Swimming Up Stream
Is it all just a numbers game?
It is human nature to want to see exactly what success is, so it may then be emulated, achieved and later repeated. Considering that both the definition of success and the journey to get there is different for each individual and goal alike, figuring out what quantifiable success looks like and feels like is all part of a beautiful and frustrating process. Whether the intention behind accomplishing an aim or purpose lies with establishing financial or creative freedom, the attainment of popularity or profit, or the opportunity to aim even higher in the next go-around, success is one of the most motivational driving forces behind action. The quintessential desire to succeed in the music industry is no different. However, some aspects, such as accessibility and technology, have changed, calling on consumers and creators alike to reexamine and redefine what a successful career in music looks like now that the paramount age of streaming has arrived.
With 2018 on par to continue elevating the tools and platforms streaming services provide and nourish at rapid speeds, one visible pattern has emerged to signify success for new artists specifically. For many artists looking to secure their place in an unprecedentedly oversaturated market, the ticket to success is a viral single. Throughout the past several years, countless artists have changed their lives and progressed their careers by releasing a one-off or loose single, later experiencing a viral response and turning that widespread recognition into a lucrative opportunity that translates to solidifying a legitimate reputation in one of the most competitive industries in modern history. But is digital success the end all be all? Is it more than just beating the odds, either in the form of winning over an algorithm or charming a curator? Is it all just a numbers game, like it arguably has been since the RIAA was established in 1952? How has streaming impacted how artists define success?
“True success is doing what you’re doing in the way that you want to do it and getting to be who you really want to be,” independent recording artist GainesFM says. “I want to do my music the way I want to do it and having that opportunity, for me, that's what success is.”
GainesFM, an emerging rapper from Minneapolis, first found success through organizing shows and live performances in his hometown, such as opening for Wiz Khalifa, Playboi Carti, and more, as well as selling out local venues. He has begun translating that momentum online, testing the waters with streaming and garnering tens of thousands of plays on SoundCloud in the past year alone along the way. As his efforts both in the studio, the field and the internet continue, Gaines acknowledges that for him personally, success is loyally married to his integrity as an artist.
“Obviously, you want to be as financially as well off as possible, but that should never be the only driving factor,” he continues. “It's always amazing when you can be recognized for your achievements but when you make music for yourself, regardless of outcome, it's a success already. Sometimes you can lose even when you win, especially if you have to sacrifice that same authenticity that got you this far. I think growth is success in and of itself.”
Like many other independent artists, GainesFM is taking plenty of notes from industry vets and finding ways to apply these lessons to his own career, all while tightly holding onto his identity and own respective sound and approach. However, the notion of refusing to compromise authenticity as a creator in today’s economy is almost just as romanticized as the powerful phenomenon that surrounds the mystique behind one track leading to tangible and drastic change. Fortunately, accessibility to streaming allows artists the ability to maintain both integrity and build a following, all while the barometers of success are changing as promptly as the blueprints themselves are being rewritten.
Industry mainstays Drake, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Future, Kendrick Lamar, Taylor Swift, and Ed Sheeran, among others, have each found monumental success in music prior to the dawn of the age of streaming, and each continue to do incomprehensibly large numbers today. Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, artists such as Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Pump, Camila Cabello, 6LACK, Liam Payne, Lil Pump, the late Lil Peep and Trippie Redd simply wouldn’t be where they are today without streaming becoming a catalyst for their careers.
The examples are countless. Justin Bieber was discovered on YouTube. The Chainsmokers had one well-received song, “#Selfie,” that led to their second, “Closer,” a couple years later. The song has since gone on to be streamed over a billion times on Spotify alone, as well as helped catapult singer Halsey into the mainstream purview after she herself had spent years building a following online. SoundCloud rap has long become a genre and a movement in and of itself, connecting artists across the world and helping artists garner millions of plays before they even land on a nationally-read blog for the first time. Chance the Rapper, Desiigner, DJ Snake, Lil Yachty, Fetty Wap, Calvin Harris, The Weeknd, Big Sean, Migos—the list goes on and on.
