From Russia with Love: Artists & Algorithms

Ever since consumers traded in their CDs for Spotify subscriptions, the rise of music streaming platforms has been astronomical. Major streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal now dominate an industry once fueled by physical sales. In 2020, music streaming accounted for 83% of industry revenues - totaling $10.1 billion - with $7 billion coming from paid subscriptions. Spotify, launched out of Sweden in 2008, has become the premier streaming service, boasting 356 million active monthly users (158 million paid subscribers) across 178 countries. For smaller and emerging artists, Spotify’s playlist placement and recommendation algorithms can prove beneficial for increased listenership, especially with millions of global listeners. However, a key - and seemingly overlooked -aspect in these artists’ growth lies within international audiences, a massive market that artists have begun to tap into.

In February, Ryan Petersen and Larson McDonald, the duo behind Huntington Beach, California-based alternative band Creative Differences, were preparing to release a new single, “So Beautiful,” with an accompanying music video. As they put it, “there’s no scene here for our music in Orange County.” Looking to expand their listenership ahead of the single’s release, the duo ran advertisements through Facebook Ads.

“They just happened to strike gold in a couple cities in Russia and Ukraine and the organic sharing started there,” said Petersen. “We happened to hit this area in Moscow and St. Petersburg and a few other smaller cities in Russia where people loved it. And it wasn’t just a few streams like you’d get from a random playlist spot. It was like - it was big - and that continued into the EP release. Actual fans came back.”

Within a matter of weeks, an influx of new fans appeared, sending comments and DMs that Petersen and McDonald could only read through translation. One quick glance at the YouTube comments of the “So Beautiful” video feels similar to reading a first-edition copy of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Some fans created mock Russian tour schedules; one fan even sent them homemade art. With their EP, CD Records, Vol. 1, on the horizon, the duo set goals for streams and Instagram followers, which they achieved largely through their newfound international fans.

“It was very unexpected,” said Petersen. “When it started that way, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, wow,’ and I’m not complaining, fans are fans, and they’re very attentive and passionate about what we’re doing on such a small level. Like, we just got started a few months ago and we have people that are this involved. And so for us any kind of growth, especially that sort of growth, is what matters.”

For other artists, like San Diego-based house producer Drew Dapps, growth can come from matching your sound to the right environment. Beginning as a hip-hop producer, a majority of Dapps’ engagement came from the United States. But as he transitioned into crafting rhythmic house beats, Dapps saw a “major shift”.

“The international journey with the music is due to the fact that most of the heads that fuck with my genre are in other countries,” said Dapps. “Most of the labels that release my kind of shit, like the minimal, deep tech sound and deep house sound, are based in either Europe or South America or Mexico.”

As a hip-hop producer, Dapps independently released music through SoundCloud, a platform that spawned generational hip-hop acts such as Travis Scott and Lil Uzi Vert. For many hopeful independent artists, signing a record deal is the ultimate dream. With only a few years of house production under his belt, Dapps has achieved this multiple times over, releasing tracks through numerous international labels.

Dapps was one of the first Americans to release through Conceptual, a label based in Moldova. Each time he releases in a new country, Dapps places a small red pin on the world map that hangs on the wall of his studio. Dapps says that the map keeps him “inspired,” and that releasing music across the world has taught him more than any geography class.

Since house and electronic dance music are internationally popular, many labels have become known for their deep catalogues of tracks to move your hips to. Dapps says that releasing music through labels with a certain level of reputation helps “gain respect” from listeners, as these labels’ track records are proven.

“When you release on a label, you get exposed to that label’s audience,” said Dapps. “People that are fans of the label know what to expect. They kind of start with you automatically on top because they liked the label, so they’re willing to give you a chance. Now, since these labels are based internationally, a lot of their core audience is going to be the countries where they originated from.”

Part of Spotify’s appeal comes from their playlists. A placement for a new artist on “POLLEN,” a genre-less Spotify-curated playlist boasting 1.3 million followers, could result in a significant boost in listeners. Media publications of all sizes create their own playlists and push them to their followers, and each artist on the platform has their own dedicated “radio,” a playlist that features similar music. Individual streams, however, aren’t nearly as helpful as individual followers. When artists release new music, it’s rolled out to their followers and algorithms are better suited to recognize potential fans. While a hit song could signal things to come, it’s all about playing the long game.

“You can have 30,000 monthly listeners and 200 followers and that’s not gonna help you in the future,” said McDonald. “So, we’ve got Spotify, I guess, and the Facebook ads just helped us to set ourselves up for the long term. Because now when we have more songs coming out in a month, then we’re guaranteed that Spotify is going to try to push those songs on at least 2,000 people, which is cool. The plan is to keep doing Facebook ads.”

For both Creative Differences and Dapps, Facebook advertisements appear to be a source of genuine growth opportunities. When Creative Differences began placing advertisements through Facebook, an algorithm would figure out which countries yielded the most engagement at the lowest rate, which in their case was Russia. Ahead of the release of their next music video, Creative Differences opted to cut their advertising budget in half. Because their music had already begun to spread in other countries, word-of-mouth and platform algorithms continued to create new, engaged followers. The duo also utilizes the power of TikTok; one of their videos on the platform went viral in Russia in June 2020. “Maybe Russians just like what we’re doing,” said McDonald.

“If you have a bunch of different [platforms] that are all trying to find the best areas for an audience and you can gain legitimate fans and organic people through that, then when the data is connected through Spotify, you can reach other locations,” said Petersen. “We never would have guessed that Russia would have been such a great spot if it weren’t for TikTok and Facebook. Without these companies that have target audiences finding technologies, we wouldn’t really know to ever try to do anything there. But now we have people asking us to come out there and play shows.”

Ryan Petersen (left) and Larson McDonald (right)

Dapps uses Facebook advertisements to promote his music, but he does so in a unique way. Instead of directly pushing his newest releases, Dapps advertises his curated playlists, which heavily feature music from his discography. When he places the advertisement, Dapps runs them exclusively in countries in which Spotify is available.

“That’s been very beneficial to my listenership because they have that playlist saved, they hit shuffle, there’s a good chance my stuff is gonna come on,” said Dapps. “And when you’re doing these [Facebook] advertisements, it’s a lot cheaper to get engagement in say, Chile or Mexico, or other places overseas rather than America. But I don’t think that has anything to do with it. I think the sound right now is more booming in those places anyways. There’s a large club scene and festival scene.”

Once the connection between artist and listener is made, authenticity is the key to sustainable relationships. Listeners have developed excellent bullshit detectors, and any instance of inauthenticity can lead to accusations of being an “industry plant”.

“If people feel like your stuff is fake, they’re gonna act that way,” said Petersen. “Which is why it’s great that even though most of our fans are elsewhere, we still have a core group of supporters here [in the United States] that help us with music videos and just messing around doing stuff for content.”

The rapid growth of social media and fine-tuning of algorithms has allowed artists to build fan bases across the world and garner significant growth without playing in dive bars and peddling CDs on the street. Over the last year, people around the world have been engaging with media in largely the same way: streaming. With more people tapped into streaming than ever, there’s no question that it’s the dominant way to consume music.

As the world begins to reopen, musicians will soon return to venues and festivals. For many artists, Creative Differences and Drew Dapps included, they’ll emerge from the pandemic with fans in countries they may not have heard of only months ago. Perhaps we’ll see an increase in smaller US-based artists going overseas first to begin their touring lives. One thing is for certain: there’s never been a better time to be a hungry artist.