Fake artists are what happens when fandom dies

The topic of ‘fake artists’ refuses to go away. For those who have been on Mars for the last couple of years, fake artists refer to artists who release under a streaming pen name but do not build any artist profile around the music. Most of this music comes from production music libraries (typically ‘royalty free’) and is seen by the traditional music business (record labels especially) as a means of gaming the system – especially as the assumption is that DSPs pay less for such music (even though record labels have started playing the game themselves). Although the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ might seem like a pragmatic solution, it, of course, only exacerbates the problem. Because the problem is not fake artists, but it is, instead, the way in which streaming is killing fandom.

Streaming is racing to be radio, not retail

Streaming is fast becoming more of a replacement for radio than it is retail. Retail used to be where (engaged, smaller scale) fans went, while radio was where (passive, larger scale) audiences went. As streaming got bigger, there was always going to come a point in which its focus would be the large passive audience segment rather than the smaller engaged fan segment. But what has happened is that streaming is turning everyone into the passive massive, even fans. Streaming has turned music into a utility, like water coming out of the tap. This might have helped drive global scale, but it came at the cost of fundamentally eroding the cultural impact of music, by making it about consumption rather than fandom. 

Streaming music soundtracks our everyday lives. There are playlists for everything we do (study, fitness, relaxing, cooking, working, etc.). By becoming pervasive, music has lost some of its magic. The fandom that was inherent in people buying music because they loved it is gone. The biproduct of ubiquity is utility. In the immortal words of Syndrome from the Incredibles: “When everyone is super, no one will be…”

The problem is that, from the ground up, Western streaming is geared for consumption not fandom. From playlists through to economics, streaming is all about consumption at scale. Songs fuel consumption, not artists. Which is the breeding ground for mood music, of which ‘fake artists’ are but one sub-strand. 

Streaming’s torrent of ubiquity

This is not to say that there is anything inherently bad about consumption, after all, radio has been a corner stone of the music business for, well, pretty much forever. Labels have had a love / hate relationship with radio, but they valued the way in which it drove sales and delivered exposure for songs and artists (especially as DJs talk about the music being played, interviewing artists, etc.). With streaming, though, the discovery journey is the destination. So, the post-consumption part of the equation just disappeared. And a consumption-first environment, tailored to individuals’ daily lives and shorn of the artist context delivered by DJs, is fertile ground for mood music. In fact, mood music is the natural evolution of a consumption-first system. A system in which artists get washed away by streaming’s torrent of ubiquity. 

Add poor remuneration for mid and long-tail artists into the mix, and you have a perfect storm. Why? Because artists are compelled to diversify their income mix to eke out every extra dollar they can get from their creativity, with production music libraries being eager customers of their ancillary work.

Fandom has moved up the value chain

Streaming may have killed off fandom within its own environment, but fandom itself has not died. It has gone elsewhere (Bandcamp, Twitch, TikTok, etc.). It is TikTok that has arguably done the most to reinvigorate fandom in recent years. But, crucially, it has inserted itself before consumption instead of after it. You will be hard pushed to find a mainstream music marketing campaign that does not include TikTok as the place to kick start discovery and (if all goes well) virality. TikTok has thus become the top of the funnel for consumption. Yet, rather than filtering out what is valuable, the process is more like panning for gold, i.e., filtering out what is not valuable – consumption. Fandom, identity, recreation, engagement, and connection are all left with TikTok, while consumption flows through to streaming. Little wonder, then, that TikTok is diluting streaming’s cultural capital. 

It does not have to be this way. Chinese streaming services demonstrate that streaming can be fandom machines too. Tencent Music Entertainment makes around two thirds of its revenue from non-music, fandom revenue. But perhaps the most startling example of just how much is being left on the table by Western streaming services, is found in NetEase Cloud Music’s inaugural earnings release. 212 million music users generated RMB 3.6 billion. 0.7 million social entertainment users generated RMB 3.7 billion. Yes, that means an audience that is 0.32% the size of the music audience generated more income in fandom-related revenue than the music audience did in music revenue. Right now, if anyone in the West is going to be streaming fandom machines, it is probably going to be TikTok (a Chinese company) and Epic Games (a company 40% owned by a Chinese company).

Fandom remains the under-tapped resource in the West, but its value is not simply in the revenue potential. Fandom is the essence of what makes music move us. Under-invest in it, and music will continue on its path of commodification. Which might serve the streaming platforms well, but not the wider music business. ‘Fake artists’ will become the norm, not the exception. To misquote syndrome “when everyone is fake, no one will be…”

Why Dolly Parton may want to wait before selling her catalogue

In a recent interview with the BBC, Dolly Parton said that she is considering selling her publishing catalogue, stating that she would simply launch a new publishing company and start all over again. On the one hand, this is not the first time she has publicly pondered the move (the first time was in December 2020), and is thus probably aimed at pushing up buyer demand and creating a bidding war. But on the other, it is an interesting illustration of the mindset of older artists who look to sell – they feel confident enough in their careers to simply be able to look at like an author who is selling the rights of their latest novel and moving onto the next one. But even more importantly, while cashing in might seem like a safe bet, there is risk for both sides, not just risk of whether valuations are too high, but also that they may not be high enough.

Catalogue investment is booming

The rate of music catalogue M+A acquisitions is accelerating, with announced transactions exceeding 12 billion in 2021, more than doubling since 2020*. Though those figures are boosted by some big institutional plays, such as UMG divesting some of its business ahead of its IPO, there is a rapid acceleration in the number of artists and songwriters who are selling. The market looks set to continue to be buoyant. On the buy side, there is a growing number of new investment vehicles and institutions entering the space, and thus driving up demand in a market of finite supply. On the sell side, though many big names have already sold, these are a minority of the big names of recorded music. This misalignment of supply and demand is helping push prices up, consequently accelerating the market even further.

