Spotify are back in the news this week, and it’s not because another artist has dubbed them the “last desperate fart of a dying corpse” or because they’re being sued by a label they’re apparently ripping off. In fact, this week the guys at Spotify had reason to celebrate. As of July 2014, streaming will be introduced to the official charts, meaning they’ll have a much bigger influence in shaping the music industry.
So how will all this work? The number of tracks being streamed via popular services (Spotify, Deezer) and unpopular music services (like O2 tracks and XBox, seriously?) are going to be folded into the main UK Top 40 you hear on Radio 1. But it’s not a like-for-like thing: 100 plays will equal one paid for download. To qualify, songs will have to be streamed for a minimum of 30 seconds. So basically, if you check out a track on Spotify, even if it’s to see how shit it is, that now counts as one-hundredth of a sale on iTunes.
One-hundredth might not sound like that much, but bear in mind that nine songs this year (including Pharrell, Clean Bandit and Sam Smith) have already topped 1 million streams in a single week. An extra 10,000 sales is a pretty big deal when it comes to the slim margins of chart positions.
I work at a major label and, for us lot, this seems like good news. For artists who perform well on streaming services more streams equal a better chart position. Big artists like Bastille and Paramore are likely to perform even better when the chart changes. In fact these changes were announced by the guy from Bastille going on a promo campaign telling anyone who would listen that they would have been number one if streaming data had counted last year.
But, there’s just no way of telling how this transition will affect the livelihood of newly signed unknown acts and development artists. As the top tier of the music industry has been carefully planning for this change for months, modelling what the chart would look like and responding with marketing drives and tinkering with release dates, who is looking out for how this impacts the underground?
One genre that is bound to feel the pain is grime, a scene that has been getting a bum deal from other people’s decisions for years. They have no category that reflects their music on the iTunes store, despite demanding one for years. They had their genre smushed out of the MOBO Awards when the organisers bafflingly scrapped separate awards, and created a joint ‘Best Hip Hop/Grime' category. Meanwhile, they continue to take several blows to their live income with more and more clubs unwilling to associate themselves with artists from the genre.
Grime - along with a bunch of other underground genres - still live and die by download sales from fans who aren’t interested in signing up to Spotify. Who cares about being able to listen to any album from any point in history when all you want is that new track, right now?
“Currently we do allow our releases onto Spotify, but we tend to give them to streaming services a month after release to allow the sales some breathing time. We don't earn very much back from the streaming at all,” says DJ and label boss Plastician. So most grime artists will end up on streaming services but only after they’ve had their chance to rack up as many physical sales as possible.
But if grime artists are to have a chance in this new regime, they need to get their stuff on Spotify weeks before the physical release, to build up streams and help nudge up the chart positions. “It will be a learning process before labels realise what they need to do for their releases to penetrate the charts and give them the best return on their investment.”
So are all the grime labels scrabbling around making changes for their artists? Nah of course not. I haven’t heard a word from the majority of them. Either they don’t give a shit about charting or don’t think this will affect them, when in fact it’s the 140 BPM dons who are going to suffer from these changes the most.
The thing is, most grime artists don’t sell that much to begin with. They’re looking at a few hundred sales on iTunes, maybe a few thousand if they get some decent radio plays. “We started Butterz to make what we do accessible, so our stuff is on all platforms including Spotify,” says Elijah, a DJ, label-boss, promoter and co-founder of Butterz one of the biggest brands in grime. “But I still think artists should continue to rally their audiences into actually making a purchase. 79p doesn't go that far in terms of maintaining an artist’s career, so being proactive about a streaming model that sees an even smaller return is pretty stupid. If people knew how many Grime artists actually sold it would give them a bit more of an insight into how difficult selling music is.”
You might think chart positions don’t matter for shit anyway. I wish that was the world we lived in but it’s not. A&Rs still give a massive shit about artists inside the top 200 to see which tracks are hot in the underground and sign them up. Most A&Rs aren’t hitting up grime raves (the few that still exist), or listening to radio shows by the likes of Elijah and Plastician. So if underground artists ever want to progress to the next level, having some chart success, however minor, is still a big deal.
It’s not all bad news. For a tiny fraction of grime artists who have built up enough of a following to get played on streaming sites, this change could make a big difference. Meridian Dan’s “German Whip” and Skepta ft JME – “That’s Not Me” both achieved a top 40 in the UK charts off the back of a few thousand sales. But they have been streamed between 200,000 and 400,000 times on Spotify alone. In Skepta’s case, had Spotify data been included in the charts when “That’s Not Me” was release he may have made the top 20, instead of narrowly missing out.
Other grime artists could start to take advantage of this situation, they can get their artists on to streaming sites early, increase their profile and hopefully see that reflected in their chart position. But independent grime labels don’t have the same advantages as the majors, who have been processing streaming data for years in order to see how best to respond to the changes. Part of me wants to sit down every grime artist still going with a flip board and a pointer and show them what they need to do but, historically, grime, as a culture, isn’t out here for a chart position. They make the music they love with a view to spread it to the masses. So short of getting all mama-grime up on yo arses and calling like an underground AGM, I felt writing this would be the best way to get the following message across: THIS IS IMPORTANT FOR WHY YOU’RE HERE, TO SPREAD YOUR TUNES. GET CLUED UP ON IT. ASAP. OR EXPECT A LOT MORE BASTILLE.
Sian Anderson is more successful than you. She’s a 1Xtra DJ/presenter, founder of SighTracked PR and a major label marketing manager.