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Different Strokes for Different Folks: Fan Engagement in the Streaming Era

The way you engage with artists may increasingly come to dictate what music you're recommended on digital services

We all listen to music for different reasons. Yet there remains a distinct separation within music fandom: some people live it, they listen intently and engage in various ways with the artists they claim to love, and others display it, they won’t listen as much or as often instead showing their appreciation via more aspirational means. Of all the people who wear Joy Division t-shirts with the Unknown Pleasures graphic or hang ‘that’ Bob Marley poster in their room, how many really know the artist and their work? Sometimes music is a mere cultural signifier, a way to show yourself to the world, and sometimes it defines who you are, down to your daily routines. 

Today this dichotomy manifests itself online. In which artists we like on Facebook, what music we tweet about, what covers we snap on Instagram. How much do you really listen to the artists you like on Facebook? How deeply passionate are you about that artist whose song you posted on Twitter? It’s a fine line, and most music fans will display characteristics from both sides, even if they don’t realize it. 

Data increasingly rules our world. Of the myriad transactions and activities we conduct daily online, most of them generate data and that data, in turn, informs your continued online experiences. With streaming increasingly supplanting downloads as the choice way to listen to music online today, data can now help companies like Spotify better understand listeners, what constitutes fandom and in turn shape your musical experience. 

With this in mind the Spotify Personalization Team decided to look at how listeners actually celebrate the artists they like, or claim to like. They asked themselves a simple question: what is the correlation between liking an artist on Facebook and actually playing their music heavily on Spotify? To answer it, they analyzed active Spotify users in the United States to see the correlations between plays and their Facebook likes. From there they can start to see which artist’s fans are mainly aspirational and which are more dedicated, and use this to provide Spotify users with better listening experiences. 

On the side of those with dedicated fans, or what the team refers to as ‘headphone artists,’ Lana Del Rey has the most correlated likes to plays followed by Compton’s poster boy Kendrick Lamar and Las Vegas’ indie rockers Imagine Dragons. On the other end of the spectrum, where amount plays correlate the least to likes, or as the team callas them ‘t-shirt artists,’ we find Berry Gordy Jr.’s descendants LMFAO preceded by rap pop superstars The Black Eyed Peas and Atlanta’s tongue twister Ludacris. 

In terms of acts that are liked but not necessarily engaged with, there are some obvious names like Queen and Guns N’ Roses as well as some you might not expect like Snoop Dogg, Johnny Cash or Alicia Keys. Among those with strong listenership there are names you might expect like Jay-Z, Lorde and Avicii alongside more highbrow raising ones: divisive playboy Chris Brown, twee folk poster boys Mumford & Sons and New Orleans’ own Lil’ Wayne. And in the middle? Well, that’s where you’ll find Pearl Jam, Linkin’ Park, The XX, Lupe Fiasco or even Tyler, The Creator. These are the artists people publicly like and play in more or less equal proportions. 

Looking at the overall spectrum of artists in the data one thing seems clear: the actual genre of music that the artist is attached to may not be that important. People truly like artists or simply want to be seen to like them for reasons other than just the music. Be it the coolness of a certain scene, the legacy of a body of work or the cachet of a name, we all have our reasons for choosing the artists we endorse and how we endorse them. 

More than revealing any major surprises about listening habits, the data perhaps speaks more about the cultural legacies of certain artists and how these form and dissipate. It’s no surprise that the king of pop himself, Michael Jackson, and reggae’s ambassador to the world, Bob Marley, fall more in the ‘t-shirt artists’ camp. They are after all two dead artists whose legacy will live on, whether or not people actively listen to them. More interesting is that we can start to see how quickly more recent acts start to pass into the realm of aspirational fandom. Adele and Waka Flocka Flame both have careers that started less than ten years ago yet according to the data they’re already more t-shirt than headphone. Conversely, some like Daft Punk are still strong headphone artists despite worldwide cult status and being active for over twenty years. 

For Spotify’s Personalization Team the value of this data, and the insights it provides as to where artists fall in the headphone and t-shirt camps, is key to helping them refine the recommendations they make users. Their job is to help deliver users music they’ll actually listen to. For data-driven companies like Spotify, personalization is a huge part of delivering a better experience. As such the headphone artists take prominence over those more likely to sell t-shirts but not generate many actual plays. 

To some of us music may mean more than simple data crunching, yet those are the realities of the world we live in today. So if you want to help an artist you feel strongly about appear in the recommendations, you should perhaps start listening to them more and not only wear their t-shirts. 

Written by Laurent Fintoni