Streaming Killed the Superstar (Op-Ed)
The music industry has always been lucrative but has shifted more rapidly than ever in the past decade. Marketing has always been at the core of any business, but for the music industry, the product has drastically changed.
Saying music alone is a marketable product ignores the data behind fan bases and audience engagement. Conversely, saying an artist’s image and brand is enough to drive sales ultimately neglects the true product: music. There is a fine line between balancing the moving parts of a career in artistry, but in today’s ever-changing social sphere, brand and image are taking the limelight – while music and genre are cared about less and less.
For the first time in musical history, independent artists, focusing on a micro-niche following, have the capacity to reach and connect with their audience in unprecedented ways. The “era of data” is now upon us, opening doors of audience mapping to anyone who can simply create a piece of content. With so many tools at the fingertips of the masses, the music industry is shifting again, this time into the hands of artists, which begs the question, “is the era of the superstar over?”
A recent survey by Vice Magazine showed that “78% of young people couldn’t be defined by the genre of music they listened to.” For most of the modern record industry, a genre was a key defining piece of any artist’s brand. In the past 3 years, however, many artists have risen to stardom by blurring genres and creating conflicting musical storylines. As the consumption and creation of music continue to become ever more accessible, musical superstars have been slowly losing their aura.
Even though the overall streaming count on platforms increased by 171 billion in 2019, the five most-streamed artists in the US amassed 600 million fewer cumulative streams than 2018, dropping from 22.28 to 21.82 billion (Music Business Worldwide). This data shows not only a large expansion in streaming but an increase in listenership amongst non-superstar artists. This should be good news for rising artists with dedicated followings. Because of the nature of streaming sources and social media, audience listenership and marketing will continue to greatly favor the smaller artist in years to come.
Micro-niches seem to be a rising force in the fuel that drives the music industry, but rather than being defined by genre, these micro-niches are defined by brand values, artist messages, and sound style. Authenticity and originality are key components to an artist’s success, as seen by the rise of modern superstars like xxxtentacion, Post Malone and Billie Eilish. Their sound style is as equally intriguing as their personal brand.
Consumer trends have shifted dramatically in the past three years, through the rise of streaming platforms and social media. Because of playlists and the sheer amount of music readily accessible to audiences, singles and short-form music releases are becoming highly favored. Album sales and downloads, not including streaming, dropped 23.2% to 93 million in 2019 (Music Business Worldwide).
Across the board, the most listened-to artists, ones with committed followings, seem to be the ones with the most branded, consistent, and out-of-the-box message. Capturing the attention of listeners outside of music is crucial to the success of any music. When looking at the potential for a song, artists, or album, look at the moving pieces around the music, not just the music itself.
General listeners’ perception of ‘quality’ is always changing, making it even more important to satisfy the listeners’ needs for relatability and storyline. Relying on a ‘quality’ record to advance your career is like making the best burger for a crowd that doesn’t care to eat meat. Every ear is different, but the key is picking up on what originality is resonating with the audience.
Capturing the attention of a nation starts by capturing the attention of one listener. The musical superstars that have stolen the spotlight for so long are beginning to lose their grip, allowing a breeding ground for new musical genius and niche audiences.
The rise of streaming and big data has revolutionized the capacity of artists to reach listeners and create intriguing storylines. The age of big labels and superstars is coming to an end, what lies ahead is as exciting as it is unpredictable. Are you ready for it?