Spotify’s Kevin Brown has been watching the music business growing steadily more agitated in recent weeks.
Since MBW suggested the UK’s Official Singles Chart was getting ‘pretty boring’, concern over streaming’s effect on the historic weekly list has escalated.
Some, such as BBC Radio 1 music boss Chris Price, have apportioned blame for its slow movement on streaming playlists.
Others have castigated the current UK chart formula – 100 streams equivalent to one download – as unfairly skewed.
Some have simply balked at the fact that streaming now contributes the majority of single ‘sales’ in the UK market.
What hasn’t been said nearly enough: bloody well done Drake.
The Canadian star’s One Dance has spent 15 weeks on top of the Official Chart, equaling the UK’s second longest consecutive run at No.1.
“The Chart is not broken.”
Kevin Brown, Spotify
Some dismiss this streaming-led feat as a product of an imbalanced chart – heralding the slightly ludicrous situation where the song’s mammoth popularity is disregarded precisely because people can’t stop playing it.
Yet there is a more pervasive worry out there: if the UK charts have slowed thanks to streaming, what will it mean for the next generation of artists trying to break through?
Kevin Brown (pictured) is certainly a good person to ask.
He’s not only a big cheese at Spotify – International Head of Label Relations (ex-US/CA) officially – but also the Chairman of the Official Charts Company in the UK. (A position in which he says he cannot wield anything near as much influence as some conspiratorially assume.)
In addition, Brown knows what it’s like to break artists.
The EMI, BMG, 4AD and Polygram exec spent 20 years at labels, working with acts including Coldplay, Gorillaz, Whitney Houston Lily Allen, Kylie Minogue, Radiohead, TLC and Robbie Williams.
Brown is very clear when he says: “The chart is not broken.”
And he’s also very clear that the music industry at large needs to rethink its strategy – and show a little more patience – to make the most of the streaming age...
No, the UK chart is doing exactly the job it should – reflecting the popularity of music in the new mixed economy of sales and streams.
And for what it’s worth these are not UK specific conditions. The UK chart, in terms of its methodology, is broadly consistent with every other chart worldwide; it is not unique.
I’d ask the open question: are other markets experiencing the same slowdown as the UK has in recent months? Of course they are – it’s a global music industry phenomenon.
The phenomenon of Drake being at No.1 for 15 weeks is not an isolated thing. Drake is the biggest artist globally across pretty much all platforms in 2016.
My own view – and I say this with the benefit of having been part of the launch of the new Major Lazer single [likely to topple One Dance on Friday] – is that the ‘problem’ with One Dance is that nothing came along to challenge it. That’s a market issue not a chart issue.
Over the past few months we’ve simply seen fewer artists breaking through. My personal view is that there are other issues underlying this.
The industry has, historically, become used over decades to marketing artists into the chart in order to break them; push a couple of singles into the chart and sell an album off the back of it.
“The new world lays bare the quality of the artist, song and performance. There’s nowhere to hide.”
The public, largely because they didn’t have an alternative, were willing to invest in an album off the back of a couple of tracks. They would make that leap of faith with their hard-earned cash.
I say that as someone who has been complicit in this; over 20 years at labels, I manipulated the chart with the best of them.
In the early ’90s at Polygram, I worked at what was euphemistically known as a ‘strike force’, whose raison d’etre was to ‘influence’ the charts – so I know what I’m talking about.
However, the new world of consumption lays bare the quality of the artist, the song and the performance. There’s nowhere to hide. The consumer has access to all the music and can judge it on its merits. And quality will out.
In a world where streaming accounts for more than 80% of the singles market, the chart has to incorporate streams to be an accurate reflection of popularity.
In recent weeks, the UK market has seen something like 750m audio streams delivered a week, compared to 2m downloads. It would be wrong to ignore those streams.
The chart holds up a mirror to the marketplace which in turn reflects the industry.
It strikes me the current industry angst over the chart is a case of not liking what you see in the mirror… and then asking for a new mirror.
What is needed is more long-term artist development. If the goal in the old model was to get into the chart to break an artist, the new model is that you need to break an artist to get into the chart.
“Angst over today’s chart is a case of not liking what you see in the mirror… and then asking for a new mirror.”
And there are many opportunities for artists to break through in 2016.
Spotify enables our 100m-plus users to discover new artists day-in, day-out.
I’d observe there’s a whole ecosystem of artists on Spotify that are releasing music regularly and quietly building an audience that enables to them to – for one thing – sell tickets to that audience.
That in turn creates a platform which, given the right song, will enable them to break through into the chart.
Artists like Gavin James (pictured), Jorja Smith, James TW and Max Pope, who all building an audience at different levels on Spotify; that’s a spectrum from Gavin and James TW at 2m-plus monthly listeners, to Jorja (300k) and Max (70k), for whom it’s early days.
“A series of music has to be released over time. I acknowledge that’s demanding on A&R, but it’s the reality.”
Another example: last week, Joel Adams was at No.52 on the Official Singles Chart, and is currently breaking through as a result of discovery on Spotify. He didn’t have a single radio play last week. [Adams is currently at No.26 on Spotify’s own UK chart.]
Two singles often isn’t enough anymore – a series of music has to be released over time. I acknowledge that’s demanding on the artist and on A&R, but it’s the reality.
When you’re marketing an artist in 2016, you’re marketing to drive engagement – and that calls for a much more sophisticated approach than marketing just to drive transactions.
