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.

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