Show Tunes

Instead of selling albums, the music industry today sells fandom

Eight years ago, before his alt-right pivot, Kanye West came up with the concept of GOOD Fridays. The rapper was working on his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and decided to drop a song every Friday through the summer and fall of 2010 to build up anticipation. The material included early versions of eventual album cuts (“Devil in a New Dress”), remixes of popular songs from the day (Justin Bieber’s “Runaway Love”), and songs that were eventually left on the cutting room floor (“Christian Dior Flow”). Apart from the album itself, fans came to anticipate the spectacle of each week’s release: Would Kanye hit the Friday release date? What artist would appear this week? Is this the last week of releases?

Earlier this year West announced a similar collection of GOOD Music projects, starting with Pusha T’s Daytona in late May, and including Kanye West’s Ye; West and Kid Cudi’s Kids See Ghosts; Nas’s Nasir; ending with Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E. in June. Each album was seven tracks long (Taylor’s being the exception), and arrived (often late) with dramatic listening sessions on their designated streaming music platforms. The idea, though not given a catchy name, repeated the same strategy of West’s GOOD Fridays: Music not as a product in itself, but an entry point to a conversation.

As the industry has monetized fan dynamics, moving toward participation as product, the perceived value of music has changed: it’s less about the artist than “engagement” itself

The 2010s had amplified this idea of album as spectacle, and spectacle as product. Beyoncé’s 2013 album Beyoncé generated so much attention not initially because of the music, which no one had heard yet, but because of its out-of-nowhere sudden release, a trend with artists from Drake (If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late) to U2 (Songs of Innocence) has since become nearly cliche. Back in 2011 when Drake released the cover art for Take Care, people made memes of the artwork to laugh at and with the budding Canadian superstar, even before fans heard the album. This approach has carried into viral dances and challenges, the most recent one being the #InMyFeelingsChallenge, spawned by a deep cut (“In My Feelings”) from Drake’s most recent album, Scorpion.

This is the industry’s response to changing listener modes and expectations. The need to buy an album — off iTunes, much less an actual record store — has mostly vanished: Apple Music launched in the summer of 2015, around the time Spotify was starting to see major growth through its mobile app. The business model for music doesn’t require a must-have album, then, but rather a week-to-week narrative within the music world to justify a monthly subscription.

The connection that fans in decades past built through purchasing music is now better observed through YouTube or even Instagram comments — fan engagement is connected to how much time one is willing to spend hunting for leaks or standing in line for a pop-up shop. The ideal fan doesn’t pay for a singular release, but instead spreads memes and creates enough online noise to keep their favorite artist trending: Recently the indie rock artist Mitski reposted memes in the run-up to her latest album, Be The Cowboy, to Instagram; fans returned the favor, throwing the hashtag #BeTheCowboy across social media. As the industry has monetized fan dynamics, moving toward participation as product, the perceived value of music has changed: it’s less about the artist, or even the artist’s relationship to their fans, than “engagement” itself.

In the early ’70s, the rise of the album format pushed record labels to devalue the single in favor of more expensive LPs. A CBS documentary from 1974 expressed concern that rising album prices, and the refusal of stores to stock singles, could potentially dampen sales to younger shoppers, who would grow up to become the next generation of music consumers. By the 1990s, exploitative pricing, and the consolidation of musical formats into more expensive products — RIP the cassingle and the CD single — left the industry susceptible to a radical shift once file sharing was introduced. With CDs fetching nearly $20 a piece by late in the decade, and without a less expensive way to buy their favorite singles they heard on the radio, illegal piracy felt to fans like a justified finger to a bloated business.

Music fans aren’t paying for the opportunity to access music — most listeners take access for granted — but instead to integrate it meaningfully into their lives

Once it was clear that physical consumption of music was ending — iTunes merely delayed this fact — music companies understood the need for a deeper reimagining of how fans would engage and, most importantly, pay for music. From 2001, major labels backed two proto-streaming services, Pressplay and MusicNet, envisioning a world where listeners would pay a monthly fee for catalog access to music. Both products fell on their face due to highly restrictive streaming and download limits that couldn’t compete with file-sharing services like Soulseek and Kazaa. Napster, the site that broke down the wall of piracy to the mainstream, was eventually tamed by the music industry and offered a limited subscription music service in the 2000s. But it took streaming until the mid-to-late 2010s to go mainstream.

The emergence of profitable streaming ventures coincides with the overall trend in tech toward the idea of products as services — “software as service,” for instance, where instead of selling a piece of software like Microsoft Office and its suite of products, the company offers it to you for “free” and charges you a monthly fee for access, updating constantly rather than requiring you to make a whole new purchase. Video games took the model and morphed the practice of offering new sequels for sale every year into subscription fee services for Massive Multiplayer Online games or season passes in games like Fortnite. The model increases the amount of money a consumer puts into a single product, and further commits them to a platform because of how much they’ve already invested.

The ultimate success of music streaming can be credited to both Apple and Spotify, and to the understanding that music fans aren’t paying for the opportunity to access music — most listeners take access for granted — but instead to integrate it meaningfully into their lives.

Spotify arrived in the United States as a desktop app, but the company didn’t start making major inroads until the introduction of their mobile app in 2014: thanks to the iPhone, there was now a device to provide people with seemingly infinite music on the go, without the need to hunt for MP3 files. When Apple introduced Apple Music in 2015, the shift away from digital ownership had already started — after a while one doesn’t own music, but instead perpetually rents out a music library which can accompany them always.

