"thank u, next" Is the New Model of Pop Music
6 min read

"thank u, next" Is the New Model of Pop Music

Hello, I hope y’all are doing well this week. I wanted to say that next week will be the final Penny Fractions of 2018. I’m taking December 26 off and will be back on January 2. I continue to enjoy this newsletter and excited about what will come in 2019. Personal pats on the back aside, this week is centered on Ariana Grande’s fall hit “thank u, next” and what it portends to the future of music promotion and streaming.

The biggest intersection of music and streaming this year didn’t occur on Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube. Twitch is where it happened when Drake decided to hop on Fortnite with Ninja, a blue-haired gamer, which not only raised the profile of the streamer and the game Fortnite, but offered a novel perspective to measure success. The statistic fans tracked all night wasn’t simply views, but rather concurrent viewers. The duo along with other stars like Travis Scott eventually hit over 607,000 viewers, a record number for a single person’s Twitch stream.

I’ve already written on ways the music industry could learn from Fortnite, so I won’t rehash those. Instead I want to center on a new lens to view how fans come to their favorite artists. The “playlist era” offered a way to disconnect fandom from how artist success is measured. Instead of centering on social media engagement or even other tangible ways to track music performance, Spotify reduced artist success to single metric: Monthly Listener. I recently railed against this stat, as it misaligns artist priorities to center on Spotify rather than fans. The directness of a concurrent viewers entirely removes caring about platform gatekeepers because the audience is right there.

Enter Grande

Let’s be clear here: Nothing can easily replicate the success of “thank u, next”. Few songs ever reach no. 1 on the Billboard charts and even less remain on the top of the charts for multiple weeks. Also to be transparent it’s tragic that Ariana Grande released this song so close to the death of her former partner Mac Miller, the beloved Pittsburg rapper; however it feels rather opportunistic it was right after the break-up of her former actor boyfriend Pete Davidson. This tabloid driven perfect storm certainly helped the song and according to a recent story in Vulture the rap producer Rojas and his business partner Alex Gelbard are using the same idea in working with artists:

The two of them helped build Lil Pump’s career using a method they now refer to as the “The Pump Plan.” It’s a ten-step program that guarantees transforming a local rapper or minor celebrity into a meme and then a viral sensation using a set of proven marketing tricks. It includes tactics like: social-media influencer campaigns, meme-ing the artist, Musical.ly placements, World Star promotions, and something called “controversy projects,” which seems to mean planting feuds between artists and igniting drama to stoke controversy and online attention.

In many ways this isn’t anything new—remember the youthful “romance” of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake—about drumming up headlines through tabloid gossip. The late 2010s update is that now fan can also latch onto that energy and watch in real-time their fandom propel their favorite artist forward. The former ideal passive consumptive fan that just endless listens to playlists is suddenly turned into a massive unpaid marketing labor force that is motivated to volunteer their time towards their favorite artist.

When Grande’s video dropped Twitter almost immediately a meme started using the lyrics “One taught me love / One taught me patience / And one taught me pain.” Memes of this scale are often not organic and derive from marketing meetings, but still not ever campaign can be successful. The other reason it stood out to me was that music memes usually re-contextualize a song via a short clip—think of the #MannequinChallenge with Rae Sremmurd “Black Beatles”—but Grande’s meme was purely textual. Her meme used the language of 2018 meme culture with repurposed images, while “Black Beatles” arrived in late 2016 during the final days of Vine.

Pop and Big Algo

Grande’s single quickly climbed up the Apple Music charts, along with Spotify and YouTube, but often it’s the former, which is the most surprising as pop music tends to struggle on the premium-only service. I’ve never subscribed to the thought that pop music wasn’t prepared for the streaming era; no, rather the audience for pop music remains splintered across platforms. Pop stars can still find money in the ever-shrinking world of digital song downloads and radio will still pick up on potential pop hits well before those same programmers will take a risk on a non-pop single. This differs from rap where earlier this year Future’s Beast Mode II was only available through streaming with no other legal means of consumption. This shrinking of consumption options put a premium on controlled streaming numbers while limiting power to both artists and fans over the music being released.