Old, white, English-speaking males dominate

An interesting characteristic of today’s music catalogue M+A market is its bias towards old, white, male, Anglo repertoire. This reflects the investment thesis of many acquirers, which are building investment cases on valuation methodologies that revolve around historical cash flows. Put crudely, this means investments are being shaped on yesterday’s performance as an indication of tomorrow’s success. In most asset class markets, this is a very sensible approach, and in music it is a crucial component – but it is not enough alone. This is because streaming (e.g., Spotify) and social video (e.g., TikTok) are transforming how music is being consumed. Fandom is fragmenting and listening is splintering, meaning that the big hits of yesteryear are unlikely to perform the same way on streaming tomorrow as they do on radio today. At the very least, this introduces a significant degree of volatility into any outlook an investor may have. It should be of little surprise that this is where MIDiA spends a lot of its time in the consulting and advisory work we do for music investment funds.

The next music business is building 

This is where the artist and songwriter’s appetite for risk comes in. For an older songwriter or artist, selling up represents an opportunity to bank previous success, to capitalise on the unprecedentedly buoyant music market. But the market has a lot of growth left in it yet. In fact, the best days are likely still ahead of us. 2021 was the biggest growth in the recorded music market in modern times (watch out for MIDiA’s official figures, which are coming very soon)! Even if the digital service provider (DSP) streaming market, epitomised by Spotify, may be maturing, non-DSP streaming (TikTok, Meta, Twitch, etc.) is only just getting going and contributed significantly to 2021 growth. On top of this, new horizons are being set in the shape of the Metaverse, NFTs, Blockchain, and decentralized autonomous organisations (DAOs). Web 3.0 is riddled with risk and inflated expectations, but, as with all cases of looking at future tech, it is easy to overestimate the near-term impact and underestimate the long-term effect. Meanwhile, there are moves across the globe to increase the amount of streaming money that flows to the creators themselves. Add in the growth of emerging markets; growing rights transparency; and the booming music creator and creator tools economies and you have the foundations of an entirely new chapter for the music business. 

Which brings us back to Dolly Parton. In many ways, she is like the gambler sat at the poker table with a pile of chips in front of her. If she walks away now, she banks a fortune, but what of she plays for just a little longer. Except that, in the case of the music business, the odds are not even. Unless Russia dives the global economy into a disastrous drop – which, of course, is no small possibility – things are only going to get better for the music business. But, just like on the poker table, an artists or songwriter does not need to go all in. A growing number of investors are becoming more sophisticated with how they work with creators. For example, allowing them to retain certain rights, or a portion of overall rights. This means that the creator gets to benefit from the future upside while also benefiting from the up-front cash. It also means that the creator remains vested, with an incentive to help keep those old songs alive (and, as a result, increasing their value for all parties) rather than simply moving onto the next chapter. 

There is no doubt that the music catalogue sector has boomed, and there is also an argument that prices are inflated, at least in comparison to yesterday and today’s business. But for creators and investors who are prepared to take a long-term view, things might only just be starting.

*Look out for much more market analysis and data in a forthcoming MIDiA report on music catalogue acquisition by my colleagues Tatiana Cirisano and Kriss Thakrar

Music creators – we want your insight!

Beyond our role in analysing, reporting, predicting, and consulting within music and media, MIDiA is a team of people – many of us creators too – who are committed to making a fairer, more sustainable and creator-friendly music industry. To this end, we are currently fielding a survey for music creators (who are based in US and Canada) in order to learn about how they are making money and what they consider to be definitions of success. The survey is open to artists, producers and songwriters, as well as managers and business managers.

If you are an artist, songwriter, producer or manager, please help us by filling in this short, 10-minute survey.

The results will be used to develop monetisation tools for artists – This survey is your chance to make a contribution to the music industry, and to help companies build the most efficient finance tool for artists – so please help!

Note, we are looking for around 200 responses and five lucky participants will win $1000 in Amazon gift vouchers from our prize draw!! 

Click here to complete the survey.

Artists Survey 2022 – MIDiA asks music creators: how will you grow your audiences, earnings and career?

As the music industry continues to debate the many pros and cons of ‘the streaming era’  (while enjoying the unprecedented industry growth that it has brought), the spotlight can sometimes move away from those artists and songwriters who make a living from music but are not the big stars or household names that we know and read about in the news. 

At the same time, the ‘creator economy’ continues to boom, something MIDiA has been following, researching, and supporting for the past few years. As part of our work with music creators, we have spent the past 12-months speaking to artists, songwriters, producers and their managers about their priorities, concerns, challenges and hopes for the future as they make music, release it and, just maybe, establish a career in doing so.

We have learned a lot from these conversations. There is great insight from in-depth interviews with artists and songwriters, many of whom will (and should) capture the attention of all of today’s industry players, from streaming services to labels and creator tools companies.

For example, we have learned that the most proactive, ambitious artists see themselves as small businesses / startups, with a key goal to ‘bootstrap’ their own careers, thus creating a self-sustaining business with existing resources, rather than borrowing money or hurtling headlong into a ‘record deal’. In the streaming era, for many up and coming artists, success is more about making a sustainable living from music than it is about fame and riches.

