Because streaming sites rely on fan-driven metrics, “real artists have actual shots at being successful,” Bazzi says. “Back in the day, you could’ve been the most talented dude with the best songs, but if the gatekeepers didn’t like you, you weren’t going anywhere. Streaming has allowed people to come out, literally.”
Streaming services are the dominant way for fans to consume music, and industry leader Spotify began trading on the New York Stock Exchange, with an initial valuation of nearly $30 billion. The success of streaming has upended lots of conventional wisdom in the music industry: the need for physical product, the dominance of superstars, the boundaries between genres, between old and new music.
Streaming services are changing how we listen to music, but they’re also changing what we listen to. Thanks to streaming, sad rap is king, ’80s-style “Stranger Things” playlists are everywhere and Ed Sheeran is the biggest pop star in the world and not just a friend of Taylor Swift who seems like a nice guy.
Streaming reflects what people will actually listen to on their own, when provided with infinite choices that aren’t entirely constrained by what radio programmers, retailers and record company executives put in front of them. With streaming services, “it’s more data-driven, and more give-the-people-what-they-want-driven, because it’s so limitless,” says Steve Knopper, author of “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age.” “You don’t risk bad ratings with Spotify. There’s so many different places to put stuff. If you put something on and it doesn’t get hits, you can just take it off. Data-wise, it’s a purer experience.”
Of course, streaming services aren’t an entirely pure reflection of audience desires. Site curators are the new music industry gatekeepers, using a combination of newfangled algorithms and old school taste to craft the playlists that help make stars. “I think we should put a lot of effort into seeing the trends that go down, and using them to put music in front of people that they would never have found,” says Nick Holmsten, Spotify’s global head of shows and editorial. “Spotify is reflective of consumers. This is not radio — we cannot force music on people.”
The streaming landscape is still very much in flux. Many listeners have yet to make the transition from physical to on-demand streaming, and upcoming advances will bring even bigger changes. The likely next phase: More sophisticated voice recognition systems (“Alexa, make me a Chainsmokers playlist”), and advanced streaming systems in cars will help nudge the last remaining consumer holdouts toward a cloud-based model.
To some extent, streaming charts reflect the traditional Billboard charts, which tally both streaming numbers and physical sales. Using either metric, genres like hip-hop are thriving, while rock is wilting. But services like Spotify and Apple Music have otherwise upended a genre caste system that took the record industry decades to create. Thanks to streaming, old-fashioned superstars are brought back down to earth, bedroom musicians like Bazzi are celebrities and there’s a whole new ecosystem of winners and losers.
Streaming services are a beast that needs constant feeding. Younger hip-hop artists, already accustomed to providing sites such as SoundCloud with a constant stream of mixtapes and features, have adjusted to its demands more quickly than artists from other genres, and have thrived accordingly. At the heart of rap’s streaming dominance is something more ephemeral: Some songs just stream better than others, for reasons that no one can really explain yet. Hip-hop streams better than other types of mainstream music, and trap music streams better than other types of hip-hop.
“There used to be this formula in hip-hop,” says Carl Chery, head of artist curation at Apple Music. “You make a song about a girl, with an R&B-friendly beat and an R&B hook, it was more likely to get on the radio. Now, it doesn’t matter. If you look at the charts, not a lot of new songs follow that old formula. It’s all trap. When you have a good song with a trap beat, it’s more likely to stream faster than anything else.”
Winner: Latin pop
Latin music fans, like hip-hop fans, are early adopters of streaming who were underserved by Top 40 radio, until the Luis Fonsi/Daddy Yankee behemoth “Despacito” changed everything. The first Spanish-language song to hit 1 billion listens on Spotify, it helped unleash a wave of reggaeton and Latin trap streaming hits. Last year, Latin music consumption was up 110 percent on Spotify.
“Radio programmers say, ‘We can’t put “Despacito” on the radio because it has Spanish lyrics. That can’t be on a Top 40 station,’ ” Knopper says. “On Spotify, there’s no filter like that, and suddenly ‘Despacito’ becomes huge and radio can’t ignore it, and there’s this snowball effect.”
Winner: Heavy metal
Back in 2015, when Spotify compiled a list of the world’s most loyal music fans, broken down by genre, metal fans were No. 1. (Blues fans were the least loyal.) Like many genres that are popular on streaming services, metal is often ignored by terrestrial radio, but its success bucks almost every other trend. Streaming services are song-based ecosystems that reward boundary-free foraging, but metal fans tend to strongly self-identify as metal fans. They listen to whole albums, spend outsize amounts of time listening online and seek out music from revered elders, gateway bands like Metallica and Slipknot, says Bob Lugowe, director of promotions and marketing at indie metal label Relapse Records.
“If you’re into black metal or death metal, you’re probably going to listen to almost every new release in that genre. The metal listener, they’re much more of an active listener than a passive listener.”
If heavy metal’s popularity on streaming services reflects its growing cultural cachet in the broader world, the opposite is true of rock. “I don’t think rock is exciting at all right now,” Lugowe says. “A lot of these big rock artists like Shinedown or Seether or Breaking Benjamin, they’re not cool. That’s just how it is, there’s a stigma attached to them, almost. They’re red-state rock.”
Indie and alternative rock is also in the doldrums. When Spotify released a list of its most popular rock bands last year, it skewed toward millennial-friendly, EDM-influenced acts such as Twenty One Pilots and Imagine Dragons, shutting out bands such as Radiohead and Arcade Fire.
Country fans are traditionally late adopters who tend to prize familiar artists and sounds, delivered in a familiar way. Perhaps more than any other mainstream fans, they still buy CDs and rely on old-school gatekeepers to introduce them to new music. Country songs often don’t do well on streaming services unless radio has broken them first (the opposite of, say, hip-hop).
Country artists account for only about 5.6 percent of all streams — they account for about twice that much when it comes to the sales market — though that number is growing, thanks in part to younger, stream-friendly stars like Kane Brown and Sam Hunt. Last September, Randy Goodman, the chairman and CEO of Sony Music Nashville, delivered a speech to country-music insiders about the growing power of streaming. Its message: Come to Jesus, Nashville.
“We either adopt or we die,” said Goodman. Country fans must learn not to fear the initially overwhelming new world of streaming services. For holdouts, education is crucial. Streaming service reps will be on hand at the upcoming CMA Fest to provide basic tutorials on their services. “We’ve got to be more aggressive about educating our traditional core audience,” says Goodman. “I don’t want to walk away from them. I can’t afford to.”
Pop is still one of the top streaming genres, though it consistently lags behind rap. While the rise of streaming has brought a new energy and a sense of open artistic possibilities to Latin music and hip-hop, pop seems diminished somehow, its hitmakers boxed in by the constraints of writing a song that will stream. “They’re very challenged with streaming, because people just want to get to the hooks quicker,” says Arjan Timmermans, head of pop programming at Apple Music. “A long intro just doesn’t work that well. People want to get right to whatever is the catchy element of the song. Soon enough all of the pop is going to sound the same. You already kind of see that, you can tell what’s a streaming song and what is not.”
Once listeners discover an artist through a playlist, it’s the artist’s job to keep them engaged. To be a streaming superstar in any genre is to constantly worry about your listener counts.
“Listen, it’s addicting, which is why I choose to stay away from it,” admits singer-songwriter Bazzi. “It’s almost like a drug. If I do 3 million instead of 4 million, it’s like, ‘Oh, they don’t like me.’ I’m insecure, because I put my happiness into something that isn’t real. I choose to not pay attention to it like that, and feed my happiness with things that aren’t numerical, rather than, did I stream the best today?”