Numbers Lied Today, Numbers Will Lie Tomorrow
6 min read

Numbers Lied Today, Numbers Will Lie Tomorrow

Hello, happy beginning of the holiday season! Quick heads up my next couple newsletters are nominally on the same topic—which is really exciting to me!—so, if you have any thoughts or questions about African or Asian music streaming let me know. Anyway this week centers on music streaming metrics, which I rather quickly jump into a mess of other topics. Hope y’all enjoy.

Fans love to see their favorite artists succeed. That was the basic conceit of the late 90s MTV show Total Request Live. You, the fan, can get your favorite song to no. 1 and maybe they’ll even appear on the TV. A post-digital update on the TRL, and to be historically accurate a rather old radio gimmick, is taking hold. Billboard in a piece titled “Are Asian Fan Armies Going to Keep Invading the Charts?” looked into how Asian fan bases and record industry are fully embracing this unabashedly capitalist view of music streaming:

In fact, QQ Music of Tencent Music Entertainment, the streaming platform with the most users in China, proudly displays the fan metrics showing who has bought the most albums for an artist. For the biggest stars, a superfan with tens of thousands copies of the same album usually occupies the #1 spot.

Instead of Spotify’s monthly listeners, which champions reach and limits the value individual fans; QQ Music pushes a nakedly monetary reading on popularity where the most money, not music consumption, connotes success. The American Billboard charts similarly changed its own calculus when earlier this year it began devaluing advertising supported streams compared to paid—much to the chagrin of Spotify and YouTube. The chart’s shift represented an effort to say engagement needed to come attached with a dollar sign, otherwise just throw it in the marketing budget.

A Problem, My Problem (?), With Views

Tencent, who owns QQ Music along with a majority owner of Epic Games the creator of Fortnite, doesn’t so much boast about the number of people that are engaging with its platforms though there are many. Instead the focus is purely on monetary quantities. This differs from western music streaming that are singularly fixated on a singular metric: views or, depending on the platform, play count. Except this isn’t really about how long someone heard a song, but rather the number of people who crossed this threshold.

Why exactly is 30 second the end point? That number is the amount of time YouTube and advertisers agreed—though never explicitly said to the public—is the amount of time desired for potentially monetize content on its platform. This isn’t a marker of a music fans’ listening behavior, but instead a proxy for how long an advertiser needs to know it's getting a receptive audience. Even though those roots are fairly disconnected to music, that’s what's become the standard for a song stream in 2018.

(People might remember back in the day that on iTunes when it included plays if memory serves correct it only needed a second to count toward a play and SoundCloud still today only needs a second for a play to register. Or even Facebook videos only counted views at 3 seconds. Thus the thirty second guideline is by no means the law.)

Contemporary music streaming stats are centered not around thoughtful engagement, but what can or can't be monetized. Not an entirely unreasonable thought from a business perspective but it's a rather arbitrary one from music analytic perspective. My real issue rests in how stat are used to gauge popularity, determine an artist audience, and essentially act as the foundation for marketing decisions. I wonder how the conversation would change if people could see listening drop rates at 30 seconds vs. two minutes. There are so many articles that center around how access to data is shifting songwriting processes, yet that same rigor isn’t applied to the ways that people measure music consumption habits.

Smoke and Mirrors

An interesting side effect of music streaming is revealing the already thin connection between record sales and financial success, at least within the major label system. Most artists in that system are paid through their advance, then potentially through touring and other methods, if that wasn’t also lassoed with a questionable deal. Streaming only reinforces this fact. An artist who sold 50,000 copies of an album might still end up dropped after that initial album, but there could be some potentially valuable data in concrete album sales.

However what is the value in a million streams? That’s not million people who heard a band’s song. Nor is it mean there are now million potential fans of the artist. The number just means there were either million potential ad impressions or plays on a paid music streaming service. While not the most elegant phrase, it lays out more bluntly what’s at stake here. The obsession with total consumption stats on Spotify, YouTube, and Apple, whenever the company feel like releasing data skews how artists and fans approach platforms and confuses what could be good information with rather flat information.

