How streaming will change your way of enjoying music
I know you wonder what you are doing here. If you will change your behavior, that’s most likely not me who’s going to tell you that. Well, I still will. Choices do not need to be conscious to happen. Streaming creates different dynamics, a different way to live music experiences. When deciding which artist you go after, your choice may not be the same if you are on a retailer or logged into Spotify.
In fact, there wasn’t only one reason to buy an album. Not all purchases had the same purpose and some of them won’t exist inside a streaming context. Just like with the first two parts of this mini-series, changes listed on this article will impact positively or negatively music artists, some of them rather strongly.
The first though when talking about changes in consumers’ habits with streams is that urban acts will get much bigger. That’s a wrong assumption. I’ll start by showing that streaming isn’t helping them more than anyone else to cut down this false myth. Then we will see the real changes that will impact our favorites artists because of yourself!
Why do urban acts dominate streams so far?
People are often too straightforward. We see that urban acts are performing better on streams than on sales, so we think that streams are making them bigger. It is ludicrous to believe that their popularity has changed completely overnight. It is also ludicrous to believe that a rock or classical music fan will suddenly stan for Drake just because he started using Spotify.
What happened is that their audience switched from sales to streams earlier than the remaining audiences. In recent weeks, urban acts like Kendrick Lamar, Future, Post Malone or Drake have been registering less than 10% of their SPS (Sales Plus Streaming) units from pure album sales. When they register 20,000 SPS units including only 2,000 sales, it’s easy to jump on the conclusion that without streams they would be doing nothing. The truth is that if there was no streams, they would be selling way more studio albums. Most hip-hop albums aren’t even released physically nowadays, meaning you can only buy them from downloads, which we know are in direct opposition to streams with almost the full community of urban followers who made the transition already.
Ultimately, the only pure sales that remain to urban artists are from collectors. Artists who started their career just before the streaming era enjoy a group of fans completing their discographies LP after LP. That’s why Drake‘s last offering, More Life, started with 226,000 pure album sales on its first week, but is now up to only 359,000 units sold. After a full 8 months, it hasn’t even added 60% to its first week sales and it is now selling irrelevant amounts on a weekly basis, because his fans collected it already. That’s also why Post Malone does nothing on sales since he got his breakthrough well into the streaming era already.
How can we prove that current SPS numbers are barely reflecting the real popularity of urban acts rather than inflating them? Let’s have a look at annual top 5 and top 10 pure album sellers in the US during the last 20 years, from 1997 to 2016, according to Soundscan.
We can notice 3 distinct phases. The first one is from 1997 to 2001. During these years, urban albums averaged 21% of the sales from the Annual Top 10 albums. At most 1 urban album per year was inside the Annual Top 5 and none ever landed at #1. To resume, the urban genre was relevant but it wasn’t the leading one.
The second phase was driven by Eminem who shot to #1 of 2002 in a list that also included his 8 Mile Soundtrack at #5 but also Nelly and Ashanti respectively at #2 and #7. Years until 2005 were hot for the genre too with 2 or 3 urban albums inside the annual Top 5 every year and an average of 47,5% of sales of the Top 10 managed by urban albums. They were undoubtedly dominating the sales format, which proves the genre can obviously sell physical records too.
Then comes the explosion of iTunes from 2005. Hyped genres among 15-25 years old people quickly translated from physical sales to digital sales with the cherry-picking of tracks impacting strongly album sales. The impact is obvious on this table as from 2006 to 2012 a mere 4 urban albums combined made the Annual Top 5. During that era, they averaged only 20% of sales from the Top 10, way under the 47,5% level from previous years.
What happened there? Was rap and R&B out of fashion? Definitely not. If we have a closer look at 2009 when the highest urban album was barely #7 of the year, we notice that among the top selling digital artists there is 5 urban acts among the top 10, plus Michael Jackson who may or may not be added to this category. This means that urban music remained just as popular as during years 2002-2005, it is only that pure album sales weren’t fully representing it.
In the other side, we can see that Country, AC and Christmas albums completely took over the top spots among Albums lists. The American public hasn’t become crazy about Christmas records suddenly in 2007. It’s just that those records were less impacted by track sales. That’s how since 2009 adult-oriented albums sold more units inside the Annual Top 10s than Rap, R&B, Pop and Rock albums combined, which is a true nonsense in terms of real popularity of those respective genres.
Streaming is barely fixing back those distorted album sales thanks to the introduction of SPS figures. Jason Aldean wasn’t as big as Drake in early 10s, these figures were highly misleading. Had albums like Take Care or Views been released at the same time as Nellyville, they would have sold well over 5 million units too. On its side, even released several years earlier, market mechanics tell us that I Dreamed A Dream by Susan Boyle wouldn’t have sold much more.
