Seven-times Grammy Award-winning artist Taylor Swift certainly caused sparks to fly when she announced the withdrawal of almost her entire catalog from the streaming music service Spotify and other such platforms. Some in the industry have praised her for her rear-guard action in defending the primacy of the album.
But others, like Ash Pournouri of At Night Management, the manager of Swedish electronic dance music star Avicii and a speaker at the Slush conference in Helsinki, are less complimentary.
“For me, unless you want to achieve something, it is a stupid move,” he says bluntly. “Normally a big artist will have fans all over the place. They have fans who listen illegally and those who listen legally. They have fans that download [tracks], those who stream, they have fans that don’t do any of that and just listen to the radio.
“The reason Spotify has users is that some people want that service. You can’t just exclude them.”
There was a time when creating an artist was a relatively simple thing. Scouts, known in the business as A&R, for Artists & Repertoire, would scour smoke-filled clubs, bars and venues to find the hottest acts. These would be snapped up by the major record labels, which would manage every aspect of an artist.
One way is to use those platforms to find new audiences. “Spotify offers new artists an unparalleled opportunity to reach new audiences … through curating music, playlisting and engaging with fans,” says Mark Williamson, Spotify’s Director of Artist Services. “It is well documented that Lorde broke through on Spotify after Royals was put on the Hipster International playlist by Sean Parker, and the track went viral.”
“If the artist is talented and the music is good then services like Spotify give artists a better chance of being discovered — both by labels and by audiences — than at any other time in history,” he says.
All Of A Sudden You Could Talk To Your Fans, And Have Them Talk Back
For Pournouri “the thing that switched for musicians and artists was the fact that he or she no longer had to settle with a monologue with your followers. All of a sudden you could talk to your fans, and have them talk back and do that on a mass scale.
“The fact that you know how to speak to your fans and how to engage with them, how to get them excited — all that matters. We use that as information to create things, to market things, to put things in perspective. We use it to continue building the brand.”
But there is more to it than that, says Ian Hogarth, CEO of London-based Songkick, a music start-up. The power of social media lies not just in having a dialogue with fans, but also in using it to shape the opinions of others.
Hogarth said research into why some artists become popular shows the importance of peer pressure.
“[Researchers] gave a set of people some artists to listen to and they got them to rank them. Then they gave them the same artists but the second time they showed what other people’s ranking was. It massively changed the rankings. That suggests that popularity in music is as much social as it is inherent to the music itself.
“When you used to go to Tower Records back in the day you would see the hottest songs this week. That does not have the same visceral reaction as seeing 100,000 hearts on SoundCloud, or 200 million views on YouTube. It is a much more palpable sense that other people also think this is great.”
An Artist Is Someone Who Is Comfortable Being On Stage
It is this social effect, says Hogarth, that very quickly lets some musicians break free from the noise. “I think it ultimately boils down to the social features of those platforms more than anything else,” says Hogarth.
But, says Pournouri, talent and building up a fan base are not on their own enough to create an artist. “An artist — to me — is someone who is comfortable being on stage, who has a brand that is consistent throughout everything they do, and it stands for a lot of values. The people that we represent, they don’t have that from day one; we help them bring that out.” It was that process that transformed the young and shy Tim Bergling from a record producer and wannabe DJ into Avicii, a double Grammy-nominated, double MTV Europe Music Award-winning electronic dance music DJ and artist.
Listening to Pournouri speak, the parallels between the world of digital music and the world of digital entrepreneurialism are striking. Companies like Twitter and SoundCloud raced to build scale first, and only then figured out how to monetize. The same is true in music, says Pournouri.
“If you think money first, just put that in perspective,” he says. “If your fans knew that you put money before spreading your message, imagine what that would mean to your fans. For me a true artist never puts money first. But if you’re a smart businessman or you have someone to help you with that, you will always find ways to monetize on your success, on your following and on your fan base. That is just smart business.”
What Taylor Swift Is Doing Shows Artists Are Getting More Involved
In the same way that digital start-ups have to find alternative revenue, so too do modern artists. As revenues from recorded music have fallen, those from live events have risen. “From an economic point of view, artists are making something like 70% of their income from touring now,” says Songkick’s Hogarth. “If you look at the size of the concert industry versus the recorded music industry, in many markets it is approaching twice the size.”
That, says Hogarth, means an artist’s best customers are likely to be those attending live events. “More than ever it is the most critical branding experience for you as an artist because you are going out there and you are interacting with your most valuable customers — the ones who will spend enough money to see you live,” he says. And if they are your best customers, then they deserve the best experiences, he says. Hogarth’s company has just started to offer ticketing services.
“I think what we are going to see is artists playing a much more active role in where the tickets are sold and how they are sold,” he says. “It is not a minor part of the business anymore. It’s where they interact with the most valuable customers.”
Hogarth won’t be drawn on Swift’s pulling of her music from streaming services, but praises her for her passion.“What I would say is that I have a really strong opinion on the fact that she is playing an active role. What Taylor Swift is doing shows that artists are getting more involved and that is very exciting.”