Are streaming records actually worth celebrating?
It feels like every week, a superstar shatters yet another record.
Records don’t last long in the streaming era.
Drake managed all of eight months holding the throne for most US streams in a single week before Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus trotted down the old town road to boot him off. Since April, the Drake’s record has been topped twice more by the unlikely duo.
Before that there was Post Malone’s milestone of having the most streams in a week for an album (beating Drake), Ed Sheeran’s most-streamed song ever on Spotify (also beating Drake), Ed Sheeran becoming the second musician to have four songs hit one billion streams on Spotify (after Justin Bieber). More recently, there’s been gushing over the numbers clocked by Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber’s latest offering – which looks to have set a new record for Spotify streams in a single day.
All of this, we are told, is impressive and important. So why is it that these records are broken with such frequency?
One obvious answer is that streaming is relatively new and still growing: it makes sense that access to a growing audience will be reflected in an uptick in listener numbers. Then there’s the emphasis on individual tracks that’s resulted from a shift away from albums and towards singles – an effect emphasised by the playlist orientation of streaming services.
The digital nature of streaming has allowed labels and their artists to more easily tap into large markets across the globe too without the cost or associated risk of physical distribution. Despacito is, at the time of writing, the most streamed video on YouTube, buoyed largely by a previously uncourted Spanish-language audience. Similarly, the web has allowed the most dedicated fans – think the Swifties, BTS Army, Beliebers, or Sheerios (yes, really) – to act collectively in boosting their favourite acts towards breaking new records.
On top of this is the assumed PR value – for both labels, artists, and streaming services – of headlines proclaiming how Drake or Ed Sheeran or someone else who’s already far too popular for their own good has shattered, sorry, SHATTERED yet another record. It’s a win-win: the artist further inflates their popularity, and the streaming service adds another PowerPoint slide to its ‘Streaming is the way forward please invest so we can make some money from this one day’ presentation.
Add the fact that each service will have its own milestones to acknowledge – first track to score two billion listens on Spotify; first artist to hit 10 billion streams on Apple Music, etcetera ad nauseam – and you have a seemingly endless list of prizes to hand out.
The music industry’s obsession with charts and numbers isn’t new – the first silver record certification dates to the 1930s – but streaming figures offer a real-time granularity that might reveal more about the health and direction of the industry, as well as the listening habits of the fans who support it with their pennies. But aside from the obvious – that lots of people like Drake and Post Malone and Ariana Grande and Ed fucking Sheeran – these numbers show the strengthening grip of the services themselves.
Streaming services use the listener behaviour data they amass to inform their future bets. “We constantly look at our streaming figures to better understand listening trends and what our users are paying attention to,” says Nigel Harding, VP of artist marketing at Deezer, “Every record-breaking moment provides an opportunity for us to keep up with trends across all genres and regions.” This is indicative of streaming services’ attempts to displace not just traditional curatorial platforms like radio but the role and function of label A&Rs too. The benefits to streaming services of this consolidation are clear, and become clearer when you consider that one of the greatest hurdles to profit that these services face is the royalties bill they owe to major labels.
Spotify in particular has fore-fronted itself as a discovery service, and Jomar Perez – a senior data scientist at the company – says that the service’s algorithms and editors give “music lovers the ability to reach beyond what’s offered on the Top 40, and discover millions of artists.” Hidden in the brandspeak, there’s a point to note here about the impact that personalisation algorithms might have as they become more advanced with use.
Mark Mulligan, managing director at MiDIA Research, argues that “the more of streaming users’ listening that is accounted for by algorithmically generated playlists, the more we will see listening behaviour change.” While on some level people’s behaviour won’t have changed that much (they’ll still be gorging on playlists), the results of it will. Mark envisages the “macro scale hits” we see today being “steadily replaced by micro hits – songs that will feel like hits to each individual they are personalised to, but that will not necessarily reach a large scale audience.” Whether this will result in the slowdown of global records being broken or a proliferation in smaller, more locally-focused records being celebrated more frequently – or, more likely, both – is up for debate.
The impact that all of this will have on payouts to artists is difficult to assess too, not least because of the fluctuating, wilfully opaque nature of the way services remunerate. But as some artists tracking their payments have noted, more listeners flocking to a streaming service doesn’t necessarily mean bigger royalty cheques. This, ultimately, is the most important issue: the success of the streaming model shouldn’t be judged solely on the number of people using it each month. It should be judged on its ability to provide a sustainable platform to the musicians who make its existence and all those gleaming headlines about Justin Bieber’s billions of plays viable in the first place.