Research project compares Spotify and radio for breaking hits


A few years ago, Spotify UK was urging labels to adopt an ‘on air, on stream’ policy with new tracks – meaning that as soon as they were played on the radio, they should be available on streaming services too. In 2019, the notion that this was ever even a debate may seem bizarre, but it was: radio had traditionally got new tracks weeks before they went on sale, and for a while, streaming was lumped in with the latter category. Just another sign of how quickly the industry has changed in recent years.

Why is Music Ally remembering those days? Because we’ve been reading a recent study published by data-visualisation agency The DataFace. The company analysed two years of data on every song that broke into the top 50 on Spotify or on radio-airplay charts in the US, in an effort to figure out if claims (for example by industry blogger Bob Lefsetz) that streaming services were breaking new tracks faster than radio were true.

The conclusion? They are. “Radio is indeed lagging behind Spotify in its ability to quickly surface new, popular songs. On average, it takes about two weeks from the time a song is released for it to reach the Spotify top 10 (if it makes it there at all). Meanwhile, it takes nearly three months for a hit song to reach the top 10 on radio,” suggested the study. “Once on the top radio chart, however, a song generally has serious staying power. The average top 10 radio hit remains on the Billboard chart for 26 weeks, thirteen weeks longer than on Spotify. Even nine months after release, a huge song can still have consistent spins on the radio.”

There’s some good data on individual tracks, including some that are outliers to the trends above. There’s also analysis of way Spotify’s top 50 skews more towards hip-hop, and radio’s slightly towards pop and heavily towards country – admittedly none of this will be a surprise, but the breakdown is interesting, as are some of the lessons. “Almost half of the hip-hop acts that cracked Spotify’s top 50 — more than 40 in total — did so without any of their songs reaching Billboard radio’s top 50,” for example.

The study’s authors are careful to swerve any ‘radio is doomed’ conclusions from all this: “Mainstream radio is playing a different role in the music landscape than it used to,” is as far as it goes, noting its continued importance among the broader American public, as well as specific demographics like country fans. But the study is a useful contribution to the music industry’s understanding of how the life-cycles of hits are evolving, and how different platforms and media interplay.

Stuart Dredge

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