Historically, A&R has been a gut-based endeavor that’s rested on a single question: Does the artist have that ostensibly unquantifiable “it” factor? The problem today for gut-based A&R is the sheer volume of music that industry executives, aspiring scouts, and hit-making curators have to wade through to allow that experience-based gut power to function effectively.
To help reduce that volume, we followed the trajectories of a handful of artists that our Predictive A&R model first discovered in September in an effort to identify some early patterns of potential success by analyzing the relationship between Spotify Monthly Listeners (MLs), Spotify Followers, and Cross-Platform Performance (CPP).
As any good A&R team knows, scouting talent has never been about catching up; it’s always been about being there first. Today, that means identifying what early patterns in an artist’s streaming trajectory indicate the potential for sustained growth and a fruitful career, ideally at scale.
While there are a number of traditional filters to which A&R experts can, and should, still turn — from chance to word of mouth to demo submissions and sales thresholds — supplementing those filters with a data-based approach can prove essential for spotting that “it” factor early and maintaining a competitive edge in today’s algorithmic listening landscape.
One of the metrics of success that everyday listeners, music industry experts, and artists themselves gravitate toward is a consistently inflated Spotify MLs count, but by the time that number has reached an eye-grabbing amount, that artist has likely already achieved critical mass and courted viable suitors. In other words, it’s either entirely too late to make an offer, or the bargaining power of your A&R team has diminished significantly.
A Scalable Approach Made for Today’s Music Environment
While our predictions numbered in the thousands, we wanted to examine just a sample of these artists exhibiting promising streaming growth, so we initially sorted by the largest differences in Spotify MLs for each artist. We also sorted, however, by the largest differences in Spotify Followers to account for the possibilities of “one hit wonder” and/or stream farm scenarios and to determine what, if any, relationship there is between MLs, Followers, and other indicators of a variety of artist growth patterns.
In order to get a better understanding of how artists succeed (or don’t) on streaming platforms, we tracked the artists identified by our predictive A&R models over the course of weeks and months. We were particularly interested in the artists that had:
- the largest gains in both Spotify MLs and Followers
- the largest gains in Spotify MLs but the least gains in Followers
- the largest gains followed by the largest falls
From there, we asked ourselves: Are there data trends and data relationships early in an artist’s career that might serve as correlates to — or at least supplementary information about — the “it” factor of traditional A&R? If so, is there an optimal route to follow, or are there many different roads leading to the same destination?
The following artists are illustrative examples of the trends that we saw.
REI AMI: The Emergent Queen
“Why the fuck your manager lurking on my page? Is it ‘cause I’m poppin’ off in and out of states?” — REI AMI, “Dictator”
Born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Maryland, USA, alt-pop rapper REI AMI had virtually no digital presence as an artist before the second half of 2019, but since then, she has released three digital singles — each resulting in increasingly significant online growth for her artist profile. In August 2019, REI AMI had 190 Spotify MLs, 24 Spotify Followers, 704 YouTube Views, 22 YouTube Subscribers, 416 Instagram Followers, and 79 Facebook Fans. By the beginning of December, those stats had increased to around 500K Spotify MLs, 9K Spotify Followers, 1.2M YouTube Views, 27.5K YouTube Subscribers, 18K Instagram Followers, and 1K Facebook Fans.
If we represent this growth logarithmically from August to December, REI AMI’s trend lines indicate a stable upward trajectory that will continue into 2020 (provided, of course, that she continues to release music), which we can say with quite a bit of confidence, considering her correlational ML and Follower numbers. In other words, because her MLs are composed of a high percentage of listeners engaged enough to follow her, that ML number will likely stay inflated rather than tanking after the dust has settled.
There are other contextual factors to instill confidence in the continued growth of REI AMI’s artist profile as well. For one, she’s since become a favorite of Billie Eilish’s brother and producer, FINNEAS, which bodes well for potential partnerships and collaborations (ahem, tour buddies?). And two, REI AMI’s music both occupies and also reflects the disaffected cognitive-cultural zeitgeist of the digital GenZ consumer.
All of these factors seem to combine into a formidable combination, which is reflected by REI AMI’s consistent growth in both MLs and also Followers. What's more, her stats grow similarly across Spotify, Youtube, Instagram, and Facebook, driving her CPP up as well.
Ant Clemons: The Opportunist
"I still get excited when I see you hit me up. Butterflies in my stomach, feel 'em coming right up." — Ant Clemons featuring Ty Dolla $ign, "Excited"
According to an October feature in Rolling Stone, R&B singer-songwriter and rapper Ant Clemons “went from sleeping on floors to singing with Kanye West.” And that’s really the perfect correlate for what his data show. From June to October, Ant Clemons had below 500 Spotify Followers and a negligible amount of MLs. Following the press surrounding his collaborations with Kanye for Jesus Is King (released Oct. 25, 2019), his MLs accelerated exponentially from around 1K at the start of October to 205K on Oct. 31, 2019. That count peaked at 209K on Nov. 1, 2019, with incremental losses totalling about 50K going into December. While his Spotify Follower count did climb some from October to December, the rate of growth was disproportionately small, hitting just 2.7K on Dec. 5, 2019.
The disproportionate relationship between Ant Clemons’ MLs and Followers isn’t necessarily a cause for concern, as his inclusion in Kanye’s Sunday Service gospel group, that undeniably sweet falsetto, and his signature orange beanie are likely to continue to drive his Follower count — and CPP — upward (though not as drastically as his MLs peaked in October). What the Kanye bump could mean, however, is that his MLs will continue to taper off now that that album cycle has ended.
Ultimately, that leaves it up to Clemons to seize the opportunity, which surely includes his December 2019 collab with Ty Dolla $ign.
