Much has been made in the music industry recently of the impending death of the traditional album and sales cycle, and the effect that that will have on music marketing. My colleague at Motive Unknown, Darren Hemmings, recently wrote an excellent piece outlining some of the hazards that the industry is facing due to the current seismic shift from album sales to streaming playlists. The launch of Apple Music in particular is making us all nervous, due to the inevitability that it will either convert or cannibalise download purchasers; while at the same time, you have bands like The Prodigy announcing their plans to stop releasing albums altogether. So what does this all mean for music marketing?
The music industry’s big white hope is playlists on streaming services. Playlists are the new frontier, our saviour, what’s really going to move the needle in helping artists to get discovered and driving plays for everybody – or are they? Can anyone actually prove that playlisting activity alone can break artists and drive truly significant play counts? At Motive Unknown, our experience to date suggests not. Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan published an intriguing piece on the effect that playlists may have on the future of music last week – it’s a great read, but what struck me most about it was how it raised more questions than answers as to exactly what the impact of playlists will be. The truth is of course that nobody really knows; playlisting as a content and marketing strategy is still very much in its infancy, and we’re all scrabbling about in the dirt desperately trying to dig up answers.
A big part of this problem remains the lack of easily accessible, accurate data on playlist additions, play counts and the effect that those plays have on an artist’s wider campaign and catalogue. Although platforms like Soundcharts enable you to track playlist additions, they don’t exhaustively track every single playlist out there, so cannot be relied upon as a definitive source of data. Plus, while it’s useful to be able to see which playlists tracks have been added to, as yet Spotify doesn’t seem to be sharing data on play counts with anyone; and so there remains a gaping chasm of disconnect between artists, labels and marketers eagerly pitching their tracks for inclusion on the hottest playlists, and the data that they get back on whether or not those playlists are actually having any effect on the bottom line.
It feels like artists, labels, managers and marketers have been promised for years that streaming services will unlock a goldmine of data in terms of them to identify their fans and superfans and how their audiences interact with their music — how often they listen, what they listen to, how/when/where they share that music and so on. And yet, so far, the gates to the goldmine remain securely locked. It’s been a frustration of many of us music marketers for some time now that streaming services constantly push artists and labels to spend time creating their own marketing strategies and building up their followers on their platforms for what currently seems like very little return, in terms of data in particular. And yet, if that data was only accessible, it could help to prove the value of playlists and streaming to those in the industry who are still skeptical, and be a huge PR win for streaming services at the same time.
And there’s another area in which playlists need to be pushed forward: professionalisation. Kobalt’s David Emery recently wrote a brilliant analysis of how and why Spotify should professionalise playlist curators on the platform in order to win the war against the likes of Apple. He’s absolutely spot-on – professionalising curators in the way that YouTube does and enabling money to flow into this space would add value and provide an essential marketing platform for curators, artists, labels and brands alike. I wrote about the need for music marketing to shift from social networks to streaming services two years ago; if artists are interacting with fans in the time and place when they’re listening to the music, they’re much more likely to be able to forge a more meaningful connection with those fans, and to be able to convert them into a superfan. Features like Spotify’s Activity Feed and Apple Music Connect are a start, but professionalising playlisters could take that so much further.
Opening up the possibility for playlists and curators to become and to build brands in their own right, and to partner with existing big brands – just as they have done on the likes of YouTube – would enable the rise of playlists and curators with the reach, the audience and the influence to genuinely break artists, and to provide the exposure that smaller, up and coming artists and independent labels so desperately need. This is one area that labels should now be focusing on – how to break and market artists on streaming services, and how to identify and work with Spotify’s superstar curators in the same way that brands work with native stars on the likes of Vine, Snapchat and Instagram. As Gracenote’s Ethan Kaplan noted recently, the trick now is “nurturing an audience month-over-month to drive loyalty and increase returns on streaming services.”
