Have music streaming services made albums irrelevant?

Six months ago I conducted an experiment. I was dissatisfied with the way instrumental soundtracks I had created (for low to midlevel independent video games) were performing on iTunes and Spotify. Because instrumental music generally does not generate track sales I was not breaking even on distribution fees. I had also spent the last several years studying software development, so I had some ideas about the programming logic to run a music streaming network. Feeling that I had nothing to lose from past unprofitable releases, I decided to re-title my music from a number of projects and repackage them as one large lump “album” and upload through my distributor instead. I omitted the names of the original soundtracks and picked an album title with several popular music genre keywords. I also used free stock art and my personal name as the artist rather than any kind of moniker.

I did all this to test the importance of quantity and keywords as it effects music steaming services. Would this be more effective than releasing the original game soundtracks individually and marketing the music on the strength of those brands? The answer was a surprising and resounding “yes!” Halfway through the renewal period I was already turning a profit. I was onto something. So what exactly is happening here? I have some ideas.

Music streaming is gamed.

From fake news on Facebook to follower bots on Twitter, we all know that digital platforms can be rigged with artificially inflated audience numbers. Of course music is no different. Spotify is controlled by their investors (the major record labels), and enforced through curation algorithms. That means the stakeholders have a vested interest in what music gets promoted and heard and what doesn’t. If you aren’t signed with a company that has equity in the platform then they have no vested interest in playing your music. So when the cards are stacked against you, you have to cheat to win.

Quantity is trumping quality.

If you’re spending 3x the money to distribute 3 albums onto digital stores, combining them together saves 66% of your distribution costs right out of the gate. Unless you (or someone on your behalf) is spending thousands of dollars advertising your release, the brand visibility you will get is little to none. Very few people will be searching for the obscure name of the artist or the title of the project. Instead if you have a larger album then a computer algorithm is more likely to associate size with importance and validity. So then if the name of your artist / album isn’t what’s driving the traffic, what is?

Keywords are more important than artist or album title.

I wrote before that if you have a small to midlevel project release, the only people searching for it will be the few people who already know about it. This doesn’t help much, especially when the payments for streaming are so poor. However tools like Google Trends prove that people everywhere search for types of music sorted by keywords. In my case, I saw that “epic music” was a popular search term so I created a (boringly uncreative) album title using that search term. I also tagged it with the most appropriate genres I could find, and re-titled the tracks to be consistent with the kinds of songs you’d expect to hear associated with those keywords. Lots of people listen to “epic music”, perhaps while at work or studying or playing table top games and it was more effective to promote it this way than as the original project / album / song titles. It may not be artistry, but the proof is in the superior results.

So what does all this mean?

Humans have refined taste in music. Computers don’t. But today we have computers evaluating whether or not to display music based on quantity and keywords rather than quality and artist identity. While this may not be ideal from a creative perspective, it’s definitely possible to exploit from a business standpoint.

If larger “albums” are better than singles or small albums, then it makes sense to create albums that are the maximum size the service will allow. This format is very friendly to compilation albums as long as all the music can be tagged with the same keywords. If you have 4 artist friends that all create a similar type of music, then it makes economic sense to join forces and release a combined project tagged with the same keywords at a lower cost. Why have 4 albums with 10 songs each, when you can have 1 album with 40 songs? Then when the album is 4x more popular, each artist participating can point to the increased numbers as a selling point for their career. To scale this a step further, why not create larger albums more quickly? Pick a popular search term like “relaxing music” and make a large quantity of instrumental music. It doesn’t have to be great, it just has to be good enough to fit the cultural idea about what a certain keyword of music should be like.

In an age where music distribution is controlled by soulless algorithms, it’s important to understand the way a computer processes information. If you’re tired of lovingly crafting a beautiful album cover and an album with an artistic concept only to be unappreciated, then this might give you a fresh perspective on what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how to adjust for more effective results.

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