Why Drake’s More Life Is The New Normal In Streaming

This is a guest post from MIDiA’s Zach Fuller

Released over the weekend after much delay, Drake’s More Life project is setting records across the board on streaming platforms. The Canadian artist described More Life as ‘a body of work bridging the gap between major releases’ and positioned the release as neither a mixtape nor an album, but rather ‘a playlist’. This, however, did not stop the release claiming Ed Sheeran broke the record for the best one day streams for any artist: 76,355,041, compared with Sheeran’s total of 68,695,172 following the release of Divide.

It would be interesting to know just what Drake defines as a ‘gap’. He has released no less than four singles a year as well as four albums and three mixtapes since his breakthrough in 2009. Two of these mixtapes were in 2015 alone, followed in 2016 by his latest album, Views. The traditional album release cycle does not  seem to exist in Drake’s universe. In the era of the always-on fan who can access an artist at any time – his endless releases consistently keep him in the public consciousness.

Drake is many things in More Life. He is simultaneously the artist, the producer and the curator. He does not appear on all the release’s tracks, and More Life’s contents are a 20-song sprawl of genres encompassing Hip-Hop, Trap, R&B, Grime, Gospel, Dancehall, Tropical House and Afrobeat. The work can, therefore, exist under the Drake name –arguably the most powerful globally on streaming services – whilst promoting the work of other artists.

More Life is another part of the process in which streaming is rewriting the rules:

  • The rise of the playlist: One theory why Drake has positioned the More Life as a playlist, is that the release acts as an acknowledgement of where mainstream music consumption patterns are heading. MIDiA Research surveys indicate that 54% of music consumers agreed with the statement that ‘playlists are replacing albums for me’. Additionally, 40% have said they are using curated playlists through Spotify and Apple Music more than they did six months ago. By working around these patterns, Drake is not fighting the tide but simply considering what it means to release music in this context. In the modern streaming context, the album not only exists as a playlist in itself but also emerges within the playlists of aficionados of these disparate genres.
  • Recorded music products have emerged because of their surroundings: The 3-minute pop-song was created because it best fit with the emerging radio formats, and long songs would therefore often gain less exposure through this promotional channel. The album originally was conceived as a way of bundling singles into a more expensive product for music fans, before artists in the 60s began to use the format as a canvas for wider artistic expression. How artists best make use of streaming is an open question and releases such as More Life continue to challenge these notions of what a music product can be.
  • Compilation: More Life could fit under a crew album, given the features of friends (Skepta, Giggs) and his label’s (OVO Sound) artists. This has a long history in Hip-Hop. Kanye West (Cruel Summer), Jay-Z (The Dynasty: Roc la Familia) and Eminem (Eminem presents: The Re-Up) have all released similar albums. However, More Life’s genre-hopping premise feels like a different beast to this lineage.
  • Playlist as a A/B Testing: Drake’s decision not to window the project in the same way he did with Views for Apple Music (alongside Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper) is interesting. No doubt, services would have been keen on having the project as an exclusive. That streams can be viewed as higher paying radio plays opposed to cheaper sales could means More Life is profitable. In a sales era, More Life could potentially have been maligned as a rush-release, yet in the streaming context – such a project makes far more sense.

More Life will therefore deliver data to Drake’s team on:

  • What tracks are most popular
  • Where these tracks are popular
  • Which tracks are most often adopted into fan’s playlists
  • How and when these tracks are listened to

Given the eclectic mix of genres, More Life could therefore act as a testing ground for future artistic directions Drake might take on his next more conventional release.

More Life is, therefore, many things. On one hand, it is a streaming era marketing tool, filling the release schedule gap for the always-on fan. A parallel could be therefore drawn to the latest Star Wars series, with More Life acting as the Rogue One to View’s Force Awakens. On the other hand, whilst much of the content itself is not a radical departure from Drake’s previous work and will no doubt keep Drake fans happy, the format is an experimental statement from one of music’s biggest players. It elaborates on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo in its amorphous concept as a unique music product. Given Drake’s influence on music and judging from the project’s immediate success on streaming services, we could be witnessing the first of the new ‘normal’ in music releases.

