The Climate of Music Streaming

Browsing Spotify Playlists
Photo by Heidi Fin

The record industry is now a streaming-first market. Music streaming grew to US$14.2 billion in 2020 and now makes up 60% of the global record industry, and over 80% in the U.S. and Australian markets. The pie keeps on getting bigger, so if you want a slice, it’s never been more important to understand the streaming market and listener behaviours. And it’s never been more overwhelming. 

The competition

Streaming services have become very powerful in influencing how people listen to music. Release Radar will put you in front of your fans on day one, and landing a high-traffic playlist will pay your bills. But on the other hand, there are 420,000 other tracks also taking a punt to cut through the noise that week – a staggering 50% increase in uploads since 2019. Listening time is what pays, and evidently, releasing frequently is your best chance at fighting for some time. 

They give me their time, but where’s my money?

Spotify’s recent attempt at transparency reveals their “DIY” artist of 34,700 monthly listeners made US$4,100 in 2020, which is about a third of the dole if you have no one to split it with. The same year where musicians relied on the dole, Spotify’s stock price doubled. Criticism is nothing new for the company, but this year has escalated the call for higher artist payments. There’s the UK inquiry into the economics of streaming, artists are protesting against Spotify, and platforms like SoundCloud are responding with a user-centric monetisation model (but probably won’t solve much).

Will music fans stick to streaming?

The streaming industry is overdue for a shakeup, and it’s a matter of time before something changes in the favour of artists. It’s possible that artists and active music fans will move away from these platforms while other listeners become more passive and trust the robots to choose their music. Platforms like TikTok, Twitch and others have also been changing how music is consumed and monetised, complicating the approach to your next release. Have these platforms become as important as playlists are or are they just optional trends?

Andy Irvine, CEO of GYROstream

Andy Irvine has always been where the record industry is going, boasting a hefty list of Digital Production roles over the past two decades for names like Universal Music and Dew Process. Launching his own company in 2018, GYROstream quickly became an Australian go-to for digital distribution and PR/marketing.

Naturally, Andy is who we reached out to with our questions about Getting Your Record Out in today’s online climate.

Andy Irvine of GYROstream

MIIO: What does releasing music look like in 2021, and what should artists be aware of?

Andy: It’s probably been similar for the past few years at least, but releasing music, particularly because the majority is done online on streaming these days, it’s a very singles-driven market. It’s about trying to have consistency in your releases and building your narrative over time. Perhaps you want to be building up to an EP or album release, but you want to be able to build your audience leading into that so you’re giving yourself as much opportunity to get as many songs out there prior that are worthy. Songs that you can potentially get playlist opportunities for; that you can create content around, whether that’s video or other audio content that you can promote through your social channels; and you want to create a release strategy that can last a longer time so that you’re putting more content out in the world and you’re growing your audience and they’re not being distracted by everything else that’s going on around them at the same time.

MIIO: With the number of songs being uploaded every day, is playlist placement an attainable goal? With what you were saying about needing to churn out singles often etc, for a majority of musicians it can be hard to get onto these playlists.

Andy: It’s not easy to get on playlists but it’s definitely attainable, and plenty of independent artists make it on playlists every week. It’s no surprise that the editorial spots are highly competitive. It’s crucial not to ignore all the other parts of your release strategy, such as radio, pr, digital marketing, and potentially touring, as they all can play a part in getting the attention of editors who make the playlists. As an independent artist, the focus should always be on growing your fanbase organically so you don’t need to rely on playlist support for every release.

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If you’re not on a playlist on day one and your song comes out, it’s not the end of the world because the harder that you push all those other different mediums, the more chances you give yourself of getting onto those playlists at some point down the track. A Fresh Finds playlist, for example, will be the result of a whole lot of other stuff that you do online. When those algorithms are looking at international blogs and any other online media that you’re doing, that will help you get on those playlists.

The other thing that helps you get on playlists is obviously a distributor that can have access to those teams and present your music to those editorial teams (such as GYROstream) so that at least your music is getting consideration in those places. And then, obviously making sure that you’re using the tools available (such as Spotify for Artists pitching tool), and ensuring you get that completed at least 1-2 weeks before your release so that those editorial teams have a chance to consider your music. Also making sure that when you fill it out, you’re spending a lot of time on it. Because you’re pitching it to those people, make sure that your genre is right, the instrumentation is right, and the pitch you write is really solid. Make sure that when they read that and they listen to your song, there’s something that sparks their interest and they will actually add it onto the playlists.

