Indie Rock, Major Labels, & Big Streaming
8 min read

Indie Rock, Major Labels, & Big Streaming

Hello, first off there are a number of new readers this week, so thank you for signing up. I’ll be up front and say I’ve been sick the last few days when I normally write these, so forgive the sprawl of this week's thoughts. I’m always open to criticism and feedback, so if you like this style let me know and if not I’ll try fix it up for next week. If you enjoy the newsletter recommend it, and if not well I guess don't! Anyway lets get into it.

Last summer, Pitchfork ran a piece that centered on indie bands transitioning from independent labels to the majors. The article's thesis positioned these bands jumping into the major label system as a means of gaining better positioning within a streaming first world. An update on the classic idea of needing a major label to get on radio or MTV.

On the surface, the idea makes sense. Major labels are investors in Spotify, as the Guardian reported back in 2009, and as Liz Pelly observed last year most of non-Spotify and Spotify playlists are controlled by the three major labels. Couple with what I wrote a couple weeks back about how much these platforms skew towards rap music, I didn't find it too shocking guitar based genres hadn't fully transitioned into a streaming space. But I took slight issue with how this particular idea was framed in the piece. To quote Hogan: "Scott Rodger, who manages Arcade Fire, Paul McCartney, and Shania Twain, points me to various artists’ pages on Spotify. Arcade Fire have 5 million monthly listeners on the streaming service. Radiohead have 6 million, while Grizzly Bear, the War on Drugs, and LCD Soundsystem all have more like 2 million. But Imagine Dragons, while critically scorned, have 30 million-plus. And the most popular artists right now, like “Despacito” hitmakers Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi, along with Ed Sheeran and Calvin Harris, have upwards of 40 million. “With the world moving towards streaming, most indie or alternative acts simply don’t stream as well,” Rodger says."

Let’s take a small step back. What exactly are Monthly Listeners on Spotify? The basic idea is that it’s the number of individuals who listened to a song by an artist within the last month, or about 28 days. That means if I listen an entire album it’s the same as if someone heard a single song on the Everyday Favorites playlist. A few years ago Daniel Ek, Spotify’s CEO, spoke to Music Alley about this particular topic and I wanted to highlight this particular passage: "Another small tone thing we picked up from Spotify’s New York press conference was the company’s decision to talk about new artists: country singer-songwriter Sam Hunt had “found more than 6m listeners on Spotify”, while a band called MisterWives had found 8m listeners”. Quantifying their success in terms of listeners rather than total streams was a deliberate choice. “We’re moving in general away from viewing streams as… it’s a hard metric for people to understand. It seems great in aggregate, but frankly you’ve seen many times on YouTube and other services, where someone says they have 100m streams, 300m streams. Is that a lot? It’s really hard to say,” says Ek."

In 2018, I agree fairly strong with his questioning over obsession with pure streaming numbers—a million streams in 2011 can’t possible mean the same as a million in 2018, right?!. However, Monthly Listeners is a similarly an entirely arbitrary easily manipulated stat that only makes sense within Spotify’s ecosystem. The article states part of this shift is to put more weight on Spotify’s playlists, which of course that’s the reason. Monthly Listeners isn’t gauging engaged listening it’s measures passive awareness of an artist. Now I ask what are playlists great at doing? Boosting play numbers even if it doesn’t directly translate to meaningful fan interaction. Lol, if you manage an act and can tell me save rates per playlists, hit me up.

I harp on this little numerical oddity, because comparing the reach of a Arcade Fire with a Luis Fonsi doesn’t make much sense. Much of that 30 million number cited for Luis Fonsi was derived from his hit “Despacito,” which was streamed well over a billion times on the platform. Now if one were to compare followers of these two artists on the platforms it’d be 1.1 million for Arcade Fire and 1.3 million for Fonsi, rather than 3.3 million Arcade Fire monthly listeners and 33 million for Fonsi. Rodger’s observation that indie acts don’t stream well is statistically true, but citing Monthly Listeners feels like a strange way to contextualize success.

To go a little deeper, I looked a 15 songs either by bands mentioned in Pitchfork’s piece or fairly highly acclaimed on their site within the last year and tried to look a bit at their playlists lives. Here were the songs:

   •    Arcade Fire - “Everything Now”
   •    Brand New - “Can’t Get It Out”
   •    Broken Social Scene - “Halfway Home”
   •    Girlpool - “It Gets More Blue”
   •    Grizzly Bear - “Mourning Sound”
   •    Feist - “Pleasure”
   •    Fleet Foxes - “If You Need To Keep, Keep Time On Me”
   •    Julien Baker - “Appointments”
   •    Phoebe Bridgers - “Funeral”  
   •    LCD Soundsystem - “call the police”
   •    The National - “The System Only Dream in Total Darkness”
   •    Real Estate - “Darling”
   •    St. Vincent - “New York”
   •    The War On Drugs - “Thinking of a Place”

This newsletter isn’t a research paper, so I won’t breakdown all of this right here—though let me know if you want me to next time. Still, if you wanna look this up yourself check out SpotOnTrack or ChartMetric.