Another great insight we have found is that artists are focused very much on core, loyal fans rather than large audiences that may come and then go. While most artists would love to ‘have a hit record’, even more of them appreciate not needing or relying on that rare event happening. Artists are focused on building 100-1,000 core fans rather than marketing to the masses, hence they are looking for tools that will help them directly reach fans, as well as helping them collect all the actionable data about their fans, which will ultimately guide them into creating relevant and engaging content for them.

As for monetisation, many artists are, of course, concerned that streaming does not pay the bills. Many of the artists we have spoken with have the perception that streaming is passive listening, and while it is great for profile and promotion, it is the other revenue streams that they need to focus on (for example, live touring, live stream sessions, merch, sync, and even teaching and session work for other artists). Many have launched Patreon pages or are looking to commercialise their own fan channels, and when it comes to new technology, there is both excitement and trepidation surrounding NFTs.

As part of MIDiA’s mission to understand and support artists, and work towards a more sustainable future for creators, we have launched the first tranche of our 2022 artist survey, focusing, at this stage, on North America and Canada. We want to hear from up and coming artists who are just setting out on their musical journey, direct artists who are using creator tools and distribution services in particular, but also established artists who are a few albums into their careers. 


If you are an artist, songwriter, producer or manager, please help us by filling in the short, 10-minute survey here, and note, we are looking for 200 or so views and have five prize draws from this sample to provide $1000 in vouchers

Beyond our role in analysing, reporting, predicting and consulting within music and media, MIDiA is a team of people – many of us creators too – who are committed to make a fairer, more sustainable and creator-friendly music industry. This survey is your chance to make a contribution so please help!

Why Spotify cannot afford to make it three out of three with podcasts

It has been a couple of weeks that Spotify would be glad to forget – if it could. Although many of the arguments have been emotionally charged and the debate says as much about people’s political beliefs as it does business strategy, it is indisputable that there is a lot at stake for Spotify. Podcasters are its big bet on the future, music artists are the current bet that pays the bills. Both constituencies need to be kept happy, but can they both be kept happy enough and at the same time? Spotify’s big-future podcast vision has been sold to investors, divesting or censoring Joe Rogan would shake those investors’ confidence in Spotify’s ability to execute on podcasts. But it would be more than just that, it would be the third time that Spotify has had to backtrack on a big bet. Once may be careless, twice bad luck, but three times would most certainly not be a charm.

It is worth remembering why Spotify is betting big on podcasts. Strategically, it wants a slice of the $30 billion radio advertising business, and it wants to ensure it is competing in all lanes of audio. But that is more about the opportunity, the potential. There is also a more prosaic motivation: podcasts represent the ability to grow higher margin revenue and give Spotify more control over its own destiny. Rather than be beholden to music rightsholders and face continual calls for higher rates from artists and songwriters (which risks making margins even smaller), Spotify can plot a course to a future where it owns much of its own content. This means both more control and higher margins. Win-win.

Spotify as a label

The only problem is that as a music platform that has acquired its hundreds of millions of users through music, music rightsholders and creators do not take too kindly to feeling like they are yesterday’s game despite still driving the vast majority of the revenue. And yet, it need not have been this way. The origins of Spotify’s podcast bet lay in the failing of their second big bet: direct artists. In September 2018, Spotify opened up its platform to artists to release their music directly on the platform. The labels of course saw this as a massive threat of disintermediation, shook their fists in fury, and compelled Spotify to swiftly backtrack, dissipating the service in July 2019. The irony is that Spotify was trying to achieve the same objectives with direct artists as it is with podcasts: more control and higher margins. The labels managed to get the strategy killed off, but in doing so they pushed Spotify into pursuing what may be an even more disruptive strategy. Competing with Spotify as a label might have been daunting to the music business, but at least the world’s leading music subscription service was still going to be squarely focused on getting its users to listen to music…

Spotify as a video service

If direct artists was Spotify’s second failed big bet, then video was the first. Back in January 2016, Spotify announced that it was becoming a video service. Featuring original content commissioned from giants of TV, such as Viacom and the BBC, Spotify went big on video. Unfortunately for Spotify, its users did not and Spotify quietly backed away from what briefly looked like a major expansion of Spotify offering away from music. Recognise the trend?

Fortune favours the brave

Spotify’s bet-based strategy is both admirable and has underpinned its huge success to date. It is just unfortunate that the biggest, highest profile bets have not panned out. If Spotify were to fail with the podcast bet too, then the consequences could be catastrophic in terms of investor sentiment. But Spotify has to bet big. It is a tech growth stock, and thus its market value is defined more by what it can be tomorrow than by what it is today. Being the leading player in a commodified and slowing DSP streaming market is not the sort of growth story that underpins valuations like Spotify’s. So it needs big dreams to aim at. 

Yet the irony is, if podcasts do not pan out then Spotify will be back at where it started: as a music streaming company (just as it was after the first two failed bets). This would be an interesting contrast to Netflix, which (occasional foray into games excepted) has had a singular focus on being a video service and is still a video service, with no failed side bets along the way.

The House of Cards moment

The likelihood is that Spotify will make a big success of podcasts, and audio more generally –and the Joe Rogan phase will be looked back on like Netflix’s House of Cards phase: a hint of what will come, the genesis of something much bigger, much more culturally impactful, and far more pervasive. But Netflix did not get to where it is without antagonising (and losing) partners along the way. TV networks that had been licensing their content to Netflix suddenly realised it was now competing with them too. By making their shows available on Netflix they were actually helping a competitor compete against them. Disney and Fox took it so seriously that they pulled their catalogue.