After The Album: How Playlists Are Re-Defining Listening

Later this week we’ll be publish a new report in the MIDiA Research Music report and data service: ‘After The Album: How Playlists Are Re-Defining Listening’.  In it we explore the changing role of streaming playlists and in particular how they are impact albums both as a consumption format and as a revenue model. The full 18 page report includes half a dozen graphics and a couple of sheets of excel, including a detailed revenue model.  I want to share with you here one of the key themes we explore in the report…

Playlists Are The Lingua Franca Of Streaming

Streaming hit a host of milestones in 2015, reaching 67.5 million subscribers and driving $2.9 billion of trade revenue, up 31% on 2014. While the competitive marketplace upped the ante, music services wielded curation to drive differentiation. Playlists have always been the core currency of streaming, but now more than ever they are becoming the beating heart, the fuel which drives both discovery and consumption. In doing so they are helping drive hit singles into the ascendancy and albums to the side lines.

The Album Is No Longer The Market

Perhaps the biggest problem with streaming’s dissolution of the album is that the wider industry is still catching up with the concept. Artists still consider the album as their core creative construct, their novel. Similarly, labels still build P&Ls, marketing campaigns and their core business models around albums and album release schedules. There will long remain a market for albums, especially among core fan bases, as TIDAL’s exclusive album campaigns for Kanye West and Beyoncé reveal. But it is just that: a market, not the market anymore.

Income Per Streaming User

The most effective way to measure the value of streaming is to measure the value per user. For record labels at a macro level this equated to $2.80 annual revenue per subscriber and $0.37 per free streamer globally in 2015. But even that measure is too blunt to allow label campaign teams, artists and their managers to understand the value to them because that value is wrapped up with all the music in the world. For these stakeholders a more meaningful measure is the average amount they earn per album per streaming user.

Income Per Album Per Streaming User

Music subscribers in the US and UK streamed an average of 3,447 streams each in 2015, averaging 66 streams a week. But the average number of complete unique albums streamed was just 47 for the whole year. The average across free and paid streaming users was 11. Less than one new album per year. In the old model that average would have been just fine, pulling in more than $100 in retail revenue per user but in the streaming model that equate to a combined total of $0.73 in rights holder revenue.

promo slide

Even that measure though, is only partially useful for an artist, manager, songwriter or label campaign manager. What matters for them is how much they earn per streaming user, not the music industry in general. The average royalty income per album per streaming user is $0.21, with $0.03 flowing to the artist and $0.02 flowing to the songwriter. For subscribers the average income is $0.44 with $0.05 flowing to the artist and $0.04 flowing to the songwriter. While for free users it is $0.13 and $0.01 for artists and $0.01 for songwriters.

What It All Means

Albums are not the currency of streaming.  Everyone needs to rethink what long form, artist led content consumption looks like on streaming. Music fans still want artist led experiences. Drake’s 46 million Spotify listeners is more than double all the Filtr, Digster, Topsify and Todays’ Top Hits followers put together. As I have suggested before, multimedia artist subscription bundles for $1.50 on top of standard streaming fees feel like the right fit and would also help start pushing up streaming ARPU.

The power of music discovery used to lie in the hands of the radio DJ, now it lies in the hands of the playlist curator. And because streaming has melded discovery and consumption into a single whole, that means their power is becoming absolute. Albums are not quite an afterthought in the curated playlist world, but they are certainly an awkward relative that doesn’t quite fit in at the party.

None of this to say that the album is dead, but it can no longer be considered the main way most people listen to music. Of course some would argue that with radio it has ever been thus…

To find out more about the report and how to access MIDiA reports and data either visit our website or email us on info AT midiaresearch DOT COM

What Future For The Album In The On-Demand Age?

Recently BBC Radio 1’s head of music George Ergatoudis stirred up something of a storm with his claim that “albums are edging closer to extinction”. Nonetheless there is a growing body of evidence that the album does indeed seem to be losing its relevance in today’s track and playlist led world. And the implications stretch much further than the confines of the recorded music business. (Hint: live music industry, you need to be watching your back too.)

