Streaming: music industry disruptor, destroyer, reincarnator


Streaming is king.

It’s no longer a discussion — it’s fact.

Just like how the earth orbits the sun, how global temperature is rising and how Tom Brady is now the greatest quarterback of all time.

Fact, fact and fact.

And now, streaming is the no. 1 music consumption method, cementing its status in that realm of truth with numbers to prove it.

However, when a new reign begins, winds and times change. Due to streaming’s takeover, the music industry landscape has shifted. The positives and negatives of these changes are dependent on one’s views, so it’s important to focus on a few of these developments and try to decipher what they really mean.

Playlists are the new radio

During the 2000s, a young adult would hop into his or her car, turn on the radio, hear a new song and thus discover new music.

Now, a young adult could be as confused by the word “radio” as by the word “fax.”

Youth today discover their music through two main channels: (1) word of mouth and, more notably, (2) the music discovery playlists of streaming providers.

“I can’t wait for Monday” is not a common expression. In fact, in almost all facets, it’s virtually unsaid.

But a Monday does hold excitement for music-lovers — it’s the day Spotify updates each user’s Discover Weekly playlist.

Discover Weekly is an automatically generated playlist available to all Spotify subscribers, free or paying. It studies what a user has been listening to and, through the sorcery of mathematics and algorithms, pulls from Spotify’s multimillion-song database to curate an individually unique 30-track playlist, which it thinks (this term is NOT used lightly) the user will like.

The result: almost uncomfortable accuracy.

Spotify’s AI (artificial intelligence) is so good that every week listeners are finding more enjoyable new music than they would in a year of browsing FM waves. The 2000s equivalent would be an independent omnipotent radio host/DJ — basically, the Y2K Grecian Muses.

This doesn’t stop with Discover Weekly though.

Spotify’s Release Radar playlist performs a similar function, but only outputs recently released music. Apple Music has its own version, the very originally named Discovery Mix which is practically identical to Spotify’s playlists but substitutes a black and green aesthetic for white and cherry blossom red.

No matter what streaming service one uses, the fact remains: Today’s music discovery stems from computer-generated playlists.

And these platforms are now artists’ no. 1 tool to reach others.

smaller artists increase their influential spheres… at a price

With today’s streaming services, it is undeniably the easiest time in the history of the music industry for an artist to share his or her music.

After a few clicks of a laptop keyboard and the press of a play button, virtually any person in the world can stream any artist in the world. This means the biggest obstacle between creator and audience has transformed from physical distance to data limits.

Amea, an San Antonio, Texas-based R&B artist, has experienced this from both the artist and listener points-of-view, saying, “Streaming services have helped me reach a variety of audiences and discover a variety of sounds/artists.”

But while streaming has made distribution easier than ever, extreme ease-of-access has its drawbacks.

“Peak TV” is a phrase first coined by FX Network President John Landgraf. Among other issues, it describes the overwhelming number of scripted television series – such that the general audience can’t hope to keep up with even a small number of shows, let alone all of them.

With distribution easier and cheaper than it’s ever been, music suffers from the same problem.

Though a small artist has the potential to theoretically reach millions of people, it is extremely difficult to do so when a listener has thousands of other options to choose from.

Many artists hope that their songs land on popular streaming playlists like the ones discussed above, but even with streaming’s complex searching algorithms, there are still millions and millions of songs the software can choose — needles in a massive digital haystack.

And, as successful as these discovery playlists have proven to be, human beings are creatures of habit. The average music listener will only listen to and search out new artists a minority of the time, such as once every Monday. The majority is spent listening to artists the user already knows, likes and is comfortable with.

It’s identical to television: After a day of work, it takes a lot more effort and attention to start a new series than it does to watch Friends for the umpteenth time.

However, this is not meant to be the small artists’ tombstone. Far from it.

In comparison to the past, smaller artists would most certainly take the digital distribution potential of the modern era versus hawking CDs to passersby on the street.

But advantages always come with new challenges. When once it was harder for artists to reach others, it’s now harder for others to find them.

Yet while smaller artists fight for streams, larger ones seek to capitalize on the new listening mediums.

Big pop artists load albums with hits and lots of throwaway songs

As streaming grew in popularity, a quandary developed: An artist’s streaming and singles numbers must in some way affect their number of records sold, but how?

The answers are the “album-equivalent unit (AEU)” and the “track-equivalent unit (TEU).”  In simple math, that means:

1500 song streams from an album = one album sale.

10 track buys from an album = one album sale.

Now, big-name artists are benefiting from both to boost their album statuses.

On April 29, 2016, Drake dropped his highly anticipated fourth studio album, Views. It was both commercially stellar and critically average, being the most consumed album of the year, while also being criticized for its repetitive subject matter – and, more interestingly, its 20-track length.

As listeners streamed the album, every song played, whether it really “fit” the album, counted towards the AEU, upping Views‘ numbers.

As buyers purchased individual Views songs, they increased its album sales count through the TEU, even if it was five different people who each only bought “Controlla” and “One Dance.”

Combine the facets of both, and one realizes the reasoning behind Drake “tacking ‘Hotline Bling’ onto his already saggy album“: the more popular the song, the more it streams, and the greater it contributes to the AEU.

This doesn’t end with Drake either. The Weeknd and ZAYN also used these metrics to their advantage, cramming 18 songs each into their albums while relying on the replays of “Starboy” and “PILLOWTALK” to inflate sales numbers.

Similarly, though a greater song-by-song quality can be argued against the other stated albums, it probably wasn’t only an artistic choice for Kanye West to up The Life of Pablo‘s track list from 10 songs to the final 20.

These big name artists have read the rules and discovered how to financially benefit from them.

The drawback?

Don’t expect succinct albums from the biggest stars while these metrics remain.