ARTISTS VS SONGS: BUILDING IDENTITY IN A STREAMING ERA - PART II

Guest post by Nick Susi, creative strategist in music & media

(This is a continuation from last week’s Part I)

User behavior in music consumption is making a clear shift towards discovery-obsession, as well as shorter attention spans. Streaming may have flattened the barrier of entry, but as a result, the volume of songs and artists entering the streaming ecosystem has risen significantly. This has led to an age of noise. So what does this mean for creators, managers and the rest of their team?

Creators need to keep in mind that cutting through and being discovered is only half the battle. Sustaining a long, meaningful career will always remain the real challenge. The notion of artists vying to be discovered is nothing new. For decades, artists have sought that tipping point of getting signed by a label. Even right before the advent of streaming, artists clamoring to create a viral YouTube video for rapid discovery. But this was never the endgame of a long, successful career. The streaming ecosystem is no different. While there is definitely real value in landing a single in New Music Friday or Global Viral chart, there are two key components to consider -

 

Who Is Your User?

Creators must take the time to deeply understand who their tribe is, and how they are connecting with them. Owning this audience and its associated data is key. Meaning, creators must avoid handing over all access and control of their audience to a label or digital service provider. Instead, creators should focus on mindfully collecting emails and phone numbers, directly messaging users on social media, tracking users through pixels and cookies, scheduling Skype calls and Google Hangouts. These are all ways to create meaningful growth and engagement with a community outside of a streaming ecosystem. Even within the streaming ecosystem, Spotify and Pandora AMP have begun to provide creators with direct messaging tools. These tools are only likely to improve over time, as well as be added to other streaming platforms that have yet to implement.

Recognizing that all fans are not created equal is of similar importance. To create the best user experience for all users, creators must consider how they are incentivizing and engaging with each tier of their community. Creators should not assume that casting as wide of a net as possible with each content release is the best means of super-serving all users. Creators should also not assume that releasing one album every so often best serves all user tiers. Rather, they should analyze the pacing of content that best caters to each tier’s consumption habits. Even within the streaming ecosystem, not every listener is the same. Spotify’s Fan Insights has begun to leverage their data to better define users, segmenting certain groupings as Streakers - who have listened to the artist every day in the last week, Loyalists - who have listened to the artist more than any other artist over the past 20 days, and Regulars - who listened to the artist on the majority of the days that month.

Streaming is but one piece of the overall pie chart of revenue streams. It is important to remember the music industry is more than just the recorded music industry. Different users will exist on different platforms and distribution channels, so creators should not overcommit or overinvest in one format. Spotify and streaming should not be the only approach to launching and sustaining a project. One needs to look no further than Vine to understand that even large, popular digital entities that fall under a massive parent company like Twitter can disappear at a moment’s notice.

Streaming has definitely made a positive impact on the music industry in 2016, but consumption models and platforms in music, and all of media for that matter, are constantly disrupted. As the landscape of media consumption continues to fractionalize, creators need to consider how they continue to connect with different users that prefer sales, streams, physical products and especially live events. Chris Woltman, manager of Twenty One Pilots, stresses the importance of live experiences even in an increasingly digital era, “The most significant way of discovery is when a band delivers such a powerful live experience that people come back next time and bring their friends [...] You may have a breakthrough song, but a breakthrough artist is a much more complex idea.”

Moreover, creators will need to connect with new users who gravitate towards emerging mediums and formats like virtual reality and augmented reality, monetized video on Facebook, Snapchat, Musical.ly and other social networks, podcasts, chat bots and immersive theater. Overall, creators should analyze and deeply understand where all of their users exist, beyond just the streaming ecosystem, and how to take a distributed approach in seamlessly integrating their music everywhere.

 

What Is Your Story?

Once understanding the user, identifying how the user’s story overlaps with the creator’s story is paramount. Harnessing the power of story is what resonates with people on an emotional, psychological and human level. It is the reason why when asking someone about their favorite song, they will always have a specific personal story and memory to share. Music is not about the artist – it is about the stories being lived by the listener and how they relate. Stories transcend any specific artist or song, and given the feedback of the students and the success of models like Soulection, it is what unites these communities and subcultures together.

This goes to the initial point of - if the streaming and playlisting ecosystem does not fully provide creators the opportunity to build identity and story, creators must consider how they are creatively working around this challenge. How can creators rally their users and bring to life the stories, meaning and context that connect the community together? How can these stories not only be embedded into the creator’s music and lyrics, but also threaded through every other element of the project and its campaigns? There are no right answers, but creators taking the time to unlock these answers will find themselves in the best position to not only cut through the discovery phase, but also sustain.

Spotify launched in the United States in the summer of 2011. Looking at the artists that have come up, broken through and sustained multiple successful releases in this five year streaming era, all have a clear user and story. The students’ examples of Chance The Rapper and Kendrick Lamar support this – rallying communities through protest against discrimination, through the ideals of going against the grain and keeping control and ownership over something that has been built independently.

Other examples of this streaming age generation are Anderson Paak, Flume, Gallant, Jamie xx, Skepta, The 1975 and FKA Twigs. Streaming and playlists have definitely played a large factor in launching all of these projects through the discovery phase. But all of these examples have moved far beyond a one-off viral streaming sensation by remaining nimble and leveraging opportunities outside the streaming ecosystem, outside traditional industry models, outside traditional radio support and outside the music space. What FKA Twigs has built means something powerful for women in the music, art and fashion space. What Skepta has built means something powerful for the grime scene of UK and how it can remain independent of traditional models. Each one taps a clear community and culture, and the story that inspires that user base. After all, a creator can only be as successful as the community they cultivate, connect and empower, no matter how many playlists or streams they obtain.

As industry veteran and Spotify’s own Troy Carter has said, “I think that playlisting is definitely important, the only thing more important than playlisting is that people are saving and sharing. We always can put the music out in front of people, but it’s up to the consumer to decide whether they want to listen to it more than once or whether they want to share it with their friends.”

 

What Is Ahead In 2017?

As 2017 begins, creators and their management should challenge themselves to think beyond streaming discovery, and focus on how to creatively build identity in and out of the streaming ecosystem for long-term resonance. Streaming services should consider iterating the user experience and interface to support artists in strengthening identity. Labels should be urged to think long-term when committing to an artist and not solely on the quick, short-term revenue that can be spun from the early viral streaming success of one song. Or perhaps, all of this just might be the early signs of a bigger shift in listener behavior that cannot be swayed in moving away from artist-focused models into one of collections of individual songs.