Netflix cause ill feeling among some TV networks and became an outright enemy. That is something Spotify cannot do with music rightsholders and creators. Spotify is currently causing ill feeling among the music community by going to great lengths to accommodate its podcast creator community, which is in stark contrast to the numerous missteps it has made with the music creator ecosystem over the years. It can do so, because it has leverage over music creators (few feel bold enough to remove themselves from Spotify), but Spotify (despite being the leading podcast platform) is still a long way from having that sort of hold over podcast creators.

‘Too big to fail’ is not enough

Netflix survived its backlash, not because it was ‘too big to fail’, but because the video streaming market is fragmented, so it could survive without the networks it antagonised (and two of those networks could go it alone via Disney+). The music streaming market is very different – losing labels and artists would simply reduce Spotify’s value proposition compared to its competitors. Spotify cannot afford its podcast ‘House of Cards moment’ to be followed by a ‘Disney moment’ for music. Matters just got further complicated by a major investor now raising concerns about Spotify’s podcast editorial policy – which means that this is no longer even a clean case of managing investors-vs-the music business. Spotify has an intensely delicate path through which it must find its way.

If it does, then third time really will be a charm for Spotify. 

Spotify chose audio over music, but bigger decisions lie ahead

The symbolism behind Spotify’s support of Neil Young removing his music from the platform, rather than Joe Rogan’s podcast being removed for peddling vaccine misinformation was inescapable. For many, this was a highly public test of whether Spotify put audio or music first, and audio won. For a company that still makes more than 95% of its revenue from music, that is a big call. But, of course, in this particular instance we are talking about a catalogue music artist versus a superstar frontline audio creator. Rogan is one of Spotify’s biggest audio bets, and audio is Spotify’s biggest strategic bet, so it would take a lot – a real lot – to see Spotify consider pulling the plug on the controversial podcaster. Yet, that is exactly the sort of decision Spotify is going to have to start considering before long, and if it does not, then the decision might be made for them.

Becoming a media company

Spotify’s audio problem actually has remarkably little to do with the music business, and everything to do with media company regulation. Back in the mid-2010s, Facebook started its transition from platform to media company, pushing away from a pure focus on users’ content and towards professional created media. In doing so, Facebook found itself beginning to face the same sort of regulatory scrutiny as traditional media companies. It cried foul, trying to make the argument that it was more platform than media company and, therefore, not subject to traditional media company regulation. Facebook won some battles along the way, but it also lost a lot too, catalysed by milestones, such as the Cambridge Analytica debacle and Facebook’s use by Russian covert powers to influence the US presidential election. Throughout this, Facebook, now Meta, has fought tooth and nail to try to build a case of exceptionalism and for the internet to regulate itself. But for many regulators and law makers, the arguments do not pass muster. So much so, in fact, that the case for a new, dedicated regulatory body is building, and supported by no other than a former FCC chair.

Spotify’s case is even more complicated in that it is paying for the content in question, making it much more difficult to build a platform argument. Added to that, regardless of how much money Spotify has invested in Rogan, outspoken podcasters around the world will be looking at this as a test case for whether their freedom of speech is safe on Spotify.

The growing regulatory momentum matters to Spotify because:

  1. It is going through the exact same platform-to-media company transition that Facebook went through
  2. Support for regulation is stronger now than it was in the mid-2010s. Spotify could find itself getting caught in the same regulatory drag net as social media companies and regulated in the same way at the same time, or close to

Fragmented fandom looks very different in audio than music

Spotify’s audio challenges are not, however, limited to regulation. Spotify is learning the hard way that it is far, far easier to serve the fragmented fandom of music than it is of audio. There are not too many people in the world who feel the strength of antipathy towards other music genres as socialists do against conservatives, and so forth. There is no such thing as mass-market political opinion. Opinions polarise, more so now than ever. The best you can hope to address is a majority of opinion, but even that is scarce, and will be equally disliked by the remainder. This is the nature of modern-day politics and culture. Of course, Spotify understood this going into audio – it is why it has both Joe Rogan and Michelle Obama on its audio roster. But whereas having a diverse music catalogue is a consumer benefit (i.e., more choice) for audio, diversity can be divisive, as Joe Rogan’s continued presence illustrates.

Dealing with Neil Young is one thing, but if there is a flurry of younger, frontline artists that voice concern, then Spotify may need to take action. It will be betting that most, newer frontline artists lean towards political neutrality for fear of upsetting portions of their fanbases. Many artists, and their labels, will be asking themselves whether Rogan is too popular within their fanbases to make a stand. The days of the politically active, protest singer are a thing of the past. Perhaps more realistic an option is for artists somewhere between new and old (eg Beyonce, Coldplay) to take a stand, artists that feel confident enough in their beliefs and their fanbases to make a stand while still being culturally relevant.

Time to choose? 

So, Spotify’s future as an audio company may not only be shaped by external regulation, but it may also have to regulate itself – culturally and politically. There is good reason that the global media landscape is defined by three key types of outlet: liberal / left; neutral; conservative / right. That reason is that it is really hard (perhaps impossible) to simultaneously appeal to both sides of the political divide. If you want to pursue the middle path, that means removing much of the sort of content that drives streams. There is no Joe Rogan in the middle path. Which means that Spotify is probably going to have to decide upon a political leaning, even before it feels the heavy hand of media regulation.

SEVEN (MORE) LESSONS FOR LONGEVITY IN TODAY’S MUSIC BUSINESS

This is a guest post from MIDiA’s Keith Jopling in which he dives into some of the key insights he has gleaned from talking to artists as part of his side-hustle ‘Art of Longevity’ podcast (which you should check out if you haven’t already done so!)