Musician on streaming platform
Photo by Volume Control

MIIO: So playlisting is not a be-all or end-all, but it’s part of everything else you do.

Andy: It’s part of everything else you aim for, but you can’t look at it as a make or break for your career or music. We have plenty of artists on our service who sell out tours, have huge fanbases and stream extremely well, but do not get any editorial support.

The way we consume music has changed, but the way we grow our fanbase is still the same as it was 20 years ago. It’s finding people who love your music and growing that over time, and it doesn’t happen overnight. You might get the artist that blows up overnight, but for the rest of us, it’s a grind and you’re slowly pushing your way up through that. There’s a lot of competition out there obviously, but if you can find a way to grow your audience over time so that when you’re starting an album campaign, it’s a whole year’s worth of work and you have your goal at the end of that to try and make sure you’ve grown your fanbase to sustain what you’re doing. The artists that are having the most success are the ones that are able to do that. They have grown their following on their Spotify profile and through their other social media, so that every time they put a song out, all their followers get a notification that it has been released and, immediately, they’re getting streams on day one regardless of whether they get any editorial support or not. That’s a much safer bet for an artist than hoping you’re going to get on a playlist, which is something you can’t really control. Basically, artists have to focus on what they can control, and the story they push out.

MIIO: If playlists can be out of an artist’s control, do you think artists can influence where people listen? Perhaps for the sake of a higher royalty rate (like SoundCloud or Apple Music), do you think platform choice is something artists should worry about?

Andy: It’s not something artists should be too worried about. I think it’s always good to have an understanding of the industry at large and where people listen. It really comes down to understanding your audience, and there’s plenty of data out there to understand who your audience is through every social media and streaming site that gives you access to the data. You don’t need to necessarily push people to a specific service, because as consumers, they’re probably already using YouTube Music/Spotify/Apple or one of those already, so it’s more important to be making your music accessible to those people. With distribution, you obviously can make it accessible to all people in all major streaming services all around the world, so accessibility is key. When you are putting your message out there, no matter what those people use, they’ve got access to your music.

Having said that, it’s good to know that if your market is in Australia, there may be more people on one service or another, or that if your audience that listens to you is predominantly in the U.S., then there’s a whole bunch of other services you may want to be on that might be only U.S.-centric, like Pandora for example. Another sort of situation is there may be a bigger market share for Apple in America than there is in Australia. Or in China, you need to understand that those services don’t really exist there, so you’d want your music available on the big Chinese streaming services if you find that your audience is coming from those territories. It’s a) understanding your audience, and b) making it accessible, and then if you do those things right, you’re already ahead of most people.

Are you ready to export your music?

The services do payout at different amounts, and there are so many factors into how much you’ll get paid for a stream. They all have different monetisation models and can depend on whether it’s a free tier or a paid tier or if it’s coming from India or Australia and so on, but you could drive yourself mad trying to unravel all that kind of stuff. There’s plenty of other more important things artists could be thinking about.

MIIO: So it’s more important to accept where your audience is and doing your best to embrace that.

Andy: Yeah.

Spotify Editorial Playlists
Photo by Fixelgraphy

MIIO: How has the significance of playlists changed in recent years?

Andy: For artists, I think playlists are still hugely important and it’s still the ultimate goal for many artists, but as I said, it can’t be the thing that defines your career. Ultimately, if you’re doing everything else right and you have great music and you’re growing a fanbase, then there’s every chance you’ll get on a playlist. Those things don’t get ignored for too long. It’s just like radio – if you’re doing everything else right, then there’s a good chance that certain radio stations will start to pick you up because you’re developing your name and it’s too hard to ignore – and the same thing with playlists as well. Artists are obsessing about it too much, and whilst playlisting is nice to have, they need to make sure that their strategy can’t be reliant on whether or not they get onto playlists, because there are so many other facets to the industry that they need to be having and setting goals for, pushing and growing as artists.

I think the thing about playlists is that it tends to be a very passive listening audience. People will put on a playlist and listen from track to track, but they won’t know the name of the song or who you are as an artist, so there’s not really any real engagement with you growing. You might get a lot of streams, but you won’t be able to sell any tickets for your show based on that. It really needs to come from an all-round strategy. It’s nice to be able to get those streams to pay for all those other things, but ultimately, it’s not a mutually exclusive arrangement. The strategy has to be defined for each of those elements of your career that you’re doing.

