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One stream’s trash, another stream’s treasure – if everything’s niche, what success can you measure?

Cover image for One stream’s trash, another stream’s treasure – if everything’s niche, what success can you measure?

Photo: Juja Han

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

At this point, we are all on the same page, or at least should be, that ‘niche is the new mainstream’. Thanks to the (sometimes brutal) accuracy of social algorithms, pretty much any artist can find their ideal fans, no matter where they are in the world. And as a fan, you can expect to have the music you love most handed right to you, without ever having to go searching for it.

Of course, everything being niche puts a bit of a chip in the traditional model of the superstar. Can we even have mainstream artists if everything is niche? Is mainstream itself a niche? You may think a star is big, and the next day, a musically-inclined friend will admit to having never heard of them. The dissolution of centralised distribution channels has taken with it the ability to become truly, cross-culturally renowned.

This is obviously messing with the revenue models of music institutional structures formed in a pre / early-streaming era. Top of everyone’s minds, of course, is the Spotify decision to re-distribute revenues from songs with under 1000 annual streams. The industry is divided, as this years’ ESNS attested.

The 1000 stream conundrum

On the business side, there is a general sense that, while not an ideal arrangement, something had to be done to address the increasingly microscopic shares going to ever smaller artists in ever smaller niches, meaning no one was ever going to make any meaningful money from streaming in the long run. If they could, or even should – a philosophical question for another day.

On the creative side, artists and songwriters are angry, scared, and deeply unhappy with the service (if they weren’t already), largely feeling like they are being left behind by an increasingly tech-happy industry that seems keen to maximise profit at their expense – they, the ones writing the hits, filling the playlists, and driving the niches that now define the industry.

Yet this is not how they are seen. With one breath, executives will say that if you are earning fewer than 1000 streams on Spotify, you are doing something wrong: it is “garbage”, as has been crudely and publicly put. Yet with the next, they will say it is the same 1000 stream artists that they want to find before they are famous. In short, they know these artists can be successful, but only want them to do it under their guidance. Yet the labels find themselves chasing their own tails: pushing lesser-known artists out of the limelight, waiting for one to break through, and pouncing on their already-emerging success – and basing that definition of success on an ability to game social and streaming algorithms, rather than the quality of their music.

Mainstream who?

It seems that the 1000-stream artist is both everyman’s trash and everyman’s treasure… and is being thrown under the bus to ensure the more ‘successful’ artists are compensated. But with niche being so prominent and crucial to the industry’s future, what even constitutes success? If you have fewer than 1000 streams, but each of those streams represents a devoted fan who will come to your shows and buy your T-shirts, is that not success? Many artists would say it is – so really, in the end, the number is almost useless as a benchmark on its own.

Especially as audiences move into a more ‘hybrid’ way of life, mixing their digital and analogue behaviours in a better-balanced relationship with entertainment, it will become increasingly important to contextualise these streaming metrics. 1000 streams for one artist can mean something completely different for another; it is the context, the scene, the niche, and the artists’ own definition of success that will ultimately determine how far they go.

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