From the industry’s power players to those who found success initially through one viral single, these success stories have become romanticized by many, and for good reason. Every member of the 2017 XXL Freshman list, for another example, first saw quantifiable success through streaming, which is why, many of those artists represent a major shift that, in a lot of ways, is one that the music industry is both playing catch up on and recovering from. These artists, in one way or another, are the faces of success in the streaming era and not only that, but they make it look easy. After all, it all begins with a roll of the dice by way of uploading a track to YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud, Tidal, Audiomack, Bandcamp, and even Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
As easy as it may appear on paper, that all it takes is turning one song into a lifeblood, what’s harder to swallow is that payouts per stream that average $00.004-$00.007 or more depending on the platform.
“At this point I don’t know if it’s a misconception, but how little money you make from streams is pretty sick,” Dawson, an independent rapper from Frederick, Maryland, reflects. “When millions of streams equal a few thousand dollars, nobody can make a living off of streaming alone. Shout out to Nipsey Hussle for that post a few months back with the breakdown on how streaming companies pay artists. I knew it was bad, but not THAT bad. I haven’t put those kinds of numbers up. I honestly don’t look at music sales, or streams as a valid income. Do shows. Sell clothes. Press vinyl. Do cool shit that people want to spend money on.”
Hussle’s now-deleted tweet showed transparency about what his streaming numbers translated to payout wise, expressing how his preference lies with TIDAL for being the most supportive of its artists. The Los Angeles area rapper, who recently made his major label debut through a joint partnership with Atlantic Records, has been rewriting the rules when it comes to making a living without compromising one’s self throughout the past decade, such as through pressing 1,000 limited edition physical copies of his music and selling them for $100 a piece.
While Dawson’s suggestion to focus on more traditional ways to monetize one’s art is enduringly wise, there is still the tenacious allure of making a livable income work via streaming.
Kota the Friend, a soulful hip-hop artist based out of Brooklyn, is seeing his success on streaming translate as his main source of income.
“Streaming helps me provide for my one year old son,” he says. “At this point in my career online sales and streams are my main source of income. The better the music sounds the more people will listen. So if anything it pushes me to make the best music possible and more of it.”
Kota, who cites his favorite streaming success story as Drake for receiving over four million plays on one single in 24 hours and currently boasts around 81,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, evaluates success by how many sets of ears his music is reaching.
“I feel like [evaluating success] is muddy now,” he continues. “Getting on a good Spotify playlist is a big deal but getting good blog placements is good in a different way. For me, the more people that are listening to your music, the more successful you are. All I care about is the music getting into the hands of the people. When that can happen naturally, it's a beautiful thing. But obviously business and personal relationships play a part as well.”
As exemplified through artists who are both independent and signed to a label, there are plenty of artists and managers who are finding success in these spaces by approaching streaming data as a basis for pitching a larger endorsement or partnership.
Both approaches, however, also speak to the bigger picture that no two paths or views of success are identical, even if the playing field may theoretically be the same.
“Having managed and worked with countless UK artists and labels, I think it's become a necessity to collate streaming data in a smart way and even present them to labels or future investment prospects,” says Junaid Kahn, a London-based talent manager and publicist for a plethora of acts. “Most UK labels won't even consider you seriously for a signing without a specific six-figure streaming figure in your catalogue belt. Everything about music slowly but surely is becoming a business and always has been, for those who make money, that is. [Laughs]”
Kahn, who studies the trends found in streaming specifically to best inform his decisions as an artist manager and publicist, also sees the benefit of translating streaming data into success in other mediums and methods.
“When effectively utilizing streaming data, there is a wealth of opportunities, in essence, that can come when people believe your audience is large and engaging with you,” Kahn explains. “It also provides insight into understanding where an artist’s audience lies, what type of niche market they are engaged with and where there is room for development and growth/evolution.”
For an artist whose profile page is a bit of a blank slate, regardless of which stage in their career they may be, seeing the numbers that other competitors are pulling can feel as out of reach and overwhelming as it does aspirational and idealistic. Because of this, it is only natural to want to manifest and create art that is informed by the concept of having one “streamable” track go viral and following that same glamorized idea or recipe that one song alone can hold the key to all successes. When the entry point is less of a barricade than it has been in the past, there is a danger of cheapening the content.