MIIO: What are your thoughts on Spotify’s pay-for-play scheme where they reduce royalty rates in return for placements? How do you think it impacts artists?

Andy: I don’t think that is a good long-term strategy, because ultimately, artists need to get paid for their creative output and artists are under enough pressure already with their capacity, especially in the last 12 months. It needs to be a far more merit-based kind of system. It’s not a good trade-off that they have to accept a lower royalty rate for consideration of being put on certain playlists. I don’t think it levels the playing field, I think it’s potentially going to cause more issues than it addresses. I think we need to look for more opportunities to include more artists in that sort of service, but not as a trade-off for reducing the amount of money that they earn.

Photo by Solen Feyissa

MIIO: How has social media impacted music consumption over the last few years?

Andy: I think the way it’s changed over the last few years, in particular, is that some of the social media apps like TikTok are very music-based, which is great. Facebook has never been a music platform even though it’s great for getting your music out. TikTok certainly has changed the game in that sense, where its foundation is very much centred around music. The hardest thing with social media in the past is converting your followers on a social media channel into streaming consumers of your music, and that has traditionally been quite tricky. When you’ve got an app like TikTok which has music kind of front-and-centre of what it’s doing, it’s becoming a little bit easier to convert people who go viral into consumers of your music on a streaming platform, which is great.

But from an artist’s point of view, now there are even more platforms to consider. There are things like Twitch now, and all sorts of things that are more long-form live video. There are heaps of other platforms out there starting to get traction than there would’ve been three or four years ago, but that doesn’t mean that every artist should be on all of those platforms. You always have to make sure that you’re picking the right platforms for your audience, for your type of music, and making sure that you’re producing the content that’s going to engage that audience as well. TikTok doesn’t work for everyone, but for the people who are using it well, it’s becoming an extremely valuable tool to get your music in front of a very large audience.

Also read: Live Streaming Tips for Musicians

MIIO: Before COVID, there was talk of streaming being due to plateau as an industry. Instead, we’ve seen continued growth as it now makes up most of the global recording industry. It’s got me wondering, do you see a big shift happening in the coming years? Will music consumers seek out something that doesn’t look like Spotify?

Andy: I personally don’t see any major shift in consumers, I just think that it’s getting more and more competitive for music in general. The Spotify’s of the world are now obviously putting focus on things other than just music, so podcasts and all that sort of stuff is what music essentially has to compete with.

But in terms of consumers streaming music, I think Spotify for example just launched in another 85 countries at the start of this year, so there’s still going to be considerable growth as many of those services open up in new territories and get more users on board. I think the industry as a whole has a long way to go, and the really significant trend is that independent music and music from artists without labels is continuing to grow in market share on those services, which is fantastic. Consumers aren’t just listening to the Top 40 stuff. More and more, they’re searching out independent music and so we hope that trend continues. Ultimately, my prediction is that things will continue to grow and the market will continue to grow, but I don’t see any fundamental shifts in listening habits – otherwise, I would try to invent it – but I don’t really see anything like that in the immediate future.

MIIO: With the growing interest of independent artists, do you think there might be a push within the user interface or something like that to facilitate those artists?

Andy: I think there are lots of healthy conversations going on globally, especially say in the UK where the inquiry is happening now into streaming where they’re having the right sorts of discussions on what the current status is and where they think it needs to be. That whole user-centric model you’re talking about that SoundCloud is doing, versus the current pooling model – I don’t know which is the right or the wrong model, but I think those things need to be vigorously tested and analysed. I think ultimately it needs to come down to getting the best outcomes for artists. Songwriters also need to be fairly compensated for their work and there are a lot of important conversations happening in that space as well.

It’s interesting times because there is so much opportunity out there, but at the same time, there are a lot of obstacles that need to be overcome to make it sustainable for artists. Covid’s shown us that if you take away things like touring from artists, it’s devastating for the industry as a whole. It’s shown us that streaming isn’t able to, for the majority of musicians, make up that shortfall. There needs to be a system that can ultimately provide that safety net.

MIIO: So you think that the past 12 months will contribute to more of these conversations happening?

Andy: I think they’re important conversations to be had, definitely. I don’t have all the answers, but it’s a good thing that these conversations are more out in the public sphere at the moment, for sure.

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