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What’s the real value of a Spotify stream in 2018?
That’s the question that nagged at me heading into SXSW, the annual music conference that took place last week in Austin, Texas, due in part to our recent reports about widespread efforts to game Spotify’s playlist system for exposure and the emphasis on “cultivating digital independence” in the panel sessions.
It’s generally understood that a Spotify play is worth roughly $4 per 1,000 plays, but I’m more interested in the service’s ancillary benefits. Streams have become a new type of currency in the industry, a way of signaling viability and perking interest from fans and potential labels alike.
It’s a trend I couldn’t help but notice when browsing through some of the bios for SXSW showcasing artists to plot my schedule. Summer Heart, the dream-pop project of Sweden’s David Alexander, for example, boasted of “pushing 40 million plays”; L.A. folk duo Freedom Fry claimed to have “amassed over 45 million track streams”; and Japanese indie rock band Attractions noted that its debut single “Knock Away” has been played 200,000 times on the platform.
The pattern stretched across genres and the globe, with artists pointing out not only what specific Spotify playlists they’ve been added to (Fresh Folk, Your Coffee Break, and Lost in the Woods for English singer-songwriter Harry Pane) but where they peaked on Spotify’s Most Viral Tracks playlist for their respective country (No. 6 for Australian guitar-pop band Castlecomer) and their monthly listeners (880,000 in the case of Sons of the East).
The bio for Oxford neo-soul singer Rhys Lewis checks all the boxes:
“‘Wish I Was Sober’ was added to 11 international ‘New Music Friday’ playlists on Spotify and hit 750K streams in 4 weeks, and his previous track ‘Be Your Man’ was streamed 1 million times in 4 weeks. His debut track ‘Waking Up Without You’ soared to the No.1 spot on Spotify’s Viral Chart, and he has racked up a total of 10 million streams in total just one year after his first release.”
But what do those numbers actually mean? And can they help you find the big thing?
At SXSW, I tried to find out.
Hovvdy at Elysium
Less than an hour removed from the runway, I somehow made it in time to catch Austin’s Hovvdy (a more Google-friendly version of “Howdy”)—luggage still in hand. The local indie rock band has found somewhat unexpected success on Spotify, with last year’s “Pretend” from debut LP Taster garnering 3 million streams. Despite the band’s tired-from-sleeping aesthetic, their live set has more immediacy and impact than you might expect just listening online. Songwriters Charlie Martin and Will Taylor traded sedated pop songs like “Petal” and “Late” that have restrained intensity and the comfort of an old sweatshirt.
Lola Marsh at Blackheart
Lola Marsh has three certified hits on Spotify: “Wishing Girl” and “You’re Mine,” both with 9 million plays to date, “Sirens,” with another 3 million—not bad for a group from Tel Aviv that no one has ever heard of. The band plays bright, feel-good indie pop, the kind you can sing along with by the end of the song and is catchy enough that you’ll actually want to. It’s not terribly original—“Wishing Girl” is a dead ringer for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home”—but it’s carried by Lola Marsh’s whistling, ukulele-playing frontwoman, Yael Shoshana Cohen, who has a masterful knack for melody. The band has apparently been a hit on the festival circuit in Europe, and it showed: The big wordless choruses and clapalongs won over the small crowd on Rainey Street. I would put them in a Kia commercial tomorrow.
Superorganism at Stubb’s
Truly a band for the internet era, Superorganism’s members bonded over memes, communicated via Skype, and traded tracks through email before moving in together in East London to record their self-titled debut. Most people seem to enjoy the collective’s color-coded synth-pop spectacle, but the band’s set as part of NPR’s showcase was all confetti and no party.
Sons of the East at Lucille
Sons of the East’s “Into the Sun” has been streamed more than 16 million times on Spotify, and it’s easy to understand why. The Australian quartet sounded reverse-engineered to hit all the right Spotify keyword metadata: It’s pleasant indie folk (acoustic guitar, banjo, and harmonies) that might segue nicely into Mumford & Sons, but it’s utterly forgettable. It’s the type of bland radio tune that people who use flavored Keurig cups add to playlists called “Coffee Break.”
