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How can labels and musicians avoid the ‘dry streams paradox’ in 2019?


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Music Ally wrote about the ‘dry streams paradox’ earlier this year in our Sandbox music-marketing report: it refers to the situation where millions of streams for a song driven by a popular playlist on Spotify or Apple Music doesn’t translate into engaged fans for the artist who recorded it.

The topic was the subject for the first panel debate at our Sandbox Summit conference in New York today, with a panel including Cindy James (VP, streaming and playlisting strategy, Island Records); Heather Ellis (senior manager, editorial content, Pandora); Amanda Suriani (senior director, account management, The Orchard); and Naveed Hassan (artist manager at MDDN) giving their thoughts on the dry-streams paradox – and how artists and labels can wiggle out of it.

“We try and remind people that there’s a lot more that goes into this than just the playlist. You need to start building your fanbase,” said Suriani. That’s the core challenge here: if an artist has an engaged fanbase, then they won’t see a sudden, sharp drop in streams even when a track drops off a big playlist.

“Playlisting is great, it’s not a panacea, it’s not going to fix everything,” agreed Hassan, citing the example of rapper K Camp, who he works with, as a good example. He was doing plenty of streams, but that wasn’t automatically translating into ticket and merchandise sales: these had to be worked for.

“You’ve got to do the steps and gradually build it… playlists are not the solution for everything. You have to pay attention to a lot of things,” said Hassan.

“It’s not all about oh great, my song’s been played on this playlist or station, that’s all I have to do. You do have to work on converting that person into a fan, so they’re more likely to buy a ticket to the show, or listen to more than just that one song,” said Ellis, who pitched the merits of Pandora’s Artist Marketing Platform (AMP) to do exactly this – with features including the ability for artists to record voice messages that will be played to people listening regularly to their music.

“You definitely see some artists who have recognised the power of these tools, and you see how they build these iterative campaigns,” she said. “Some artists and managers and labels who’ve really latched on to the process and created their own best practices… they are able to really make measurable differences to their career.”

James said that for managers and label marketers alike, it’s important to explore all the tools that streaming services offer for telling an artist’s story around their music, and connecting with fans. On Spotify alone, there’s its merch-selling feature, the six-second ‘Canvas’ video loops that are shown on its Now Playing screen; and the new (currently being tested) ‘Storyline’ feature where artists can provide context on their songs, to be displayed as they play.

Hassan expressed frustration at the way streaming services keep certain data to themselves: for example, the ability for artists to message fans directly. “Will we ever get to a point where there’s more freedom of communication between artists and fans?” he wondered.

James said that a strong focus on CRM [customer relationship management] can pay off handsomely, praising fan-insights tool Appreciation Engine for its ability to help marketers bring all their fan-data together, start segmenting it and really understanding who’s engaging with artists and their music.

She also praised Spotify’s latest tools for helping labels to understand what fans are doing within its platform. “Are new listeners engaging with he content, are they adding it to their collection? How are existing users engaging?… That level of transparency is absolutely next-level,” she said.

This kind of discussion can end up focusing a lot on what data to harvest and which tools to do it with, but Hassan kept the conversation on a more human level: “It’s a matter of doing something that’s worth talking about, as an artist. Releasing a song is not enough! You’ve got to do something that makes people excited… and have the urge to get involved and share information,” he said.

Suriani also delivered a warning against over-expectations. “We are so quick to just try and get things to happen immediately,” she said. “We want that immediacy, that overnight sensation to happen. But you have to really take the time.” That includes coming up with a long-term, well-structured marketing plan “which doesn’t just end on release day… it’s really creating moments for fans to engage with on a regular basis”.

If some artists are afflicted by the dry-streams paradox, others are the opposite: they may do a moderate amount of streams, but their fanbases will buy lots of tickets and merchandise, and will be passionate in their support for the artist offline and online. Building that fanbase person-by-person, particularly through gigging (for artists who that suits) can pay off in the longer term: by the time an artist starts getting playlisted, they’ll have their superfan community up and running.

“That will eventually lead to the big playlists,” said Ellis, although she added another reminder for artists not to see those playlists as THE goal. “I don’t think you should get too excited thinking you need one big playlist… maybe it’s not an artist who’s going to get millions of streams a month, but they can sell out arenas. And that’s how you build a lasting fan. There are some bands I don’t listen to that often, but I’ll never miss a show.”

The strong message: “The music industry always wants to know what the silver bullet is: the one thing we can do that’s going to make it’s successful. And for the last few years people ave been thinking that’s playlists… but it’s still just about genuine fan engagement, and converting a human being into somebody who genuinely gives a shit about what you do!”

Hassan warned against artists trying to manufacture this kind of effect without putting in the work, particularly on a local level.

“It’s doing things on the ground. If you’re an artist in Atlanta and DJs in Atlanta aren’t playing your records in clubs, nobody cares. Nobody’s listening to RapCaviar there: the thing that moves the needle is the DJs… So paying attention to those local things is key,” he said.

The conversation came back to data, and understanding where fans are gathering online, which may not just be on the big streaming services. “Consumers might be on Audiomack or Beatport. It’s really about understanding who your fans are,” said James.

If avoiding the dry streams paradox is about ‘off-platform’ activity, there’s still a big opportunity to drive those newly-engaged fans back to Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora and other DSPs. In fact, that’s one of the key tasks for music marketers, according to James.

“What are you going to do to drive people into the platform now, as opposed to… just getting on these top-tier playlists?” she said.

The panel finished off with an audience question about TikTok, and whether any songs have gone viral on the buzzy social app by design, rather than by accident (or rather: as part of a coordinated label campaign, rather than through the clips made by people on the app).

Suriani thinks it is possible, but cited a challenge for labels. “I do think you still have to figure out a way to take those people who are using your song because they are doing a challenge, and bring them to understand that you are an artist… and get them to engage with you more than just on TikTok,” she said.

Hassan warned that something like TikTok will work best for artists who are on the platform themselves, and are part of its culture. Ellis, too, warned against labels trying too hard to make tracks pop on TikTok. “Trying to force virality is one of the most transparent things in the world! It’s uncomfortable!” she said.

Stuart Dredge

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