Music fandom’s problem is TV’s opportunity
Music fandom is approaching a crisis point. The good news is that because of streaming, more people are listening to more music than ever and more artists are releasing music than at any time in the past. But, while doing so, streaming has turned music into a ubiquitous commodity – a passive soundtrack to our daily routines. The biggest price paid for convenience has been the steady erosion of fandom. With music transformed into a raging torrent of new songs that live for a few minutes in a user’s playlist before giving way to the ‘up next’, music has become a song economy. In this song economy, the artist is a second-class citizen, forever feeding the streaming algorithm with new music in an effort not to be swept away.
Music fandom is fragmenting. Super fans are still present, but there are fewer of them. Most have become passive music consumers, acclimatised through a decade of streaming to background listening and desensitized to the deprioritising of fandom. Even half of music aficionados (those who spend the most time and money on music) are now listening to music in the background while doing other things. It is an inevitable trajectory for a model that offers so few ways for listeners to lean in and connect with an artist’s story. To some extent, this gaping hole in music fandom has been filled by TikTok, allowing the rise of new internet-centric scenes and a place for music fandom to thrive again.
However, with TikTok being used by less than a third of the UK population (and two thirds of those being under 35 years old), most consumers still face a fandom blackhole. It was not always this way. There used to be many more places where even the most casual of music fans could learn about new artists and connect with their story. Traditional platforms such as radio and TV used to play a crucial role in this, but radio listening continues to fall and music showcases have become few and far between. Yet, TV (and video streaming) may represent the missing piece in the fandom puzzle.
The promise of streaming was to democratise listening and do away with the human gatekeepers in favour of the algorithm. As streaming nears its peak, the veneer is beginning to wear off. This is so much so that 54% of consumers want music chosen by humans, not algorithms, while 38% of music streamers say they struggle to find music they like on streaming services. If they are struggling to find new music they like, they are also struggling to find and connect with new artists. When the half-life of a song is the swipe of a finger, the distance between an artist and their potential fans is greater than it ever was. Artists and their labels are finding it harder than ever to even start an artist’s career, let alone sustain it. Instead, artists are stuck in a perpetual struggle to keep their head (just) above water long enough to breath, playing an energy sapping game in the hope that a few streams happen. Consumption is abundant, fandom is not.
The endless hustle of the song economy has forced labels into pursuing short-term marketing tactics aimed at creating hits, pulling them away from their true heartland: long-term artist brand building. Artist branding requires expertise in the first principles of marketing – creativity and integrated marketing communications – joined-up campaigns that build an artist’s ‘brand equity’ and set them up for longevity. Instead, everybody finds themselves stuck in the hamster wheel of chasing the latest trend. It is no surprise so many artists have expressed relief that they arrived on the music scene before the dominance of social media.
The heart of problem Is that streaming is about consumption, not artist-fan engagement. While Spotify’s recent vertical feed launch is a step in the right direction, it is just one (as of yet unproven) move by one music streaming service. Artist storytelling must happen elsewhere. TikTok may be the industry’s go-to, but its role is far from perfect. 64% of TikTok users rarely know what the music is in a video they are watching and just 19% go elsewhere to listen to music they discover on the app.
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The problem is not even TikTok. It is the fact that TikTok’s young audience skew means that it is not even part of the equation for most consumers. While the 16% of TikTok users that discover music from viral trends (equating just to 6% of all consumers) is small, 37% of consumers say they discover new music through TV shows (which includes streaming TV shows). It is not all about scale, it is about reaching different parts of the population: twice as many over 35s discover music through TV shows than discover music on TikTok.
Sync has become a massively important part of the modern music business and the power connection that music can deliver in a TV show is loud and clear. Imagine how much more impactful TV could be if there were more showcases where audiences could meaningfully engage in artists’ stories, not just at the breakneck 15 seconds of fame pace of social media.
TV / video is one of the few places genuine cultural moments can still occur. Why does everyone talk about The Last of Us? Because TV and video streaming are some of the few media assets left that can create watercooler moments – times when people can come together and be part of something bigger. TV and video formats enable people to see beyond the song, to share in the story of the artist, and build a depth of fandom so rare in the streaming era. They can help develop artists into more than playlist-fodder. Artists that have a voice, a story to tell, and a fanbase, that are greater than three minutes of a streaming consumer’s day or 15 seconds of a social media user’s day.
If TV sync can have such an impact on music discovery, think about the impact of TV showcases. There is power in seeing artists perform their songs while conveying their musical skills, talent as performers, and having their personality and passion shown on their sleeve. With showcases becoming fewer and further between, audiences are craving what they have been missing. It is no coincidence that Eurovision is enjoying a renaissance. Consider the 2021 winners Maneskin. The rock bands’ success follows a long list of TV showcases and award shows supercharging artist careers, from The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, through Adele at the 2015 Brits, to X Factor launching the career of One Direction (without whom of course we would not have Grammy award winning Harry Styles).
Indeed, X Factor is a key illustration of how TV showcase formats can build fame and fandom while encouraging audiences to become invested in artists’ success by making them part of the story. It is a model that social platforms since tried to adopt for audiences to feel that they understand the artist and their journey, rather than swiping past a vacuous post about what someone happens to be doing that particular day. Showcase formats show artists at both their most creative and most vulnerable. It is that vulnerability that allows audiences in, building the foundations for a relationship where fans feel like they are part of the story. Something that is near impossible to build at scale anywhere else.
Streaming is an amazing consumer proposition, and it will continue to evolve and get better at doing what it does, but its reason for existence is consumption. TikTok and Instagram do a good job of driving virality, but they exist for engagement. Streaming builds audiences and social builds followings. Sustainability has never been a bigger issue for artists and their labels. There is no single-shot cure for the mass of inter-connected challenges, but creating more places where artists can tell their stories at their pace is a central part of what must come next. Until social and streaming get better at it, TV and video streaming are the fandom opportunity waiting to be tapped.