But of course, streaming going mainstream doesn’t just affect recorded music – what impact is the shift from sales to streaming going to have on live music? Industry analyst Mark Mulligan recently debuted new research showing that streaming is leading to more casual artist-fan relationships, which in turn could lead to a decline in live revenue for individual artists. However, last week TechCrunch reported on a new study by EventBrite, which showed that 51% of concert-goers buy tickets to shows of artists they discovered through streaming. If Josh Constine’s assertion streaming turns listeners into fans is true – and the music industry as a whole had better hope like hell that it is – then that only serves to further underline the need for the likes of Spotify to unlock data in order to enable artists and labels to use context-driven targeting to engage fans on a deeper level and with other products beyond recorded music, such as ticket sales, merchandise, experiences and more.
Of course, Spotify already features integrations with the likes of Songkick and BandPage, and yesterday’s announcement that you can now link your Spotify and Songkick accounts to get notifications when your favourite artists are playing in your town is a nice touch. But imagine if they took that further and partnered with the likes of Dice.fm, so that artists could reach all of their fans, promote upcoming gigs and tours within the Activity Feed, and enable fans to purchase tickets directly from within Spotify. Here’s hoping. I’d also like to see Music Ally’s prediction that we will see artist subscriptions baked into streaming services come true, and provide another additional revenue stream for artists.
All that being said, it remains a fact that big hits are going to be big hits no matter what, and that the traditional ways of breaking artists – particularly radio and TV – remain more important than ever. For now, streaming alone can’t have the same impact, and there are no true overnight successes. Plus, while streaming is undoubtedly on its way to becoming the dominant form through which music is consumed, we have to remember that we’re still very much in a transitional period, and that there are still huge numbers of music listeners and fans who aren’t on streaming services at all, and can’t be reached through these platforms. As yet, there is still a very big question mark over whether or not audio streaming services like Spotify will ever go truly mainstream, and whether or not those services can convince enough users to pay £120 a year. At this stage, all evidence points to the more mainstream music fan being happy with the plethora of free music that’s available.
And it’s not only TV and radio that are more important than ever; so too is another old skool concept, that of owning your own data. Companies like Disciple Media and Freeform are licensing technology to labels and artists, who can then use their platforms to distribute music, videos, lyrics and merchandise, generating income through monthly subscription fees, and /or converting free users into paid with upgrades. The model is inspired by the freemium one that video games have used to great success over the past few years; release content for free, use the power of free digital distribution to get your content seen and heard by as wide an audience as possible, then focus on monetising the small subset of most-engaged users and give them the possibility of spending as little or as much as they like – the same principle that Nicholas Lovell wrote about in his excellent book ‘The Curve’.
Plus, these apps offer an interactive, two-way channel between artist and fan through instant messaging features. And with an epidemic of social media fatigue sweeping the digital landscape, and organic social reach fading faster than a midwinter sunset, owning your own data and being able to reach as much of your audience as possible through platforms that you control yourself is more crucial than ever. With the plethora of social and marketing platforms proliferating on what seems like a weekly basis, and the reach and ROI of each of those platforms dropping even quicker, it’s harder than ever to truly reach and engage your audience. Never mind streaming leading to more casual artist-fan relationships; ironically, it feels like social media marketing is having the same effect.
Even the likes of Justin Bieber and Calvin Harris’ management companies are investing in apps like Bkstg, which aims to become “the single destination for fans to connect with their favorite acts across all platforms”. Whilst I admire that principle, which is spot-on, it feels like too little too late; at this stage, it will become just another platform to add to the plethora of those which need endless updating, and deliver an ever-diminishing return on investment. Instead, artists and labels would be better off focusing on the power of the humble website and mailing list; it’s a hard fact that they remain the most powerful platforms at a music marketer’s disposal. Plus, only on the platforms that you truly own and control yourself will you have full access to all of your audience and all of your data.
Never mind The Curve – have we come full circle? Genuine audience engagement, and being able to reach, analyse and understand that audience, remains the holy grail for music marketing, and yet more elusive than ever. As always with digital music, data remains the key to unlocking the full potential of audiences and driving new revenue streams across all platforms. And only those who can pass through the gates of the goldmine will succeed.