Liz Cooper & the Stampede at Luck Reunion
Everyone should add Luck Reunion to their bucket list. From the laid-back setting (a faux-Western ghost town on a working ranch with horses) to the expertly curated lineup of crowd favorites (Nathaniel Rateliff, Nikki Lane) and locals to watch (David Ramirez, Texas Gentleman), Willie Nelson’s annual festival outside the festival gets better every year. Liz Cooper & the Stampede’s cosmic country was right at home there. They may be a quartet (or at least it was on this occasion), but they played more like a power trio, raving up behind Cooper’s tales of longing and heartbreak. She has an unmistakable voice—high, lonesome, and gnarled—and the Nashville band’s jam-band ethos stands out in the crowded realm of indie folk. I could’ve listened to standout “Mountain Man” go on for another 15 minutes; it’s perfect music for the open road when you’re driving with no place to go.
Molly Burch at Native Hostel
There’s something a little out of time about this Austin songstress’ smoky torch songs, which combine ’50s golden oldies and the pop appeal of a Phil Spector girl group, with just enough reverb to conjure lost summer weekends. The songs from last year’s Please Be Mine have a tendency to lull, but her new material showed tremendous promise. She’s one to watch.
SXSW has long resembled a version of Spotify IRL. With roughly 1,800 official acts spread out across five nights of showcases and day parties at nearly 100 official venues, the annual festival offers a daunting amount of music, available practically on-demand.
It’s traditionally served as a state of the union for the industry, addressing core issues in daytime panel sessions and setting expectations—for breakout artists, major releases, and festival additions—for the rest of the year. That’s certainly still the case, but with corporate sponsorship shifting toward the tech sector and so many titans of music on the brink of retirement, SXSW 2018 felt less climactic.
Established acts still used the occasion to promote new records (Okkervil River previewed next month’s In the Rainbow Rain) and/or cash in on branded corporate experiences (progressive R&B star Miguel went Luke-Skywalkin’ on Tinder’s behalf on Tuesday). But for emerging artists, it’s become an opportunity to fill in the pieces around their online footprint, to seek labels, managers, and licensing opportunities. It’s where you prove you’re more than just a Spotify hit wonder.
In 2018, that’s more important than ever, and there were a handful of acts that stopped me in my tracks. Personal highlights included Billy Strings’ bandit-chase bluegrass, Shame’s confrontational post-punk tantrums, and the holy thunder of ex-Monotonix guitarist Yonatan Gat’s Eastern surf ragas backed by the Eastern Medicine Singers. On Willie’s ranch, Kevin Morby delivered an acoustic set in a chapel (capacity: 49) that included two covers of both Townes Van Zandt and Jason Molina, the latter with Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield.
Nothing prepared me for Tunde Olaniran. Sure, he’s on Spotify, but he’s the type of artist you really do need to see live. Part of that’s the sheer magnitude of his presence—a towering Black man in a glittering purple robe, flanked by two dancers—but more so how he used it: twirling, snapping his head back, kicking his legs up, and twerking.
Olaniran proved a triple threat in the mold of Janelle Monáe, singing, rapping, and dancing through confessional, gender-non-comforming R&B with huge EDM beat drops. His songs tackled themes of identity politics and self-acceptance, but while the Flint, Michigan rapper dabbed on haters, there was a vulnerability to it all that made you feel his daily struggle.
In his set closer “Namesake,” he laid it all out in the chorus:
Now maybe there’s a lesson I’ve been given
Or some wisdom from the stories that I need to tell
And everybody’s hoping and scraping and wishing
They could be something outside themselves
If I can be me, then you can be yourself.
He kept repeating that last line until he was sitting on the floor of the Side Bar outside stage, his back pressed up against the wall, surrounded by strangers. It was a powerful moment. I felt my eyes tear up for reasons I still don’t understand but can’t quit thinking about.
Austin Powell is the former managing editor of the Daily Dot. His work focuses on the intersection of entertainment and technology. He previously served as a music columnist for the Austin Chronicle and is the co-author of The Austin Chronicle Music Anthology.