This year I had the pleasure of working with one of the greatest songwriters in history. Bjorn Ulvaes commissioned MIDiA to produce the report ‘Rebalancing the Song Economy’ at a time when the UK government was making a formal inquiry into the economics of music streaming. Bjorn was amazingly articulate (of course he was, check out his ABBA lyrics) on the challenges for songwriters today, but one thing he said really haunted me. During the press interviews (and in his Ted Talk) Bjorn told the world “I don’t think ABBA would have made it today”. Imagine if ABBA hadn’t ever broken out of Sweden?


Meanwhile, as part of the UK inquiry, another great lyricist, Elbow singer Guy Garvey, eloquently told MPs “If musicians can’t afford to pay the rent… we haven’t got tomorrow’s music in place.”


This concern about the artists of today not replenishing those of the past is one of the reasons I have become fascinated with longevity in today’s music business. Longevity has to be the primary goal for any serious artist, yet achieving it in today’s music business means working miracles. The volume of music and the number of artists creating and releasing it makes today’s ‘market’ ultra competitive.


The Art of Longevity podcast is now two seasons in and I’m becoming even more fascinated by how music artists can continue to succeed despite the music industry constantly shifting around them.


What I’ve discovered this time around is that there is no ‘mainstream’ music industry to aspire to at all (something that has changed since Elbow first gained real success with their fourth album ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ in 2008). Chart success for example, does not equate to being in the mainstream. These days most establishes bands can focus their efforts and get a number one or two album but a week later, the world has moved on. Most artists understand this. Success is a relative term best defined by you – the artist – on your terms and no one else’s.


My guests in season 2 were: KT Tunstall, Ed Robertson (of Canadian legends Barenaked Ladies), Fin Greenhall (Fink), Los Lobos, Mew and Portico Quartet. Between them they have amassed 150 years of commercial and creative viability and they are all still going strong – perhaps stronger than ever. The seven lessons learned from my conversations with them are:

  1. HAVE THE CONFIDENCE TO DISRUPT YOURSELF BEFORE THE INDUSTRY DISRUPTS YOU
    The mainstream no longer exists but in the 80s it sure did and in 1987 LA rock band Los Lobos discovered it by accident. Their cover of Richie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’ (the theme song to a surprise hit movie by a first-time director with a largely unknown cast) became a smash number one hit in a dozen countries. How do you follow that? With an album of traditional Mexican music of course! Thing is, Los Lobos knew how much of a fluke La Bamba was for them and that they had little chance of successfully repeating it. So they didn’t try or let anyone convince them it was a good idea.

    When the Danish rock band Mew first had breakthrough international success with their 2003 album ‘Frengers’, they had arrived in a place most bands (especially from non-English speaking markets) dream of: signed to a UK major label and on a European tour with R.E.M. Their next record wasn’t a mainstream follow-up to Frengers however but an ambitious indie-rock opera – a nod to progressive rock that no other band (on a major label) dared make in 2005. The band never entertained any notion of building on the success of Frengers with a more mainstream record. Yet the dramatic and complex follow-up album became a classic and a fan favourite, and ended up presenting the band with its only number one single in their home country, ‘The Zookeeper’s Boy’.
  2. WELCOME IN THOSE LITTLE DETAILS THAT MIGHT CHANGE YOUR DESTINY AKA TRUST YOUR STUDIO TEAM
    Back in 1992, the Barenaked Ladies song ‘One Week’ finally broke the band in the USA and brought them international fame too. Although Ed Robertson had written the song and taken lead vocals duty (including that famous dexterous rap) Ed thought the idea of the record label, to make One Week the lead single for their new album, to be a joke. Then, the record’s producer (Susan Rogers) suggested the drum loop “wasn’t very cool”. Because of Susan’s input, the band changed the drums, a tweak which transformed the song and in effect, the band’s entire future. You need to be receptive to those little suggestions, accidents and tweaks that might turn out to be pivotal.

