Blog Music

Mainstream is the new niche

Cover image for Mainstream is the new niche
Photo of Mark Mulligan
by Mark Mulligan

Five years ago, we made the call that ‘niche is the new mainstream’. Today, this dynamic is so fundamental to music and culture that we are firmly in the stage of second order consequences. Superstars are getting smaller, the long tail is getting longer, and rightsholders are bringing in earnings thresholds to keep that growing long tail at bay. But it was a blog post by my colleague Tatiana – “Did Charli XCX go mainstream, or did the mainstream just go niche? – that got me thinking whether, now five years in, the mainstreaming of niche has reached a tipping point.

The dynamics of Charli XCX’s career (e.g., 25,000 RSVPs in one hour for a 1,000-cap Boiler Room gig) feel very much like those of Taylor Swift. Of course, the sheer scale of the Swift fandom machine is the big difference – or is it? Is mainstream about actual numbers or reach, or perhaps both? In fact, it is best measured in three key ways:

1.        Absolute scale: how big are the numbers?

2.        Relative scale: how big are the numbers compared to others?

3.        Active reach: what share of the total audience does an artist have?

Let’s use Taylor Swift, as today’s biggest mainstream music artist, to test each.

Absolute scale

There is no getting away from the fact that everything “big” has got smaller. Michael Jackson, arguably the equivalent of Taylor Swift for the peak-CD era, shifted half a billion units worldwide, when units actually meant units. By comparison, Taylor Swift has fewer than 200 million ‘album equivalent sales’ – which of course means this figure is increasingly made up of streams being converted into ‘sales’. Given that so much of streaming behaviour today is radio-like, we would really need to add an estimate of total individual radio listens to Jackson, which would result in a figure that would comfortably end up in the tens of billions in ‘equivalent sales’.Yes, Jackson’s career happened in a different era, when fewer artists were competing and linear broadcast platforms dominated. But that is the entire point of fragmenting fandom.

Relative scale

It is abundantly clear that Taylor Swift has more streams and ticket sales than pretty much everyone else. She is the biggest artist on the planet right now. She has mainstream awareness, but does that make her actual listenership mainstream? 

She certainly has more mainstream cultural clout than her peers, managing to become part of the mainstream media narrative – look no further than the Financial Times running pieces on ‘Swiftonomics’. This is thanks, in large part, to the fact she first built her fandom pre-fragmentation, when music was still much more a part of mainstream culture. It is an advantage enjoyed by other artists, such as Beyoncé, that came up pre-streaming’s peak, and therefore pre-fragmentation. But an FT subscriber reading a Swiftonomics story does not necessarily make them a listener (I’ll hazard a guess that particular conversion rate is not one to sing about). Having mainstream media reach is not the same as being a mainstream artist in terms of listenership, even though the two things did largely go hand-in-hand once upon a time.So, simply being bigger than the rest does not inherently equate to being mainstream. In the same way that the fastest kid at school could leave her classmates for dust but not even qualify for national heats, let alone compete with the fastest runners in the world.



Active reach is where the picture really comes into focus. The best-selling albums in US history (when sales were sales) were the Eagles ‘Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975’, with 38 million sales, and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, with 34 million. Based on the respective populations of the year of release of those albums, the Eagles was bought by 17.4% of the US population, while Michael Jackson was bought by 15.9%. 

Taylor Swift’s best-selling US album was ‘1989’ (6.5 million) while ‘The Tortured Poets Department’ sold 2.9 million. As a share of the total US population, they represent 2.0% and 0.7%. 

Taylor Swift’s biggest selling release has 12 times less reach than the Eagles, while her latest release had less than 1% reach.NOTE: with modern ‘sales’ figures including streams, Swift’s total audience may have been bigger (as many different people’s streams could add up to one sale). But equally, it could be lower, as one person’s streams could add up to multiple units.





Of course, judging Swift’s reach only by album sales – an aging format, and an essentially extinct one for much of her listener base – is unfair. Yet interestingly, the c1% figure doesn’t just apply to Swift’s album sales. The record-breaking ‘Eras’ tour sold 4.5 million US tickets, which is just over 1% of the US population (and Swifties being Swifties, there was probably a decent number who saw the show more than once, meaning that percentage is likely a bit smaller). Meanwhile, Swift’s 26.1 billion Spotify streams in 2023 made her the most streamed artist of the year, yet that was just 1.4% of all global Spotify streams. Now, 1.4% of global streams for one artist is a massive achievement But in the analogue era so many more people would have listened to the biggest artist of the day because radio was the main consumption format, and on radio everyone listens to the same song, whether they like it or not.

None of this is a critique of Taylor Swift, but instead a reflection of the modern music world which she is part of. She is clearly a hugely successful artist at the top of her game. But the game is not the same as it once was. It is not that Taylor Swift is not huge — she is. But she is not mainstream, because mainstream itself is now niche. Charli XCX shows how successful you can be when you understand the power of niche. Niche does not inherently mean small, and its potential is huge. The simple, hard truth is that now everything is niche, even mainstream.

The discussion around this post has not yet got started, be the first to add an opinion.


Add your comment