HITS Daily Double


THE SHAPE OF PINGS TO COME: The sheer volume of unknown acts pinging the radar has largely transformed the A&R game. The process once hinged on the strength of a record exec’s instincts, timing, pitch and stomach for check-writing brinksmanship. Today, savvy players are still winning—but the game has changed dramatically since the pandemic lockdown.

When songs first started to break from TikTok, Spotify and SoundCloud, record peeps were throwing big money at these new-artist deals, not knowing or understanding their full potential. That was all pre-COVID, when the labels had a full arsenal of weapons to exploit, including touring. Livestreams, while allowing artists to make some cash while serving their diehard fan bases, have not moved the needle.

As the new reality sets in and we see what the results look like, new-artist deals have gotten less crazy. A greater understanding of a hot streaming act’s potential has become more pervasive. Even so, being early and aggressive can mitigate those dollars—especially if you can take an act off the table before the rest of the wolves smell blood. Early research and analytics are key to the process for the likes of Ron Perry, John Janick/Joie Manda/Todd Moscowitz, Elliot Grainge and Monte Lipman, who are leading the pack. They’re typically on the case when a future hot record is just warming up. But when an anomaly occurs, such as when a country act like Morgan Wallen (on Seth England’s Big Loud) explodes on Apple Music, it’s game on in the classic contest style —as the top players bring out the heavy artillery to close.

By the by, one thing that hasn’t changed much is the post-deal spin. If you signed it, you got it for less than the other guys because the artist dug your vibe. If the competition got it, they paid 50% more than you offered. (Yes, we know—their lawyer is your guy and you saw their offer.)

One interesting sidebar to the story of the new digital landscape: Apple Music’s aggressive, calculated move into country, where they’re identifying the hits early and populating them through their playlists—just as they’ve done with R&B and hip-hop, which they dominate. Amazon has had incredible growth in country, but when one crosses to Apple, the impact is louder than a klaxon. Take Warner Nashville’s Gabby Barrett, whom they moved on months ago; her “I Hope” is now at 400m+ streams globally (75%+ of that in the U.S.) and in the Top 10 at Pop radio. Spotify’s interest in country seems less enthusiastic, because the genre rarely hits critical mass outside the U.S.

THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS: Artist development has been profoundly affected by the lack of touring, even as the marketplace is being dominated by young acts—many of whom were complete unknowns before scaling the streaming charts. TikTok’s and Spotify’s global charts are two essential metrics for understanding today’s pop marketplace. The Spot’s Today’s Top Hits playlist, meanwhile, is fundamental to the potential success of these young acts. Each week’s adds to that playlist become critical, as radio has unquestionably come to the party in the last year, committing to records that have shown their bona fides on these digital platforms.

TTH’s weekly additions—new cuts must reach a threshold of 800k-1m or so streams before getting added—are vital on a global level, helping to gauge the potential of emerging artists. Apple Music, meanwhile, is driving the U.S. market as well as providing an ongoing musical map of the culture. The planets have aligned for new records to blow up instantly without things that were once indispensable, like rollout campaigns and marketing and publicity budgets—or even scheduled releases.

Once a track is ignited within a streaming platform’s system, the sky’s the limit. For the most part, though, TikTok is the only platform that’s doing the igniting and driving discovery. What’s more, that discovery is limited to songs, which can quickly become massive in the new ecosystem. TikTok isn’t breaking artists; the faces that accompany those bedroom-pop and hip-hop hits in its shortform videos are those of its users.

The secret sauce for growing a pop song into a hit act is the old-school combination of a radio hit and the road, and without those initial club circuits, those ballroom blitzes, those opening spots on shed tours and other early forays on the live side, how is an act to establish that it’s more than a track, however big? And without the crucible of the stage, how are artists supposed to grow?

A prime example of this is Capitol’s Lewis Capaldi, whose second hit is now vying for #1 at Top 40 radio, with Greg Marella at the wheel. In the wake of the irresistibly sad, chart-topping smash “Someone You Loved” earning insane global streams, the warm-and-fuzzy Scottish troubadour has hit another weepy ballad, “Before You Go,” out of the park. All this successful sorrow has hiked Capaldi’s album ATD to a hefty 1.3m U.S. But imagine if he’d had this year to consolidate those gains on tour. Would he be headlining 5-8k-cap venues?