    That same year (1992 was a good one it seems) when Los Lobos hauled themselves into a downtown LA studio with six new songs and teamed up with producer/engineer partners Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, the band was exhausted from the previous album and gruelling tour. Yet out of these sessions came the album Kiko, the band’s first genuine masterpiece. Steve Berlin of Los Lobos told me it was by tiny details that Froom and Blake were able to elicit a performance from the band that made the difference:
    “Tchad (Blake) could even take the mistakes and turn them into something that sounded genius. When we got together and listened to the record in sequence, we were all stunned”.
    It was the beginning of a decade of innovation that the team of Mitchell & Blake brought to recording production for Lobos and many other artists. Many of their now highly sought after sounds are available commercially as samples. Those producers and engineers really do make careers.
  3. EARN THE RIGHT TO SAY ‘NO’ AND RECOGNISE WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOUR CAREER
    After Fink made ‘Perfect Darkness’ (album number four) the band had earned the right to say “no”. No to playing small shitty venues. No to rushing out a follow-up record. No to some (of the many) sync offers that came rushing in. It was at that point, after seven years of saying yes to everything, that the band began to realise they had created something of real viability and were in it for the long game. They hadn’t hit ‘the big time’ (that might come later) but they earned the right to make their choices, including ‘no’.
    After the phenomenal success of her debut album ‘Eye to The Telescope’, Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall began to feel the pressure from her label to “make another one of those”. In fact, KT began to get the feeling she was picking up a reputation for being “difficult” because she did not want to just repeat her debut. KT was hardly the first woman in this situation and she won’t be the last but, she stuck to her guns. Firstly, how would that be even possible when her debut was a decade or more in the making? KT had to navigate multiple challenges: make the sophomore record she wanted to make and fight off the insistence that she fit the mould of ‘female singer-songwriter’ that had become popular at the time (ironically down in part to KT’s success). In the end, her second album was a somewhat compromised product, with good songs but too much pop polish.
    Be ready to turn down what doesn’t feel right for you, even if those around you think it is.
  4. BE YOUR OWN COTTAGE INDUSTRY
    A common pattern with artists that have achieved longevity is that they tend to get started under their own steam. One of the best things about how the music industry has been transformed by technology, is that you can simply upload your songs onto the platforms and get working your socials, hard. However, is this really just the modern equivalent of the field of dreams approach? Build it and they will come…
    In reality it’s much harder of course. Many of the artists I’ve spoken with on The Art of Longevity gained early success without relying on any institutions at all – neither media or technology. Instead they have literally taken matters into their own hands. So often this is because those artists believe they are destined to make a career in music – maybe because they don’t feel they could do anything else.
    Portico Quartet spent their early years busking along London’s SouthBank. I bought a copy of the band’s very first, self-pressed four-track CD for £5, one of 10,000 sold. Recently the band’s saxophone player Jack Wylie told me:
    “We’d go off to buy big stacks of blank CDs at Maplins and we bought this burner machine that could do eight at a time. I think we managed to do 200-250 a day. As a student, it meant we could make a living without working in a bar”.
    When I ask artists what advice they might pass on to those artists starting out now, most are pretty vexed (what do you say?). So much of success in music is still down to luck. But the point is, you need to make your own luck. With those SouthBank busking sessions, home CD burner factory and the Hang drum, Portico Quartet created enough word of mouth to amass an early dedicated following thousands strong. What followed was a Mercury Prize nomination and so far, an 8 album career.
  5. TAKE YOUR TIME
    British indie wonders Alt-J took 2019 off from music altogether. Their prodigious drummer Thom Sonny Green was recently asked by The Observer if he worried they would be forgotten about. He admitted that he “thought about it every day”. In this day & age FOMO drives everything. The creator equivalent is ‘FOBF’: fear of being forgotten.
    But FOBF doesn’t bother Adele. And it doesn’t bother Jonas Bjerre of Mew. Over 25 years Mew has made seven studio albums which is one every four years. That’s not something Spotify would advocate as an operating model for bands these days, is it? But the truth is – there is no point racing your way to the front of an endless rush of music. The pandemic showed the true colours of many artists. Some quietly went away and took time out to work on their craft or take a break, while others couldn’t drag themselves away from social media and online duets. You cannot make memorable songs by fidgeting and frittering away ‘content’. Well you can, but the more confident way through is to quietly focus on your art. The fans will welcome you back long after the ‘followers’ have forgotten you existed.
  6. HAVE OTHER PURSUITS OF MEANING OUTSIDE OF YOUR MAIN MUSIC VEHICLE
    In life there are four elements: work, family, relationships and you – and a balance has to be achieved. Artists struggle with this balance. Between the intensity of writing and recording and the hard graft of touring, the obsessive element to being a musician makes work-life balance impossible. When bands achieve ‘fame’ (the ‘stratospheric rise to the top’ phase of Brett Andersen’s longevity curve) balance goes out the window altogether. Everything is work hard, play hard and burn out. Some band’s take to it and others don’t but for a while, everything looks amazing – records in the charts, video shoots, press interviews, international travel and a different hotel every night. The rock & roll lifestyle still exists, but expect it to last and you will be heading straight for the crash.

    As Ed Robertson told me: “The best part of the roller-coaster is the ride back down”. Jonas Bjerre of Mew makes videos, film scores and many other types of visual art. KT Tunstall took time out to make film scores (attending Stephen Spielberg’s school to learn the art) and musicals. In this day and age, you need more than just your album-touring cycle to engage your fan base anyhow, so you can invite them in on your other creative projects too. What matters is that you make the time to regenerate, make the art you need to make and that you keep in touch with your fans. Everything comes back around.
  7. GET EVEN BETTER LIVE (AND STREAM IT)
    Yes, it comes back to live once again. Without exception all of the artists so far I’ve spoken with for The Art of Longevity have honed the craft of performance. But the emergence of live streaming has meant a new way to connect with your audience and practice the art of performing music that way, without having to submit fully to a life on the road. Live streaming presents a new way to be creative and to connect with your most loyal fans. It’s a different experience to the visceral contact of a real life show, but the format is here to stay so invent another aspect to your ‘brand’.

    The first seven secrets to longevity are on the Song Sommelier blog. The Season 1&2 archive for the Art of Longevity is on the podcast page

Tribes are the future of fandom (and that may or may not be a good thing)

At MIDiA, we spend a lot of time exploring the fan economy and how new forms of fandom are redefining media businesses. The most significant underlying dynamic is the fragmentation of fandom: the dynamic whereby we move ever further from mass-reach media, where everyone is exposed to the same content, to a world where entertainment exists in a complex mesh of filter bubbles. Niche becomes the new mainstream. Whereas, as Asian entertainment companies have become adept at industrialising fandom in this new paradigm, Western companies are less so. In music, big record labels still have a mindset of wanting to create mainstream, global hits. But the fandom playbook is changing. Global success now depends less on how wide your message can reach, and more on how deep it can go. Mass reach is becoming superseded by conversion, and mainstream is become replaced by tribes.

What do Donald Trump and tribal fanbases have in common?

