The music industry is understandably excited about its streaming-fuelled return to growth over the past couple of years, but there’s also a widespread awareness that this isn’t the time for resting on laurels.
The challenges and opportunities around how streaming should evolve were a topic up for discussion in a panel at the FastForward conference in Amsterdam today.
FUGA’s Anne Jenniskens; Nichestreem’s Catherine Lückhoff; and musician Jeremy Pritchard (from British band Everything Everything) were the panelists, while Columbia Records UK’s Sam Potts – also the founder of BuzzJam – moderated.
“I just saw a playlist the other day called ‘Sweaty Sexy Songs for the Shower’. Maybe that’s the next format for the music industry,” joked Potts as an opener, before setting the scene with Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon’s growth to 70 million, 36 million and 16 million paying subscribers respectively.
The role of artists – and streaming’s impact on them – was the first topic up for discussion. “Every time we put an album out, because we still work in that method – the long-playing album – every time we do, every two, two and a half years, the playing field has altered,” said Pritchard.
How? The truncation of the album cycle, for one. “The rollout, regardless of how long it is prior to the album, in week two, week three you’re going to struggle to keep it in people’s minds. That’s why the Arcade Fire put eight singles out before the album dropped, and even they weren’t able to buck that trend,” he said. The album may now be a culmination of a campaign, in other words.
Jenniskens talked about the trends FUGA sees. “Many of our clients release more often, and smaller products. it’s more singles, EPs and then every once in a while an album,” she said. Pritchard agreed. “Artists have to release more frequently.”
Playlists are fitting in to all this, with Lückhoff warning that “there’s an enormous amount of power that the streaming services hold… that’s the big question that we need to address soon, especially with companies like Spotify becoming more like labels. At what point do they start promoting their own artists?”
Pritchard compared playlist-pitching in the streaming world to radio in the 1960s and 1970s. “You have to have those relationships. Some people are further ahead in their relationships with DSPs. The major-label industry is still working that out,” he said. “The majors are still working out how to forge those relationships.”
Potts talked about the algorithmic playlists on these services, which in theory can put an artist’s music in front of the fans who already love them – and the potential fans who haven’t heard them yet, but are likely to love them.
How can artists and labels thrive in that world? Complete and correct metadata is crucial, said Jenniskens. “That means including names of contributors, all kinds of information that could help a music service or an algorithm surface your music as a match,” she said.
Lückhoff talked about her company’s work trying to work with music that doesn’t have good metadata accompanying it: for example, mapping what genre or mood a track is, or what language it’s in. “If that works, we don’t need that metadata: we can still make recommendations… there’s a whole new game being played.” Metadata is important, but streaming services aren’t just relying on labels to provide it before developing new discovery features to surface music.
Analytics also loomed large, with Pritchard cheerily admitting to not spending his time nose-deep in Everything Everything’s Spotify analytics.
“I never look at that stuff… because I can’t remember the logins!” he said. “Our manager showed me in the pub on his phone: ‘Look, you an log in to Spotify and see people listening to you in Johannesburg’ or wherever. That information is fascinating, but it wouldn’t inform what we do in the studio on a day-to-day basis.” He conceded that it is useful to inform the promotion of the music, though.
Are there other ways that streaming is changing the way music is written and recorded, though? Several recent articles have talked about the ‘Spotify effect’ of artists and producers bending their art towards what works well on streaming services.
“If you’re in the business of hits at any cost, in the same way that you might have heard Phil Spector on the radio in the sixties and thought ‘I’m going to ape that sound’, you might do that now,” said Pritchard.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say we didn’t structure songs – at least a quarter of the record – with radio, and thus streaming in mind… We did actually bend to that will, so it is affecting the way people structure songs. And it’s certainly affecting the way that you sequence an album.”
If streaming is the dominant consumption form for music in the future, is listening becoming even more of a ‘lean-back’ experience, asked Potts? So less engaged, and more casual, like traditional radio?
