Hello, hello. First off, apologies for the formatting error at the end of last week’s newsletter. Many thanks to everyone that pointed it out. I also received a lot of comments both agreeing and disagreeing with arguments I made last week, which I’ll address more specifically in an upcoming newsletter. Also to shill for one more second, the Winter Music Conference, which is part of the Miami Music Week, gave a quick shout out to my newsletter and my Patreon—#PennyFractionsPatreon, so I wanted to say thanks to them. However, this week I wanted to circle back to EDM wunderkind Marshmello, Fortnite, and understanding what is and isn’t the future of music.
On February 2nd, Marshmello, one of the world’s most popular EDM DJs, held a “live” “concert” in the popular video game Fortnite. Despite my casual enjoyment of Fortnite, I didn’t participate in the event but did follow the coverage. “A live concert inside a video game feels like the future” is how the tech website The Verge described this moment, while the Wall Street Journal used the headline “Fortnite-Marshmello Mashup Showcases New Avenues for Games, Music”. Either text offers a rather bleak view of the future of music.
My big takeaway of the event wasn’t the musical performance itself but rather the scale of consumer attention it generated. This was manifested in Marshmello’s web store full of Fortnite-specific merch and through the in-game ability to buy a Marshmello player skin. This specificity, I’d argue, explains why this isn’t a model that most artists would want to replicate. Marshmello wasn’t directly communicating with his fan base, but instead, this event was an extensive branding exercise where Fortnite leaned on its audience’s presupposed knowledge of Marshmello to fuel anticipation for the event.
The idea of a video game concert isn’t new. Second Life, the often-forgotten life simulator, offered its own digital concert back in 2007. The idea of selling event-specific microtransactions within a video is also by no means new. So why was there so much attention placed on this single event? The Guardian blessed the story the public relations word soup headline of “Marshmello makes history with first-ever Fortnite in-game concert”.
This wasn’t an optional event when a user launched the game. Rather, Epic Games pushed its thousands of players into the singular event. 10 million players experiencing an in-game event shouldn’t be compared to a concert—it’d be like saying that a musician playing in Times Square in New York City performed to thousands of people. Fortnite’s unique ability to build hype is what is being observed here, rather than the power of music. None of the players who experienced the “concert” paid money for it, because the point of the event was to pull players into Marshmello’s world, not for them to enter of their own choosing.
When I wrote about Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” music video premiere on YouTube, I mentioned a particular Twitch moment from last year:
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 also offered a novel perspective to measure success. The statistic fans tracked all night wasn’t simply the number of views, but rather the number of 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 don’t want to fixate on that singular number but it does hint towards the bigger takeaway. The moment was a similar meeting of two highly popular brands but it was performed in a way that directly engaged with fans. If someone was watching Ninja’s stream when Drake appeared, then that would’ve further connected them to Ninja, whereas Marshmello’s “concert” was an event to raise awareness of his already high profile. Fan interactions don’t need to only speak to a dedicated audience, but for most artists, that’s the only audience available to them.
Bobby Owsinski, who mostly writes padlum for Forbes, admitted that this type of stunt favors electronic artists, but still closed his story saying “The Marshmello/Fortnite success points the way to a new avenue of exposure that could change how artists are presented, and their works monetized, in the future.” I ask: How does an artist replicate this event on a smaller scale? Is there even value in such a gambit?
I often complain about lottery-fueled thoughts around much of music and this case only exemplifies that once again. I expect artists on Marshmello’s scale to do these type of schemes—why pass up a marketing opportunity?—however I don’t see much value in this model outside of its most capitalist extremes. When I wrote last year about Fortnite and the music industry, the point wasn’t to encourage brand synergy, but rather to examine the various methods of revenue that might be worth considering. This is where I diverge a bit from Jason Joven’s insightful thoughts on the same topic over at Chartmetric, as I don’t think funneling tremendous energy into the gamer audience is a worthwhile prospect for many artists.
Though a neat experiment, I find looking towards this type of event even more futile than obsessing over a few playlists to determine an artist’s career. That’s why when Music Ally puts out a headline that says, “The new Fortnite? Apex Legends gets 10m players in three days”, it’s a fairly naked attempt to follow these trends by eyeing whatever game might be next. A couple of years ago I wrote about the record label Monstercat, which owes much of its existence to video games, but I find that much of this conversation is too distracted by video game industry headlines that desperately must proclaim the industry a global entertainment force. Music and video games will continue to interact, but a reduction in the scale of such moves would be helpful to evaluate what business options are actually helpful across a spectrum of creators—video game creators were early to crowdfunding sites, for example. Observation from the bottom, not the top, are what musicians need. Not placing one’s dreams onto a passing video game fad.
Here are a few corrections to last week’s newsletter that I wanted to make.
MP3 Downloads vs. Streaming
I’d like to start with my comparison between the cost of Gunna’s 2018 mixtape Drip Season 3 on Amazon Music versus the amount of money he would’ve earned based on my streams for Apple Music and Spotify. Readers pointed out that such a comparison is off because the amount of money Gunna receives from album sales depends on his record label, and so directly comparing that cost to artist streaming revenues is misleading.
RIAA vs. Independent Labels
I wanted to clarify that when I talk about the record industry being scared of piracy and suing fans, I meant to point the finger specifically at the RIAA and at the major labels who pushed these capitalist anti-consumer tactics of targeting music fans and CD price collusion. Many independent labels truthfully did suffer from the introduction of piracy, while not pushing such extreme recourse against consumers.
Finally, last November, Resonate put out a blog post talking about a company restructure and a label got back to me about delayed responses from the organization. The service is still up and running, but also appears to be going through its own process of figuring out the best model to turn its initial idea to fruition.
6 Links 2 Read
Freemium vs. Premium in Blighty - Hits Daily Double
Here is an interesting dive into the overall streaming entertainment market in Britain and its trend towards for-pay streaming over free streaming.
Bad Takes on Fake News - Hits Daily Double
I haven’t written about the Billboard charts in a minute, so I’m happy to post this little rumor. Hits discusses potential changes that could fall upon the Billboard charts, which continue to show an institution that is both perfect for the data-first streaming era and completely unsure of how to best structure its charts. Can’t say I don’t love a little classic media drama!
This isn’t streaming-related, but I find the topic of mental health within the music industry hugely important. So, I wanted to give a little credit to Royal Mountain for setting up this fund, and also for not charging this back to its artists. Obviously, I’d love it if artists on labels were provided even more health services but this is a nice gesture.
In case one ever wonders how much Spotify cares about advertisements. A lot, the answer is that they care a lot.
Vodaphone Idea Plans New Music Stream Service - Indian Television
One of India’s biggest telco wants to enter the music streaming world, which gives us yet another reason to expect all digital music to be mediated through telcos by 2022.
Big Audio Dynamite - Slate
The last link this week is my mainstream media opinion on Spotify’s purchase of Anchor / Gimlet.
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