With so much music available, listener experience becomes paramount. Music streaming services understand the importance of hooking consumers with something more than a catalog. Access to the music itself is easy to take for granted, or find illegally elsewhere, but features like playlists are meant to keep subscribers passionate and connected, and specific libraries competitive.

Some streaming services have built on the album’s legacy as an event in its own right, capitalizing on pre-existing listener loyalties. The album, in this mode, is not a product but the center of a “conversation,” and to be part of it you need to sign up for exclusive access. Tidal, Jay-Z’s streaming service, attempted their own version of owning the conversation back in 2016: Rihanna debuted her album Anti exclusively on Tidal, Kanye West followed-up with the Life of Pablo, Beyoncé did the same with Lemonade. According to Tidal, these three albums in total drew over 4 million subscribers, though that number was heavily disputed. That’s where the music flow stopped, however — once the trial subscription ran out, fans could simply return to the platform of their choice. Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s latest project, Everything Is Love, was only a Tidal exclusive for less than two days.

Some streaming services have built on the album’s legacy as an event in its own right, capitalizing on pre-existing listener loyalties. The album, in this mode, is not a product but the center of a “conversation”

Streaming services like Spotify take a different approach to listener engagement, operating on the idea that music is less monumental — that it should soundtrack your day-to-day moments. The service aims to make music fluid and infinitely adaptable to consumer desires. The marketing of context-specific musical products dates at least back to the 1950s, when record labels would release albums to be played while eating dinner or engaged in other home activities. Christmas music can even be dated back to Bing Crosby’s 1942 hit “White Christmas”; this seasonal repackaging can now happen with minimal fuss or overhead cost. (During the holiday season Spotify followed up one of their most followed playlists, Peaceful Piano, with Christmas Peaceful Piano.)

Individuals can connect specific songs to moments, but the industry more broadly sees a calendar where some of the old hits are trotted out until that moment passes. Spotify playlists like Sleep, Feel Good Dinner, or Songs to Sing in the Car are designed not for their specific contents, but to convey a sense of general ease for listeners. Just press play, let it go, and your life receives a light musical accompaniment. Increasingly these playlists receive banner ads promoting television shows, movies, or fast food restaurants, ostensibly cued to your tastes.

Spotify, in their F1 filing when listing on the New York Stock Exchange, boasted that 30 percent of listening on their platform happens through curated or algorithmically generated playlists. Last year the streaming service started a nationwide tour to promote the RapCaviar playlist brand; earlier this year they announced a similar tour for their Latin pop playlist Viva Latino. These playlists function as large branding exercises to try and woo potential investors in the real-world value of their brands; they also provide another site at which fans can engage with those brands (and not only the artists they’re built on) in stadiums rather than through headphones.

Thirty percent, however, is just that — seventy percent of listening on Spotify happens outside of their curatorial control, which, along with recent reports of Apple Music outperforming Spotify on recent major album releases raises the question over the real influence of Spotify playlists. The passive consumption that playlists offer isn’t made to trigger the same amount of obsession and passion that West triggered with GOOD Fridays. You may attend a RapCaviar concert to see your favorite rappers, but the playlist itself isn’t leading the conversation; it’s simply piggybacking off of recognition of the top-billed acts. Songs don’t debut on RapCaviar, artists don’t have beef with RapCaviar, there isn’t even a RapCaviar T-shirt one could wear. If one can’t show their fandom or support for an artist, label, or curatorial service, can it really sustain a conversation?

Fandom in 2018 has evolved beyond the need to buy physical albums or digital files. Social media opens up nearly endless ways to engage with an artist: following their tweets or Instagram stories, or watching them goof around on Twitch. The GOOD Friday series helped build on organic developments in music fandom, wherein fans of the same artist could form a networked community, uniting on forums and gathering digital files to share, and upped the ante. Community can’t meaningfully grow without new content, and that content can be teased and promoted in ways that play directly to fan dynamics. The music industry adjusted and further monetized this model, where a subscription, not a concert ticket or a boutique record store, allows one to enter into a fan community.

With a surplus of music available, the “community” itself, or rather the sense of oneself as participant, is increasingly the point. The walls around genre and niche have crumbled, only to be replaced with credit card transactions. The hunt for a “Song of the Summer” — a popular song that one won’t be able to escape during the warm months of the year — is a long-standing tradition that has been lately commodified into an endless content creation race. Billboard even dedicates an entire chart to the “official” most popular song of the season. This takes the streaming-first mode of music appreciation to the next level: fans aren’t rallying around an artist, or a cluster of artists, but an ephemeral zeitgeist, into which any artist could possibly fit.

This event-styled mode of music consumption isn’t about diving into a single album, but rather swimming in a sea of constant new releases, fighting to stay up-to-date on the latest musical trends and ideas. Fans aren’t encouraged to connect too deeply with a single project, because there’s always another coming next Friday. This is a business model that supports those who control the catalog, and leaves the musicians and fans constantly recalibrating their relationship to each. Knowing what artist is on a playlist matters less than if you skipped a track or not.

David Turner is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, who writes a weekly newsletter on the business of music streaming called Penny Fractions.