Abbey Road 50 Years On: The Two Worlds of Music Listening

Half a century after it first after it first topped the charts, the Beatles’ Abbey Road is back at the summit of the UK charts. With the anniversary editions retailing for between $20 and $100, the impact on Universal Music’s revenue will be even more pronounced than the chart position, as we saw with the deluxe editions of the White Album (which had editions priced up to $145) helping the Beatles become the fourth-biggest UMG artist in revenue terms in 2018. The continued success of the Beatles tells us three main things:

  1. The band has enduring appeal in a way few bands have so long after their demise
  2. Universal is doing a fantastic job of managing the legacy of the Beatles with smart and effective catalogue marketing and product strategy
  3. Older, physical-focused music fans remain the quickest route to high-value, large-scale revenue

It is this last point that is going to be explored here.

Streaming is not yet everything, by a long stretch

While streaming is well established, it is still a minority activity (i.e. less than half of the population streams – the rate is even lower when you factor in emerging market regions such as sub-Saharan Africa). Most of you reading this will have been streaming for many years now, so this may sound a bit crazy, but we all live in our own filter bubbles, surrounded by people with similar world views and behaviours. The reality is that we are still in a transition period where the old and the new coexist. This dual-reality paradigm underpins the Beatles’ continued success.

MIDiA Index - Top Streamed and Top Listened to Artists - the Beatles 

Looking at data from MIDiA’s forthcoming artist insight platform Index, we can see that the top 15 biggest audiences ranked by overall listening is significantly different from the top 15 streaming audiences. The differences become far more pronounced as we work our way down the rankings. Mass market linear media (especially TV and radio) used to be the only way in which record labels turned artists into mainstream brands. The biggest artists of today (in fact all of the artists in both of the top 15 rankings) built their fanbases sitting on the shoulders of big, traditional media. Big media of course still plays a crucial role – as illustrated by the fact that the top five most-listened to artists have all recently been in major movies. In fact, movies are emerging as the mass medium that can still create globally relevant cultural moments in the way that radio and TV used to.

Niche is the new mainstream

Now though, newer artists are building their fanbases outside of traditional media, using digital marketing channels to laser-target specific audiences rather than the traditional carpet-bombing approach. As a consequence, when we look at the top 15 most-streamed artists based on those audiences that actually know the artist we see a totally different picture with artists like Post Malone, Martin Garrix and Bille Eilish among the top performing. These are still-big artists; artists that have found global niches with genuine scale, but niches nonetheless. This is the era of fragmented fandom. Niche is the new mainstream.

The first global pop band, perhaps

The Beatles were arguably the first big, global pop band – I say ‘arguably’ because there are many other claimants to that title, but whether they were first, or among the first, they helped create the template for artist success that shaped the modern recorded music industry. Now, as part of our cultural history they have an additional emphasis. The film ‘Yesterday’ will have introduced new audiences to the Beatles’ music, as will the hype around the return of Abbey Road. However, the majority of Beatles fans are old (59% are aged over 45) with an average age of 46. This aligns with average age of consumers that still buy CDs and that still listen to albums.

This does not mean that young people are not listening to the Beatles also (and on streaming they skew younger), also even with an average age of 45 this means that a large portion of the core fanbase are not from the Beatles’ original generation.

However, it is a very different demographic from Spotify users (average age 34) and, for example, Billie Eilish fans (29). Beatles fans skew towards older consumers that are more likely to buy and listen to physical albums.

For all the chart modifications, actual album sales still have key impact

 With all of the reformatting of charts to recognise streams, album sales still carry much more weight, because:

  1. A lot of streams are needed to be equivalent to an album (1,500 in the UK, 1,250 paid streams or 3,750 ad-supported streams in the US)
  2. Newer, streaming-centric artists tend to be track artists rather than album artists, and tend to have a larger share of ad-supported listeners, so it is harder for them to top album charts

When a once in a generation event like Abbey Road at 50 comes along, and the older, CD and vinyl buying audience comes out in force, you do not need too many of them to create a chart-topping album. As I illustrated in my post on the White Album, 75,000 sales of a $100 deluxe edition can generate the same label income as more than 60 million streams – though how much Universal actually retains of that due to its commercial relationships with the band and its estates is another issue entirely.

