Lost tapes, warped vinyl records, and scratched CDs have historically been the relics of hip-hop yore. But now, 404 errors, dead links, and server failures illustrate the erosion of hip-hop’s early online age. The digital marketplace makes music listening more convenient, but things also feel more tenuous: acts like De La Soul feel less present if they’re not on DSPs; DatPiff’s March server crash demonstrated that mixtapes that defined stretches of rap history could abruptly vanish if we don’t have the MP3 version. We romanticize the blog era while ignoring the unnerving possibility of having nothing from that time but memories.
Live Mixtapes is a digital hub that helped indie artists get their music out to the world at a time before the tech giants controlled the market. Site founder and owner Dan Ivans Jr. tells Rolling Stone they’re not going quietly into the night like some of their peers. The company is revitalizing the platform with what it promises is “a complete rebranding and under-the-hood upgrade.” The relaunch includes a new site, an app, and the rollout of their new LMT Pro program for indie artists, which allows users to monetize streams on the platform.
On April 1st, the Live Mixtapes Twitter account posted a graphic on their Twitter stating “in memoriam 2006-2023,” worrying hip-hop heads already concerned with the digital mortality of DatPiff, after the platform crashed weeks prior. But Ivans used the April Fools Day prank to stir attention for their relaunch scheduled for the start of next month, which he says has been years in the making. “Certain aspects of the site or even the rollout of our apps in the past have been patchwork at best,” Ivans explains. “I feel like there’s a coordinated effort on our behalf to do this the proper way this time and bring a polished product to market. I’m excited to where everybody will get to experience what we do when we do that rollout.”
Ivans says the site will have “a single page application that’ll work seamlessly from desktops and mobile,” an upgraded player that will allow listeners to continuously stream as they scroll the site, podcast support, and “a lot more focus on user-driven content and playlists being featured” on the app. But he says LMT Pro, which will allow users to be compensated for their streams and see robust data, is the implementation he’s proudest of. “That’s the biggest portion that I’ve been working really hard on. It’s taken many years to work out direct deals with the DSPs and have a direct line of distribution,” he says. “The professional tools are not only encompassing what we could do with LiveMixtapes and having the statistics and clarity behind the scenes for artisan labels, but also pair it with the ability to distribute their music, and have that same clarity statistic-wise on the back end, providing them with other tools or landing pages and help with the YouTubes in one place.”
LMT Pro will help Live Mixtapes compete with SoundCloud and other services that allow users to monetize and see more granular details about their audience data. “Now that we have all of our direct deals in place, we’re as competitive as the rest of [the streaming services],” he says. “And I think that not only are you going to be able to get the best rates for that, but you’re also getting the exposure on LiveMixtapes, and you’re getting the street money on LiveMixtapes. So too, it’s something that no one else is offering.”
Ivans has always sought to fill a void. The Cleveland, Ohio native says LiveMixtapes started as a coalescence of his passions for both hip-hop and tech. In 2001, a friend gave him his first mixtape, a Green Lantern project, where he discovered a then-unknown rapper named 50 Cent. The rawness of the mixtape format toppled the barriers of his prior music-listening experience. “I graduated high school in 2001 and been a lifelong hip hop fan, but I’m more of a computer nerd at heart,” he says. “Mixtapes had come up in my life, and I was like, ‘Wow, these are a different type of hip-hop that I’ve been used to.’ I just saw a way to get these online and share them with the world.” He initially started the site with
By 2006, few digital spaces compiled every mixtape and free album in one place. Ivans sought to change that. His first business out of high school was web hosting, which gave him the know-how to create a website that would stream to the masses while keeping server costs affordable. “Being able to bring those costs down to a minimum made it not only viable for us as a company, but anybody trying to stream music.” He says that he’s periodically had developers help him maintain the site and app, but he’s been the sole person running the platform’s backend.
Ivans and his team started contacting DJs online and asking them to upload their mixtapes on the platform. “We were like, ‘They’re going to get leaked online anyways. Why don’t you give them to us and control that release and then really bring some eyeballs to it and promotion behind it?’” he recalls. Eventually, he met DJ Tekniques, who took him up on his offer and uploaded mixtapes by Jody Breeze and Gorilla Zoe to the platform. Mixtapes by then-red-hot 2 Chainz and Travis Porter followed, giving the platform a nationwide buzz. By 2009 they were a go-to source for work from mixtape mavens like Gucci Mane, Traplaholics, and DJ Scream.
“Once we started landing some of those releases is when it started spreading more and more,” Ivans recalls. “Some of our really big releases [blew us] up to a point where it was crashing our servers, and then we’re making headlines. We used to trend on Twitter all the time back when Twitter was still new.”
Ivans said they learned how to hype their major releases with big banners and a countdown (an idea he got from MySpace birthday countdowns). But not everyone was happy with what they were doing. True to the anti-establishment ethos of the mixtape scene, Ivans raves that one of the site’s first accomplishments was receiving a cease and desist letter from Cash Money Records. “I just remember jumping up and down and celebrating. I was like, ‘Oh man, we made it.’” he says. “It was a great moment for me. Because Cash Money and Birdman, I was always a very big fan in high school. Being on their radar was a big moment, though it was not the greatest.“ They later worked on a Rich Gang project, and Ivans spoke on the phone with Birdman during that process.
At its 2012 peak, LiveMixtapes was doing between 200 to 400 million impressions a month, with millions of users listening to projects on the site. They had launched apps on both iOS and Android. Complex had contacted them to be a site on their network, bolstering their notoriety. They were doing SXSW showcases and hosted a Juicy J show in Cleveland for his Blue Dream & Lean mixtape. “It was an exciting time to have all those big projects come through, and just what we were doing with hip-hop, in general, was exciting,” Ivans says.
LiveMixtapes was a core component of the “blog era,” when individual hip-hop heads created digital trading posts with blogs and platforms that upended the industry hierarchy. Record labels were used to being the only game in town when it came to mass distribution, but outlets like Live Mixtapes, Datpiff, Nahright, Unkut, and so many others forged a new path for indie artists looking to leverage the majors for a better deal. Ivans says that Future, whose Dirty Sprite tape debuted on LiveMixtapes on 1/11/2011 at 1:11 PM, has always been grateful for how LiveMixtapes bolstered the early stages of his carer.
“Future’s always been very appreciative about what we’ve done for his career,” Ivans says. “He was always talking about going to Pluto…he’s actually landed on Pluto now. And even on that trajectory, when he was getting very, very big, he was still across our stage at SXSW. He always made it a point.”
Eventually the majors got back on their feet and worked with the major streaming platforms to take back the digital music market. Ivans says he began noticing a decline in Live Mixtapes traffic around 2013. “We seen the reduction in exclusives coming our way. And the writing was kind of on the wall, and I understood it. We’re playing with trillion-dollar companies, and it’s kind of hard to compete with. But even as the industry climate he’s shifted, he’s proud that if it weren’t for services like LiveMixtapes, the Spotifys and Apple Musics of the world wouldn’t have had a model to emulate.
“There’s always been a certain aspect of hip hop of finding the next guy. I think we’ve been able to help facilitate that,” he says, adding, ”I feel like helping usher in the DSPs and the amount of money that everyone in the industry is making, it’s a great thing. And we’ve been able to spin off our own label (TSO Music Group) and help other independent artists get their music out and do it on our platform as well as the DSPs and help everybody’s career move forward.”
And in case anyone is worried about LiveMixtapes having any fatal server miscues in the future, the experienced server engineer succinctly tells us, “Yeah, we’re not going anywhere. Our stuff’s pretty redundant.”