How Artists Are Gaming Streaming Searches to Score Hits

At the end of June, the singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen announced plans for a new album titled Lover. “This record is deeply personal,” he said in a statement. “It’s about love, it’s about failure, it’s about drugs, it’s about sex, it’s about age, it’s about regret, it’s about itself (very meta, I know) and it’s about finding peace.”

But peace proved temporarily elusive. That’s because earlier in June, Taylor Swift had already announced the release of her own new album, also titled Lover. Both records were set to arrive on the same day, August 23. Gundersen is a member of music’s middle class — he records for a small independent label and has been streamed roughly 10 million times total in the U.S. so far in 2019 — while Swift is one of the biggest stars in the world. That didn’t matter: Swift’s fans decided that Gundersen was trying to ride their star’s coattails, and they began to attack him on social media. 

“It was bizarre to get trolled by a bunch of teenagers who felt like we were intentionally ripping off their queen,” says Gundersen. “My designer had to disable comments on his Instagram page because he was getting jumped on by all these kids. They thought I was literally ripping [Swift] off.”

“Everyone’s fighting for attention”

Gundersen says his album had been “in the works for months” and the timing ended up being purely coincidental; there are only 52 Fridays in a year. But the reaction of Swift’s fans is not entirely surprising, because the practice of naming a song after something already famous — coasting behind a proven hit and enjoying stray beams of admiration — seems to be on the rise. A single by the producer Sam Feldt titled “Post Malone” is pulling in close to 900,000 streams a day on Spotify; blackbear’s “Hot Girl Bummer,” which plays off Megan Thee Stallion’s recent meme-turned-hit “Hot Girl Summer,” is doing even better.

“Everyone’s fighting for attention,” says Barry “Hefner” Johnson, co-founder of the management company Since the 80s, which includes 21 Savage and J.I.D. on its roster. “If you can get a keyword, you’re gonna name something some shit for attention. You damn near have to.”

The pressure of standing out in the glut of new music that appears on streaming services daily is leading to all kinds of wild swings from artists. Songs have gotten drastically shorter, which presumably boosts replay value. Artists throw bizarre intros — see the blatant fuck-up that kicks off Y2k and bbno$’s “Lalala” — into tracks to perk ears.

Creative titling also seems to be at a premium. “A lot of listeners’ first inclination is to browse the titles and play the ones that stick out the most,” says Warren “Oak” Felder, a songwriter-producer behind hits for Usher and Alessia Cara. “Back in the day on records, we would try to figure out the shortest way to title a song and summarize the whole idea in one or two words. Now [titles] are longer, they’re capitalizing all the letters. If you’re looking at a playlist, your eye is automatically drawn to the title that is the longest.”

A subset of creative titling involves grabbing the low-hanging fruit — naming a track after one of the most popular artists in the world (“Post Malone”), nodding to an omnipresent meme (“Hot Girl Bummer”), or name-checking a previous major hit (Regard’s “Ride It,” a global viral phenomenon, pays tribute to Jay Sean’s “Ride It”). 

This is not an entirely new development in the music business, of course. When “The Twist” became a dance craze in the early 1960s, a series of artists hurried to cash in by recording their own “Twist” singles — including Joey Dee & the Starliters, Gary U.S. Bonds, and Sam Cooke — many of which charted in their own right. Swift herself knows this game well: The first and best song on her 2007 debut album was simply named “Tim McGraw,” an easy way for an aspiring star to link herself to one of the biggest names in country music at the time. 

But there was still a layer of insulation between the artist and the listener at that point. A singer could try to jump on a bandwagon, but someone — often a radio DJ — had to let them on. In contrast, today “there has never been a more direct connection between the naming of a song, the creation of a song, and the audience’s selection of a song,” Felder says. “There is no middleman whatsoever.” So if you search for “Hot Girl” on Spotify, “Hot Girl Bummer” is the second song that pops up, ready and waiting for a curiosity click. Type “Post Malone” into Spotify’s search bar, click on “Songs,” and Sam Feldt’s track is first in line. (Spotify did not respond to a request for comment.)

It’s natural that this facet of the modern music landscape would end up impacting the creative process. “The thought of, ‘how am I gonna get someone to click on my song’ factors into the creation of that song,” Felder asserts. “While some artists were sitting there writing their records, they said to themselves, ‘we need what’s almost like title-clickbait.’” 

“It’s not a bad thing,” Felder adds. “Some clickbait you clicked on and you’re glad you did.”

In an email, Feldt says titling his song “Post Malone” was a matter of convenience — the star’s name happened to make the chorus rhyme. “If we’d used 50 Cent,” the producer added, “it wouldn’t have fit in the track.”

But coasting on someone else’s fame or someone else’s meme comes with dangers. Even a coincidence like Gundersen’s can result in a social media storm. The same thing happened to blackbear when he announced his plans to release “Hot Girl Bummer.” The backlash on Twitter ranged from light insults (“you’re annoying”) to accusations of cultural appropriation (“How much are you paying Megan for gentrifying her slogan?”). 

In a subsequently deleted tweet, blackbear offered an amusingly odd defence of “Hot Girl Bummer,” simultaneously missing the point of the criticism while emphasizing the seriousness of his bandwagon-jumping attempt. “This song is not a parody & has nothing to do with the other song,” he wrote. “It has to do w[ith] the caption trend #hotgirlsummer.” But in the end, whatever you want to call “Hot Girl Bummer,” it’s now a hit — in fact, it’s performing better on Spotify this week than the real “Hot Girl Summer” (976,000 daily streams vs. 898,000, as of Monday).

Pop culture moves so fast in 2019 that artists can now act like surfers at a choppy beach, with a seemingly endless series of chances to catch a wave. Take, for example, the recent chicken sandwich wars, a battle between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A that appeared out of nowhere and then riled the internet for more than a week. “I wouldn’t be surprised if someone wrote a song called Popeyes chicken sandwich,” Felder says. Then he reconsiders. “Actually — I should do that.” 

Additional reporting by Jonathan Bernstein

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