Much like social media culture has inspired the demand for “microwavable content,” today’s market and accompanying technology draws a parallel to the pioneering phenomenon and influence that having a Top 40 hit debut on Casey Kasem’s syndicated radio show had on the masses for decades. Similar to the days that Top 40 reigned supreme, and still does to a considerable extent, the less-guarded accessibility can undoubtedly influence and compromise the authenticity behind one’s art.
Approachability, however, is a double-edged sword in the age of streaming as well, as exemplified by one glance at the generic Google search results for “How to get on a playlist.” The scattered results, majority of which are not coming from the platforms themselves, speak to how the resources on how to best utilize streaming are becoming increasingly safeguarded in tandem with how heavily sought after playlisting placement has become. Representatives from Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL and Universal Music Group each denied to comment for this story, further adding to the conundrum that majority of artists know they are supposed to be using streaming to their advantage, but maybe not the how.
While Spotify and Apple specifically are incorporating tools for artists specifically, the protective air surrounding the best practices for streaming services makes it that much more difficult to emulate the success of those receiving checks each week from streaming.
Success used to look like 10,000 hours of practicing one’s craft until preparedness and luck met opportunity. And while success still does look like that bottom-up hustle to a degree, the access to reaching a widespread audience has unlocked doors at much faster rates. As such, artists are able to skip a step or two. A gatekeeper isn’t always needed, unlike in earlier eras when artists were desperately reliant on radio and club disc jockeys breaking their record. As a result, success in the age of streaming looks different at each and every stage, calling on artists to redefine the ways they can use streaming services to their advantage, how streaming data plays a role in exposure across multiple platforms (such as social media, traditional press and in the live music sphere) and what exactly it means to be successful in music in the year 2018.
“On a personal level, a favorite success story for me has been UK rapper Ard Adz. He has been doing fantastically with the release of his No Rain No Flowers EP,” Kahn says, speaking on one of his clients. “On an indie level, he's managed to accumulate 2+ million Spotify streams within eight weeks of the release, as well as charted at No. 2 on the iTunes hip-hop charts. He has a total catalogue of 6+ million Spotify streams, and I’ve been able to see firsthand how streaming has positively impacted his career.
My best advice to artists seeking success through streaming is to understand it's a process and formula which has no specific manual, you have to find what works for you and when it does be patient and willing to grow it - as you would any business.”
Ard Adz, who currently boasts 116,766 organic monthly listeners on Spotify, echoes that sentiment, crediting the streaming platform as a way to gauge and grow his audience.
"Streaming means a lot to me,” he says. “It's allowed me to shape myself as an independent artist, which is just crazy. My streaming family and fan base continues to grow daily and I definitely am enjoying the benefits of being included on amazing playlists, which help introduce new fans to my audience. Just having organic support from my fans in general is amazing. I do everything for them and my son, ultimately.”
While Ard Adz’s story is both encouraging and relatable, especially for artists aiming to provide for their family based off their art alone, what about the success that doesn’t arrive in the form of a million streams or greater? What does that look like? Is it simply receiving a check worth more than cup of coffee each month, because we all know streaming starts off paying pennies? Is it being able to secure a meeting at a renowned record label based off streaming data alone? Is it landing on an influential taste-making playlist, such as on one of Spotify’s branded playlists, RapCaviar, New Music Friday or Fresh Finds? Or Apple Music’s The A: List, #OnRepeat or The Cosign? What about the simple “what next?” question once an artist succeeds in landing one of these goals?
With playlisting specifically, analysis shows that playlists are not created equally, and curators obtain an aura of anonymous mystery that speaks volumes about how while, yes, the tools are accessible, the resources that share the formula for the best way to use them remain particularly safeguarded.
Just Google “how to land on a playlist” and you’ll see how scattered the information is, with no major company giving away the recipe for the sauce that easily. Because of this, the desire to obtain success on streaming platforms coexists as a necessary evil and an obscure but idealistic way to the top.
“As far as success in music, there are countless ways to define it,” Dawson explains. “Kendrick Lamar is gonna put up numbers no matter what. He’s going to make a ton of money, and go down as one of the greats. He has a earned that. But 99% of musicians and artists won’t get that opportunity.
To me success in music is two things: one, making art and being recognized and respected for it and two, being able to live off of doing what you love.
"There are people who hustle and make a living off of music without ever getting a big check from Spotify or Apple. People like Retch gain a following on social media, and translate that following into ticket and merchandise sales. The man packs up and sends his own merch. I have countless albums and t-shirts that were sent to me with a handwritten address from the artist him/herself.
