Spotify as star-maker

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Issue Date: 
Nov 27 2013 - 12:05pm

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The “Spotify debate” swirls around one core hypothesis: Musicians don’t get enough value from the service. As such, Spotify is a surrogate for music streaming sites, which promote access instead of ownership, and attention instead of purchases.

The debate flared up again this week, in a caustic exchange between Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Moby. Moby called Yorke “an old guy yelling at fast trains.” Yorke emitted a Twitter yawn.

Spotify evangelists, especially founder Daniel Ek, repeatedly preach that it is still early days for streaming, and that massive future scaling will eventually solve complaints about the model’s revenue potential for recording artists. (Spotify’s investors have reportedly bought some time to build into that future with an eye-popping new funding of $250-million.) 

But the entire subject of artist revenue on Spotify might be moot in the long run. What if streaming services are really about exposure of potential stars? What if Spotify’s true role is more about leverage than earnings? In other words, is Spotify the new radio as a hit-making influencer? 

A just-published piece in Forbes lays out a timeline of Lorde’s success in Spotify, identifying Spotify’s role in building awareness of the artist and her not-yet-hit single, “Royals.” Key to this conception of Spotify as a star-maker is the early-mover power of virality inside the app. Two weeks after entering the Spotify catalog, “Royals” was featured on an influential public playlist followed by nearly a million users. That was back in April. From there it jumped to Spotify’s in-house charting system, where it climbed quickly. Two months after that, the song entered radio playlists. One month after that, “Royals” was recognized on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

This timeline is meaningful and emblematic of “crowd wisdom” which is supposed to shape a more democratic media landscape, but which so often doesn’t seem to. The Spotify crowd pushed Lorde into broadcast’s gigantic audience, and onto the charts. As to Spotify’s much-debated role as an earnings machine, “Royals” has been streamed 100-million times in Spotify alone. That would probably furnish a good-news earnings story for the music service if the figures were ever disclosed.

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At some point, all of the "awareness" sites creating buzz won't matter if there's never a payday for the artists. Music will be relegated to a few major acts and a din of hobbyists.

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