What are an Artist’s Metrics for Success in the Digital Age?

Last night I was fortunate enough to be on stage with Talking Head David Byrne and legendary DJ Dave Haslam at the Royal Northern College of Music discussing Byrne’s latest book ‘How Music Works’.  It was a fun event with a lot of thoughtful debate and also insight into Byrne’s approach to making and performing music.  Prior to our discussion I gave a short presentation on the state of the digital music nation to help illustrate how the music market is so dramatically different after the music industry’s first digital decade.

One of the slides I updated for my presentation was that of artist ‘success metrics’ in the digital age (see figure).

Prior to the advent of digital, and more specifically the spread of the contagion of free, the way in which artist’s measured their success was primarily through sales of albums.  But in the digital era, with album sales becoming less and less important to many artists, metrics such as total YouTube views and number of Facebook likes are becoming just as important measures of success.

As we are still in the early days of digital, the shift in success metrics does not apply in a uniform manner.  Some artists’ success metrics still look more like those of artists from the analogue age than they do the digital age.  Take a look at two of the UK’s most successful contemporary artists: Adele and Coldplay.  Both of these artists are still predominately album artists and both have had huge success with their latest albums.  Yet look at their YouTube views and Facebook likes, and they significantly trail more canonically digital-age artists such as Rihanna and Lady Gaga.  This is illustrated even more starkly by the case of Pitbull who has sold a relatively modest 8 million albums but has a staggering 2.95 billion YouTube views.

A key factor that underpins this diversity is the age of the core audiences of the artists.  Coldplay and Adele appeal more to older audiences who are still in the habit of buying albums, or who do not buy many albums anymore but do so on occasion when an album like ‘21’ comes along.

Does this mean that as we progress more deeply into the music industry’s second digital decade that the success metric balance will tilt more firmly in the favour of YouTube and Facebook?  Quite probably.  Which inherently means that album sales will continue to dwindle.  A key reason for this is that the majority of album buyers are still CD buyers, and more of these consumers are stopping buying music entirely rather than going digital.  In the UK the total number of people buying music dropped by 5.1 million between 2008 and 2011.  Against a population of 61 million that is a vast number to lose in such a short period of time.  In the US the numbers are similar but slightly lower on a per capita basis.

Until a clear path is carved for physical album buyers into the digital realm, album sales will continue to dwindle.  And that not only matters in industry revenue terms, it matters from a creative perspective as well.  I am not arguing that we try to turn back the tide of album atomization (many consumers will forever more only want individual tracks from many artists).  But what must happen is the emergence of a new generation of album products that deliver not just as much, but more value to music fans than CD albums currently do.  This means leveraging the principles of DISC (Dynamic, Interactive, Social, Curated) to create a new breed of album experiences.  Because the alternative is swapping albums sales for YouTube views and Facebook likes, neither of which pay the bills.

Why It Doesn’t Really Matter Whether Adele Sells More Albums Than Lady Gaga This Year

You may have noticed the unattractive furore surrounding Adele’s contest with Lady Gaga to become the biggest selling artist of the year.  The momentum appears to be with Adele, with her hugely successful ‘21’ album yesterday becoming the first ever album to sell more than 1 million digital copies on iTunes in Europe.

But the simple fact is that albums are no longer the definitive marker of success that they once were.  The shift from the distribution era of the album to the consumption era of the stream and the download have seen a shift from buying to free, and from albums to singles.  The download store allowed music buyers to deconstruct the album into cherry-picked bite size chunk; file sharing enabled people to stop buying albums altogether; and streaming let fans assemble single tracks into their own personal albums (i.e. playlists).

The digital transition makes a case for new measures of success

Income from live, merchandize and other sources have been becoming increasingly important for artists and yet we still measure an artist’s success in terms of how many units of music they sell.  Live revenues are certainly one measure, and of course radio.  But Facebook likes and YouTube views are becoming an increasingly important indicator of success also. And yet, measuring success is not as simple as choosing between one metric or another.  The music industry is in a transition stage, as is consumer consumption of music.  Thus we have a mixture of artists ranging from those that are clearly of the digital age and those that are transition artists, who are entirely contemporary artists but are more at home on a CD than they are YouTube.  I’d put Lady Gaga in the first camp and Adele in the second:  just as measuring Adele solely on her YouTube views would miss the mark, so measuring Lady Gaga on album sales alone would miss the mark.

