WMG is overtaking superstars – and that’s a good thing

Steve Cooper of Warner Music Group (WMG) recently stated that the profession is no longer financially dependent on superstars – of course, not at all culturally dependent on them, but we’ll get to that. a little. For a professional CEO (exit or not), such a statement is both bold and reflects local realities. In fact, it’s a natural milestone in a trend that MIDiA identified years ago: fragmented fans. As streaming audiences and consumption are fragmented, so is the influence of superstars. As with any transition, the transition is not linear, Olivia Rodrigos and Billie Eilishes will continue to grow, but they will be less and less apart and, crucially, smaller than their pre-split peers .

For independent labels and artists, superstars going small is music, but for big labels, it’s far from a death knell. Rather, it simply reflects the new environment in which they will operate. In fact, Cooper said that WMG is pursuing a “portfolio” strategy of “more artists” to reduce its “reliance on superstars” financially. Before that, BMG’s CEO Hartwig Masuch said about their latest results: “What was remarkable about our first-half performance was that our revenue grew by 25%, barely taking a hit”. No superstars doesn’t mean no hits, it means more, smaller hits.

In 2019, MIDiA wrote that “Niche is the new mainstream”, the water cooler moment of the linear age is being replaced by a cultural moment. Viewers are in different places at different times, and algorithms serve them different personalized content. Concepts like “Song of Summer” become different for everyone. Every listener has their own summer song. In the age of dispersed fans, the water-cooler moment among the masses, where everyone heard the song on the radio at the same time, it was replaced by a small group of people looking for like-minded fans around the world.

The result of artist marketing is a gradual shift from “carpet bombing” mass media to building artist brand influence, to laser-focused campaigns targeting real fans. In the old model, superstar artists were household names, and moms and dads likely knew them like their kids. But what’s the value in knowing an artist’s parents if they’re not the target audience? This may cater to the egos of the artist, but it is an inefficient marketing budget expenditure. Now, targeted marketing reaches consumers who care. The result is a smaller, but more passionate fan base. This is marketing to build fans, not audiences. It’s a real shame that Western DSPs are built for passive audiences, not fanatics. This needs to change. DSPs paradoxically lead to fragmentation, but they provide no mechanism for benefiting artists and labels. A cynic might argue that this is by design.

In fact, as Music Business Worldwide’s U.S. Top 10 Tracks Streaming Luminate chart shows, the fragmentation of streaming listening is pushing consumption towards the middle and away from the superstars.

For superstars who have been around since before the fragmentation, the new version may look increasingly successful by traditional metrics — just ask Beyonce. But since fragmentation means more authentic fan engagement with music, the cultural relevance of these smaller hits may actually be greater – ask Beyoncé again.

However, there are additional complications. As we are currently in transition, the pre-fragment hangover is messing with the running water. Pre-fragmentation hits stay on stream longer because they have pre-fragmentation brand power. As they benefited from the exposure of the old world mainstream media, their hits on the stream broke in a way that new media often struggled to do. These pre-fragmentation remnants have the effect of further fragmenting the new hits as they account for a lot of streaming consumption. The result is that streaming is less of a level playing field than an all-level field. This transition phase will play out, and while it does exist, it’s a world of opportunity for artists and labels to tap into entrenched fan bases. Fragmentation occurs.

The rise of the scene

The most exciting knock-on effect of fragmentation is the rise of scenarios and micro-scenarios. In the old world, there was a limit to what consumers could identify themselves with because everyone was watching the same TV, reading the same magazines, listening to the same radio, and shopping at the same stores. Consumers can now build their identities from a more diverse set of attributes such as fashion, music, TV/movie, gaming, politics, and more.

As my colleague Tatiana Cirisano put it:

“The result is a scene that’s more complex and divisive. Think of the seemingly endless subcultures on TikTok, from #cottagecore to #EGirl, or the Instagram account @starterpacksofnyc, which has gained by crystallizing hyper-specific yet exceptionally familiar personality types Over 64,500 followers.”

The rise of this scene will shape the future of marketing, with the scene becoming a new field that transcends borders and cultures. Superstars will get smaller, but they’ll be better off monetizing superfans (which is why Taylor Swift’s Universal Music Group deal includes broader rights than records because her sales only go in one direction) develop). Superstars aren’t dead, they’re changing, getting smaller and, well, super. This is the inevitable second-order consequence of streaming fragmented listening, and smart labels will capitalize on this trend rather than try to fight it.

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