As the streaming ecosystem creates a kaleidoscopic world, what really is success in the music business.
Once upon a time, in the ’80s, in a little village called Albrighton near Wolverhampton in the UK, lived three musically inclined young men.
They formed their own band – China Boy Hi. In 1988 Simon Dyson (20, bass guitarist), Ben Christopher (18, singer, keyboard player, guitarist), and David Fletcher (20, drummer) moved to London in search of a record company that would make an album with them.
That did not happen. In 1992, the trio found an investor and set up their own label, Red Door Records. But, “It never got to a point where we could do it full-time,” says Dyson, now practice leader, music, for the UK-based Omdia.
In 1994 China Boy Hi called it a day.
“We wanted to be discovered. For us success was about getting our own singles record and making enough to invest in something,” says Dyson.
Life was simple then. A few years after Dyson and his mates gave up on China Boy Hi, came MP3, a technology to compress music. The resulting file-sharing and CD-ripping almost destroyed the business. From $23.4 billion in 2001, revenues for the global music business fell to a low of $14.7 billion in 2011. The figure finally started rising again in 2016 and is just over $20 billion now. iTunes (2001), YouTube (2005), and from 2006 onwards, the regular launch of music streaming apps injected new life into the business.
There is YouTube and Spotify; Gaana and Moodagent. Short video apps like Moj or Josh. There are music labels. And Instagram likes and Facebook shares. Music is flowing all over on different formats and platforms in a range of genres, voices, and instruments. In this somewhat kaleidoscopic and confusing ecosystem “Everybody can say a song is a hit,” says Vivek Raina, Managing Director, Believe India. Success is not about one big number in black and white.
What then defines success in music now?
It seems trite but it is a question researchers across the world grapple with.
“Success is not just a metric. It could be about reaching an international audience, number of tracks played, fans reaching out,” says Padmanabhan Nurani, Head of Artists and Label Marketing, Spotify India.
He points to Aryaman Singh who creates independent rock music as Sunflower Tape Machine. His indie song on Spotify had just over 300 listeners a month in May 2021.
“What the (music) editors saw was that people were finishing the song. That is unusual,” adds Nurani.
Spotify pasted the song on a new playlist called Freshfinds in June and the numbers started rising. In July it went on the global list and now has 19,000 listeners globally.
“He has two times more listeners in the US than India,” says Nurani.
Sunflower Tape Machine has been discovered, in a way that China Boy Hi would have liked to be.
The first of the two somewhat garbled answers to the question of what is success in music then is – it depends on who you are talking to.
“Your success as an artist depends on what stage of growth you are at. You may not be able to live off the platform immediately. But if you are smart and can for instance see that there is traction for your songs in say Hyderabad, you can sell gigs there,” says Rahul Balyan, Head of Music, India, Spotify.
He reckons there are three stages – early, mid, and at the peak of a musician’s career.
“When you are starting out, success is about finding where your audience lies,” says he.
Anuv Jain is just discovering that. He gave up corporate life to become a full-time singer last year and has found early success with his songs like Baarishen and Mishri.
“When people message me saying that a song I wrote or sang touched them, that is what makes me feel successful, it defines success for me,” says he.
A label however looks at it differently.
“For a commercial entity the basic definition of success is ‘are you getting ROI’. Can I get my costs out and make money,” says Vikram Mehra, Managing Director, Saregama.
The Rs 472 crore firm with the largest library of songs in India has its own internal measure for return on investment that Mehra declines to share.
He adds, “Your question is how other people look at success.”
“At a broader level that would be the number of streams, views etc.,” answers Jyoti Handa, Managing Director, of the Denmark-based, Moodagent, a streaming service that recently came to India.
The measures of success
Handa has pointed to the second answer to the question ‘what is success?’
There are multiple matrices for listenership/popularity/sales or simply buzz all mixed into a “khichdi”. This makes separating the metrics that are important from the ones that aren’t difficult.
For example, many charts show likes on YouTube or followers on Instagram.
“Some years ago if there was no financial success the record label wouldn’t bother with you. Now likes etc matter because so many artists promote so much more than music. Look at the top 20 marketing campaigns for artists in 2020 (by Sandbox, a trade publication). They are all about social media,” says Dyson.
However, labels, aggregators, or artists themselves pump the views by promoting the song, creating short videos that use the song et al. So the numbers are not a clean indicator. Also just like fake CDs, there is fake traffic to ramp up the buzz and get labels interested.
“Platforms like Spotify and Apple are strong on finding fake traffic. If you are doing a paid campaign nothing wrong with that. They make sure that all of a sudden no weird data is showing up. The track is taken down if something is wrong,” says Raina.
Then there is radio and television.
“Radio/TV play very limited songs, not even one per cent of the tracks there are. It is an additional tool to market, not necessarily reflective of the top 50. Currently the best metric is audio streams, across a month/year,” says Raina.
Platforms like Spotify or YouTube share data on how many times a song was played, where etc, with the artists. However, unlike Broadcast Audience Research Council in television or the Indian Readership Survey in print, there is no single third-party metric for measuring how popular or successful a song or piece of music is.
The one metric
Late in June the Indian Music Industry or IMI launched a top 20 chart for international music in India in association with Barcelona-based BMAT.
It is one of the leading firms that provide music consumption data across TV, radio, concerts, and streaming platforms to just under 5,000 companies across the world. This intense tracking ensures artists get paid for every track played anywhere in the world.
“The data goes directly from the DSPs (digital service providers like Gaana or Spotify) in the format that BMAT needs. The processes are based on the global yardsticks of IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) and local charts committees,” says Blaise Fernandes, President & CEO, IMI.
This chart is published for the public every Monday. But given it tracks only international music, which is just a small proportion of the Rs 1,500 crore Indian music business how does it help?
“Given our diversity and culture it is difficult to do a straight dive into a national chart. So we said let us do something with international charts in the first stage. In the second we will be doing 2-3 Indian languages and launch national charts eventually,” says Fernandes.
That then, could become the main metric of success, with likes and followers becoming what they really are – marketing tools.
“An IMI chart is the organic way towards discovery, because it is what you can learn about tracks yourself. It is not algorithm driven. If there is a song on the chart you don’t know about you will want to listen to it,” says Fernandes.
That really is what the success game is all about.
**The above article is written by Vanita Kohli-Khandekar**