The chart directly below illustrates the point further.  Here artists are mapped according to their total YouTube views and total Facebook ‘Likes’, with the bubble size representing the total number of albums sold globally.  I have picked a sample of artists that are, or have been, top tier and that represent a range of different artist career models.

A number of trends become apparent:

  • A new generation of artist is emerging. Lady Gaga may be the poster girl for the YouTube generation but she also shifts a good number of album units too.    Artists like Cuban American rapper Pitbull are the sharp end of digital age artists. With 1.5 billion YouTube views to his name and tens of millions of singles sold PitBull is a mainstream success story of the highest order, and yet he has sold fewer than 10 million albums.
  • Target audience counts. Coldplay and Adele are both top tier contemporary artists, and yet their YouTube views pale compared to Pitbull.  What they have instead are big album sales (50 million for Coldplay, 15 million for Adele).  Why the difference? Because Coldplay and Adele appeal most strongly to people in the their late 20’s and upwards i.e. the people who still buy albums. While Pitbull is much more youth focused.
  • The 100 million selling album artist is a dying breed.  Just in case you were wondering why Sir Cliff is in the chart, he achieved the not insignificant feat of selling 100 million albums. He was at his peak during the album’s apogee and although his digital stats are pretty modest, it is hard to see the likes of Pitbull or, perhaps, even Lady Gaga ever matching Cliff’s album sales.  That is not a reflection on those artists but instead on the changing dynamics of the music market.
  • The exceptional success stories break the rules.  Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson break the rules.  Lady Gaga is – by contemporary measures at least – a strong album artist as well being in a different league in YouTube and Facebook.  Michael Jackson was firmly an artist of the album apogee era and yet his unique profile has ensured that his success continued into the digital age, and by the rules of the digital age.
  • Facebook is the better measure of sustained, organic success.  The problem with YouTube is that it is susceptible to the impact of flashes in the pan.  An artist can have one or two massive YouTube hits and then disappear, or simply be early on in their career.  Facebook ‘Likes’ however are a better measure of longer term, organic popularity.  Take the example of Dev who has close to 300 million YouTube views  – which is nearly as many views as Coldplay.  Yet take a look at Dev’s Facebook ‘Likes’ and you find that she has just 256,00 compared to Coldplay’s 15 million.  YouTube is the key digital popularity measure but needs to be blended with other measures to be truly effective.

Many, rightly, think of YouTube and other free streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora as promotional and discovery vehicles, a digital equivalent for radio.  And yet they are also much more than that: they are increasingly the ends as well as the means.  The chart below shows the number of albums sold per YouTube view.  Cliff Richard’s rate dwarves the rest because his peak was in the album era and his remaining fans aren’t exactly widespread among millennials. But the overall trend is nonetheless compelling: for the true ‘YouTube Generation’ artists, the ratio is dramatically weaker than for album artists.

6 years ago Paul Myers – then CEO of Mp3 download store Wippit – told me that “rock n’ roll was dead”, that the last great album was ‘Thriller’ and that we would never see an album that successful ever again. I was sceptical at the time, but those words are appearing ever more accurate as each year passes.  Looking at the first chart above it is clear that no artist is ever going to come close to selling the amount of albums Michael Jackson did.  But artists will still be successful: we will see artists break the 2 billion YouTube views and we will see artists break the 100 million Facebook ‘Likes’.  As this transition phase continues to play out, artists will evolve how their careers work and the industry will increasingly have to change how it measures their success.  Companies like Music Metric are already starting along this path and the traditional sources of measurement such as Nielsen and the Official Charts Company are also evolving their approaches.  These shifts are crucial, because measuring an artist’s success isn’t just a marketing trick, it is the litmus test with which their fans relate and by which history will remember them.