Q: What’s the one thing that’s even less profitable than streaming music?

[drum roll]

A: Sitting and checking your music’s streaming statistics.

Spotify for Artists is just one of many tools that tells you loads of quite specific statistical information about your listeners, such as what cities they are concentrated in, how many tracks each of them listen to on average and how many of them save your music to their favourites after listening. Are the statistics any use? Is one likely to start writing more country music because they see their music is already popular in Nashville, or to jet off to Kuala Lumpur to play a gig on the basis of an anonymous spike in plays there? I’m sure stranger things have happened.

Spotify for Artists does offer other features, though. You can add little videoclips to your songs called ‘canvasses’ for mobile listeners. You can run a ‘Marquee’ campaign if you’ve already hit certain thresholds (where Spotify essentially charges you per promoted stream, further negating the already meagre per-stream revenue). 

Then they offer these videos, which are purportedly about how to market your music, get it onto playlists, establish a visual identity and even plan your tour. A number of artists and industry people feature in these videos, normally sitting on really nice sofas, bantering a bit to the camera, doing the whole candid ‘are we filming yet?’ or ‘[laughs] can we take that bit again?’ routine that every Netflix documentary does- as if they’ve never sat in front of a camera before! They speak with confidence, certainty, relaxation and humour. These people (for the limited and specific purposes of this article, at least) are the Shining People of Spotify.

This kind of thing

The focus of these videos is ultimately how to use Spotify to become one of those artists who continually land their music in editorial playlists with every release and receive tens of thousands, even millions of streams as people arrive at work and load up ‘Peaceful Piano’ or ’Soft Office’, or switch on ’Sweat It Out’ at the gym. The money, while not great per stream, will certainly add up if you have a couple of tracks sitting in a popular playlist.

Spotify for Artists has a portal through which you can submit new releases for playlist consideration. I always submit my tracks- replete with categorisation and biographical details – and hope that this time, just maybe, some editor will listen and say, ‘this is perfect – let’s add this to ‘Sweat It Out!’. But deep down I know already: I’m not one of the Shining People of Spotify and that this is just not going to happen (or is this article just me daring Spotify to add me for a laugh?).

Recently I really thought about it all again. How it would actually feel to be one of the people on those sofas, handpicked by Spotify to tell other artists that if you just do x and y, things will take off? That you just have to- I don’t know- ‘have a story’ or ‘find ways to connect with your fans beyond just the music’? I’m sure once you’re in that position yourself it probably does feel as simple as that. From the top of the ladder it’s much harder to see the rungs.

I also thought about what it’d be like to have music featured in high performing official playlists, getting 500,000 streams a month per track- roughly £1600 per track to be divided between you and your label. (Crucially, these sort of streaming figures are almost impossible to achieve unless Spotify is giving you playlist support.) What would that do to your brain?

A couple of tracks achieving those kind of numbers would be enough income to be able to pay rent/mortgage, bills and studio/marketing costs. It would take the pressure off whatever else the musician was trying to achieve – sync placements, bespoke composition work, session performances and so on. More headspace to make music, less onus on gigs and scalable income flowing in, whatever the weather. It already sounds nice, being one of the Shining People of Spotify.

I then imagined what it would be like to wake up and check Spotify For Artists and see that the ’236 people listening now’ from yesterday has dropped to ‘4’. It would dawn on you to check the ‘Indie Anthems’ playlist that you were featured on – has the playlist been deleted, or something? No, the playlist is still there! But your song is no longer listed on it. And, because these playlists are often listened to in quite a passive way, only a handful of people have saved your music to their favourites or checked out the rest of your music. The carriage has reverted to a pumpkin. Later in the day, the ‘people listening now’ metric drops briefly to 0.

There’s no one at Spotify to speak to, no one whom you can ask about the rationale behind this decision. You might get a vague answer from their generic support line explaining that Spotify regularly reshuffles their playlists according to recent trends, followed by a cheery sign-off like ‘have a great day!’ (With these big tech companies there’s rarely any sign that their support team understand the meanings of words like ‘distress’, ‘shock’ or ‘dread’). Ultimately, it was always their gift to you to feature you in their playlist, and they don’t owe you anything, right?

Meanwhile, your mind has jumped to how many rental payments you can afford with what you’ve got left in your savings. Still, there are other songs in the pipeline. Sure, you might decide that the 7 minute through-composed synthesiser odyssey can sit on the shelf a while longer (you’ll release it once income is more stable again). You quickly write something a bit more similar to the track that did so well. Submit it to Spotify for Artists and, after midnight on release day, refresh and refresh to see if you’ve been added to the playlist again- are you still one of the Shining People of Spotify?

It’s like the Sword of Damocles, suspended above a rickety throne, and you’ve got the daily metrics to see when it falls on you. 

Many would say this is an unreasonable way to expect anyone to live. Spotify would retort that they’re making the music industry more meritocratic. They might also ask (rhetorically) ‘what other option is there?’

Irrespective of who’s winning and losing, the dealer always wins. For Spotify (or any other streaming service for that matter) it doesn’t really matter who gets the streams and they don’t owe you anything. They make money either way, and with that money they accumulate more power to make these huge decisions over your own life’s trajectory.

But we all carry on throwing our wares onto the growing pile in the hope that they’ll be spotted by the right people, sitting on one of those nice sofas – so that maybe we can become one of the Shining People of Spotify: grateful, dependent and terrified.

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