The rise of grime in the UK, with many of its prominent artists choosing to release through digital distributors rather than seek traditional label deals, has been a potent reminder of the potential of distributors – especially in the streaming era.

A panel at the Midem conference today explored some of the ways distributors are working with streaming services to help their artists reach fans and build their careers.

The panel included Yoel Kenan, CEO of Africori; Marie-Anne Robert, VP international at TuneCore; Scott Cohen, co-founder of The Orchard; and Eliah Seton, president of ADA Worldwide. The moderator was industry consultant Ralph Simon.

There was a group of us in the mid-90s that saw this world out there: this notion that there would be this ‘celestial jukebox’ and we’d just be able to listen to anything whenever we wanted to… And I was naive enough to start a company right then. I didn’t realise it would take us 20 years to get to the point we’re at today,” said Cohen.

Kenan talked about his experience in the African music markets. “Creatively it’s really having a good moment, and it’s been happening for the last few years, and also this is the place we start from nothing,” he said. “You couldn’t be defensive. You could just build up. And I thought that was a lot more exciting than just trying not to lose money.”

He talked about the young streaming market in Africa, with five or six services operating – usually bundled with a telco’s data offering. “Africa is 99% mobile, if not 100%,” he said. “It’s all about the penetration of smartphones with the price of data coming down, and people are really avid consumers of data: of content and music and movies.”

Robert spoke next, discussing what she’s learned from her time at TuneCore. She talked about the importance of providing artists with tools and tips to make sense of the data coming out of streaming services.

Seton talked about ADA, which sits within Warner Music Group much like The Orchard sits within Sony Music. He talked about the success of grime artist Stormzy as a case study of success, hitting number one with his recent album.

“The tracks across the whole album have already garnered over 100m streams. This was an artist who wasn’t looking to do a traditional label deal,” said Seton, before moving on to the topic of playlisting.

“With streaming truly beginning to scale, the ability to plug in to the digital companies’ playlists themselves is a critical part of a campaign, to get it added to many of the playlists: not just the biggest playlists, but some of the maybe smaller, tastemaker-curated playlists… but also to do your own playlisting.”

ADA has its own Indie Mixtape playlist brand, as well as working with Warner Music’s Topsify brand. “In the way people in this business always thought about radio promotion being critical to the success of a campaign, we have to think about playlisting promotion in the same way.”

Seton added that he’s enthusiastic about the potential impact of smart speakers with voice controls. “What we’re going to see is a lot of genres that have been unloved in streaming to date are going to find a lot of love in voice activation,” he said.

Cohen warned that playlists cannot be the full story of a campaign: artists and distributors must have their wider strategies in place, from social promotion to touring and other kinds of content, if they want love from the streaming services’ curators. “They want to know you have a whole plan and plot out there, just like radio used to demand of labels and artists and distributors.”

Seton also said that distributors “need to think of the world as having no borders… volumes of streams is what matters for an artist.” And a song can start breaking in an unexpected country, and then spread from there, rather than breaking through in its home market first.

The conversation widened out onto streaming more generally. “People tend to be focused a lot on their genres: ‘I want to be on the Rap Caviar playlist on Spotify’. But it’s more and more about moods as well,” said Kenan. “And we’re looking at getting into small playlists and using those analytics to then pitch to the bigger playlists. The guys responsible for the big playlists are also responsible for the smaller playlists.”

“It’s critical that you don’t focus on one. If I get on New Music Friday on Spotify, that doesn’t help me at Apple Music, and if I get a great feature on Apple Music, that doesn’t help my Deezer streams. You’ve got to have a strategy for each of them,” said Cohen. “It’s radio, press, touring, television, and Deezer and Spotify…”

Does this lead to music starting to sound the same, wondered one audience member? “You should look at a New Music Friday list on Spotify,” responded Cohen. “They could have a classical track from London Symphony Orchestra, Metallica has a new one, then Justin Bieber, then some hip-hop artist you’ve never heard of. It’s everything.”

Robert: “My advice would be to deliver the music to the widest distribution market possible,” she said, citing the example of one group of American rappers that realised they were getting significant streams and revenue from streaming service KKBOX in Asia. “Now they are thinking about touring there,” she said.

“We need to be able to look at the world and react to where there are consumers we want to target that we would otherwise not have the reach to. There are 300 million people in Indonesia… their access to repertoire from all over the world used to be limited, but in a streaming environment, there is no limit to what they’re able to get.”

The panel were asked for advice: golden rules in the age of streaming for independent labels and artists. “We need plans,” said Kenan. “In Africa we get dropped music today for tomorrow! I’m sure it’s not just Africa. But second it’s about having targets: understanding what we’re trying to achieve: and review your plans on a constant basis. And for us, video streaming is important. We’re getting massive amounts of video streams in Africa.”

Seton: “Certainly data is critical, and there’s so many different metrics that we can be looking at. Data runs the risk of just being noise if you’re looking at the wrong things… We need to be in a constant state of change to get more and more precise at what we should be looking at,” he said.

“Anticipation is still key,” said Robert. “People think with digital you don’t need to anticipate because it goes so fast, but you still have to plan your release properly.”

Over to Cohen. “Create natively. Think about radio: what’s native to radio is a track… they play a track at a time. And if you play a concert, you play a whole set. So what’s native to streaming platforms? Certainly not albums. The way to make sure nobody hears your album is to put it up there! One song at a time. You can only promote one song at a time,” he said.

“Plan for success. What’s next? Great, we got it on New Music Friday this week. So what’s next week? What is your plan for next week, and the week after. The more success you have, the less you need to release.” But he finished off with a zinger: “If you don’t have great music, it just doesn’t matter what your fucking plan is… You’re fucked!

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