The Advent Of Grazing

When Napster emerged 15 years ago it kick started an irreversible transformation in music consumption. The music business had spent the previous three decades turning the singles dominated market of the 1950’s into the albums led market of the 1990’s, but with Napster consumers suddenly did not have to take the whole album package anymore. The labels had their own fair share of blame. When the vinyl LP had been the dominant format albums typically had 8 tracks, but with the CD labels felt compelled to fill every one of its 74 minutes’ capacity, resulting in a preponderance of filler tracks over killer tracks. Couple this with album price hyperinflation and you had the perfect recipe for consumer revolt. Little wonder that music fans cherry picked tracks, skipping the filler for the killer. Grazing replaced immersion.

Ironically the issue became even more pronounced with the advent of the iTunes Music Store. Whereas with file sharing many users downloaded entire albums – and as bandwidth and storage improved, entire discographies – listening still skewed towards the stand out tracks. Indeed the hoarding mentality of these digital immigrants was one borne out of being children of the age of scarcity, with a ‘fill up quick while you still can’ mentality. With iTunes, price was a limiting factor and so people focused on acquiring single tracks rather than albums. Labels and artists had been scared iTunes would cannibalise album sales, they were right.

Digital Natives Set A New Pace

In the subsequent decade new digital behavior patterns have become more clearly defined, particularly among the digital natives. Playlists and individual tracks have become the dominant consumption paradigm. Even music piracy has moved away from the album to smaller numbers of tracks, with free music downloader mobile apps and YouTube rippers now more widespread than P2P. This is the piracy behavior of the digital natives who have no need to hoard vast music collections because they know they can always find the music they want on YouTube or Soundcloud if they want it.

playlists versus albums

The behavior shift is clearly evidenced in revenue numbers. Since 2008 alone US album sales (CD and digital) have declined by 22% (IFPI), while digital track sales outpace digital album sales by a factor of 10 to 1. The top 10 selling albums in the US shifted 56.4 million units in 2000.  In 2013 the number was 14.7 million (Nielsen SoundScan). Even more stark is the contrast between playlists and albums on streaming service. Spotify has 1.5 billion playlists but just 1.4 million albums (see figure). While the comparison is not exactly apples-to-apples (album count is a catalogue count and playlist count is a hybrid catalogue / consumption count) it is nonetheless a useful illustration of the disparity of scale. (In fact the 1.4 million album assumption is probably high due to a) duplicates b) singles and EPs c) compilations.)

Even the much heralded success of Ed Sheeran’s album ‘X’ does not exactly paint a robust argument for the album. ‘X’ set the record for first week global plays of an album on Spotify with 23.8 million streams. But that represents just 0.27% of weekly Spotify listening (based on Spotify’s reported 40 million active users, 110 minutes daily listening and an average song length of 3.5 minutes).

The Album As A Mainstream Consumption Paradigm Was A Historical Anomaly

This is the consumer behavior backdrop for the demise of the album.  Creatively the album still represents the zenith of an artist’s creativity and many albums are still most often best appreciated as a creative whole. Core fans and music aficionados will still listen to albums but the majority of consumers will not. The album as the mainstream consumption paradigm was a historical anomaly of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. In the 50’s and the 60’s the single was the way the majority interacted with music, and now in the early 21st century it is once again. There has always been space for vast diversity of artists along the niche to mainstream spectrum but as a consumption format the album is closer to the Steve Reich end than it is the Katy Perry end.

Artists And Labels Need To Catch Up With Consumer Behaviour

The majority of artists will still make albums and labels will indulge them because their organizations and business models are built around the format. But therein lies the problem: the more that consumer behavior evolves, the more distant the gap between artists’ recorded output and their fans’ demand becomes.

There is more music released now than ever before and most likely more music listened to than ever before. But the amount of music listeners in the world’s top 10 music markets – which account for 91% of revenue – has not increased at anything like the same rate. People are spending less time with individual artists and albums. In the on-demand age with effectively limitless supply they flit from here to there, consuming more individual artists in a single playlist than an average music fan would have bought albums by in an entire year in the CD era. Fewer fans develop deep relationships with individual artists. Right now this translates into fewer album sales. In 10 years’ time it will manifest as a collapse in arena and stadium sized heritage live acts. In fact we are already witnessing the impact, after all what are festivals and DJ sets if not the playlist translated into a live experience?