The key takeaway from Abbey Road at 50 is that we still have a long, long way to go on the streaming journey. In fact, you might say it is ‘the long and winding road’.

Niche is the New Mainstream

Fandom is fragmenting. Streaming personalization and falling radio audiences are combining to rewrite the music marketing rulebook, ushering in a whole new marketing paradigm. Hits used to be cultural moments; artist brands built by traditional mass media. However, this fire-hydrant approach to marketing lacked both accountability and effective targeting. Now, hyper targeting, both in marketing campaigns and streaming recommendations, is creating a new type of hit and a new type of artist. Global fanbases are being built via the accumulation of local niches, while a few big hits for everyone are being replaced by many, smaller hits for individuals. Niche is the new mainstream.

The marketing rulebook is being re-written

Three trends have reshaped how music marketing works:

  1. Digital targeting: The rise of social media provided label marketing teams with masses of data and unparalleled targeting
  2. Linear decline:The steady decline of linear radio and TV audiences is eroding these platforms’ contribution to music marketing effectiveness
  3. Streaming curation:Streaming algorithms and curation teams are overriding label marketing efforts, delivering users what the streaming services want to deliver rather than what labels want to

fragmented fandom midia research - niche is the new maiostream

Artist marketing used to be about building exposure and brands across mass market analogue platforms. With radio, TV and print all in decline – especially among the crucial younger audience segments – that approach is being replaced with targeted digital campaigns which in turn are fragmenting fandom and transforming what global fanbases look like:

  • The marketing transition:Marketing of media brands is locked in a transition phase, moving from the old model of one-to-many messaging to targeted digital campaigns. As in all transitions, the old and new models will co-exist for some time. For music marketers though, there is a greater need for emphasis on digital because this is where the younger music fans are that are so crucial to the success of so many frontline acts.
  • Democratization of access:In the old model, mainstream linear media (TV and radio especially) was the power tool of big record labels. Access to these finite schedules is inherently scarce and bigger record labels have an inbuilt advantage due to their scale and influence. In on-demand environments access is democratized, with anyone able to run their own self-serve campaigns on platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and Google search. The result is that labels and artists of all sizes can reach their global audiences.
  • From cultural moments to cultural movements:Linear schedules have the unrivalled ability to create simultaneous audiences at scale around a specific piece of content. Creating these cultural moments remains the crucial asset that TV and radio bring. But the weakness of this approach is that much of the impact is diluted. It is carpet bombing compared to the laser-guided missile of digital marketing, resulting in a lot of wasted exposure and effort. Mass reach is progressively less useful for driving fandom. Against this, the hyper-targeting of digital creates super-engaged fanbases that can often thrive under the mainstream radar. Kobalt artists such as Lauv (2.5+ billion streams) and Rex Orange County (0.8+ billion streams) are examples of this new paradigm, creating global-scale cultural movements rather than linear cultural moments. Niches thrive in this world of fragmented fandom, but niche no longer inherently means small. Indeed, the cumulative effect of many local niches is global-scale fanbases. Niche is the new mainstream.

The old living side by side with the new

As when every new paradigm shift occurs, the old and the new will live side by side. There will still be plenty of artists that appeal to younger audiences that become household names too across mainstream media – look no further than Billie Eilish. But make no mistake, the shift is happening. More and more global artist success stories will happen outside the mainstream. These fan bases will be increasingly passionate and loyal, acting as strong platforms for building impactful artist stories. Success will be built around audiences that want a piece of everything that artist has to offer, from streaming to merch to tickets. This is how independent artists and many independent label artists have been building careers for years. They no longer have the exclusive, however.

Fragmented fandom is an asset, not a challenge

Artists that once would have been household names – mass media brands with large but often passive fanbases – are now rising as under-the-radar superstars. It has never been more important for this to happen. With streaming pushing more listeners towards tracks and away from artists and albums, building passionate clusters of fans is not just key to success, it is the very thing that success will be built on. Fandom is fragmenting but it may be the best thing that has ever happened to it.

This blog post pulls insight from a forthcoming MIDiA report Music Marketing: Niche is the New Mainstream that will be published in MIDiA’s new Marketing and Brands service. To find out more about how to get access to this research practice – a must have for anyone involved in marketing of media brands – email stephen@midiaresearch.com