Why Measuring Streaming Data is So Difficult

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by Dan Runcie

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What data can we trust?

Last week, Billboard’s former editorial director Bill Werde wrote that the highly-publicized stat “60,000 songs are uploaded to Spotify daily” is likely 23,000 at best. That same week, Music Business Worldwide reported that 80% of artists on Spotify have less than 50 monthly listeners. 50! We knew that streaming was a long-tailed business model, but 50 listeners?! That’s not even hobbyist level. That’s “I accidentally uploaded a song once and forgot about it” level.

Honestly, these stats aren’t surprising. The music industry’s data has plenty of holes. lt’s a reminder that numbers are presented in ways to benefit certain companies. The larger the “songs uploaded” number is, the more powerful Spotify appears in comparison to the major record labels. And in the wake of Spotify and Netflix’s stock drops after recent earnings, it’s easy to question any company’s self-reported projections on where the industry is going.

It’s likely harder for artists to sift through the low-key gerrymandering and corporate tug-of-war to determine what’s real.

Consumption data still has issues

Streaming helped the music industry better measure consumption and lessen the power of gatekeepers. It helped hip-hop and R&B get closer to measuring their true popularity, but there’s still room to go.

Let’s look at two artists who had two of the biggest first weeks in 2021:

– Artist A – 185 million streams on an album with 12 eligible tracks

– Artist B – 201 million streams on an album with 18 eligible tracks

Any guesses?

Well, Artist A is Adele’s 30. This album was widely reported as the biggest album of 2021.

Artist B is Summer Walker’s Still Over It. Her album had more tracks than Adele’s, but those numbers are still closer than many would assume.

But the Billboard 200 headline numbers imply that Adele’s album sold 5x as much as Summer Walker’s did. That chart heavily weighs physical and digital album sales—where Adele got a majority of her Billboard sales from— even though streaming is where 65% of the industry’s revenue comes from. This is the industry’s attempt to limit the perceived power of streaming services.

The Billboard 200 is music’s equivalent of the NBA’s Player Efficiency Rating. PER is always thought-provoking, but if Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert is near the top of the list every damn year, then what exactly are we measuring?!

The companies often win out

Digital media’s transition to consumption benefits the companies that share that data and hurts those that don’t. Spotify has done this in music and it likely plans to do the same in podcasting. It recently acquired Chartable and Podsights, two companies that measure podcast analytics.

Podcasting, like music, has its own legacy data measurements that struggle to measure consumption. “Monthly podcast downloads” are still commonly referenced despite the countless ways to inflate the metric. For instance, I could start releasing the Trapital Podcast 2x per week and double my monthly downloads, but that doesn’t mean I have more listeners!

If Spotify continues to grow, it can question the validity of stats from Apple Podcasts and use its consumption data to attract more advertisers to reach listeners more efficiently.

But even though Spotify and other streamers have better data, the company’s data is self-serving, and its facing pressure from Wall Street to show results for its investments. Ideally, third-party companies like Nielsen or MRC can be the gold standard for reporting consumption data, but it’s not easy.

Data will never be perfect

It may feel like data is getting worse, but these challenges are a reminder of how bad it once was. It’s easy to forget that record labels and artists would buy their own CDs to inflate their stats. Or that certain movies only performed well at the box office because they included highly-anticipated trailers for other upcoming movies. Or the podcasts that tout growing monthly downloads even though it’s mostly background downloads since the podcast’s active listenership peaked in the post-Serial podcast boom. The list goes on.

It forces artists and podcasters to focus on engagement data but also tracks their vanity metrics to share with the right audience. It is also a reminder that 60,000 of anything—songs uploaded, albums sold, or podcast episodes downloaded—may often have questionable insights. It’s likely an attempt to add both apples and oranges together, which will always have issues.

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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