Streams ahead: the artists who made it huge without radio support

Thanks to Spotify, Apple Music and co, musicians such as Glass Animals and Anne-Marie can go global without radio support. But can they convert streaming stats into fans?

‘Streaming has been invaluable,” begins Glass Animals singer Dave Bayley, from the back of a tour bus bound for Glasgow. His band’s 2014 song Gooey currently stands at nearly 68m Spotify streams, and was instrumental in turning Glass Animals into what Music Week recently described as “international streaming sensations”. Bayley looks back on the initial streaming success of Gooey with a mixture of confusion and amazement: “We looked at all the streaming services’ viral charts and, for some reason, we were at the top of them. Off the back of that, everything else happened.”

You could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the notion of a “streaming artist”. Ten years ago, an unknown singer called Sandi Thom stormed to No 1 after livestreaming gigs from her south London basement. Her success was a masterpiece of implied causality. It wasn’t the livestreams, whose true popularity has since been queried, that rocketed her to No 1 – it was the fact that they provided an irresistible story to the established media.

Glass Animals … streaming sensations, to their own surprise.
Glass Animals … streaming sensations, to their own surprise. Photograph: PR Company Handout

But times have changed: in a landscape dominated by services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and Amazon, it is possible to have a hit without the press and radio (or much of the public) even noticing you. Kiiara, hardly a household name, is currently enjoying a global hit with Gold, off the back of 312m streams on Spotify alone. (Other services don’t make their numbers public.) You could look at British artist James TW, whose song When You Love Someone has 35m streams. Then there’s Australian teen Joel Adams, whose one and only song Please Don’t Go has chalked up 320m streams on Spotify.

US music consultant John Geraghty lays out the idea of the streaming artist in plain terms. “A streaming act is one who entered the mainstream due to support from major streaming services,” he explains. This would account, for instance, for the success of Lukas Graham’s 7 Years. “Alternatively, it’s an act whose streaming support may not have translated, but at the very least earned them recognition within the industry and among their target audience.”

Industry exec Chris Anokute has experience of both examples. As senior vice president of A&R at Epic Records, he oversees acts including 2016’s pop crossover success story Zara Larsson, who recently passed 1bn Spotify streams. He also manages the emerging singer-songwriter Léon, whose Tired of Talking hit more than 30m streams. Anokute mentions the artist Starley, whose song Call On Me appeared as an independent release in July before being picked up by Epic. “It came out of nowhere,” Anokute says. “She signed to an indie, put out the record and, before you know it, the song’s raising its head. It’s performing on Spotify faster and better than any record of the last year. She was unknown a couple of months ago.” He also cites US duo Timeflies, whose Once in a While reached 220m streams. Epic signed the band to a one-off single deal, making what Anokute describes as “a very small investment”. Spotify alone will pay out over $1m (£800,000) for the streams of Once in a While. How much of this filters down to Timeflies depends on their deal with Epic, and there’s no ignoring the music industry’s legitimate concerns over standard payout rates.

Regardless, a million-dollar song is a million-dollar song, and you can understand why a major-label exec would find that exciting. But the most notable shift for unsigned or independent artists is that streaming success needn’t rely on marketing muscle or heavyweight financial backing. The Swedish producer Neiked was unsigned when Spotify threw its weight behind his song Sexual – its streaming success inspired mainstream radio support, and it has been in the top 10 for the last five weeks.

“Spotify has democratised the universe,” is the dramatic, understandably Spotify-centric view of Spotify’s George Ergatoudis, who joined the service this year after a decade as pop’s most powerful tastemaker at BBC Radio 1. “One of our editors can find something, believe in it, put it in a playlist, see an interesting result from the audience then accelerate the song.” Systems inside Spotify automatically create playlists of what Ergatoudis describes as “emerging stories” (songs) which editors then trawl through when they’re compiling the playlists vital in achieving true hugeness. “There’s a lot of human curation time spent on saying, ‘Right, there’s some noise there, but what do we think about it editorially?’” Ergatoudis says.

Léon … more than 30m streams Photograph: PR Company Handout

It’s reassuring that discovery isn’t left entirely to algorithms, but this editorial aspect creates another question. Namely: has streaming liberated new artists from the constraints of regimented radio playlists and the whims of ego-crazed music critics, only to replace that system with a different set of gatekeepers? Some music journalists (including the one writing this article) may have curated playlists for the likes of Spotify and Apple Music, but in a broad sense is it not more dangerous, in light of Spotify’s market dominance, that there’s now only one gate? “The term ‘gatekeeper’ assumes we’re blocking something worthy coming through,” Ergatoudis insists. “I’d argue we’re not doing that. We’re letting good stuff through, and amplifying it.”

