Drake’s “Scorpion” Defines Success in the Streaming Era — for Better or Worse

The glory years for the record album are over, but the record album isn’t dead yet. In the age of streaming, it actually might benefit artists to release long albums consisting of multiple tracks, as the success of Drake’s Scorpion demonstrates.

Drake released Scorpion on streaming services on June 29, and a compact disc released followed July 13. The CD is inconsequential. The real barometer of Scorpion’s success consists of streams. Within two weeks, Scorpion sold more than one million copies based on streams (per Billboard, 1,500 on-demand streams equals one LP).

Incredibly, all 25 of the album’s tracks hit the Billboard Hot 100 charts. As Rolling Stone explained, the long-form format of Scorpion– clocking in at one hour and 30 minutes – was crucial to the album’s success:

Drake’s supremacy on the Hot 100 was made easier by the popularity of music streaming. Because streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music charge a buffet-style monthly fee to listen to music rather than a per-song price à la iTunes downloads, long albums benefit artists by giving them more chances to rack up listens. Drake also partnered with Spotify for an all-out “takeover” of the platform in the days after his album dropped, which forced tens of millions of users to encounter his album. (They weren’t required to actually stream it – but the all-you-can-listen model of streaming services made it appealing and cost-free to do so, and the real estate on their homepage contributed to the average listener’s awareness Scorpion.)

Drake is not the only artist to capitalize on the vagaries of streaming. As Rolling Stone reported earlier this year, Migos released an album, Culture II, that clocked in at a whopping one hour and 46 minutes. Culture II debuted at Number One on the Billboard album chart. Culture II was eventually certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for combined sales, streaming and track-sales equivalent of a million units.

Because an album’s sales via streaming are measured by 1,500 cumulative streams, it behooves an artist to release a longer album with more tracks to stream, which can lead to Gold and Platinum status. These accomplishments still matter as a barometer of an artist’s marketability to corporate sponsors.

But releasing lengthy albums to encourage streams comes at a cost. Listeners have short attention spans in the streaming era. Reportedly, one quarter of all songs on Spotify are skipped within the first five seconds. The typical listener skips a song once every four minutes, and there is nearly a 50 percent chance that a song will be skipped before it ends. In addition, according to Midia, “58% of subscribers report listening to individual albums and tracks just a few times while 60% are doing this more than they used to because they are discovering so much new music.” Continue reading

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How Netflix Is Changing Your Behavior

Being a Netflix investor (which I am) is not for the faint of heart. Within the space of a few days recently, Netflix stock reached an all-time high, then fell off a cliff after Netflix reported disappointing quarterly earnings, only to rebound in stunning fashion the following day, before dipping the day after. The wildly gyrating stock price certainly makes for dramatic headlines. But the real legacy of the company is not its market capitalization but its ability to change human behavior.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is a market maker. Market makers do more than make money. They shape behaviors of people and companies. Netflix is undeniably shaping how people live going back to its founding in 1997. Along with Amazon, Netflix ushered in the era of on-demand living. If Amazon made it possible for people to buy things on their own terms, Netflix did the same for entertainment. Arguably Netflix and Amazon laid the groundwork for Uber’s disruption of the transportation industry through on-demand ride sharing. Together these companies ushered in an economy based on on-demand living.

A Cultural Phenomenon

The idea of giving viewers a digital catalog of movies to stream not only knocked Blockbuster out of business but made Netflix a cultural phenomenon as viewers embraced a new way of experiencing entertainment on demand. In 2009, Twitter users began using the phrase “Netflix and Chill” to describe the increasingly popular practice of simply hanging out with Netflix like a friend. Soon, “Netflix and Chill” became a euphemism for people hooking up to have sex, which is how we commonly think of the phrase today. The phrase “Netflix and Chill” became an internet meme and topic of much analysis and controversy. Netflix was shaping how we communicate as Google has done (“I’ll Google the movie time”). Continue reading

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With IGTV, Instagram Targets the Mobile Generation

The cool kids don’t hang out on Facebook anymore. So Facebook wants the cool kids to hang out on Instagram.