If one were to look at a YouTube page or even a creator’s dashboard there are stats for: number of views, watch time duration, numbers of likes and dislikes, comments, shares, where views are coming, I could go on. Yet what frustrates me is that the only stat pushed by YouTube, then labels, and eventually down to fans is: play count—the most passive number on the screen. Though a couple of recent non-music announcements hint at a shift away from this crude view of numbers.

Twitter announced it would be reducing the size of the following and follower stats within its mobile app. Instagram also announced an upcoming purge of fake likes and fake accounts. These incremental steps point towards a world where social media doesn’t push it’s main metric like a Costco bulk box sale.

I wrote this is in a way to open up a dialogue about what is the purpose of streaming numbers in 2018. If most artists aren’t seeing meaningful cash from music streaming numbers then why should fans in return care? These platforms could present a more holistic view of fandom, but instead this is hidden behind artist only tools, which Spotify would love to sell back to labels, managers, and artists. Not only should none of those groups stand for that fleece, but neither should fans. A middleman, serving admen, shouldn’t shape the narrative of how an industry measures itself.

One Reason Why Spotify Deals With the Major Labels Rest on a Knife-Edge - Music Business Worldwide

The slow building PR cold war between Spotify and major labels over negotiations is heating up. Get hyped.

Spotify, Pandora Turn to Podcasts for Listeners, Profits - Wall Street Journal

If you read my newsletter then please do read the work of Anne Steele at the Wall Street Journal This story about podcasts is perhaps the most sobering look at the future of podcasts for these music companies. The small nugget that podcast are less than 1% of either companies’ business certainly paints a different picture than either company’s PR narrative. Can’t say I’m shocked.

Universal Ignore Artists Unrecouped Balanced When It Pays Out Spotify Share Money Thank to Taylor Swift - Music Business Worldwide

Imagine if Taylor Swift, Adele, and Beyoncé acted as one unit, artists might actually have a say in their business. Wild thoughts.

Nationalize Amazon - The Outline

Nationalize [Insert Music Streaming Company Here], Unionize [Insert Music Streaming Company Here].

‘YouTube Burnout’ Claims Another Victim: Lilly Singh. Sadly, the Music Industry Can Relate. - Digital Music News

YouTube, the world’s largest video platform, is also unsurprisingly a shitty employer. And that it’s employees, YouTubers, are constantly needing to make videos explaining mental exhaustion, emotional stress, and fear that taking off work (making videos) could ruin their success. What a great company, speaking of which...

Article 13: YouTube CEO is Now Lobbying For Upload Filters - Torrent Freak

I’d like to cover this more, but I’ll leave this here for now. YouTube right now is attempting stop Article 13 out in Europe, which would make them and other platforms liable for copyrighted material on the platform. Why exactly is YouTube so scare of this? Rolling Stone notes that it's because the company could lose negotiating power against labels and artists, which would eventually cost the company more money. O no, how will YouTube survive only making billions of dollars instead of billionssss of dollars.

However what I’ve enjoyed over the last month is YouTube public relations push that’s involved: Lyor Cohen giving a clearly canned interview with a production company about how the threat of Article 13 and writing an highly overwrought op-ed, Susan Wojcicki writing her own hyperbolic op-ed where she cites, I mean nearly outright lies, about the success of Luis Fonsi’s “Despasito” being harmed by this legislation, and suddenly YouTube started trumpeting that its most popular artists are from Latin America. Honestly it’s amazing to see them attempt to wedge non-western markets against former colonial powers. Great job everyone.

The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). The Penny Fractions artwork was done by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel whose work can be found here. Any comments or concerns can be sent to If you liked this newsletter: Tell someone! If you didn’t like the newsletter: Lie, and tell someone!