Ergatoudis argues that the gate being kept is now an extremely large one, or perhaps a load of different gates, through which different artists can pass. Demographics differ from service to service – Apple Music and Tidal skew urban – but as streaming services aren’t restricted by hours in a day, like mainstream radio stations, we’re looking at the possibility of multiple concurrent musical zeitgeists. For the first time, something like the UK’s long-trumpeted guitar-music resurgence wouldn’t have to come at the expense or, say, grime’s increasing popularity. Dave Bayley from Glass Animals has seen this shift first hand. “Streaming has definitely levelled the playing field,” he says. “It has allowed this tiny band from Oxford – us – to be given the same opportunity as Drake.”

It’s worth speculating what might have happened to a band like Glass Animals if, in a pre-streaming landscape, their first album had received little to no mainstream support. “I don’t think our label would have pushed us in a certain direction,” Bayley says. “Though I do think they would have said, ‘Maybe you should try something different.’ As it is, we’d released what was quite an obscure record, it somehow did quite well through streaming, and our label then gave us freedom on our second record to make whatever noises we wanted. They were like, ‘We don’t know how that happened, but we’ll let you guys do that again.’”

When we speak, Glass Animals have just played the 3,300-capacity Roundhouse in London. However, translating streaming success into actual popularity is by no means a given. James TW, with his 35m streams of When You Love Someone, is one artist hoping to make the transition ahead of a full artist launch through Island Records. His manager, Glenn Oratz, is frank about the challenges facing artists who, overnight, have a streaming hit on their hands. “There will continue to be artists who have very significant responses to single songs on streaming platforms but can’t necessarily convert it to what you and I would think of as being a well-established artist,” he says. “It’s nothing new – there’s a reason we came up with the term ‘one-hit wonder’. You’ve got to back it up with other high-quality material.

The day before we speak, Oratz had visited Apple HQ; that was followed by James TW performing at a radio conference. “In a perfect world you’d have a combination,” Oratz adds. “A presence on streaming, supported by radio. You can develop a meaningful fanbase and awareness [with streaming], but you’re missing a key component. I don’t know an artist who has been able to develop their brand and their awareness at the level you’d think of as well established, without some type of radio support.”

Also standing on the precipice of pop stardom is Anne-Marie, the UK-based singer whose current single Alarm has received huge support from streaming services (147m Spotify streams) and Radio 1. When we talk, Spotify has her listed as the world’s 76th most listened-to artist, “which,” she admits, “is quite amazing when I’ve only had one song out properly. That’s against artists who have been around for ever.” (Anne-Marie, by that measurement, is twice as popular as Bob Dylan.)

Zara Larsson … more than 1bn streams.
Zara Larsson … more than 1bn streams. Photograph: PR

We talk about Spotify’s New Music Friday playlist, which operates as a showcase of big artists’ new releases, and as a testing ground for unheard-of acts. Each week the playlist gets a new “cover image”, depicting the artist at the top of the list. “It’s like being on the front of a magazine,” Anne-Marie says. “It’s strange. I’d love to be on actual magazine covers – that’s the dream – but you’ve got to move with the times, haven’t you? I’m not like, ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, I wish it was still like it used to be.’”

A pause. And then, with words that echo those of many in the music industry: “I mean, I don’t even fucking know what’s going on any more.”

Somewhere in the confusion, Annie-Marie is converting her streaming stats into fans. She has a cunning plan to build on the success of Alarm (“I’m just not going to put out a shit song”), and is steadily building up a live following. Global artist launches were once plate-spinning exercises that could take years of schmoozing international media, starting from scratch in a second territory while continuing to nurture relationships in the first. Now, analytics provided by some streaming services allow some artists to hit the road before a single radio play.

Chris Anokute is evangelical about the data that’s now at his fingertips: in the back end of Spotify, for instance, fans are split into three categories: streakers (who have listened to the artist every day in the last week), loyalists (who have listened to them more than to any other over the past 20 days), and regulars (who listened to the artist on the majority of the days in the month). “They used to laugh at you if you did research as an A&R guy,” Anokute adds. “They’d say you weren’t talented or that you didn’t have good ears.” They are, it’s fair to assume, not laughing now. Anokute used analytics to leapfrog traditional gatekeepers to a point where his artist Léon, with one streaming hit and virtually no radio support, could headline 400-capacity venues in multiple territories. “I know exactly who’s listening to Léon, and where,” he explains. Combining this information with extra data on factors such as age and sex, it’s possible to book tours with incredible efficiency. “It works!” he hoots. “I know, because I’ve done it! I’ve put Léon in markets where nobody would believe she could sell tickets, and I’ve sold out the venues.”

And for those streaming artists who don’t, or can’t cross over from streaming glory to the household-name status that has traditionally defined success? Anokute suggests a recalibration of our notion of hit songs, once again bringing up his experience with Timeflies.

“We took their song to radio in America,” he says. “The song did not succeed – it wasn’t a radio hit. Does that mean it wasn’t a hit? It has 220m streams on it. It has made a million dollars. That doesn’t mean it’s not a hit, it just means we need to focus on the future. And the future’s streaming.”


Peter Robinson

The GuardianTramp

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