Hello, I’m switching the format a bit this week. I’m doing a quick biography on myself for new readers, then diving into the rest of the letter. The other bit of housekeeping is that I made an official Penny Fractions email, because I find Tinyletter’s messaging annoying, so hit me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a question or disagree with someone I said in here. Otherwise, if you enjoy my work recommend it to a friend, coworker, family member, or whomever. Much love.
For new, and perhaps even old, subscribers I’m David Turner, a 25-year-old journalist, who lives in Brooklyn, New York. I’m currently a senior staff writer at TrackRecord, Gizmodo Media Group’s music site. I’ve been writing about music professionally since I was 19, where I had my first music review published in Pitchfork. Since then I’ve written and reported on music and fashion for the Fader, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Noisey, Spin, W Magazine, and numerous other places I’m sure I’ve forgotten. Most of my industry experience comes from a journalistic perspective, so much of what I write here is on conversations with other industry professionals, personal research, and endlessly emailing people questions.
I’m a fairly big fan of Google Trends. The service dates back to 2006 and it allows users to chart and track Google search results across country, time period, and even now across Google services like YouTube, Google News, etc. Scott Galloway, a New York University professor and author, often states that “Google Is God” in the way that previously civilizations questions about existence are now put in a little ad-driven search box. Now, of course what does this have to do with music streaming? Well, that’s what this week is going to attempt to answer.
Now for those playing along at home, I set my search parameters to “Worldwide” and I set it to the last 90 days. Obviously this kind of research could spin off into various directions depending on those choices, but we can explore more adventurous modes another week. (Also, don't be like me and forget to click "Display Images Below" if you don't see any of the image)
The top search result for “Soundcloud” is “Soundcloud MP3.” A trend I’ve noticed over the years but never really gave too much thought—to be honest. I often assumed that even if streaming is how I see most people consume music in 2018, there must be a fairly large global market for a desire to download music. That factored into the fact that SoundCloud’s library of music is so vast and features music that’d never appear on any other music service that I wondered if that might account for some of the desire for ownership. Well, if I was a more diligent music hoarder, I’d certainly be doing exactly that. Still, when I was looking at the results I wondered who exactly was making this search query, so I stepped back to examine the global map.
The last 18 months the western music narrative around SoundCloud centered around so called “SoundCloud Rap”, along with a still fairly healthy and robust electronic music scene. That’s why when I was looking at the map I was a bit surprised to discover that the country with the largest amount of searches for the phrase SoundCloud was Egypt. This newsletter (i.e. myself) aren’t super familiar with the music ecosystems of non-western worlds, but this was so interesting to me that I did a bit of research to better understand what I was seeing in the data.
The biggest streaming service among the Middle East is Anghami with over 57 million users and was only established in 2012. The platform originated in Lebanon and got its start working with local music labels before eventually signing up the major western ones. So, what exactly does that have to do with SoundCloud? So, the service like many western streaming services has a free and premium model, but the appeal of the premium model is that one is able to cache a higher number of song onto one’s phone than one can with the freeium model.
Then it hit me: Of course the top search result for SoundCloud is “SoundCloud MP3.” Users are looking for an easy way to download their favorite music so if they don’t have a great internet connection, then they won’t be deprived of their favorite song. What was then strange to me was when I looked and compared Anghami with SoundCloud, the latter outperformed the former by a massive amount in Egypt. That varies across Middle Eastern and North African Countries, but again I started asking why have I never read anything that talked about this potentially huge market for SoundCloud if it’s potentially outperforming the biggest player in the market. Now, I’ll say if anyone that follows this newsletter holds any more information about how SoundCloud is used in Middle Eastern countries, Pakistan also outpaced the United States in search results, then please let me know.
Now looking at this initial graph isn’t too dissimilar to the SoundCloud graph above, except that the dense concentration of search results occurs in North Africa, rather than the Middle East. Now again I do raise a similar question about what exactly does music conception look like in these particular countries, if YouTube song ripping is so popular. Now this is a bit abstract, but I do always want to keep asking ourselves, the music industry writ-large, what exactly is that we are measuring when we put so much weight onto streaming? There is a strange way that streaming is marketing and understood to be more democratic, but often it just privileges another kind of always connected listening that perhaps one chooses not to or simply engage in. I guess this is just something to think about when music numbers are shifting from registering raw attention not consumption.