When Facebook bought Instagram in 2012, Instagram had less than 100 million users. Now the app counts one billion users, most of whom are millennials and digital natives, the demographic Facebook covets. Instagram continues to grow by making it easy and fun for users to tell visual stories, the language of the digital generation. Sometimes, Instagram copies Snapchat features as it did with the creation of Instagram Stories. Now Instagram is taking a page from YouTube’s playbook by offering longer-form video through the recently launched IGTV feature. Instead of having video limited to 30 seconds in length, users can create videos that are as long as 10 minutes (or an hour for larger, verified accounts). And Instagram is adding an important twist: the content is optimized for mobile.

A Mobile-First Experience

If you’re already creating Instagram main-feed videos and Instagram Stories, IGTV should be a snap to use. You simply hold your mobile phone vertically and record a video. Then you tap on the IGTV icon on your Instagram account and follow the prompts to upload and label the video. Note that when you record your video, you don’t hold the phone in horizonal fashion as you are probably accustomed to doing. That’s because IGTV is designed specifically for the way we naturally hold our phones and view content via the vertical format. IGTV videos look naturally rendered, taking up the entire screen rather than being bracketed by ugly, thick black borders that typically appear if you hold your phone vertically and create a video (which looks hopelessly uncool).

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom said that the mobile format will set IGTV apart. “We’ve reimagined what video is on mobile,” he said in a livestreamed announcement. In a blog post, Instagram pointed out that by 2021, mobile video will account for 78 percent of total mobile data traffic – so a mobile-first video uploading and sharing experience is long overdue. Continue reading

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Thank You, Sir Paul

We needed Paul McCartney this past week. Fortunately, we got him.

This was the kind of week that made me want to declare a media blackout. The news was dominated by ugly reports about immigrant children being ripped from their parents and detained within our own borders. The music world, which often offers some relief from the harsh realities of everyday life, was instead the source of a horrible, unfolding story about the violent life and death of rapper XXXTentacion. As details emerged about his brutal treatment of other people before his own death during a robbery June 18, I was reminded that artists are also capable of behaving horribly.

For most of the week, my socials were awash with tweets and comments full of anger, despair, and shame from friends embarrassed and revolted by the family separation occurring at the U.S. border. But then something happened Wednesday that began to change the mood of the week for me: Paul McCartney released two new songs.

We hadn’t heard new music from Sir Paul since 2013. I was eager to know what he had been writing. Both the songs, “Come on to Me” and “I Don’t Know” gave me something new to think about besides current events.

“Come on to Me” sounded like a rollicking good bar song, with a big drum sound and a harmonica part that reminded me of Led Zeppelin’s “Poor Tom.” On the other hand, “I Don’t Know” felt like a reflective update to “Yesterday,” with Macca singing about seeing trouble at every turn and asking, “What am I doing wrong? What’s the matter with me?” The more somber “I Don’t Know” seemed to capture the mood of the week, as if Paul were saying, “I understand.” But “Come on to Me” reminded me of the power of his music to uplift. Continue reading

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Five Great Songs about Summer

Welcome to the season of sticky sno-cones, loud suburban street festivals, and music spilling out of open windows of fast cars. And music always makes the summer season. To celebrate the arrival of summer, check out these five great songs about el verano and make sure your playlist is up to date:

Hot Fun in the Summertime,” Sly and the Family Stone

Like so many great summer songs, “Hot Fun in the Summertime” is awash with nostalgia, recalling a fleeting romance that ends with the inevitable coming of the fall. But oh them summer days in between the end of the spring and the first of the fall! You can take the song to mean the literal arrival and passing of the summer months or read something deeper into the lyrics: growing older, looking back, and reflecting.

Summertime,” DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince

Drums, please! It’s time to kick back and unwind with a soft subtle mix while you cruise in your car. School is out. The temperature’s about 88. And you’re invited to a barbeque that starts at 4. What’s not to like? In “Summertime,” DJ Jazzy Fresh and the Fresh Prince take us to the Belmont Plateau in Philadelphia, where “Little boys messin’ round with the girls playing double-dutch/While the DJ’s spinning a tune as the old folks dance at your family reunion.” The song hints at a nostalgia we often hear in other summer songs, but it never loses its sense of time and place thanks to the smooth lead rap, vivid lyrics, breezy background vocals, and irresistible backbeat. You’ll keep coming back to the plateau. Continue reading

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The Train Is Coming

The minstrel warned us that the train is coming.

