"Times is rough and tough like leather / Figured out I went the wrong route / So I got with a sick-ass clique and went all out." — Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan on "C.R.E.A.M." (1993)
The way we interact with music has evolved significantly in the past two decades — from the rise of the MP3 to file sharing and digital content streaming services. Social media has also had a major role in how we discover "overnight" successes, creating our demand for a 24/7 curated social media presence. As a result, artists feel the need to relentlessly connect with new audiences to stay relevant, and more and more artists are finding a path to that connection through collaborative means.
Through music collaborations, or having featured artists on their tracks, artists are able to mix their audiences. Working with other artists also conveys activity and engagement. Audiences get to see that their artist isn't just hidden away inside some tower, creating music alone in a studio. One need not look further than Lil Nas X's introduction of Billy Ray Cyrus to "Old Town Road" to see the potential power a collaboration can unleash.
If it seems like your favorite songs of the past few years have had an increasing amount of featured artists, then you might be witnessing a “collaboration phenomenon."
To gauge the evolution of artist collaboration behaviors over time, we analyzed all tracks released on major Western platforms in the past 10 years and aggregated their counts by month. We then calculated the Collaboration Activity Index (or CAI, as a percentage of collaborations) by tagging each track as either "solo" or "collaboration."
By analyzing the whole dataset, we observed that the CAI has doubled in the past decade, with most of the increase happening in the last three years, as evidenced in the chart below. The purple line means the CAI, and the blue area shows the number of tracks with two or more artists, and the orange area shows the total number of tracks released each month.
But does the success of the music streaming industry in recent years have anything to do with this? Diving a little deeper, we found that the percentages of collaboration tracks for most genres exhibit very similar trends when compared to the entire music industry, but there are still some interesting patterns unique to particular genres.
Methodology note: Genres were assigned to a track based on the artists listed on that track. A single artist may have multiple genres and a single track might have multiple artists. Thus, there is always a possibility that a single track may have more than one genre assigned to it. For example, "Girls Like You" by Maroon 5 featuring Cardi B would be assigned both Pop and also Hip-Hop based on this logic.
The Macro Trend of the 2010s: Genre Breakdown
An interesting thing to note is that some genres stayed above the market line (percentage of collaboration across all genres), some stayed below, and some surpassed it. But regardless of the genres' relative positions to the entire market, the upward trends are universal.
Even though the numbers go up and down, the big picture tells the same story: artists are collaborating now more than ever.
2015-2017: Early Adopters of Collaboration
In 2015, three main genres crossed over the market reference line and started showing significant increase in the rate of collaborations: Dance & Electronic, R&B/Funk/Soul, and Reggae.
The percentage of collaborations in the realm of Reggae has diverged from the market and exhibited a much higher rate of increase. Surprised? While there will always be an audience for the Marley-inclined, this is undoubtedly tied to the 2010s rise of the Puerto Rican/Colombian-born (and collaboration-heavy) genre Reggaeton, upon which Reggae has had an influential effect.
In our genre system, we position Reggaeton as a "child" genre of Reggae, Latin & Caribbean, and Hip-Hop & Rap. Past that, it's a numbers game: Latin & Caribbean and Hip-Hop & Rap are simply bigger genres (in terms of track count) than Reggae, so Reggaeton's impact simply has more weight in the smaller genre.
2017: The Collaboration "Secret" is Out
Notice that there was a big jump in the collaboration percentage in 2017. Even the genres with a CAI that always stayed below the entire music industry (like Country and Rock) saw a growth of 40 percent.
In fact, for most genres, the increase in collaboration percentage in 2017 was responsible for half of the decade's increase.
This was the year when streaming revenue growth in the music industry hit an all-time high of 60.4 percent, according to IFPI's Global Music Report 2017. By inspecting the data of both streaming revenue and also collaboration percentage over time, we observed very similar trends between the growth of streaming revenue and artist collaboration.
In the chart below, the blue line represents streaming revenue in the last seven years, and the purple line shows collaboration percentage. Notice the surprising correlation between the two.
As the landscape of the music streaming industry became more complex, reaching wider audiences through collaborations seemed to be one of the most effective strategies artists used to maintain their presence in the market.
2018-2019: Collaborations Grow
If the streaming surge in 2017 was a tsunami to the music industry, then its lasting effects that continued through 2018 and 2019 came in the form of tidal waves. Let's surf through a few interesting genres to observe the impacts of these small, yet powerful waves.
Latin & Caribbean
Latin & Caribbean followed the trend in 2018, crossed over, and surpassed the market line. While we learned earlier how Reggaeton boosted Reggae, the most commercially prolific artists active in that space (Daddy Yankee, J Balvin, and Ozuna) produced so much collaborative music that, by 2018, it over-indexed the giant genre Latin & Caribbean, pushing it above the market line.
