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Superfans behave differently in a streaming environment, new research suggests. How can artists and labels hope to form lasting cultural connections in this new, transitory world, David Balfour wonders

In a fascinating article for Forbes this week, Cherry Hu expanded on recent MIDiA research examining engagement behaviours on streaming platforms. In particular, Hu examined what it means to be a superfan in the paid streaming environment, and how that clearly differs from pre-digital or even downloads era superfandom.

The crux of the piece centred around the research finding that heavily-engaged streaming users do not show the same devotion to individual artists or albums than might have historically been the case through other forms of listening. Those that consume large amounts of music on Spotify, for example, are also likely to listen to a much greater breadth of music, chopping and changing frequently as they make the most of the discovery and browsing options that these platforms empower. These users are less likely to be devoted, repeat listeners to particular artists or records, instead the process of discovery and the search for variety becomes an end in and of itself, perhaps one as important as forming lasting emotional connections with individual artists.

Such behaviour clearly poses challenges for artists and labels. MIDiA’s Mark Mulligan himself commented: “People inherently develop shallower relationships with artists in such an environment.” How can artists therefore balance this with the opportunities by the instantly-available, always-there nature of streaming services? 

Services which apparently hold ‘all music’ have always presented a challenge for engagement. Securing interest from listeners within such a vast library is inherently difficult but it’s a goal which artists and label have long accepted. Tactics in the downloads era might include securing editorial features, creating pre-orders with instant grat tracks, driving traffic from other digital media – all with the aim of getting listeners to choose your album. In the downloads space, any successful conversions delivered seriously beneficial results. Not only was the financial benefit from an album purchase significant and quickly-returned, but the act of purchasing was likely to bring a fan back to that album again and again, forming an ever-deeper relationship with the work and, hopefully, the artist behind it.

Streaming makes the process arguably less difficult, but also much less satisfying. On the upside, persuading someone to test a record on a streaming service is altogether easier than it is to persuade them to buy a record or download. Those conversions which can be achieved, however, also deliver far less value, arguably both in financial and cultural terms. The financial contribution of a first-time streaming listener is minimal in comparison to that which comes from a download purchase. Furthermore, the chances of securing those users as repeat listeners are diminished by the medium itself. There is no real investment from the users which tempts them to stay, only their response to the art itself. Whilst one could argue that this is highly democratic, it’s underpinned by a short attention span culture, one where there’s always another playlist a click away. 

How can artists hope to increase their impact on streaming services and turn those users into fans? One could argue that the services themselves do little to help the process. The widespread absence of biographies, photos or external links on most services does little to make it feel like the artist is actually present on the services. We’re constantly frustrated at the lack of background information available for any smaller or lesser-known artists on services like Spotify – we feel this structural reality feeds the ‘sample and move on’ culture. We can only guess why labels and artists aren’t given more opportunities to enrich their presence on these platforms. Where services do provide artists with tools – be they, for instance, self-generated playlists on Spotify or the ability to feed media into Apple Music Connect, these communication platforms often feel forced and inauthentic. This isn’t the soul of the artist, it’s the best they can do with the tools available. Some services also try to push exclusives as somehow representing a genuine relationship with the artist. We tend to feel that the use of such exclusive, other than perhaps when they happen on well-targeted, genre-specific platforms, is far more poisonous to the artist-fan relationship than they are helpful.

We’ve debated recently how the best cultural connections – the ones which really create a relationship between artist and fan - are still often the ones which happen offline. Be it a great poster campaign, a stunning live performance or a great piece of physical product, these types of touching-points are far more likely to create a lasting relationship than anything which currently happens on streaming or social media platforms. Similarly, most managers and marketers recognise the significant value and reliability which remains in the email list of fans. Whilst Facebook is now omnipresent both as a personal newsfeed and marketing platform, it’s inescapably another middleman, one who can and will shape artist to fan communication to its own ends.

Most streaming services meanwhile could certainly improve the potential for fans to learn about and engage with artists. Whilst calls for deep liner notes and performer information may seem praiseworthy, they also seem a little far-fetched against a currently reality where many services apparently often can’t answer the far more simple question of “who is this artist?” The reliance of many services on data from services such as Rovi/AMG seems absurd in modern times, given how incomplete, prone to subjectivity and sometimes simply inaccurate that data can be. We often wonder why services don’t treat improving this area of their business and user experience with much greater importance. How do they apparently remain satisfied with anachronistic and partial solutions to the challenge/opportunity of providing rich artist data?

There’s perhaps a chicken and egg scenario happening here. Whatever streaming services or social media platforms might say for PR reasons, they’re not in the primary business of developing artists, they’re in the business of attracting users to their platform and creating fans of their platform, rather than the artists which happen to be on it. It isn’t necessarily something they should be vilified for but it does represent a serious stumbling block for artists and labels who are already challenged by the economics of this new environment and find that it’s also hard to display their souls within it.

The lack of rich artist data on streaming services may actually prove to be problematic however for their own longterm success. It weakens them, both in terms of their cultural impact and their ability to create real fans. Improving the completeness of data on services would be a significant start. In the meantime however, artists and labels can be advised to remember that many of the really impactful connections they can make with fans are still within their own control, and not necessarily dependent on gatekeepers or middlemen. 

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