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Do Streams Really Matter?

Updated: Mar 17, 2020

The modern music industry has been driven by a relatively new player in town: streaming. Album sales have decreased, iTunes is on its way out, and streaming is becoming the new norm for music consumption in today’s world.

As artists begin to pour more and more of their resources into driving their streaming numbers, the question naturally arises: do streams really matter? In short, the answer is yes and no. It depends entirely on several factors which we will discuss below, but against popular belief, the number of streams you have (or have not), is not as indicative of career success as you may think.

Let’s start with why streams might be valuable:

When are Streams Important?

1. Your number of streams shows a listener that you have music that might be worth listening to. If a fan is discovering you for the first time, there is the greatest likelihood that they will first listen to your song with the highest streams. If all of your songs have a high number of streams, it tells the fan that you are probably worth their attention.

2. A high number of streams is attractive to industry/press/etc. who might be interested in working with you. A high number of streams says that you have something that people are paying attention to. Streaming generates money (though very little), and at the end of the day, labels really only care about making money off of you. If you’ve done the legwork to get yourself a high stream count, you are a much safer investment for them. In terms of press, an independent artist who is generating a competitive level of streams is more likely to be featured on blogs, newspapers, magazines, etc. This again, is simply because you are already attracting attention from listeners, who may then turn into traffic for the interested blog.

3. Streaming platforms such as Spotify do a great job in showing you where your listeners are coming from. This may be helpful in routing tours, and for convincing venue bookers to book you for a show. If you can prove statistically that you have a large listener base in a particular region, you are far more likely to get booked than somebody who does not. Be careful when looking at these numbers though. I personally have most of my listeners coming from New York City, but even these numbers are still quite low when you think of how many people actually occupy New York. Don’t jump to thinking you could sell out a show just because you have 1000 listeners from a particular city. Think big: I’m talking hundred thousands of listeners. Streaming numbers can also influence whether or not you get booked at festivals, and festivals are a great way of making new fans. If you can show that people are interested in your music online, there’s a better chance that you’ll be given a chance to play live more.

3. If you live in Canada, or any other region that gives grant funding to aspiring musicians, streaming can also be a helpful factor here. If you can show a funding body evidence that you are being streamed a lot online, it makes it more likely that they will fund your endeavours, as you will be seen as more of a safe investment (similar reasoning to a record label). Funding bodies want to fund artists who make them look good, and if you are already generating a high number of streams, they will certainly look good for giving you the resource to put out even more work.

These are clearly good reasons to focus your marketing efforts on streaming, but what about the downsides? Though there are not many, the ones that I will mention are significant enough to be considered over the positives.

Here is why I think you should focus less on streaming:

1. A stream does NOT equal a fan. It’s as simple as that. Just because somebody listens to your song, does not mean that they will become a fan who will buy your merch, pay to see you in concert, or even listen to the rest of your catalogue. I often find artists who after being put on curated playlists such as Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” or “Fresh Finds”, struggle to maintain the consistency of that burst of streams on their following work. These artists are often frustrated and confused as to why their latest work did not do nearly as well as their playlisted song. The misconception here is that just because one song was put on a playlist, suddenly all those listeners are die-hard fans who will eat from the palm of your hands everything else you give them. This is the unfortunate reality of streaming. Don’t get me wrong, being put on a playlist is an incredible boost not only to your confidence as an artist, but also to your marketing resources, but more often than not, when you are eventually removed from the major playlist, you are forgotten about.

Think about it this way: when are you most likely to be listening to new music? Statistically speaking, most people listen to music while at the gym, driving, at work, or while studying. These are all examples of passive listening. It is quite likely that people listening in these scenarios have put on a playlist they typically enjoy, and have let it run its course until the end. Unless a song really sticks out to them and they save it, they will likely listen to your song passively just as they did every other song on the playlist. The problem here then is obvious: just because your song was listened to does not mean you gained a fan.

2. Streaming generates such a small amount of money that if you are seriously thinking that streaming alone will allow you to quit your day job, you are incredibly mistaken. Just as an example, Spotify pays $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream to the holder of music rights (AKA you if you’re independent). A stream typically has to pass 30 seconds of listen time for it to count as a stream. This means that for one million streams, you will make approximately $6000. Sure, there’s no harm in making six grand, but when you think of how difficult it is to get one million streams, that number seems a lot less significant.

So what should you do?

All in all, high streaming numbers can be a great way to build your legitimacy as an independent (or signed) artist, but it truly isn’t the be all and end all and it definitely shouldn’t be treated as such. Below you’ll find some tips on where I think you could better focus your strategies:

1. Build an emailing list. I know this might seem tedious and annoying, but truthfully, having a strong email list can make or break an artists career. Of all the forms of online connection, email remains the undefeated champ in terms of longevity. Social media platforms fade as soon as the next interesting one comes along (ie. Vine, which was once an incredibly successful platform for artist discovery met its demise when Instagram became more widely used for video content), and even Facebook is making its way out as a way to discover new artists. No platform is safe, not even streaming believe it or not. Email will likely remain for a very long time, unless another efficient method of online communication is developed, but even that would take an incredibly long time for everybody to get on board. Just think about it: everybody has an email address, and most people check their emails often.

2. Have your eggs in multiple baskets. Building on the previous point, don’t focus all your promotional and marketing efforts on a single platform (ie. Spotify). Make sure to spread yourself amongst all of the platforms available to you, and be present there if you can. Of course, you can have your favourite platform and give it special attention, but don’t do this at the expense of all the others. Be on Instagram, be on Facebook, be on Youtube. Be everywhere that anybody could ever possibly find you. I sometimes see artists who will only put their songs on websites like BandCamp, and require their listeners to pay to hear their work. There’s a reason nobody listens to them, and I don’t really need to elaborate more on that. Being present everywhere is a lot of work, but the artists who pull it off typically end up doing better in the long run.

3. Play Live shows and promote your streaming platforms there. This is a great way to get streams from people who actually might be (or eventually become) fans. If an individual hears you live and likes you, when they get around to streaming your music, there’s a higher likelihood that they will come back for more in the future. More importantly though, it is more likely that they will follow you, which is a point I will discuss below.

4. Get your fans to “Follow” you on Streaming Platforms. This should be a no brainer, but sadly it is not. Getting followed on a streaming platform tells the algorithm that people like you enough to have the algorithm keep them up to date on your new releases. The more people that follow you, the more people that Spotify and other platforms will send your new music to when it releases. An added bonus, is that the Spotify algorithm will also send your music to listeners who have similar tastes to your followers, most often through the use of their custom curated “Release Radar” playlist. Make sure you tell your fans to follow you! Your “monthly listeners” is not nearly as important as your number of followers.

5. Think bigger picture than just streaming. At the end of the day, there are multiple factors involved in having a successful career in music, streaming is simply one of them. When you are creating content (music, photos, video, etc.) think about how your content can be used to promote your career as a whole and not just your streaming numbers.

This was a bit of a long article but I hope it helps you to put into perspective the role streaming realistically should play in your career.

Am I missing anything? Am I completely off-base? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!


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