Is Spotify killing the top 40?

Something is happening to the way Americans listen to music. The most popular songs appear to be getting a little less popular. In early 2018, the top 40 songs on Spotify in the US would get a total of around 35 million streams on a typical Wednesday. In 2020, the 40 biggest hits rarely hit 30 million streams, according to Quartz’s analysis of Spotify data.

The decline is likely partially the result of an overall decrease in streaming after Covid-19 hit the US, due to the absence of people listening to music on commutes and in stores. But it’s not just that. The biggest hits are declining, while the streaming of smaller hits remains about the same.

Spotify does not share overall streaming numbers, but they do share daily streams for the top 200 songs. The data show that in the first six months of 2020, the total number of streams for songs 41-200 are almost exactly the same as in 2018. It’s only the top 40 that have fallen. As a result, the share of top-200 streams going to the top 40 songs fell from about 44% of streams to 39%.  Spotify’s subscriber numbers in the US have continued to climb over this period, so it’s unlikely that overall streaming has dropped, meaning songs beyond the top 200 are likely also increasing in share.

Spotify’s competitors, such as Apple Music and YouTube, do not list daily streaming numbers for popular songs, so it’s not possible to know whether those platforms are seeing a similar trend.

It’s not clear exactly what’s causing the change, but one possible explanation is changes to Spotify’s app. The streaming giant has increasingly emphasized discovery on its platform with its popular “Discover Weekly” and “Daily Mix” playlists, which introduce new songs to users that Spotify’s algorithms thinks they might like. In March, the streaming giant updated its homepage to highlight these playlists.

In its latest quarterly report released in July, the company said its efforts to help people find new music are working, pointing to data showing that the number of artists making up the top 10% of streams rose by over 40% from 2019 to 2020. In other words, it used to be that a smaller number of artists were concentrated at the top, but now it’s more diffuse. The big record labels might not be too excited about the decreasing importance of pop hits, but Spotify is crowing about it.

“Our product and platform are driving discovery, diversifying taste, and helping up-and-coming artists reach new audiences,” the company writes. “Gone are the days of Top 40, it’s now the Top 43,000.” This number is for global listening, so may be inflated by Spotify’s swift growth outside the US and Europe. People tend to listen to artists from their home country, so a more globally diversified user base will automatically mean more diversity in who gets listened to.

If Spotify really is causing a decline for the biggest hits, that would be a boon for the idea that the internet can expand culture. In a seminal 2004 essay in Wired titled “The Long Tail,” journalist Chris Anderson argued that digital culture would help niche music, books, and movies thrive. With fewer gatekeepers and more avenues to find likeminded fans, people would be more likely to indulge their true interests, rather than just accept what was offered by the mainstream.

The evidence that the internet is increasing the “long tail” of culture is mixed. While blockbuster movies are only growing in importance, research suggests book sales do seem to be diversifying. This Spotify data offers hope that, in the case of music, technology and algorithms can actually expand our taste.

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