All these numbers tell us that urban albums have always been highly popular since 2002. They also tell us that fans of other genres including Country or AC music still need to do the transition to streaming. That is the crucial part. One shouldn’t take for granted that in the long run only urban acts will be doing well there.
Class rock acts are now dominating Spotify in terms of catalog streams, just like it happened in album sales in the past. The Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival own half of the Top 10 most streamed tracks from the 60s, Queen massively dominate the 70s while Journey, U2, Queen again, Guns N Roses and Bon Jovi all have at least one of the biggest 80s tracks. Among tracks from the 90s, only Mariah Carey‘s All I Want For Christmas Is You can maintain the pace of hits from Oasis, Nirvana, Radiohead, Foo Fighters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Dolly Parton and Etta James are seriously gaining traction at Spotify while Frank Sinatra‘s Fly Me to the Moon is now on 100 million with his entire catalog doing well too. Among current acts we also notice that teen acts who were largely expected to bomb at streaming did wonders like One Direction, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus.
The conclusion is that streaming in itself has no genre. In some years, when the general public will be used to stream songs no matter what their age will be, acts of every kind will be doing well there, or at least, they will be doing well as long as they are popular acts. The fact that streaming has been performing so incredibly positively in spite of several audiences still needing to jump into the bandwagon is one more sign of the immense potential that this format have.
No more gifts
I mentioned during the introduction that purchases were done for various reasons. One of them is as a gift rather than for yourself. We all did that. Christmas arrives and there is plenty of persons invited to the dinner of our house for who we still have no idea of gifts. So we go to the FNAC or Virgin in order to get CDs, DVDs or whatever that will do the job. In recent years, as people started to use MP3s and then streams, they stopped buying music for themselves. Ultimately, the only CDs they were buying all year long were gifts.
This process shouldn’t be overlooked. More than 25% of CD sold in 2016 in the UK were gifts, including more than 40% during the final part of the year. It really puts a huge shade over the “unlike streams buying an album proved a real commitment to the artist” argument.
How many units of CDs ended at eBay right after Christmas, or never left their original package? In recent years, we saw albums by the Eagles, AC/DC, the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd do extremely well at Christmas in spite of no hit at all. With 55% of music gift recipients at Christmas being aged over 45 as shown on previous study, those acts need no hit anymore. What happens is that adults who used to buy their records do not follow the news about music releases for long. Their 20 years old kid will hear about the return of one of those old glories before them. Those albums end up being the perfect Christmas present. Easy to buy, cheap and that will trigger a nice nostalgia effect to your father, although he will most likely play it a couple of times at best.
This situation is true because sons of persons aged over 45 often saw shelves of CDs. In 10 years, will that still be the case though? We will be more than 20 years after the arrival of iTunes and mass piracy downloading so even parents won’t have bought albums in their lifetime. Their sons will never even think about buying a CD – it would be like picking a cassette to offer for Christmas nowadays.
As streams can’t be offered, you will stop thinking about music for gifts, or you will have to go after tours tickets. What happens then to artists who built an entire career thanks to the gifting process? There is no doubt that Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, Rod Stewart or Michael Bublé have been highly successful each on their own and would be famous even without gifts. It is also true that their cumulative sales to date would be significantly lower without them.
That’s one of the reasons that make urban acts seem to be bigger on streams. They do are incredibly popular while functionally-fake sales like easy-to-go gifts inflate results of others, making them look as successful as acts who sell records only to persons who really appreciate them. I’m not afraid to tell that 10 million album sales of Eminem are worth more than 10 million album sales of Norah Jones in terms of success reflection.
The final conclusion of the end of presents for Christmas, B-days, Father’s and Mother’s Days, Valentines, etc, is that Adult Contemporary acts as well as teen acts will see their results go down. Depending on how much they relied on that, they are on their way to see their performances drop by 25% to a good 75%. Obviously, labels will adjust promotions accordingly which will damage them even more.
No more automatic purchases from fans
As shown by the IFPI, Blue & Lonesome by the Rolling Stones was the 6th best selling album of 2016. As much as I like the band, that’s rubbish. Of course, technically it is true. It makes no sense though. The Stones are nowhere near successful enough nowadays to claim one of the biggest albums of the year. The last time they did so was with Tattoo You in 1981, that was a huge 35 years ago. Are we seriously forced to believe that their popularity is at a peak currently? Of course, it isn’t. Similarly, Madonna‘s MDNA wasn’t the 12th biggest album of 2012 as suggested by the IFPI ranking. Taylor Swift‘s reputation is already the top selling album of the year in the US after 3 days of sales, is it more successful than Divide and Damn by Ed Sheeran and Kendrick Lamar respectively? No, it isn’t. I often insist in saying that figures have a meaning. It’s true. They don’t always reflect what we think they do though.