Marketing for engagement is an ‘always on’ conversation with an artist’s audience. It needs to move and evolve over time.
It’s not like the old days where we could mug the consumer for the price of an album and not have to come back to that well for two years. Now we have to come back to the well daily.
“This isn’t like the old days when you could mug the consumer for a price of an album and not come back to the well for two years.”
In a world where consumers are bombarded by marketing messages from every quarter, we need to create opportunities to give reason – or maybe even give permission – for us to communicate regularly to an artist’s audience.
I’m not saying I have the answer – as an industry we are all, Spotify included, wrestling with this.
Having said all of that, there are exceptions. There will always be opportunities for artists like Christine & The Queens, who comes with a remarkable song and a series of live and TV moments allow her to break through [in the UK].
We’ve supported Christine & The Queens, working closely with the label [Because Music], and helped build the springboard – but the TV moments and live moments, like her performance at Glastonbury, allowed her to connect with a wider audience.
It shows there’s still the capacity for artists to break through via the traditional route.
Major labels in 2016 are still really configured as they were last century.
They look like global organisations but they’re actually multi-local. This inhibits them from really harnessing the power of global platforms.
The power is devolved locally, and consequently the thinking is still largely very local [with regard to breaking artists]. The strategy is still largely: break the artist locally and then go global with it.
“The industry is looking in the wrong direction by trying to ‘fix’ the UK chart.”
In 2016, the strategy should be global, or at least multi-local – and digital – first.
A great example is Lukas Graham, where the network effect of Spotify provided a platform for a [global] breakthrough.
The industry is looking in the wrong direction if they are trying to ‘fix’ the UK chart. It’s not broken.
We need more long-term artist development, more sophisticated marketing and – possibly, this is my personal view – a complement to the Top 40 in the UK.
An additional, more dynamic chart?
Yes. I think the Official Trending Chart [solely reflecting the popularity of new breaking tracks] is a really strong idea, and it’s a pity it hasn’t gained more traction. Maybe we need a trending chart 2.0 – maybe a discovery chart, or a breakers chart.
Maybe we need a trending chart 2.0 – maybe a discovery chart, or a breakers chart.
It needs media partners – but we need to develop a chart that’s attractive to media partners and their audience first. Trying to change the [main] chart to make it more dynamic is not necessarily the answer.
“The OCC wrestles continually with the balance between accurate reflection and providing a marketing platform.”
The chart is there to reflect what is popular and what is being consumed. The Official Charts Company wrestles continually with the balance between accurately reflecting the marketplace and providing a marketing platform for the industry.
But it needs a lot more thought, a lot more discussion and input from all corners of the industry.
Radio 1’s Chris Price recently suggested that including airplay data in the chart could make it fairer. What are your thoughts?
Radio 1 are a hugely important partner for the Official Charts. It has been the home of the Official Singles Chart for almost five decades and I know Chris and Ben Cooper (Radio1 controller) believe it always should be. We work very closely with them and are always keen to hear their thoughts on the charts.
But we don’t believe adding radio airplay is the answer.
To my knowledge, globally, there’s only one significant chart worldwide that includes airplay and that’s the [famously slow-moving] Hot 100 in the US. I don’t think that’s what the UK industry is asking for.
“Putting power in the hands of gatekeepers feels like going backwards to me.”
It’s widely acknowledged that the inclusion of radio data in that chart slows things down, and it also puts power in the hands of gatekeepers, rather than reflecting what the public are actually consuming by choice. That feels like going backwards to me.
The Official Charts Company reviews the chart methodologies on an ongoing basis – and has done so since well before the invention of streaming – and will be looking at it.
My personal view, however – with a Spotify hat on – is that every retailer and digital service has surfaces where it makes editorial recommendations to consumers: for example, the window displays in HMV, the racking in Target, the iTunes flowcase and bricks.
“with playlists, it’s an active choice whenever our users decide to play a track.”
But the public then chooses whether to take those recommendations and consume the music.
With regards to our own editorial playlists, it’s an active choice whenever our users decide to play a track. They have the opportunity to review the track list in the same way that someone does looks at a compilation album before buying.
They can also skip tracks they don’t want to listen to – our data suggests users are very active in deciding whether or not to listen to individual tracks within any given playlist.
Every time an exclusive goes live, the mainstream consumer gets a little bit more confused about the streaming proposition.
As an industry, we’re progressively throttling our best chance for growth right now. Pity the poor consumer who’s trying to choose a streaming service at the moment.
“We do it to ourselves… and that’s what really hurts.”
You couldn’t really blame them for saying: ‘No, I can’t get my head around this. I’ll come back once you lot have figured it out.’
To paraphrase Thom Yorke… We do it to ourselves, we do, and that’s what really hurts.
Is the conversion formula of the charts right at the moment in the UK – 100 streams to one download?
The conversion rate is reviewed on an ongoing basis. There is no perfect way to translate consumption into transaction. The 100/1 ratio is a compromise to allow conversion while there are two modes of consumer activity happening side by side.
As to whether it needs changing, we need to tread very, very carefully. The Official Charts Company is about protecting the integrity of the chart: they are custodians of its heritage and legacy, and custodians of its future.
“There is no perfect way to translate consumption into transaction.”
With my Official Charts hat on, right now we’re in a transition period, and it would be very dangerous to jump to quick conclusions because the market is moving rapidly.
We need to be extremely careful to ensure we respect the chart and don’t make any kneejerk decisions which might compromise its integrity, legacy and heritage.Music Business Worldwide