA,” 6ix9ine’s monthly Spotify listeners have more than doubled, from 9.5 million on May 8th to over 20 million currently.
For 6ix9ine, it appears that being canceled has actually helped his career, at least in the short term. Having built a career on controversy, the energy surrounding his early release and cooperation with the feds has bolstered his numbers beyond where they would have been had he taken a more traditional path. Trolling and being canceled has been a staple of 6ix9ine’s marketing scheme. Rather than shying away, he has always mocked and accentuated his biggest criticisms. In the “GOOBA” video he responded to snitching charges by sporting a rat head emoji. Amidst having been convicted of sex crimes against a minor, he dropped the “FEFE” video with bold childlike imagery. Each of these decisions predictably drew even more attention to the rapper, helping keep him relevant.
6ix9ine attends MIA Festival 2018 - Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Despite his recent success, however, other data suggests that 6ix9ine’s fall-off may be imminent. “TROLLZ” experienced the largest single-day chart drop-off of all time, going from number one on the Hot100, all the way down to 34 in its second week. 6ix9ine has also lost droves of Spotify streams the past few weeks, fumbling 2 million monthly listeners between July 10th and 24th. Still, the success he has had to this point has wildly surpassed most critics’ predictions. Anecdotally, there seems to be a large generational gap concerning 6ix9ine’s perception. While older hip-hop fans have zero tolerance for snitching, portions of rap’s growing young audience seem ignorant towards the street code, evidenced by the popularity of “GOOBA” on platforms like TikTok. It wouldn’t be inconceivable for 6ix9ine to sustain a somewhat consistent fanbase with this demographic, especially if he is able to come through with a decent album.
A closer look at Nicki Minaj’s own career can also tell us a lot about cancel culture. On July 11th, 2018, Nicki lost over one million twitter followers in a single day after both she and many of her fans blasted journalist Wanna Thompson for criticizing her, leading to denouncements from several outlets. Not at all deterred by supposedly being canceled, Nicki and 6ix9ine dropped the “FEFE” video on July 28th which now sits at an eye-popping 900 million views. The Queen Barbie then dropped her album Queen on July 22nd, selling over 130k copies first week and charting at number two, behind Travis Scott’s Astroworld (marked by controversy of its own).
As brilliantly pointed out by Cassius’ Andre Gee, the success of Queen was not an accident. The album was widely promoted by “[Nicki’s] corporate partners, including Universal Records, Tidal streaming service, and Apple…” Similarly, he points out that Adidas CEO Kasper Rørsted has shown unwavering support for Kanye West, who sported a MAGA hat while declaring that “slavery was a choice” (and more recently that Harriet Tubman "never actually freed the slaves”). Additionally, XXXTentacion, with well documented sexual assault and domestic abuse accusations, was able to land a ten million dollar deal with Empire Records and have radio success with “Sad.”
Motivated by XXXTentacion, R Kelly, and other artists’ troubled histories, Spotify announced their “Hate Content & Hateful Conduct Policy” on May 10th, 2018. This policy, one of the more definitive attempts to “cancel” artists in the music industry, removed artists deemed to have done “something that is especially harmful or hateful (for example, violence against children and sexual violence)” from Spotify’s promoted playlists. While this decision had mixed reception from fans, it was almost uniformly blasted by record label executives. Most strikingly, Top Dawg CEO Anthony Tiffith threatened to remove all of Kendrick Lamar’s music from the platform if the policy was not reversed. Spotify soon decided to revoke the policy, reinstating X’s “Sad” to its Rap Caviar playlist, which boasted over 10 million followers at the time. This debacle demonstrates that as long as these large corporations see profit in promoting “problematic” artists, cancel culture’s impact will continue to be undermined.
Tory Lanez backstage at Summer Jam 2019 - Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images
The most recent artist to be targeted by cancel culture is Toronto’s own Tory Lanez. Before his recent arrest, 2020 was proving to be a great year for Tory. He saw his profile expand significantly thanks to the success of his “Quarantine Radio” show on Instagram live. Boasting 5.9 million Instagram followers on March 23rd, Tory was able to grow to over 9 million by April 19th, while gaining 350k in a single day on April 10th. His newfound social media popularity provided him a modest streaming boost, going from 14 million monthly Spotify listeners on March 30th to 19.5 on May 5th. Then, beginning June 27th, driven by his appearance on Jack Harlow’s “What's Poppin” remix and a trio of new singles, Tory Lanez’s Spotify numbers began to spike again, jumping from 18.5 million monthly listeners to 28.5 million today.
On July 16th, Tory Lanez was shockingly arrested on a weapons charge in connection to the shooting of Megan Thee Stallion, making him one of the most discussed figures in entertainment news. Not surprisingly, Tory’s name reached a “100” on the Google search index the week of July 12th to 18th as members of Megan’s team publicly denounced him. Still, his streaming numbers continued to rise dramatically. Because his numbers were already on the rise about three weeks prior to the incident, it may not be directly attributed to the arrest. However, the fact that his numbers have not been derailed by allegedly shooting one of hip-hop’s most admired female artists further demonstrates the ineffectiveness of cancel culture. While other artists in the industry may distance themselves from Tory, the situation is unlikely to sway his fanbase, barring any actual legal consequences.
On the flip side, we have seen a few key media figures be more authoritatively canceled this year. Most famously, Nick Cannon was recently fired by Viacom for anti-semetic statements, while DJ Akademiks was suspended by Complex and Twitch after his sexist rant against Chrissy Teigen. Like 6ix9ine, controversy is the driving force of Akademiks’ professional success, so this may lend more support to the theory that all publicity is good publicity. And Nick Cannon, although he might not be hired by another mass media conglomerate, certainly has the potential to have continued success independently. Still, the de-platforming of these two from their respective networks despite their segments’ popularity comes way closer to an effective cancellation then what we have seen from labels, streaming platforms, and even fans.
Regardless of personal opinions on cancel culture, one thing that seems certain is that it is not as effective as most believe, at least not for celebrities. We have seen artists land themselves in hot water countless times only to move forward unscathed or even fortified. While this is particularly true for veterans with highly devoted fan bases, such as Kanye or Nicki, it is also apparent with relative newcomers like 6ix9ine and Doja Cat. Actual canceling would require ignoring these figures, the exact opposite of what occurs every time a new viral clip surfaces. As long as controversy is profitable and our worst inclinations are accentuated by social media, this will remain a daunting task.