I already went deep into explaining how much purchases went down in recent years. I pointed out that the audience that is still purchasing music isn’t representative of the general public. Collectors represent a large part of that group which still buy records. Sales to fans do not happen because one album is successful. Instead, they represent the fan base of the artist. MDNA was an absolute fiasco, if it’s sales are still better than other albums from 2012, it barely means that Madonna has fans.
Those purchases completed by fans in an automatic mode can make flop albums look decent success when the market as a whole is weak. In early 00s, when the market was at its peak, millions of sales to fans of Madonna, Michael Jackson or Mariah Carey weren’t enough to hide the fact they massively underperformed in comparison to contemporary successful records.
Of course, if fans ultimately move to streams, which will happen, they will give a try to the album of their favorite artist. But if the record is dead after 15 days with no more single and no more discussion about it, they will most likely not play it on repeat for months. As it requires 1,500 streams to equal 1 album sale, a fan will need to play 100 times a 15-track album in order to participate as much to its success as when he was buying the CD. Let’s be honest, how many fans really played MDNA in full 100 times? Not much for sure. I don’t even mention the case of fans purchasing multiple physical copies which makes the gap even bigger.
It means that the linearity of streaming downgrades strongly the artificial inflation driven by fans. The whole irony is that people who first doubted the format argued fans would play on repeat tracks, inflating their results. The reality of 2017 is that it’s sales known as pure sales which are immensely corrupted by purchases of fans. It’s for this exact reason that various old acts are getting the highest chart peaks of their careers in recent years in spite of being well past their hey-days. The impact of fans purchasing is immediate, while truly successful albums will get their streams bit by bit over several months. This makes newly released albums look so much hotter while they aren’t. Top Album Sales rankings of every country are now a mere competition between artists releasing a new album to know which one has the largest fanbase, hardly an interesting debate especially since we already know their respective sizes for long. It is even less interesting in order to gauge the success of the new album.
Once again, labels will adjust their promotions during the upcoming years to take into account the downgrade of fans’ purchases. As collectors will slow down, investing a lot of money to fuel an old glory that hasn’t got a hit in years will soon make no sense. Instead of pushing artists with a relevant fanbase, they will move behind artists who are currently getting viral hits. At last, the anomaly of artists with music disconnected from the current era for long having the largest promotional campaigns will soon be over.
No more shame factor
Sometimes driving until the closest retailer wasn’t the most difficult step to buy an album. You needed to pick it in front of various foreigners, to go to the cash store and meet a lovely girl to give her your purchases that she could scan them. What you listen to is at times quite private for you and you don’t necessarily want everyone to know what it is. The cover can be awful, as with some exquisite examples shown here, but the artist himself can have a very bad image.
As recently as 3 years ago Justin Bieber was the flagship of a music that some people loved to have fun of. It was seen as a shame to buy his music. The first though about streaming was that a teen star like him who appeals to young girls only wouldn’t do well at all on those platforms. Then he destroyed various Spotify records with ease. This unreal turn around was achieved from the release of What Do You Mean? that went viral. One may wonder if it would have done so well if you had to go to the retailer and buy the CD single. If streams weren’t so discreet would it have been so easy for him to become suddenly cool to listen to?
This factor isn’t reduced to a few exceptions. If we have a step back and look at everything which happened since we can buy and listen music from our computers, we notice that gay-friendly music has been more hyped and talked about than ever. Artists themselves, with the prime examples Freddie Mercury, Elton John and George Michael, weren’t doing their coming out because it would have require from their fans or casual purchasers to assume buying the music of a gay man at a retailer. It wasn’t always easy in the past, even more in some countries. Even if you live well your sexuality, you don’t want to claim it every time you buy a simple CD. This irony is pretty sublime: the possibility to hide our sexual orientation offered to us by digital formats of music made related artists enjoy bigger successes which ultimately made them look cool, which led homosexuals to feel free to assume it. The loop is completed.
The same is true for politics. If an artist supports a polemical politician, it gets delicate to buy his records publicly. Then gender can be an issue too with some music being simply flagged as music for girls, say Ed Sheeran. Or quality with the CD of someone poorly rated. At the end of the day, a lot of records were infused with many meanings and one had to assume his purchase.
Music is an entertainment, a hobby, it shouldn’t require us to take a stand for politics, sex orientation or whatever. We are all free to listen to what we want or to take a stand for what we want. It wasn’t entirely the case with physical records sales, fortunately, it now is.