“I think it does, but that maybe has to do with the fact that music is now everywhere,” said Jenniskens. “You still consume it in an active, very interactive way by targeting that artist, listening to his music. But because we now listen to music more often, for a longer period, instead of choosing actively what you listen to, listening becomes more lean-back. We now play music when we bake a pizza, when we go to the gym. Music consumption has become more context-based… And we cannot spend all of our time being actively involved, actively choosing what we are listening to.”
Pritchard agreed. “It’s heading in that direction, partly because of the playlisting culture. People listen to a playlist passively… rather than individually choosing track-by-track what they’ll listen to. It’s not totally black and white, but it’s moving in that direction,” he said, before quoting Jarvis Cocker’s view that music is becoming ‘like a scented candle’ – just on in the background.
“The mass user has always been lean-back. That’s why radio has been so successful,” said Lückhoff. Does this bring risks for artists though, making it harder for them to build core fans? Or do people just become fans on playlists?
“It’s a track-based culture rather than an artist-based culture I suppose,” said Pritchard, who said this also ties in to a less tribal environment, where people are listening to a wider selection of artists and genres.
“That’s been the case for 20-odd years. There’s something healthy about that: people listen to all sorts now, and they don’t see certain things as mutually exclusive… When I started our band we wanted to sound like Destiny’s Child AND The Futureheads. And we didn’t think that would sound horrible! And we’ve been given that licence by the post-modern, kaleidoscopic influence of listening to music on the internet.”
“Although I grew up as a child of the 90s at the end of the ‘album era’, and that’s how I like to listen to music, there’s nothing inherently more noble in that. In the sixties, albums were something you essentially put out between the actual hits, while your artist was touring.”
He came back to the idea of artists shifting to releasing a track at a time regularly, or clusters of songs in EPs, rather than albums. “Maybe those classifications won’t matter any more… Pushing a format that I happen to favour personally, but which is not resounding commercially any more? I don’t think it’s going to be in labels’ interests to make albums soon.”
Has context and mood overtaken the importance of genre?
“Definitely. If you look at Indian consumers, they think of ‘dance’ and they think of ‘love’. They don’t think of it as genres,” said Lückhoff. “I think people are more leaning towards a space of what’s speaking to what I’m actively doing right now, or what mood I’m in?” Jenniskens agreed, suggesting that mainstream listeners relate more easily to a mood than to the multiplicity of musical genres.
Potts asked about whether the big streaming services are too similar: should there be more diverse options for music listeners than the current $9.99-a-month template?
“There is some sort of a standard, but the devil is in the details. Details can create a lot of variations,” said Jenniskens. Lückhoff said that her company, Nichestreem, is actively looking for the gaps, for example around genre-based streaming services.
“People think niche is small. It’s not,” she said, pointing to gospel, metal, Christian music and other areas as ripe for specialised streaming services. “That’s going to start happening in streaming: there are a lot of gaps to be filled there, for people who potentially don’t want to pay as much, but want to support just the artists that they love… moving back to that space where fans have a very strong affinity to artists or cultures that they love. I think that’s going to open up some gaps.”
Pritchard thought there was scope for innovation within the big streaming services too: to help people go deeper into the artists they discover on the platforms, rather than just moving from track to track. “To regain that feeling we all had when we were younger about specific artists,” as he put it.
Lückhoff, meanwhile, talked about removing the “$1m and 18 months” barrier for artists with a committed fanbase to launch their own streaming services, following in the footsteps of what Neil Young has done with his back catalogue.
Is there scope for streaming services to do more around social features and communities: helping artists talk to fans (and vice versa) and fans to connect with one another around music? Or is that always going to happen on Facebook, Twitter and other social sites instead?
“YouTube has that comment section which is just full of lunatics! That way madness lies,” said Pritchard. “Facebook may develop their own music service or buy Spotify. Or Spotify may be waiting to launch its own social service where you create your own profile – and that might put them into profit! I don’t know.”
Lückhoff suggested that sharing tends to be a more private activity: people creating and swapping playlist links. But she thinks community is happening elsewhere: artists crowdfunding their albums and filming videos where fans are part of it: ‘online-to-offline’ connections. “I don’t think there’s enough opportunity for artists and fans to engage, which I think that social element could potentially fix.”