On an oppressively hot June night in Chicago, Robert Plant sang 13 songs of longing, joy, and carnality with a voice that has grown sweeter and softer over 69 years. His concert was mostly a joyous celebration of life. But if you listened closely as he dipped into his rich songbook, you could hear the minstrel conjuring narrators who contemplated aging, loss, and mortality. Midway through the evening, Plant assumed the voice of a man about to be executed, pleading for the hangman to give him a little more time in “Gallows Pole”:

Hangman, hangman, turn your head awhile

I think I see my sister coming, riding many mile, mile, mile

Sister, I implore you, take him by the hand

Take him to some shady bower

Save me from the wrath of this man

On “The May Queen,” an aging celebrant sang of time’s passage:

A heart that never falters

A love that never dies

I linger in the shadows

The dimming of my light

An old blues man gazed at death in “Fixin’ to Die”:

Feeling funny in my mind, Lord

I believe I’m fixin’ to die

Feeling funny in my mind, Lord

I believe I’m fixin’ to die

Well, I don’t mind dying

But I hate to leave my children crying

The older you get the more likely you will learn what it is to experience the effects of age, if not on yourself then on someone in your life. In his 69 years, Robert Plant has faced the loss of close family and friends, and nearly the loss of his muse when he almost quit singing after the death of his son, Karac, in 1977. But he is not one to dwell on the past. Since the break-up of Led Zeppelin in 1980 following the death of drummer John Bonham, Robert Plant has record 14 albums, six of them after he turned 50. He scoffs at those who would question how he stays inspired at an age when many have retired from their work, and he writes songs that celebrate living, not losing. Continue reading

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Shareable Custom Alexa Skills Bring Us Closer to a Voice-First Future

Amazon continues to create a voice-first future.

In April, Amazon launched Alexa Skill Blueprints, which makes it possible for anyone to create their own Alexa skills and responses, with no coding required. And now Amazon has made Alexa Skill Blueprints shareable through channels such as Facebook, text, Twitter, and messaging apps.

With Alexa Skill Blueprints, voice becomes a source of user-generated content, such as creating skills that help the babysitter find things in your home or skills that help you learn new subjects through your own voice-based flash cards, among many other potential uses. Here’s an example of how to create your own family trivia game:

Empowering people to create their own Alexa skills without any coding experience is important to Amazon’s vision for making voice the connective tissue of commerce and everyday living. Alexa fuels an entire voice-based commercial ecosystem that includes, for example:

  • The use of Echo smart speakers to manage our smart homes, listen to music (preferably by streaming Amazon Music), and order products and services. Echo is Alexa’s primary vessel, enjoying a commanding 70 percent marketshare.

For Amazon to achieve its vision, consumers have to become comfortable using their voices to accomplish tasks that we’re accustomed to doing with our fingertips. So far, Continue reading

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Why GDPR Isn’t Coming to the United States

Will draconian privacy laws ever come to the United States as they have in Europe in recent days? The question is reasonable in light of ongoing news stories about Facebook’s cavalier treatment of user data. Now that the European Union has enacted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), we now have a template for stronger protection of consumer privacy, with businesses being held to more stringent privacy standards and facing steep fines for failing to uphold those standards.

The likelihood of GDPR-style regulation coming to the United States was one of several topics I discussed with a panel of journalists and industry practitioners recently. The panel, hosted by Chris Heine of the Bateman Group, focused on the many possible impacts of GDPR. Participants ranged from Gartner Analyst Andrew Frank to Kevin Scholl, director of digital marketing and partnerships at Red Roof Inn. My take: GDPR isn’t going to come to the United States anytime soon – especially during the Trump administration. Here’s why:

  • Data privacy is not a priority at the Federal level. We’ve already experienced the mother of all data breaches – and nothing happened. Remember Equifax, whose failure to protect user data affected millions of Americans? If ever there was a reason to usher in more serious privacy laws, Equifax handed it to the administration on a platter. But in fact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau actually scaled back its investigation of Equifax. And Americans moved on. Meanwhile, influential businesses such as Alphabet and Apple have too much lobbying power for GDPR regulation to take hold widely. (Google alone spent more than $18 million on lobbying efforts in 2017.) The corporate-friendly Trump administration will likely place the adoption of widespread privacy measures low on the priority list.
  • The American won’t demand widespread regulation anytime soon. We may claim we care about privacy when we are asked– but our actions say otherwise. For example, the brutal Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal created a #DeleteFacebook spasm, which died away. It’s not that we want to give businesses unfettered access to our data. But we don’t have the time and energy to police them. Who really takes time to read the mind-boggling user agreements we are periodically asked to review when we update our Apple operating system or when LinkedIn or some other platform revises its practices? (Here’s LinkedIn’s privacy policy. I’m sure you’ve reviewed it carefully because you care about privacy, right?) In addition, and perhaps more importantly – big tech has the upper hand. We’re hooked to our devices and platforms. They fuel our lives. We’ve given them permission to manage us – which is a big reason why #DeleteFacebook died. We may be annoyed with Facebook the brand, but we want Facebook the community.

A more likely scenario: Facebook will take the fall. The company will become subject to more regulation and scrutiny, thus reframing a potentially more widespread issue as the problems of one company. Instead of inspiring Federal action to regulate privacy more broadly, Facebook’s failures will instead marginalize the issue. We’re already seeing Apple capitalize on Facebook’s problems by attempting to demonize the social media platform.

Tougher privacy laws may take hold at the state level, but don’t hold your breath waiting for a dramatic change to occur nationally.

For more insight into our panel, check out:

Adweek, “4 Big GDPR Concerns for Brands, Agencies, and Vendors,” Chris Heine, May 9, 2018.

Bateman Group, “Here Are 4 Big GDPR Concerns for Brands, Agencies and Vendors,” Chris Heine, May 23, 2018.

CNBC, “People will forget about data privacy issues soon — at least, that’s what ad experts expect,” by Michelle Castillo, April 12, 2018.

DMNews, “7 Ways GDPR Will Affect Your Marketing Efforts — According to Top Marketers,” Hillary Adler, May 28, 2018.

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Voice Looms Large for Apple and Mary Meeker

Apple and Mary Meeker agree: we’re living in an increasingly voice-first world. But how well is Apple adapting?

On May 30, Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist Mary Meeker, one of the most influential pundits in digital, released her annual Internet Trends report. The uptake of voice-based digital interfaces was a significant theme. She identified voice as one of nine areas where innovation and growth are occurring as U.S. internet usage continues to growth.

“With voice, we’ve hit technology liftoff with word accuracy and we’ve certainly hit product liftoff with Amazon Echo’s install base estimated to be around 30 million plus,” she said, as she presented her report at the 2018 Code Conference. And she presented slides to illustrate her point.

It’s worth noting that in her 2016 report, she quoted Andrew NG, chief scientist at Baidu, who said, “As speech recognition accuracy goes from say 95% to 99%, all of us in the room will go from barely using it today to using it all the time. Most people underestimate the difference between 95% and 99% accuracy – 99% is a game changer . . . “

According to Meeker’s 2018 report, we’ve now approaching that point where accuracy rates will trigger widespread adoption.

As Meeker noted, sales of the Amazon Echo have been phenomenal – an example of a technology company identifying a need that people did not know they had.  And the Echo is an important, but not the only, barometer of voice’s uptake. Businesses such as Amazon, Continue reading

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“This Is America” Reignites a Musical Resistance

The musical resistance just came roaring back with the release of the searing “This Is America,” by the irrepressible Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover). Here is a song that reminds us of music’s power to provoke and confront society in the tradition of great protest work such as Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. The video invites frame-by-frame dissection with its disturbing, powerful images — such as a Jim Crow caricature, gun violence, images of dancers frolicking amid chaos — and lyrics such as:

This is America

Don’t catch you slippin’ up

Look at how I’m livin’ now

Police be trippin’ now

Yeah, this is America

Guns in my area (word, my area)

I got the strap

I gotta carry ‘em

Released on May 5, “This is America” has gone massively viral, accumulating 23 million views within two days and sparking discussion among social mediaand news media ranging from The Atlantic to The Guardian. Although the song stands alone as a strong statement, “This Is America” assumes even more gravitas when you view the work in context of the political and social consciousness that has gripped popular American music in recent months. Continue reading

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