Let’s go back to that Monthly Listeners number, because across these 15 acts not one of them got a playlist bigger than New Music Friday (2.4 million followers), or more genre specific none found a larger playlist than Ultimate Indie (1.7 million). None of these songs sniffed Today’s Top Hits (18 million), the premier rock playlist Rock This (4 million), and none even got into Teen Party (!) (3 million). Now I certainly wouldn’t expect the melancholy of Julien Baker to find a home on Teen Party, but the lack of movement between the songs even within the Rock and Indie sub-categories felt odd to me. This doesn't mean these acts aren't finding their core audience, but when it comes to Monthly Listeners their effectively capped. If an act's music hitting into these next tier of playlists then it'd be nearly impossible to reach such insanely high Monthly Listener numbers.

Again this a small sample size, but it’d be really hard to not say that having a major label connection isn’t helpful for acts at least attempting to make that jump. This is where Hogan’s piece is correct in the usefulness of a band potentially making a leap to a major. Arcade Fire, who are on Columbia, got on Swag! (456k), Left of Center (218k), Indie Mixtape (214k), The Inside LIst (193k) and Grizzly Bear, who are on RCA, got on Winter Chilllout (378k), Feelgood Indie (191k), Everyday Favorites (151k). While smaller a smaller band like Real Estate can be found on similar playlists, it’s not to the same degree as the bands mentioned above.

The more I looked at how indie rock songs did on Spotify, it felt less like the label mattered in a song’s performance, but simply the system that Spotify created doesn’t exist to push indie rock into its premier playlists. There are multiple rock playlists that any number of these bands could potentially get placed, but there is little crossover between the “Indie” and “Rock” space—Arcade Fire and The National did make the jump to be fair. If one were to compare this to radio then this isn’t a new issue, but to quote Hogan: “Bands like Arcade Fire once epitomized how the internet was supposed to allow great music to reach wider audiences regardless of labels and radio viability. But in today’s attention economy, so-called “internet bands” looking to level up don’t have a home-turf advantage.” The openness of the internet at least within Spotify's realm appears to be again be shut-off.

That’s why this article sat in my head for months, because there is so much pressure put on making it in a streaming first world that I feel outside commentators need to provide better context for this space. The lack of indie rock making it on major playlists and the lack of truly independent acts even getting on smaller “Indie” playlists tell me a different story, than a genre/audience struggling in this space. Perhaps indie rock doesn’t naturally scale like other genres, but when even smaller playlists don’t find space for up-and-coming acts within this space I ask a few more questions.

Jay Som, the band of the multi-talented musician Melina Duterte, released a single (“Pirouette”) last week that immediately got placed on New Indie Mix. Now after examining the playlist lives of other indie rock songs, this is probably the largest audience (800,000 listeners) the song will receive. Not too bad, but perhaps I’m still stuck in the classic internet mindset, where all these acts exist on a potentially even playing field, but Spotify with playlist number clearly visible on their platform reinforce the inequality. Perhaps as the service grows fluidity among playlists may increase, but the current solution feels oddly retrograde. I hate to end on too harsh a note this week, because we’re all still in twirling into this post-streaming, but I like keep an eye on old barriers and limitations that find new ways to establish themselves.

In Streaming, One Goliath Creates Many Davids - The New York Times
Last Friday, I was on the New York Times’ Popcast, the Paper of Record’s music podcast, chatting about the current Spotify dominated streaming world. Liz Pelly, who I mentioned earlier, was also on the show and I enjoyed getting a bit more loose in talking about this particular topic. I often getting fairly in the weeds in this newsletter, so was happy to take a more macro-view.

The Strange Brands In Your Instagram Feed - The Atlantic
Alexis Madrigal, who did an amazing podcast last year on the shipping containers, wrote a fairly interesting piece on the world of Instagram clothing ads. His breakdown of the economics behind these brands how they can effective pop-up overnight was illuminating, but I couldn’t help but ask why do people buy these products. Perhaps I’m too aware of fashion brands, but I could never imagine buying anything from one of those ads, but I also work in media and spend far too much time screenshotting shoddy IG ads, so maybe that answers my question.

"Tweetdecking" Is Taking Over Twitter. Here's Everything You Need To Know - Buzzfeed News
Last year in this newsletter I wrote about SoundCloud producers and rappers, who sell reposts on the platform. This story by Julia Reinstein essentially shows that SoundCloud isn’t the only platform where people are effectively selling virality. Now, I’ll prob get into another week, but I’m always highly skeptical of “viral” moments, and this piece about teen pawning and selling of thousands of RTs only reaffirmed that doubt.

Facebook Couldn’t Handle News. Maybe It Never Wanted To. - Buzzfeed News
If you’re still reading this, then I actually have a question for you. I know a number of readers work in the music industry and I was wondering if this shift in Facebook Algorithm potentially could effect how bands market and use the platform? There are some sides of music digital marketing I feel I understand well, but Facebook and how that matters in connecting to audiences is something I wish I did know a little better. If anyone does have any thoughts please do email at Also this piece by Charlie Warzel is great, but this is a Charlie Warzel Fan Newsletter if this is your first time reading.

Awl Ends - The Awl
I won’t be too sappy, cause I doubt music people care so much about insular New York City media bullshit. But, the Awl, a strange timeless blog, is shutting down. If you do enjoy this newsletter then I can’t in good faith not mention John Herrman’s work at the Awl looking at the post-Facebook digital media landscape and helping inspire me to do this newsletter. Media sites come and go and writers will find home for their prose, but it’d be rude to not say a few words in the Awl’s memory.