It’s a beautiful thing to go direct to consumer and make money with very few or no middlemen. Griselda Records signed with Eminem, and you can still get a package with Conway or Benny’s handwriting on it. You can do ANYTHING independent.”
Artists are now asking themselves how important streaming data is, all while knowing the answer to a degree. Streaming data is incredibly important because it speaks to numbers, following, impact, investment risk, and above all, how that data translates to money. Labels simply aren’t taking risks on signing artists that may be the most talented and exciting artist they’ve discovered all week, if that talent isn’t backed up by streaming data. Viral content, by nature, has to be engaging, making quality the common thread between both accidental and purposeful marketing. It isn’t an easy task to leverage an existing fan base and capitalize on what could be the next viral song or movement in the moment, but understanding how to utilize one’s existing streaming audience is an increasingly powerful tool.
“Streaming data is relatively important to me,” Dawson continues. “Knowing the number of times a song has been played can either make for proud moments, or disappointing ones. I have songs with over 10,000 plays, others with only a couple hundred. Some of those lesser-played songs, to me, are some of my best. Through streaming data, I know that certain records will be more impactful to MY built-in audience, because I can SEE who my audience is. The biggest advantage of that, I think, is knowing the different regions where I have large numbers of fans concentrated. When I book a tour, I can make sure to touch those places and can expect a larger turnout than some place I haven’t seen support. It’s amazing to see what I sell and stream overseas. Places like Germany, Italy, France, and Spain are home to some of my most consistent supporters. I would have never known.”
Dawson currently has 426 monthly listeners on Spotify, and while that number may skew on the lower side at face value, he’s found success in being able to engage those fans off screen, such as through selling out local venues both in his hometown and in a larger market, such as Brooklyn.
“As an artist who is still trying to make a name for myself, just being on every streaming service makes me feel like I’m really doing it,” he continues. “You can find my music in the same place you can find Jay-Z or Marvin Gaye. Back in the day I could barely get my music into the local section at Sam Goody. There is a feeling of professionalism when I tell people I’m not just on SoundCloud or YouTube.” He then clarifies, adding, “No diss to SoundCloud or YouTube, as those are my favorite.”
With countless artists to draw inspiration from, it’s all about implementing advice that speaks closest to one’s goals or direction, as well as to one’s interpretation of success. Streaming doesn’t have to be the only indicator of success, even though today’s music climate is progressively putting the pressure on. For many, as it has been and as it always will be, streaming is all about knowing the rules in order to either break them or best play the game.
“Going back to Griselda Records, they aren’t doing anywhere NEAR the same streaming numbers as a Lil Pump or Lil Uzi, but they have already proved their staying power,” Dawson notes. “It’s been years in the making for that group of guys and still feels like they are just starting. No gimmicks, no antics, not a bunch of videos showing guns and drugs for shock value, just talent and hard work. And building a fan base from scratch without ‘going viral’ just seems like a better way to go about having longevity in the music business. You’d be surprised at how many rappers you’ve never heard of and would never want to hear with millions of SoundCloud streams. It’s a flash in the pan.”
While examining the good, the bad and the viral in today’s fast-paced music industry, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers game and let the palpable streaming data provide an addicting but albeit one-dimensional definition of success. A breakout single is an important part of one’s success story, but basing the narrative on the foundation of one successful track alone isn’t going to be enough to survive in today’s climate, given both the unforgiving speed of the industry’s deliverable content demands and the staggering attention span of listeners. A one-hit wonder can have legs today like it has in the days of music industry past but the nature of streaming is proving the model is changing. Audiences simply demand more and the tools to deliver are at one’s disposal, for better or for worse.
When examining the larger picture, authenticity still holds weight in terms of the artistry itself, which is a key component of experiencing long-term success. However, recognizing and understanding current and previous social/viral trends in music, while also keeping in mind how they evolve and grow in the age of streaming, has become a key component of experiencing short-term success. The real power lies in looking past the numbers and seeing the limitless potential of where consistent growth can take one’s career. In music and in life, the view is always worth the climb.
By KC Orcutt, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.
Image by Johan Larsson, distributed under the CC-BY creative commons license.
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