Culture

Music streaming numbers are meaningless

A new report suggests Tidal drastically inflated some listener numbers, which isn’t the first time the math hasn’t lined up.

Culture

Music streaming numbers are meaningless

A new report suggests Tidal drastically inflated some listener numbers, which isn’t the first time the math hasn’t lined up.
Culture

Music streaming numbers are meaningless

A new report suggests Tidal drastically inflated some listener numbers, which isn’t the first time the math hasn’t lined up.

A Norwegian newspaper has accused Tidal of inflating its streaming numbers to benefit certain artists, giving further weight to the suspicions about the company’s stream, sales, and subscription claims that have been floating around for years. Backed up by a 78-page study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the report from Dagens Næringsliv claims “Beyoncé’s and Kanye West’s listener numbers on TIDAL have been manipulated to the tune of several hundred million false plays… which has generated massive royalty payouts at the expense of other artists.”

Music journalists have been calling Tidal’s self-reported data into question for some time now. Dagens Næringsliv’s new report follows one from January 2017 that claimed the company inflated its subscriber numbers. That report was bolstered by data from media research and analysis company Midia, which determined that Tidal had 1 million subscribers, much less than the 3 million the company had claimed in March 2016.

“I’m just saying, if Tidal were gonna mess with the numbers for anyone, it would be Beyoncé.”
Michael Nelson for Stereogum in 2016

That year, several music journalists called Tidal’s reported numbers into question. “Is Tidal lying about Kanye West’s ‘Pablo’ streaming numbers?” one blog asked. “What about all of the rest of the sales that Tidal claimed?” asked The New York Times in an article about Rihanna’s Anti. “I’m not accusing Tidal of messing with the numbers,” Michael Nelson wrote for Stereogum that August. “I’m just saying, if Tidal were gonna mess with the numbers for anyone, it would be Beyoncé.” Following reports that Jay Z was suing the former owner of Tidal for providing incorrect subscriber information, industry website Music Business Worldwide responded to the company’s claim that Pablo had been streamed 250 million times over its first 10 days of release by writing: “Considering that Justin Bieber’s Purpose recently broke Spotify records with 205 million global streams in its opening week, across that service’s some-100m users, the Kanye figure certainly seems high.” And while a handful of artists have done battle with the services themselves, last July Tyler, the Creator publicly cast his own doubt on Tidal’s streaming numbers, tweeting and then later deleting, “DAMN TIDAL GOT ALBUMS PLAYING BEFORE A PAYWALL WHICH MAKES ME THINK NIGGAS CAN HAVE BOTS SPIKING UP PLAYS FOR BILLBOARD ON FRIDAY HMM.”

Jay-Z reading this new report, maybe.

However, it’s not just Tidal that is causing confusion around streaming numbers. In his piece for Stereogum, Nelson focused specifically on the irreconcilable streaming numbers for Drake’s Views reported by services Spotify and Apple Music and industry tracking system Nielsen Soundscan, who provides its data to Billboard. Not only that, but the RIAA and Nielsen Soundscan/Billboard have completely different methods of calculating streaming numbers, which has led to conflicting certifications and general confusion of how profitable or popular certain musical works really are.

Despite all this, I’ve still been passively consuming articles and press releases touting the streaming successes of certain albums and songs. For example, recently media outlets have been reporting that Post Malone, Cardi B, and J. Cole have all broken streaming records on Apple Music or Spotify (apparent testaments to their domination), according to data provided by the platforms themselves. Cool, good for them (except Post Malone), I would have thought before. But following this damning report, it seems time to accept what many industry experts have long been thinking: Streaming data is possibly inaccurate, and thus completely meaningless as a metric of success. What it means for the artists themselves, who rely on streaming data to calculate royalty payouts, is more unclear.

Hey you! We want to know what you think about The Outline (and you can win some cool swag too). We know you love to answer questions, so take our 5 minute survey.