Streaming services are changing how we listen to music, but they’re also changing what we listen to. Thanks to streaming, sad rap is king, ’80s-style “Stranger Things” playlists are everywhere and Ed Sheeran is the biggest pop star in the world.
To some extent, streaming charts reflect the traditional Billboard charts, which tally streaming numbers and physical sales. But services such as Spotify and Apple Music have otherwise upended a genre caste system that took the record industry decades to create. Thanks to streaming, there’s a whole new ecosystem of winners and losers.
Streaming services are a beast that needs constant feeding. Younger hip-hop artists, accustomed to providing sites such as SoundCloud with a constant stream of mixtapes and features, have adjusted to the demands more quickly than artists from other genres, and have thrived accordingly. At the heart of rap’s streaming dominance is something more ephemeral: Some songs just stream better than others, for reasons that no one can really explain yet. Hip-hop streams better than other types of mainstream music, and trap music streams better than other types of hip-hop.
Winner: Latin pop
Latin music fans, like hip-hop fans, are early digital adopters who were underserved by Top 40 radio, until the 2017 Luis Fonsi/Daddy Yankee behemoth “Despacito” changed everything. The first Spanish-language song to hit 1 billion listens on Spotify, it helped unleash a wave of reggaeton and Latin trap streaming hits. Last year, Latin music consumption was up 110 percent on Spotify.
Winner: Heavy metal
Back in 2015, when Spotify compiled a list of the world’s most loyal music fans, broken down by genre, metal fans were No. 1. (Blues fans were the least loyal.) Like many genres that are popular on streaming services, metal is often ignored by terrestrial radio, but its success bucks almost every other trend. Streaming services are song-based ecosystems that reward boundary-free foraging, but metal fans tend to strongly self-identify as metal fans. They listen to whole albums, spend outsize amounts of time listening online and seek out music from revered elders, gateway bands such as Metallica and Slipknot, said Bob Lugowe, director of promotions and marketing at indie metal label Relapse Records.
If heavy metal’s popularity on streaming services reflects its growing cultural cachet in the broader world, the opposite is true of rock. “I don’t think rock is exciting at all right now,” Lugowe said. “A lot of these big rock artists like Shinedown or Seether or Breaking Benjamin, they’re not cool. That’s just how it is. There’s a stigma attached to them, almost. They’re red-state rock.”
Indie and alternative rock is also in the doldrums. When Spotify released a list of its most popular rock bands last year, it skewed toward millennial-friendly, EDM-influenced acts such as Twenty One Pilots and Imagine Dragons, shutting out bands such as Radiohead and Arcade Fire.
Country fans are traditionally late adopters who tend to prize familiar artists and sounds, delivered in a familiar way. Perhaps more than any other mainstream fans, they still buy CDs and rely on old-school gatekeepers to introduce them to new music. Country songs often don’t do well on streaming services unless radio has broken them first (the opposite of, say, hip-hop).
Country artists account for only about 5.6 percent of all streams — they account for about twice that much when it comes to the sales market — although that number is growing, thanks in part to younger, stream-friendly stars such as Kane Brown and Sam Hunt. Last September, Randy Goodman, chairman and CEO of Sony Music Nashville, delivered a speech to country-music insiders about the growing power of streaming.
“We either adopt or we die,” he said. Streaming service reps will be on hand at the CMA Fest in June to provide basic tutorials on their services.
Pop is still one of the top streaming genres, although it consistently lags behind rap. While the rise of streaming has brought a new energy and a sense of open artistic possibilities to Latin music and hip-hop, pop seems diminished somehow, its hitmakers boxed in by the constraints of writing a song that will stream.
“They’re very challenged with streaming, because people just want to get to the hooks quicker,” said Arjan Timmermans, head of pop programming at Apple Music. “A long intro just doesn’t work that well. People want to get right to whatever is the catchy element of the song. Soon enough all of the pop is going to sound the same. You already kind of see that; you can tell what’s a streaming song and what is not.”