All genres except for Hip-Hop and Country have tripled or even quadrupled their collaboration percentages in the past decade (Indie Artists are at the top of the list, having grown 4.5x in CAI). So, what's the deal with Hip-Hop and Country?
Unsurprisingly, the collaboration level in Hip-Hop has always been above the market line. Even with the increase of only 2.5x over the past decade, Hip-Hop still topped all others as the most collaborative genre (33 percent as of November 2019).
It's a sound whose collaborative history crystallized in one of its early 1990s forebears, New York City's Wu-Tang Clan. The ingenious model of putting nine MCs under the same name and logo before they eventually branch out to solo careers and future collaborations in their own rights is arguably a great influence on rappers even today.
While Wiz Khalifa had the most collaborations in 2019, he wasn't so much establishing a trend as he was amplifying it. In our 2017 playlist profile on Spotify's RapCaviar, we found that, up to that point, in songs playlisted on the platform's third most followed playlist (12.4M Followers), 2Chainz, Gucci Mane, and Drake were other rappers most found on collaboration tracks.
On the other end of the spectrum, the collaboration level of Country music has always been below the industry trend. Despite the relatively low increase in the past decade, it actually topped other genres with the most relative increase (1.3x) in 2019.
Interestingly, the most viral collaboration in the past year was a cross-genre collab between Hip-Hop and Country: "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. The original non-collaborated version by Lil Nas X saw a spike in popularity shortly after its release in December of 2018. A few months later, his collaborative version with Cyrus was released in April of 2019. Even without the collaboration, this track was already a huge success.
So what's the benefit of collaboration in this case? First, a cross-genre collaboration, in general, lets an artist reach a wider audience. Second, a less obvious benefit is that it can potentially help prolong success. Take a look at the playlist evolution plot below. This plot shows the "playlist reach" (sum of the number of followers of playlists that contain this track) for both versions over time. After the spike in late March, the original version kept dropping in playlist reach. Notice that the original version, though a sensational success, peaked at half the playlist reach peak of the collaborated version.
Despite the collaborated version not showing the same success spike, it experienced a longer tail of success. And if we look at the sum of the two, overall, "Old Town Road" has enjoyed more than a spike of the viral success. The collaboration/remix game became an industry practice done here in textbook form: playing the algorithms in synchronized fashion so music stays on top of the charts.
2019: Collaborations as a New Norm
Growth slows down as you grow. After nine years of continuous CAI growth, are we approaching the limit? To assess the current state of the artist collaboration trends, let's zoom in to the last year of the decade: 2019. You see that the most CAI growth comes from two genres: Country (30% growth) and Hip-Hop (20% growth).
Despite the decade trend indicating continuous increases in collaborations, 2019 has been much calmer, especially compared to 2017. The collaboration percentage across the entire industry has been quite stable in the past year. Although many genres followed this trend, a few genres still showed a decent increase and upward trends.
Even with ups and downs, the data show an overall increase in the level of collaboration activity in the Country genre. The increase may look mild compared to the decade trend, but the Country music collaboration index actually grew by 30 percent in 2019. Hip-Hop & Rap followed at a growth rate of 20 percent, and other genres such as Pop, Latin & Caribbean, R&B, Reggae, and Rock showed growth of roughly 10 percent in CAI.
During the tipping point of the music streaming era (2017), Country was the only genre that did not show as much response to the market disruption in terms of collaboration activity. However, as the collaboration levels of most of the music industry were stabilizing in 2019, Country music saw a much higher CAI than any other genre. We suspect that this may have to do with the demographics of the audience. According to Statista, a much higher percentage of consumers aged 34 and younger said they preferred Hip-Hop to Country. And the preferences flip as the age range increases. So, it wouldn't be surprising to see a lag in responses to digital disruptions from the majority of Country music fans.
Artist Collaborations Are the New iPod at the Artist Level
For those of us that can remember, in 2001, the iPod arguably marked the beginning of the demise of "one person, one genre." Technology gave us the ability to quickly go from Rap to Rock to Country with fewer finger movements and a smaller device. No longer was the music listener limited to their collections of CDs and tapes.
From 2017 to beyond, the visible trend of artists cross-pollinating their audiences is simply taking this diversification concept to the music production level, starting with the artists themselves. Why not embed different audiences in tracks themselves?
The battle in every artist's career continues even after they have established themselves. Whether it's cross-genre or within, artists are working together more and more to reach a wider audience. Furthermore, a successful collaboration can significantly prolong a song's popularity and relevance.
No one can predict what other technological disruptions the creative market will face. But whatever comes our way, at Chartmetric, we will continue to listen, observe, and deliver insights to the music industry ... freeing up artists to create.
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