The second in our three-part series on streaming explores the gatekeepers, algorithms and 31-second rule on DSPs.
Music streaming has long been talked about within the industry in binary terms. Friend or foe; saviour or existential threat; a democratic force for good or a broken system that is in need of fixing. The reality is that it is all these things and more. In this expansive three-part discussion, music and technology expert David Hughes takes us on a deep dive into music streaming, providing an altogether more nuanced look at how it’s changing the industry as we know it. Here are just some of the big questions asked:
- How are streaming services changing the way artists create music?
- Is every stream worth the same?
- What might an AI policy for DSPs might look like?
- What impact is algorithmic inequality having on the overall landscape?
- Can DSPs learn from other industry models, such as Netflix?
- Why does nobody get paid if a track is only streamed for 30 seconds?
What are some of the other challenges surrounding streaming?
DH: One thing that’s significant is there’s so much new music being uploaded to the streaming services. In October 2022, Variety reported that 100,000 new songs were arriving every day on DSPs. And we see that the major record companies’ market share in the streaming space has dropped about 10%, largely replaced by do it yourself-ers.
There was a big misconception that digital music in general, but streaming services in particular, would democratise music and allow everybody to have an equal opportunity to rise to the top. The problem is that when hundreds of thousands of new songs are being uploaded every day onto these services, there’s so much noise – in some cases we are talking about literal noise, such as pink noise and white noise and of course some really bad music – but figuratively there’s so much noise that cutting through is very difficult and you need help.
The reality is that streaming services have considerable control over what people listen to. In fact, one study said that two thirds of the music that people listen to on an on-demand service is actually something that is on a playlist or proposed to them somehow and only about a third of it is truly people picking the songs that they want to listen to. Those playlists like RapCaviar on Spotify have a big influence on what people listen to. Of course, as more people listen to those songs, they are then recommended to more people and the system perpetuates itself. And you could say the cream rises to the top if you consider the cream to be the most popular music. Whatever people don’t skip will rise to the top.
You’re touching on the streaming services’ mystical algorithms. What can you tell us about exactly how streaming services recommend music?
DH: The big thing in streaming is that if somebody hits skip on a song on a streaming service, two things happen: if they hit skip before 30 seconds, none of the songwriters, artists, rightsholders get paid. So you need to have people listen for at least 31 seconds or you’re not getting paid. Second, if people are skipping your song, the algorithm knows that. And if it knows that I skipped, it will be less likely to suggest it to the next person.
Who decided that nobody gets paid before 31 seconds, and does that need to change?
DH: That came about because download services like iTunes and others wanted to be able to play samples, and the standard industry practice that developed over time was that you can have a 30 second sample. I think on iTunes, actually, they expanded it to 60 seconds, as I recall, but initially it was 30 seconds.
Now in a download service, you had to pay for the song. You’re paying your 99p or 129p or whatever, right? So, users needed to have a way to sample it to make sure they’re buying the correct song. Like they want Despacito with Justin Bieber, but then they sample it and they will say wait, this is all Spanish, that’s not the version I was looking for, or vice versa. So the industry best practice became 30 second samples for the promotion of download sales.
When it came to streaming, the reverse argument was made by the streaming services. People are now going to use the streaming to sample and if they skip in the first 30 seconds, that’s the same as listening to a 30 second sample and not buying the record. And I’m not sure that their logic is terribly off. It certainly gives people the freedom to sample, which they would have even if it was paid, but it relieves the streaming service of the obligation to be paying for what amounts to samples. The streaming services made a logical, plausible argument that the first 30 seconds replaces the download sample. So, as far as I know, that’s how we got there.
Are factors that are unique to streaming services, such as the 31 second rule, changing the way in which music is not just consumed, but made?
DH: Yes. People used to put 15 songs on a CD that were four minutes each. Well, now if you think people are going to play your album, you have an incentive to put a bunch of songs on there. And in fact, some artists have been putting out albums with 20 to 40 tracks because they know that their fans will start by listening to the whole album and they’ll get paid for 40 plays. Then whatever songs the fans go back and listen to again will start fueling the algorithm.
The old way of doing business was you would pick a single for an album. So now we have other terms like ‘focus track’, which is kind of like, what are you focused on in terms of Marketing? It’s effectively the single. So now when Taylor Swift releases an album, she has a pretty good feeling that three songs are her best songs on this album. In the old days, those would have been released as singles, then they would have been spread out, they would have been released, and when the first one dropped off the charts, she would have added the second one and waited for that to drop off the charts, she would add the third one, and so on and so forth.
And those would have been in the album in the order of telling a story, back in the days when we had vinyl and CD albums. Now if you have three best songs, you’re going to put them track one, two, three, right at the beginning because people don’t have patience, and in the same way they skip songs, they skip albums. So you’re going to put your best songs at the beginning and you’re going to push those songs and you’re going to hope that those start to catch the wheel of the algorithm and get fueled.
Other artists, and I think Drake was one that actually said something about this publicly, take the position that they don’t even pick a focus track. They put the album out there and let the fans decide what they think the best songs are. And because Drake has a hardcore following, unlike an up and coming artist, he knows when he drops a new album, his fans will listen to the whole album, beginning to end, multiple times to start with, but over time they will then pick out their favourite songs, add them to their playlists, and so on. Those ones will get more plays, and those are the ones that will then get recommended to the other users and then get on other playlists, and those ones will be the hits. Again, streaming has changed the way that people make music, the way that they make the album. So now you have shorter songs in a different order.
The people who are making music for the streaming platform also realised that listeners can’t wait for 45 to 55 seconds for the hook. By then, people have already skipped. So what we need to do is come up with another hook that starts the song and then goes into the verse. And so it goes on. The other thing is, if you have a guest artist, in the old days, you always used to have the guest artist perform the second half of the song. That way the radio audience would have to listen to the first 90 seconds until Jay-Z came on. But now you have to have Jay-Z at the beginning, otherwise people skip. They might fast forward, but really the fear is that they’ll skip.
Have streaming services killed the album then?
DH: A lot of things have been impacted. They’re not all bad. Some of them are just a reaction to the marketplace. And markets change. We started with a singles business from the first 78s through to 45s in the early 1960s, it was a singles business. It wasn’t until the Beatles, really, if we wanted to peg it on somebody, when people started buying albums. And at that time it was still an album largely consisting of singles. But then somewhere along the line, the Beatles and of course others, realised that, oh, we can tell a story with an album. And that changed music for a long time until we shifted back to downloads, which shifted it back to a singles market. And now streaming is what it is.