Nearly the entire catalog of recorded music is at our fingertips which means we’re faced with an inundation of choices every time we scroll through Spotify looking for a new track to listen to. That paralysis of choice can be confounding for artists. Veteran music journalist and New York magazine’s music editor Sam Hockley-Smith says that to be successful in today’s industry, artists need to figure out who their audience is and how to keep them coming back for more, one track at a time.
Spotify for Artists: Have you seen any drops in the last year that had a particularly interesting strategy behind them?
Sam Hockley-Smith: I do think that a certain aspect of what Kanye did with all of those albums was really innovative. I think that there’s this temptation, especially with streaming and the way that people tend to try to game the streaming system and get their numbers up to push the maximum amount of songs they can onto an album, to pretend that their album concept is just stacking as many songs that people might hopefully love onto a record. So when Kanye went the opposite way and said “here’s seven songs,” I think that’s a really good model. You don’t need to fill a CD with 80 minutes of music or whatever. It can be almost whatever you want it to be at this point, and that’s kind of an interesting thing.
Now that everything is digital, what are some lessons artists can take from that mold being broken?
It seems like there’s this idea right now that artists need to essentially trick their listeners into listening to something a lot, regardless of quality. It’s understandable, but I think that it all goes back to this one lesson which is that what you want more than anything else is for people to come back to your music. Who knows how many songs that I’ve listened to that I will never listen to again that probably just disappear from my brain even if I actually like them just because there’s so much there. What you want to do is be the artist that people are going to come back to over and over again even though there’s just almost literally unlimited music out there to listen to.
Do you think that there’s different ways that artists should approach their releases based on their own genre or goals for their creative output or is there a strategy?
I think that it’s a little strange that everyone kind of adheres to the pop music model. That you release a single, and then a second single, and then maybe a third single, and then your album. To me, I think there’s no harm in just releasing your album if that’s the way you want people to engage with it or never releasing an album and just releasing singles, or even releasing an album and then changing it over time because now that’s an option. I do think it’s important to not feel beholden to this set-in-stone pop music structure that we use which was set up around radio. You release a single and then if that one does well you do another one. Then you’re building anticipation for this thing that’s coming. Now you can just release something if and when you’re ready for it, you know?
Speaking of singles, are there any release strategies around just a single that stick out to you as particularly creative?
I think that if you’re an artist and you have a song that you feel good about and you think, “This is my single,” you should be putting everything you have behind it. You treat it like it’s something that deserves to be on a playlist with a bunch of really good songs. This is a thing that people are going to search for and they’re going to click on it just to listen to this song over and over again. Knowing what you want your audience to be and deciding who your listener is is important too. There’s this impulse where once you finish an album or an EP you say, “Alright, we did it. We made this music. Let’s hire a publicist and they’ll take care of pushing this thing out. Our work is done.” In 2018 that’s a little bit of a misguided way of looking at it. You need to make the decision about who your audience is going to be, or how you’re going to share your music. You have to make it easily accessible and, above all, you want to know who you’re trying to get this music to. It’s about getting music you’re proud of in front of the people that will like it. What are you really trying to do and who is it for? That should be what you’re thinking about.
—Spotify for Artists