Tribalism is, for better or for worse, central to how humanity functions, and, of course, underpins millennia of armed conflict. How tribalism can manifest among strident fanbases is simply a lighter shade of the same dynamic that can send countries to war, part of the same sliding scale on which Trump operated. In fact, the tactics of the Trump movement often bore more resemblance to those used by K-pop acts than those used by political opponents.

Just like a contemporary, always-on artist, Trump fed his audience with an immense amount of content, access and engagement, and even did a live national tour. Like some of the most tribal of music fanbases, Trump nurtured a sense of otherness among his supporters – it is them against the world and the system is rigged against them. There is perhaps no better way of strengthening a tribe’s sense of oneness than strengthening its sense of otherness.

Tribalism and the role of us-vs-them

Fandom trades on basic human instincts and psychology, particularly two of the ‘deficiency needs’ in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needsbelonging and esteem (political fandom also trades on a third need: safety). Any kind of fandom depends on people feeling like they are a part of something, and how that something plays a role in identifying who they are. Tribal fandom takes this one step further, distilling this shared identity to an ‘us-vs-them’ mentality. Fans become focused on identifying, not just what makes them, well, them, but also what makes the rest of the world…not them. At its worst, that can be used by politicians, like Trump, to stoke fear against immigrants, liberals, people of colour, or basically anyone that is not part of their tribe. In less severe forms, it can manifest as artist fanbases mobilising en masse on social platforms against something they do not like. The sense of oneness, defined against the otherness of the rest, enables them to feel like the establishment is against them, even when they become the establishment, whether that be becoming the political party in power or the band that sets YouTube streaming records.

This flavour of tribal fandom has been made possible by social media and the broader way in which it facilitates online conversation. Often, social media facilitates a hyper-defensive style of discourse, with the loudest voices winning out, even if they are not the majority. Indeed, the fragmentation of fandom means that the whole concept of ‘majorities’ are becoming a thing of the past. In a political and business environment, now defined by the claims of the Facebook whistle blower, Frances Haugen, there is a growing understanding that a recalibration of social media is required, and ideally before Facebook Meta simply migrates social into the metaverse, warts and all. 

Fandom’s industrial revolution

But there is also vast positive opportunity within tribal fandom. As Chartmetric identifies, what sets K-pop artists from big Western artists is that they convert the vast majority of their audience into fans. There is little wastage. By contrast, big Western artists often have bigger total audiences, but a much smaller share that are ‘fans’, e.g., artist follower and active listener counts. This is simply taking Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 true fans conceptand recreating it on an industrial scale. In fact, you could argue that we are entering fandom’s industrial revolution phase. As this epoch plays out, the most effective marketing and monetisation across all forms of entertainment will be that which focuses on tightly defined tribes, rather than mass market reach. The shift from cultural moments to cultural movements is only just beginning. Politics (e.g., Trump and the Brexit campaign) have learned the tricks well, as has a select group of entertainment companies (e.g., Netflix and Big Hit Music). The coming years will be shaped by everyone else playing catch up.

Adele is Bond and BTS is Squid Game

When Spotify announced that Adele had broken the record for the most streams in one day, with 19.8 million streams, the caveat was that this was true as long as you do not include all of the streams BTS had accumulated in 24 hours for ‘Butter’ in May. ‘Butter’ racked up 20.9 million streams, but 10 million were wiped from the record for ineligibility, thus only counting the first 10 plays per user in any given 24-hour period. While the caveat makes sense from the perspective of countering chart manipulation, it also raises fundamental questions about just how we measure success and whether, what are fundamentally subjective definitions, discriminate, intentionally or otherwise, against certain types of fans and music.

Fandom is fragmenting

We are living in the age of fragmented fandom where niche can feel mainstream, and mainstream can feel niche. Central to this is the shift from cultural moments to cultural movements. In the old, mass media world, most people experienced the same TV shows, movies and songs, with mainstream media promoting a relatively narrow selection of titles to the majority of the population. Now, audiences are fragmented and marketing is more targeted. So, it is possible for something to feel entirely mainstream to the target audience, even though it may not even register for the majority of the population. Whereas big, old-school releases resulted in water cooler, cultural moments. Successful niches become cultural movements, driving sustained engagement and cultural capital among their respective audiences. 

Bond vs Squid Game

Nowhere is this seen better than in the successes of Squid Game and James Bond’s No Time to Die*Bondwas the cultural moment, with wall-to-wall mainstream media support and is close to crossing $500 million in box office receipts. Squid game is Netflix’s most successful show to date with 132 million viewers, but was only watched by a minority of the total population in most countries. Nonetheless, it has become a cultural movement, seeping across popular culture via memes, social posts, fan content and so forth. Bond’s box office receipts translate into about 25-35 million viewers, while Squid Game is estimated to be worth around $900 million to Netflix. Bond was the global cultural moment, but was actually smaller on all counts than the less ‘traditional’ mainstream Squid Game.

A similar dynamic is at play when comparing BTS’ Butter with Adele’s Easy on MeEasy on Me was the cultural moment, with the massive initial wave of listening soon dropping off, while Butter was a cultural movement, which sustained throughout the first 6 days of release at pretty much the same level. Adele was Bond, while BTS was Squid Game – perhaps no coincidence that their nationalities match too. 

Adele was still the bigger success, but only if measured by the way the music industry wants it to be measured, i.e., discounting all those extra BTS Army plays. But what if a 13-year-old BTS fan simply wants to listen to the track 20 times in a day because they love it so much, while an older Adele fan listens to her tune a couple of times in the evening after work? The way we measure success inherently suggests the former behaviour is invalid, while the latter is more valid. The system favours casual listening over super-engaged listening. Listen, I am fully aware that the BTS Army is renowned for caning BTS tracks 24-hours a day in their thousands. But the risk is that the baby is getting thrown out with the bathwater.

