We’ve watched Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber’s battle for social-media supremacy in recent years across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other services.

Now they’ve been blindsided by another major artist, Rihanna, who this week overtook Bieber to become the most-viewed musician on YouTube. Both artists’ Vevo-branded channels round down to 3.78bn total views, but Rihanna is 2m ahead. Gaga, meanwhile, is some distance behind on 2.25bn views.

Why does this matter? They’re all popular after all. But there’s a useful lesson when you examine why Rihanna has surged past Justin Bieber: it’s seemingly all about the subscribers.

Rihanna’s channel has 8.75m subscribers, while Bieber’s channel has 4.96m and Gaga’s channel 2.68m. With YouTube having shifted its design in recent months to place more emphasis on channels and subscriptions, Rihanna has been the biggest beneficiary in the music world.

There’s more going on here, though. Look at Rihanna’s lead on Facebook, where she has 72.42m Likes to Bieber’s 54.43m, but also outranks him on the ‘talking about this’ engagement metric (albeit a narrower 620k to 516k).

Bieber remains king on Twitter with his 40.61m followers, ahead of Rihanna’s 30.08m. And of course, Gaga has her own Little Monsters community, a place for her most hardcore fans to gather.

All of these artists, needless to say, are making lots of money from their music and related activities, so the ‘who’s on top on platform X?’ isn’t enormously significant in that scheme of things.

But Rihanna’s YouTube success is an important reminder of the growing importance of subscribers on Google’s video service both online and on mobile devices – with analytics firm Ooyala claiming that tablets and mobile phones accounted for more than 10% of all online video plays in Q1 2013.

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