Which acts can benefit from this change of behavior? I already highlighted Justin Bieber, but in general that’s valid for most acts with a teen music history. It was hard at times to assume purchasing a record by Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys for example. Most of those acts were done rather quickly for that reason. A 14-years old girl won’t care about what old people say, they will want the last album from them just like their friends do. But then they grow and at 18 the image is fundamental. They don’t want to be the one that buys N’Sync anymore. With streams, no need to hide what you feel are your guilty pleasures, you can freely listen to them.
No more boundaries
During previous articles, we already saw that markets with strong populations like China, India or Mexico were going to take a larger share of the World’s music market thanks to streaming. Businesses always try to grow. If you make money on your neighborhood, you will try to invest to make it big on your city. If you succeed, you invest your revenues into promotion to reach the national scale. If you are still winning, you can try to make your company international.
The same is true for musicians. Artists successful locally in Latin America had limited potential due to the size of their markets. They still sold a few millions of records, but the window wasn’t big enough to go global unless extraordinary success like Ricky Martin or Enrique Iglesias. Your potential had to be identified that labels could prepare you. Your image was carefully conceived and international producers were called to get you nice English-speaking hits. It means that before they turned global, labels had to elect them, to take a risky decision, reducing a lot the number of available tickets for local stars.
The fact that you can stream something without buying it completely breaks those constraints. The explosion of local tracks thanks to streaming is a 5-steps process. In order, streaming platforms:
- increase the strength of the local market
- provide visibility at the global level thanks to World lists and their playlists
- provide the capability to foreigners to give them a try easily
- offer higher promotion tools and ultimately promotion budgets
- introduce the new style of music into everyone’s habits
Songs like Despacito or Mi Gente by Luis Fonsi and J Balvin followed that path. They were first big local hits. Some years ago, we wouldn’t have notice it, but thanks to the global rankings of Spotify we saw them on Top 50 playlists. People from everywhere started to play them voluntarily or simply because the song was part of that Top 50. Those songs started to gain traction elsewhere so labels adjusted their gears accordingly and soon Justin Bieber and Beyoncé were featuring on them. All that happened in a few weeks only.
Danza Kuduro, Bailando, Despacito, Mi Gente, Subeme La Radio, Reggaeton Lento, etc. now that the trend took off, there is no stopping it. The playlist Viva Latino at Spotify has 6,5 million followers and almost all 50 songs on it are well over 50 million streams with a dozen of them already over 300 million. Main versions of Despacito top 1,6 million combined, that’s without counting its 5 billion plus YouTube views. Ironically, Luis Fonsi isn’t the most streamed singer from Puerto Rico at the moment as Ozuna is the weekly World’s #1 act at YouTube.
Is it only about Latin music? No, there is much more. K-Pop is also fast growing. BTS is currently the 12th most listened act at YouTube. As many as 18 K-Pop albums entered the US Billboard 200 since 2009 with the last BTS’ effort sky rocketing to #7 on its debut week. Inside the World Music Albums chart, 16 K-Pop albums shot to #1 in 2017 alone and albums from the genre are currently charting at #1-2-3-4. It isn’t a US-only phenomenon as shown by their performances in all countries.
This true revolution led us to wonder what’s the next big thing. The current YouTube top artist chart has 5 Indian stars inside the World’s Top 8, but this is almost only due to the local population. French rap seems to have a real shot with Maître Gims smashing several countries and MHD, PNL and Niska fast growing. If some African countries start using streaming platforms this will boost them incredibly well too since their popularity there is immense. Japanese as well as Brazilian acts are still failing to break over foreign countries but we can’t rule them out as of now. Of course, Scandinavian producers will continue to dominate the scene from backend.
It is easy to claim that it was better before. It isn’t because we do not always have the ability to evolve with time that we should disregard everything that is new.
As much as we praised them, records sales were deeply unfair. Comparing results of distinct artists was always biased. Pricing issues, distinct formats, catalog exploitation, different promotion levels, size of the fan base, gift-friendly material, availability limits, piracy, boundaries of countries, collectors, multi-artists records, Q4 rush or summertime for release, etc., an awful lot of technicalities injected inequity into all figures.
Streaming will not only make the whole industry healthier, it will not only gives you access to more music, more easily, on higher quality and cheaper than ever, it will also fix all those flaws.
As sales are still going on, we can’t look at streams only. In some years though, once most of the general public uses streaming, rankings from everywhere will be more meaningful and more accurate than ever. After decades of misleading information, the real popularity of every song, album, artist will be known. A new era is happening and this era is going to be amazing for the industry, for the artists and for us, the music fans.
As usual, feel free to comment and / or ask a question.
Sources: Soundscan, RIAA, BPI, Billboard, Dutch Charts, Danish Charts, Businesswire