Converting success metrics

So, why does this all matter to music? Quite simply because, just as in the TV and film industry, traditional metrics are still used to measure success – even if the old units of measurement have progressively less relevance. Music charts especially so. Since the advent of music downloads, the music industry has continually revised its definitions for ‘sales’ in order to try to make the old ‘cultural event’ measures work for a world that is increasingly shaped by cultural movements. The industry and media both like being able to talk about ‘sales’ and platinum releases – it is convenient short hand. But, if a platinum certification from 2021 is not equivalent to one from 1991 then does it really serve any purpose?

All of this would be a minor inconvenience if it were simply a ‘currency exchange’ issue, e.g., understanding what a million sales in 2021 was versus 2020. But it is not just that. The current measurement frameworks are biased towards artists that fit better in the traditional artist model than the new, emerging one. Including all BTS Army plays is probably as wrong an answer as discounting half of them. But a solution does need to be found, one that better captures the impact of a song on its fans. Perhaps a blend of measures that incorporate number of listeners, number of listens per listener, and total number of listens. (Also, there is a strong case for treating lean-back plays differently than lean-in plays – both in terms of charts and royalties). Each measure would be useful in its own right, which implies there may not be a single measure anymore. But, given the fragmentation of fandom and the growing diversity of fan behaviour, that is probably not a bad thing. The days of trying to measure every artist and every release by the same metrics will eventually become a thing of the past, however inconvenient that may be.

*Why did James Bond go grey? No time to dye…

Adele’s success will be measured in cultural impact – not sales

Adele is something of an anomaly in the modern music business, a throwback to how things used to be. These days even the biggest artists struggle to get mainstream attention for their new releases in a flooded market that is defined by more releases than ever before, and the ‘always on’ artist who is continually releasing new music and talking to their audience. Adele, though, follows the old model of landmark releases every half a decade and, up to now, she has managed to make it work by creating a cultural zeitgeist that the world opts into at scale. But the world has moved on a lot since her 2015 release, 25, and the nagging question is whether she can do it again with 30 in the much-changed music world.

Adele’s album releases act as chapter markers for the evolution of the recorded music market. Back in 2008, when 19 was released, it was still a sales (physical and downloads) and album dominated world. 90% of global revenues were from sales, while streaming was just 2%. With each half-decade release, the music world had moved on. Indeed, it could be argued that the biggest risk was with 25 in 2015, when streaming was already more than a fifth of revenues, and physical sales had fallen by 44% from 2008. Yet the album still managed to rack up 22 million sales and, in turn, became one of the biggest selling albums of the millennium. Adele bucked the prevailing industry trends.

Streaming does not favour albums

Fast forward to 2021 and the world has shifted even further, with 65% of revenues coming from streaming, and sales accounting for just a quarter. This is a dramatically different music world from the one in which 25 was released. Streaming will be the main way in which success is measured. Yet, just 15% of people listen to full albums on streaming services, so either Adele pulls an Ed Sheeran and has her entire album dominate the most streamed song charts (a possibility, but not a probability), or she has a few really big songs that rack up big streaming numbers. And to do that, she has to perform like a streaming-era artist.

Competing with streaming-era artists

Right now, Adele has two songs on Spotify with a billion streams. Compare this with Travis Scott who has three songs, two of which are more than 1.5 billion. Or Ed Sheeran, who has five songs, one of which is about to hit three billion (Shape of You). Heck, even Marshmello has three one billion stream tracks, of which one has 1.5 billion. No offence to Marshmello, but Adele will be expecting to have bigger cultural impact than him. It should be achievable (assuming that the music is strong enough), if for no other reason than the fact that there are three quarters of a billion more people streaming than in 2015.

Cultural impact will be the truest measure of success

But even if she does catch up on streaming figures, that probably is not how we should measure Adele’s success. In today’s world of fragmented fandom, fandom is defined by cultural movements rather than cultural moments. This is a dynamic that is intensified by the fact that media is also far more fragmented. Audiences are spread more thinly across a much wider range of platforms, shows and apps. It is simply much harder to create cultural moments. But that is exactly what Adele’s team will be planning to do. And given the current media buzz, she looks on track to do so once again, supported, as ever, by a simple but clever marketing campaign.

Recently, Adele has become much more visible, using Instagram and Facebook Live, pushing herself back into the public consciousness and even playing into meme culture. Beyond the music itself, it will be the continued use of social media, coupled with meeting the eager demand of traditional media that will determine whether 30 can become the sort of cultural phenomenon that 21 and 25 were. The fact that she still sings from the heart and is so relatable gives her an authenticity that is so often thin on the ground with today’s pop stars.

Creating a cultural moment

So, the success of 30 will probably be best measured in terms of whether there is a genuine cultural moment. In short, how long will Adele’s music and her team be able to maintain global interest and relevance? Success may be more about whether, two months down the line, we still have memes flooding TikTok and James Corden doing skits. This will say as much about how the world is responding to her music than how many streams she clocks up. And, of course, I have not even mentioned sales – not by accident. These metrics are just not going to be the way to gauge her success anymore (even considering the industry’s obsession with artificially boosted ‘sales’ figures with ‘sales equivalent streams’).

Adele has always been something of an anomaly, finding success through the power of her music rather than by playing whatever the latest marketing game is. Of course, expect every contemporary marketing card to be played (especially TikTok). But it will be through cultural impact, not streams, that we will truly understand how loudly her music still speaks.