21st century music is a numbers game. From view counts to official charts and algorithms, an integer has the power to boost a bedroom producer to internationally acclaimed success and make a small-town singer a star. The recent successes of both Ramz’ Barking, which spent a comfy 8 weeks in the Top 10 and to a lesser extent, B Young’s Jumanji spending roughly 9 weeks in the Top 40, demonstrates that urban music leads in youth culture, especially in cities like London. As expected, the market of culture that has sprung from this is ripe for picking by men with money and calculators.
Digitalisation has meant that art is no longer produced for art’s own sake, so audience responses to records matter equally as much as the actual quality of production, lyricism and artistic direction. Although this means that arguably sub-par material often goes viral, it equally democratises the industry and means that anyone can blow, provided they put the right measures in place to make this happen. These measures are where streaming giants rear their mathematical equations and battle for optimum audience engagement. With Ipsos Mori finding that at least a third of 16-24-year-olds pay a subscription to an audio streaming service of their choice (2016) and an 82% majority are willing to put their money where their ears are, we are an abundant market for listening services. Artists desperate for validation are a parallel market, with listener analytics and communication with fan bases being key to creating music that others like and enjoy. So, it’s clear that the likes of Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and Soundcloud all vying for our attention with their traditional one month free trails, the field is packed.
The idea of feeding music and all the emotion it provokes into a machine to objectify it can be quite morbid but is equally genius. Spotify’s infamous algorithm’s ability to simultaneously process tempo, cadence and BPM (all very similar with minor differences) means that the curation of solid playlists that are not only linked by genre is a mechanical act more than it is a human one. The launch of last year’s artist portal gives the platform a dual purpose – one for listeners, and one for creators. It discloses basic user data to a limited extent (gender, age, location) which enables them to tailor their marketing and promotion strategies accordingly. Views from users in the 64 countries Spotify is currently available in, however, have differing values, depending on whether they are a paid for or free user. Expanding the app’s infrastructure through plug-ins like a Genius one which enables users to search for lyrics along with content expansion into podcasts, Spotify is undoubtedly aiming to become the continuous soundtrack to our lives.
YouTube’s recent launch of their own music streaming service is not a surprise, given that 82% of its users use it for that exact purpose entirely. Its entrance into the market has been late, however, so only time will tell whether such a venture will take off. As long as they ensure that songs can be played while the app is closed (as we have all been near begging for), it should have a decent payoff. Between Spotify and YouTube lies Apple Music, another favourite. With a smooth user interface and well thought to copywrite that indicates the content team genuinely understand the music they are playing a role in distributing, it’s another good choice. Soundcloud’s launch of the paying service SoundcloudGo was a similar venture to the ones above, yet yielded slightly more disappointing results. Nevertheless, it remains a fall back for finding hidden bangers, especially in the American market, due to its influential role played in the rise of stars like the beloved Lil Uzi Vert.
Although accurate earning figures are hard to come by, it’s safe to say that streaming services play an integral role in how we process sound. They have begun blurring the lines between what qualifies as a traditional “fan” and a “listener” is. Most of us began as the former, but are now identified as the latter because our loyalties to artists and platforms are no longer exclusive.
It remains to be seen whether a machine can beat human instinct in its prediction of what sounds “good”, but numbers cannot become the be and end-all of how we relate to the musical cultures around us. Especially for genres like Grime, which rely on a culture of live events and the electrifying feeling of a wheel-up that ultimately, that can’t be simplified to a matter of views and equations. Equally, issues of privacy and data usage concerning users always lurk at the back of these debates when we agree to a set of obscure terms and conditions that no one actually bothers to read through.
Nevertheless, automation has fundamentally changed the way we process music. Gone are the days of mp3 converters and Bluetooth sharing. The numbers game is a difficult one to crack for artists, yet the payoff is huge. Whether the same can be said for audiences, is debatable.