As painful as it may be for many to accept, the tide has already turned against the album. The challenge to which artists and labels must now rise is to reinvent creativity in ways that meet the realities of the on-demand world.* If they do not, artists will eventually find the chasm between their wants and their audiences’ needs quite simply too wide to traverse.

*For those interested I wrote a couple of reports on this very topic a few years ago:

The Music Format Bill of Rights: A Manifesto For The Next Generation Of Music Products

Agile Music: Music Formats and Artist Creativity In The Age of Mass Customisation

Just How Much is Curation Actually Worth?

Dance music powerhouse Ministry of Sound have commenced legal action against Spotify for breach of copyright with regards to user generated Spotify playlists replicating Ministry compilations and sometimes including Ministry labeling.  The case obviously raises some important legal issues, but more significantly it raises the question of just how much is curation worth?

All of the big streaming services have been falling over themselves to state that curation is at the core of what they are and of what makes them different.  Unfortunately the term curation means nothing to most consumers other than conjuring up images of fusty old librarians.  But leaving that small inconvenience aside, the value of curation to the industry side of the equation is clear…or is it? The problem with 22 million songs is that the consumer is paralyzed by the tyranny of choice.  There is so much choice that there is effectively no choice at all.  Curation, editorial, programming, whatever you want to call it, is crucial.  People are sheep, they need leading.  Some need leading a little, some need leading a lot, but all of them – or at the very least the vast majority of them – need leading.

In the analogue era when media companies controlled the distribution channels most audiences relied upon professional ‘curators’ to show them what to consume.  These curators were radio DJs, newspaper and magazine editors, TV show hosts etc.  They were trusted voices whose influence status was validated by dint of the fact that they were paid to shape the tastes of millions. One of the founding ideologies of the internet was that these curators would be brushed aside in a groundswell of democratization of consumer choice.  These curators suddenly became labeled gatekeepers and became a symbol of the old control-era. The problem is that not only have those gatekeepers been replaced by the algorithms of technology companies, but the algorithms that have replaced them inherently lack the years of human experience and expertise the old curators brought.  Initiatives such as the Music Genome Project and the Echonest are standout examples of technology-driven recommendation best practice, but few would question that the human touch also plays a crucial role in curation, whether that be personal recommendations from friends or family, or playlists selected by Pitchfork. But wherever you stand on the human vs robot debate, the value of curated discovery in a boarder sense is universally recognized.

Which brings us to the Ministry of Sound situation.  Ministry have spent years building the expertise of knowing how to put together a dance compilation and as a result building a brand as a trusted curator of taste.  It is all too easy to dismiss the role of compilations as superficial and irrelevant in the age of the playlist, but there is a reason that some compilations, such as the ubiquitous Now series, do so well and others do not.  As a former DJ I know only too well the depth of thought and preparation that goes into building a set, into identifying which songs mixes well into the next, ensuring that one track does not play out of key with another when it is pitch shifted into the next, of how build a progression of sound that ebbs and flows, that balances consistency with variation.  There is a reason that Spotify users have been recreating Ministry of Sound playlists rather than creating their own dance music playlists.

As the Ministry court case progresses there will be a stern test of whether the copyright of a selection of songs holds legal water in the digital arena in the way that sound copyright does.  Whether it does or not though is almost not the issue.  The core question here is just how much do streaming services like Spotify truly value curation? Do they value it in terms of ‘yes it’s a nice little extra to have’ or do they view it as ‘it is a crucial part of our users’ experience and therefore of our future success and we thus value it at x’?  If it is the latter it is time for them to put the money where their proverbial mouth is.  If it is not then it is time for streaming services to stop talking about the value of curation.

Note: I am indebted to Eli Pariser’s ‘Filter Bubble’ TED speech for some of the ideas in this blog post