Earlier this year I wrote in a newsletter, which is still improperly formatted my apologies, about the history of digital downloads as a foreshadow of what could happen with streaming:

A decade ago, when the digital download was first added to the Hot 100 charts some of the first major hits came from what was dubbed “Ringtone Rap.” The catchy and digitally sounding southern rap that wasn’t gonna break into Top 40 through normal airplay, but was aided by digital sales...When D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” hit no. 1, it was already a top song on the digital sales chart, but still needed that extra radio push to make it to the top.
Eventually, the pop world with acts like The Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry caught up and surpassed rap, but the shift took time.

“thank u, next” hints towards another pivot, where pop’s audience doesn’t so much want to stream but is rather funneled further down streaming only paths.

That attempt to corral fan interest happened directly with the music video launch. Billboard reported that “thank u, next” used the new YouTube Premiere tools to allow fans to chat and eagerly wait for Grande’s video to drop. The video, which premiered at 3pm on a Friday, scored over 829,000 concurrent viewers a record for the platform and even more than Drake / Ninja got with their surprise Twitch stream. Yet it’s what happened next that brings this trend full circle, as Claire Shaffer writes:

One theory for why so many people were searching for “thank u, next” directly on YouTube stems from the highly involved social media discussion surrounding its release. In the hours following the premiere, plenty of GIFs, brief clips, and memes of the video were being shared on Twitter and Instagram, but not as many links to the video itself, meaning those who wanted to participate in the moment would have to seek out “thank u, next” on their own.

This is where “thank u, next” feels increasingly like the new normal for pop. Meme the lyrics, tease the video, meme the teases, build-up to the premiere, and finally meme the video. The song isn’t the endpoint of music consumption, but rather just the beginning.


Very very quick note, but a reader pointed out that I spelled the Indian music streaming service “JioSaavn” wrong a few times in last week’s newsletter. I often fuck-up grammar and spelling, but getting a company’s name wrong deserved a small bit of self-facing shaming.

Should Spotify Change the Way It Pays Artists? - Rolling Stone

The answer to the headline is clearly yes...but the nugget Tim hides away here that Amazon Music could potentially adopt a more artist-focused way of monetization.

Liberty Media angling to snag post-bankruptcy iHeartMedia - New York Post

This story is from early last week but I wanted to note that we’re edging toward a world where the company behind Live Nation, SiriusXM, and Pandora might own iHeartMedia or it could be potentially controlled by Apple. Who doesn’t love monopolies?

Amazon Music makes Alexa chattier (but just as dorky) - CNET

Now in theory I find this really interesting, but in practice what was being described sounded fairly weird and un-intuitive. Still Alexa devices are most used for music consumption, so I wanna keep a close eye on the shifts and changes of that ecosystem.

Apple Acquires A&R and Creative Services Company Platoon - Music Business Worldwide

Just adding this to my long overdue “What Is Up With Apple Music?” newsletter that’ll certainly be arriving next month.

SAG-AFTRA Members Approve a Streaming Royalty Deal With the Major Labels - Digital Music News

Just a very quick follow-up on this union news. Again, if any of y’all are members or know SAG-AFTRA members who are covered by this would love to ask a few questions.

Sony Music Launches Its Own Music Service in Japan - Music Business Worldwide

Sony Music Entertainment Japan—gotta love all those words—teamed up with Rhapsody to make a high-end music streaming service called Mora Qualitas. Honestly, I could be dismissive of this, but sure why not more streaming service competition probably can’t be bad.

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 pennyfractions@gmail.com. If this newsletter brings you any of amount of value consider recommending it to a friend, if doesn’t offer you any value then umm please let me know what keeps you reading?!