The Steady Stream
America has been moving towards streaming music at a dizzying pace, with Pandora, Rdio, Google, iTunes, Beats Music, Spotify and more all clamoring for our earwaves. With so many ways to listen to music without paying a single cent, digital music sales on iTunes dropped in 2013 for the first time since 2003 (at 5.7%, we’re talking tens of millions of dollars here). Total sales of physical media were down 12.3%, while streaming activity increased at a whopping 32%. Streaming is the new juggernaut of pop music.
And that is great news for would be Kpop crossover stars. Because with the advent of streaming, the cost of discovering a new artist is exactly $0. That makes browsing unfamiliar music easy. American audiences that have never heard of Kpop will be more likely to click and give a new name a chance when there is no money at stake.
Your Friend, the Algorithm
Do services like Spotify actually enhance music discovery, though? You might be surprised to learn that they make it harder. The algorithms used by streaming services to recommend music are based on current and past listening habits of each individual user, creating what Eric Harvey calls a “hyper-personalized experience.” That means Spotify is more likely to recommend Ke$ha to someone who likes listening to Lady Ga Ga, not Kpop. Because Kpop is considered an outside interest - at least until you start listening. For the millions of Americans who have never pressed play on a Kpop song, Spotify isn’t about to randomly suggest one. Their algorithms intend to provide you with the closest match to what you’re already listening to. That may explain why 20% of the songs in Spotify’s giant catalog have never been played. Although the cost of discovery is virtually $0, American audiences aren’t going to be prompted by the streaming services. They will have to make that discovery on their own.
Streaming Revenue? More Like a Slow Trickle.
Not everyone is happy about the move to streaming services, most notably, the artists who are being paid fractions of a cent for their songs. According to recent data released by Spotify, each time you play a song, your favorite artist may get as little as 0.6 cents. For die-hard fans used to refreshing your browsers on the YouTube release of your bias (I’ll support you, Oppa!), consider that 1 million Spotify plays would net your bias only $6,000. If your bias has more than one person on the payroll, then...divide accordingly. And even these low numbers are claimed by many to be wildly inflated.
The truth is, streaming is not for the fans or the artists, but the industry: “the industry’s investments in today’s technology is designed in large part to wrench back control via unlimited access after a decade of ceding power to mp3-downloading fans.”
Of course, Spotify is not the only source of revenue for a music artist. But as physical sales continue to drop, streaming will become an increasingly important part of music profits.
Boon or Bane?
So are Spotify and other streaming services a boon or bane for the potential Kpop crossover artist? It all depends. If the artist can find ways to compel an American audience to seek them out (viral videos, for example), discovery won’t be a problem. Uncertainty remains over how much revenue a Kpop artist could expect in streaming-obsessed America, but Kpop stars should be used to the streaming revenue model thanks to YouTube, so we don’t anticipate a problem there. But the perception of America as a land of plenty for the musician is a false one. And discovery isn’t guaranteed either.