Now back to America for a minute. Whenever I’m on the subway I’m endlessly fascinated by how people use their cellphones, and by extension how they listen to music. A thing I always noticed and could never quite put a finger on was how many people would play poorly tagged song with no cover art that appeared downloaded from some 2003 version of the internet. But, when I look at how much demand there is for digital products that one can “own” and keep on- and offline such occurrences make a bit more sense.
This is the journalist in me, but I often wish with futility that tech companies were forced to be more transparent about user data. Now I know that isn’t in their business interest, but when I look at these kinds of search results I wonder at bit more about Spotify’s user base. Much of Spotify’s recent growth is derived from mobile, but still the top search term is “Spotify Web,” a reference to its fairly clunky and poorly executed web browser.
I say that is an infrequent user of the product. Yet, what I find interesting is that recently Spotify announced “Spotlight,” and effort to do more visual content to go along with podcasts and songs. I’m actually gonna write next week about streaming platforms and their attempts at video next week, but this search result dovetailed into the background research I was doing in that topic. Spotify wants more video content to get larger advertising checks and increase engagement on the app, but the core usage of Spotify and all streaming music service at his point is by design passive—insert every story about playlists. That’s why when I see “Web,” “Player,” and “Web Player” so high in their search query it again makes me think of people using the service for background music. I’ll shut-up and save the rest of this for next week, but if you haven’t used the Spotify Web Browser please give it a try. Apparently all the cool kids are doing it.
Download vs. Stream
Now, I’ll reveal that the first time I wrote this piece I put this inquiry at the beginning not the end. Then once I started seeing more and more results, it made more sense for this to arrive at the end, because now these results made more sense to me. Even if people across the world are using Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, etc the basic idea of downloading something and retaining digital ownership is still fairly powerful and in some contexts the only way to properly consume content. Now, I know this week is potentially just asking more questions than really providing answers than I typically do in this space, but I wanted to a something a little different.
Part of this newsletter is hopefully not only to inform, but I know some readers aren’t in the industry and figured it’d be nice to offer more interesting ways to look at this space than just reading the same narrative and stories. If y’all like this maybe I’ll do it again, but also everyone here has Google, just start asking some question to our digital God.
Links 2 Read
Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture
I wanted to recommend this book not only because Jace Clayton is a great DJ but he’s an excellent storyteller. The book follows his travels not only across the world, but across digital spaces to show how not only music exists within various non-western cultures, but also how the internet’s brought new life and ideas to these varying musical styles. If what you read about Egypt sounded interesting this book shows just how broad the concept of music really is in a world that even if globally connected is still very wonderfully fragmented.
88Rising Founder Sean Miyashiro on Label's Rapid Success Bringing Asian Acts to Western Audiences - Billboard
I don’t love the entire musical output of 88Rising, the YouTube channel that specializes in highlighting underground Asian musical styles, but nearly everything else about their operation is endless fascinating to me. Not only from the fact it effectively makes the best usage of YouTube I’ve seen of any musical collective, but also just how much they seem willing to try weird ideas and aren’t afraid to collaborate with various different musical communities. Their level of ambition is worth following at a moment, where people can do so much, but I still feel aren’t trying enough weird ideas.
Learn To Fool Our Algorithmic Spies - The New York Times Magazine
Recently I switched from Google Chrome to Mozilla. A minor change in my life overall, but one that felt oddly calming when so much on the internet feel anxiety inducing. A major reason is something Hermann touches on in this piece is that effectively we’ve traded any sort of privacy from technology companies and at this point it feels like asking for privacy isn’t the right question, but instead finding the best ways to distract and obscure those who track all over of digital movements.
2017 Streaming Price Bible! Spotify per Stream Rates Drop 9%, Apple Music Gains Marketshare of Both Plays and Overall Revenue - The Trichordish
Another this could’ve been the newsletter post, but in-case you were wondering what the actual streaming rates are looking like 2017, The Trichordish offered their own insights and data. Of course not all streams are created equal, but it’s nice to get some idea of how much a song stream is worth as these platforms grow, but it appears the amount of money artists makes doesn’t.
Spotify’s Scientist: Artificial Intelligence Should Be Embraced, Not Feared - The Music Business
Honestly, most of the answers provided in this interview are fairly boring to me. But, instead what I enjoyed was seeing Tim Ingham still harp on the “Fake Artist” controversy from last year. Obviously, when Spotify started filling playlists with music from Epidemic Sound in 2016, one really must wonder what exactly that’ll mean if they could more easily, and internally, create this music for certain playlists. Well, if you read this far and you or your artist have been kicked off a playlist for Spotify muzak you got my email above, would love to chat. : )