Eik Octobre: The Playlister
Ambient classical isn’t usually an artist-forward genre, and in Eik Octobre’s case, that reality largely holds true. Emil Christensen, a Copenhagen-based pianist and composer who goes by the “stage” name Eik Octobre, has racked up hundreds of thousands of MLs by landing on playlists — and not just any playlists, but concentration playlists.
Without a significant social media presence or visible PR campaign, Octobre has managed to catapult his MLs into the digital stratosphere, using (or capitalizing upon) the more functional side of playlisting on DSPs. Starting at just a bit more than 150 Spotify MLs and 700 Spotify Followers in July, Octobre leapt to 1.1M MLs at the end of, well, October. His Follower count, however, has hovered around only about 500 ever since, which predictably resulted in a precipitous decline in his MLs in November and December. His most recent MLs are a fifth of what they were at their peak.
In the case of playlisters like Eik Octobre, it’s really a matter of objective. Maybe he’s not trying to become the touring artist that REI AMI or Ant Clemons are likely aiming at becoming. Maybe he’s just trying to get his music out there for as many people to enjoy. And heck, if he hits that MLs peak a couple of times a year, he could be adding to his savings as well, which could ultimately become a means for funding a fruitful career in music.
Humbird: The Slowburner
"I watch on glowing screens, scrawling pipes of industry. Later we'll strike chords in bars, wonder who's listening." — Humbird, "48 Hours"
Indie-Folk/Americana singer-songwriter Siri Undlin, aka Humbird, worked with engineer Brian Joseph (Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens) and producer Shane Leonard (Field Report) on her latest releases — and it shows. Raised in Iowa and based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Undlin has quietly been building up her Follower count since the beginning of 2019, but the important spike really happened in September when her MLs went wild, giving her Followers a slight bump in October and into November.
That said, her trend lines are reminiscent of Eik Octobre’s: dramatic MLs vertical, decreasing CPP, and slow Follower growth. However, rather than tapering off and declining, both her MLs and also her Followers are generally increasing rather than definitively plateauing. To bolster this point, while the relationship between her MLs and her Followers is visually just as disproportionate as Eik Octobre’s, the ratio between her MLs and Followers is much less severe. When our model first detected Octobre on Sept. 14, for example, his ML-Follower ratio was around 350 (i.e., 350 MLs for every Follower), and it climbed to more than 2K within weeks. Undlin, on the other hand, went from a near one-to-one ML-Follower ratio to almost 350 within the same time period. While we can't know if each unique ML indeed turned out to be a follower, it suggests that, relatively speaking, people sought her music out with more than just a functional use in mind.
Given Humbird’s niche but substantial marketability, all signs point to a slow burn rather than a burnout.
Unison Square Garden: The Veterans
"Search for a consistency that makes sense. Look, wilted leaves are dancing. They'll eventually become butterflies. And then, tuned together, what comes after that again?" — Unison Square Garden, "Phantom Joke"
In March, technical J-Pop rockers Unison Square Garden celebrated 15 years together, which is a feat in itself. But with the help of their record label Toy’s Factory, the cult Japanese band released a cover compilation and B-sides album in July followed by their first collection of songs for streaming in October. Coupled with their No. 8 spot on Japan’s Hot 100 in early October, Unison Square Garden uniquely managed to trounce their MLs numbers with their Follower numbers, indicating substantial fan excitement about a large selection of their songs coming online.
We know that these veterans’ listeners are diehard, actively engaged fans and not just passive, aural passersby, which is reflected in the fact that Unison Square Garden have the smallest ML to Follower ratio of all of these artists. So, their MLs might not skyrocket into the millions, but they will stay consistently strong so long as their Followers continue to climb.
There are a lot of ways for artists to grow their careers, and our few illustrative examples reflect some patterns with which many artists, A&R teams, and managers are likely already familiar. The difficulty is knowing what they all mean for the future.
Steady, proportional growth in all stats naturally suggests there is consistent growth in active listenership and fan engagement across the board. This is an important early sign of potential greatness, provided the talent and the drive are both there.
The importance of partnerships and collaborations cannot be underestimated. Working with a powerhouse artist will help launch anyone’s career…. But you want to see that artist’s stats hold steady after the buzz of the collab wears off. If the artist isn’t grabbing followers, they’re going to have a hard time getting excitement around their next, (probably) starless release.
Playlists are as powerful as people say. The right playlists can net an artist millions of listeners. Literally. But once the track comes off of that playlist, if the artist hasn’t pulled fans into their fan base, then those listens go up in smoke. Playlists are like lighter fluid. They help things burn hot, quickly, but once that lighter fluid is gone, without some long-burning fuel going also, your fire can die out. For many artists, that’s where cross-platform marketing and engagement come into the picture: Instagram stories, Facebook live streams, concerts, Tweets, television appearances, and all the rest.
Diehard fan bases and music niches are also powerful. A key to getting traction in the music industry is getting people to choose to listen to your music and not just any music. For artists that have cultivated a small but dedicated fan base — or, for artists that play in a niche genre with a supportive and driven community — this challenge is arguably easier to overcome. It’s just another example of contextual importance: Being successful in the music industry requires much more than just great music. Engaging with the right audiences is vital.
With these five artist types of early digital growth, we’re just scratching the surface of what it means to scout for talent in the streaming age. There’s much more to learn when it comes to recognizing both good signs and also warning signs in an artist’s early streaming and social performance patterns — particularly when it comes to specific ML-Follower ratios and percentage changes.
And as we continue bringing A&R into the digital sphere, it’s worth reminding yourself that it’s usually best to use both quantitative and also qualitative observations when making decisions, all the while knowing that no matter how educated your guess is, nothing is ever a sure thing. Fortunately, the more data you have — and the more tools you have to interpret that data — the more likely your guess will turn into long-term success.