By Chaka V. Grier
Do you listen, really listen, to your favourite artists? I mean intense listening over great swaths of time. Repeating the same track like you’ve just been dumped, and streaming Adele’s “Someone Like You” again and again is the only way to drain every tear from your body.
Many of us have soundtracks to our lives. A song that defines a phase, a moment, or a routine so deeply that hearing them instantly evokes that experience. During a trip to Costa Rica, I created a bare playlist that consisted solely of Laura Sauvage’s “Alien (Anything Like It, Have You?)” and the Weeknd’s “Hurt You.” Two years later, whenever I hear either song, I’m transported back onto that dimly-lit Costa Rican bus, as it speeds down narrow roads, amidst a downpour that made the skies prematurely dark.
I’ve recently converted that kind of dedicated – and organic – streaming into strategic streaming, deployed to support artists, particularly lesser-known ones. Like organic streaming, strategic streaming is an intense “play that song or album for 10 days in a row” strategy (where there’s wi-fi there’s a way). I do it to give a deliberate lift to songs that I feel are under-appreciated or under-played. I do it because streaming is growing more powerful, with algorithms built to favour the giants in music, not those who are new or lesser-known. It’s a David-versus-Goliath type of battle, and the gigantic ball of money is in Goliath’s court.
A few weeks ago, Selena Gomez became the poster child for what strategic streaming looks like in the hands of Goliath, after posting an Instagram video of herself and friends hopping from store to store in order to buy out, and boost sales of, her latest album Rare. As if that wasn’t enough of a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” to her army of 168 million Insta fans, she went further by asking them to stream the album as much as possible to hoist it up the charts. That they did, catapulting it to Billboard’s No. 1 spot. The success of the campaign apparently left Gomez feeling icky. “I was a bit embarrassed asking so often for you to stream or buy my album,” she later wrote on a post celebrating the win. “It felt inauthentic.” Yet it’s also made her the first woman of the decade with a No. 1 album, and a big paycheck to boot.
To be fair, she’s not alone. Justin Bieber was accused of trying to do the same for his track “Yummy.” Taylor Swift kept the band Tool at bay from the No. 1 slot she held by summoning her fans to strategically stream Lover. And I assume many artists strategically stream to help build plays on their music. Some may say, ‘What’s an enormous fan base worth if not to support the artists they claim to love?’ Yes, but when used so aggressively, it puts lesser-known artists (without massive fan bases, promotion machines, and big labels with the money, to sway the algorithms in their direction) even further behind.
Speaking of algorithms, they have a great deal to do with what pops up “randomly” in your feed, helping determine what becomes popular, or even gets the chance to be discovered and heard. Greater exposure and discoverability often leads to greater audiences and success; that’s why it matters what we hear and what we don’t. And like the proverbial “secret sauce,” only those on the back end of these platforms know what the exact algorithm ingredients are. And unlike Instagram or Twitter, “gaming” the system – learning when to post, what to post, what hashtags to use – is a challenge on music platforms.
It’s worth noting that a recent final report from the federal Broadcasting & Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel recommended that the government of Canada introduce new legislation that includes a provision making it mandatory for online streaming companies to contribute to Canadian content. Since streaming customers’ viewing choices are guided by algorithms, the report recommends enforcing “discoverability” obligations to ensure Canadian streaming content is visible and easy to find. Post-report, Canadian music rights organizations are meeting with streaming services to advocate for algorithms that put Canadians more in the forefront.
Still, that may not help new and lesser-known Canadian artists. Without an army behind them, we who care about music thriving organically must fight fire with fire. That means purchasing the physical copies of albums. Supporting live music. Buying merch at shows. That also means strategic streaming: When you get free wi-fi, deliberately pick an artist whose work you respect or enjoy, hashtag it #SSD ( for Strategic Stream Day), and play the heck out of their song or album.
By the way, these aren’t “pity plays”; it’s the exact opposite. Strategic streaming celebrates and supports under-appreciated artists making music we love. (That music looks, or should I say sounds, different for each of us, which makes it random and exciting.) Since strategic streaming, I’ve added thousands of plays to numerous artist tracks. I’ve also chronicled the counts as the days go along, and will purposefully pick a single song to focus on, making it easier to gauge if it makes its way into their top tracks.
And I don’t just focus on new artists. there are beloved artists whose careers have since died down, or never made it to great popularity, but still rely on revenue from past music. So, I send some love their way by strategic-streaming favourite tracks as well, especially artists who’ve re-recorded music to get out of limiting contracts. When Fiona Apple pledged that all the royalties from her song “Criminal” will go to refugee organizations for the next year, I streamed it to support the cause.
I’m the first to admit that this is just a drop in the bucket – there are millions of artists vying to be heard. And even when strategically streaming, it may only result in pennies, revenue-wise. But over time, and with many others doing the same, it may mean that the gap between the lesser-knowns and giant stars isn’t ever-widening. It may also mean that those mysterious algorithms will begin including more voices in their secret sauce.