A Streaming Year In Review | OPINION

Andrea Lang, CNET

The Rise of The Independent Artist

In April of 2020, major labels and established artists were at a standstill. Unsure of the scope and duration of the pandemic, many major projects were paused. A lockdown order means the album cycle strategy simply cannot function. The inability to record in person, tour, promote on TV or radio convinced labels to attempt to wait it out before the eventual adjustment to reality. This halt in releases leveled the playing field for indie and major artists and in some ways put indies at an advantage.

For many independent artists, working from their home-studio was already the norm. Independent distributors like CD Baby, TuneCore and Vydia told Rolling Stone that during lockdown periods they saw an increase of up to 300% in submissions. This expansion in indie artists’ reach is likely correlated to the rise in streaming’s share of industry revenue. According to the RIAA, streaming services’ market share also grew by 14.6%, raising the total to 83%. Adjusting to the pandemic took time and many opportunities from all artists, however, some found successful ways to take advantage of an otherwise difficult period of time.

Spotify

Following along with Spotify’s quarterly reports inspired confidence in the streaming model. Though streaming patterns were changing, the company consistently attracted new users to the platform in 2020. Spotify reported “every day now looks like the weekend,” suggesting that the pandemic shifted the relationship users had with the platform. The company also reported that they “believe summer demand may have been pulled forward into the March and April lockdown periods.” It’s unsurprising that more time at home lead to an eventual uptick consumption. Spotify’s survey of users during the hard lockdown periods and found that two in five users were listening to music for stress management more than usual. Having a soundtrack to any activity became a necessary creature comfort.

Despite an uncertain environment, Spotify continued to take risks and grow as a company. In 2020, the company expanded their reach in new markets such as South Korea, Russia and the Balkans. They also have been introducing new features for artists and users. Spotify invested heavily into podcasts, and is gaining momentum against its rivals. The Canvas feature was made public in 2020, making it possible for any artist to set looping screen backgrounds for songs. Another endeavor was expanding the resources on their Spotify for Artists website. They introduced both the Songwriters Hub and the Marquee feature to help connect artists to each other and gain exposure. And most recently, Spotify has announced that they are entering the world of hardware technology, testing a new a car attachment that promises easier in-car listening with voice activation. Spotify as a company is evolving and so is the culture of its users.

Editorials, brands and independent curators are all adopting mood-based playlisting.

For Us At Streaming Promotions

Through our own research, our team noted the rise and eventual pivot to mood-based listening. Genre-based playlists still exist and have active listeners, however, most of the new impactful playlists are described by a mood, theme or activity. Some popular examples we noticed from the last year being: trending topics or memes, quarantine/COVID-19, cooking and cleaning, work-from-home, as well as more abstract concepts and niche interests. Some factors that could have contributed to this type of playlisting include isolation periods pushing both supply and demand for creativity — curators included. Another reason could be that genres are simply becoming less defined. Many artists are hesitant to claim any genre as the only lane they stay in. Experimentation and living in the gray areas between different sounds is becoming the norm.

This trend means an adjustment for artists looking to promote their music on streaming services. Finding playlists that attract your audience is no longer as simple as searching “pop” or “rock.” Knowing the personality of an artist’s fans is crucial to finding their audience. To find your base you must now ask: Where are my fans hanging out online? What discussions are going on in those communities? Which subcultures and interest groups would adopt my sound? Which scenarios and situations fit with my music?

TikTok and the Social Side of Music

Many of these new playlists correlate to topics and trends being discussed other places online, one major hub for conversation being TikTok. It seems natural that a social media whose hallmarks are personality, authenticity, and humor would become embraced by a disconnected world. As many artists begin catering to the newest platform, we are beginning to see the effects of TikTok on the charts and careers of musicians. It’s certainly clear that TikTok has the power to move the needle. According to their annual report:

“Over 176 different songs surpassed 1 billion video views as TikTok sounds … Nearly 90 songs that trended on the platform in 2020 climbed onto the Top 100 charts in the U.S., with 15 of those reaching #1 on a Billboard chart.”

Going viral shouldn’t be the only reason artists come to TikTok. It’s an attractive idea to create a song that will become a trend, go viral and have overnight success. However, this does not always translate into actual streams. Many trends feature parts of songs as the punchline of a joke. And while some climb the charts, others won’t be added to anyone’s rotation (remember the sea shanty trend?). The platform may be most useful in it’s ability to match like-minded individuals with their algorithm. The more content you interact with, the closer you get to your community so long as your content is in line with your brand and project. You can have success gaining attention to your art and finding your fans without pandering to the trending page.

The growing pains of 2020 poises the industry at a completely different position now a year later. Touring and in-person promotion are starting to look like viable options again, however, the game has changed. Streaming service users have a different relationship with their platforms, indie artists are gaining in market share, and the industry’s adoption of TikTok have all changed the landscape. Keeping in mind that change is the only constant we can rely on, plan accordingly for the rest of 2021.

Editors Note: This story was written by Becca Wig

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