Music Business

Niche is the new mainstream: WMG beyond superstars [Mark Mulligan]

The structure of mainstream music is changing once again, and so shall Warner Music Group. Will focusing on smaller artists and audiences improve WMG’s success?

by Mark Mulligan of MIDiA

Warner Music Group’s (WMG’s) Steve Cooper recently stated that the major is no longer financially dependent on superstars – which is, of course, quite a different thing from not being culturally dependent on them, but we’ll get to that. For a major’s CEO (exiting or not) to make such a claim is both bold and a reflection of the reality on the ground. In fact, it is a natural milestone in a trend MIDiA identified years ago: fragmented fandom. As streaming audiences and consumption fragment, so does the impact of superstars. As with any transition, the shift is not linear and there will continue to be more Olivia Rodrigos and Billie Eilishes, but they will be fewer and farther between, and crucially, they will be smaller than their pre-fragmentation peers.

Superstars getting smaller is music to the ears of independent labels and artists alike, but it is far from the death knell for big labels. Instead, it simply reflects the new environment in which they will operate. Indeed, Cooper said WMG is pursuing a “portfolio” strategy “across a bigger number of artists” to reduce financial “dependency on superstars”. This comes after BMG’s CEO, Hartwig Masuch, said of their latest results: “The extraordinary thing about our first half result is that we grew revenue 25% with virtually no hits”. Having no superstars does not mean having no hits, instead it means more, smaller hits.

In 2019, MIDiA wrote that “Niche is the new mainstream”, that the water cooler moments of the linear era were being replaced by cultural moments. Audiences are in different places at different times, with algorithms delivering them different personalised content. Concepts, such as ‘song of the summer’, are becoming different for everyone. Each listener has their own song of the summer. In the era of fragmented fandom, water cooler moments across the masses, where everyone heard the song on the radio at the same time, are replaced by smaller groups of people finding pockets of likeminded fans across the world.

The consequence for artist marketing is a progressive shift from ‘carpet bombing’ mass media in order to build artist brand reach, to campaigns that, instead, reach real fans with laser-focused targeting. In the old model, a superstar artist was a household name, with mum and dad just as likely to know them as their kids. But what was the value of mum and dad knowing the artist if they were not the target audience? It might play to the artists’ egos, but it was an inefficient spend of marketing budget. Now, targeted marketing reaches the consumers who care. The result is smaller, but more passionate, fanbases. This is marketing to build fans rather than audiences. It is just a shame that western DSPs are built for passive audiences rather than fandoms. That will need to change. DSPs paradoxically triggered the fragmentation, but they do not provide the mechanisms for artists and labels to benefit. A cynic might argue that that is by design.

Indeed, the fragmentation of listening that streaming is pushing consumption towards the middle, away from the superstars, as Music Business Worldwide’s Luminate chart for streams of the US top-10 tracks shows.

For the superstars who are used to mega-fame from the pre-fragmentation days, a new release’s performance can look like diminishing success when measured by traditional metrics – just ask Beyonce. But, because fragmentation means it is truer fans that engage with the music, the cultural relevance of these smaller hits can actually be bigger – again just ask Beyonce.

There are, however, extra complications. As we are currently in a transition phase, pre-fragmentation hangovers are muddying the streaming waters. Pre-fragmentation hits stick around for longer on streaming because they had the pre-fragmentation brand reach. Since they benefited from the old-world mainstream media exposure, their hits cut through on streaming in a way that newer ones often struggle to. These pre-fragmentation hangovers have the effect of fragmenting new hits even further as they take up so much of streaming’s consumption. The result is that streaming is not so much a level playing field as a field of all levels.This transition phase will play out, and while it does, there is a world of opportunity for artists and labels that can harness the deeply held fandom that fragmentation creates.

The rise of scenes

The most exciting knock-on effect of fragmentation is the rise of scenes and micro scenes. In the old world, consumers had a limited range of things with which they could identify themselves, as everyone was watching the same TV, reading the same magazines, listening to the same radio, and shopping in the same shops. Now, consumers can build their own identity from an ever more diverse set of attributes, across fashion, music, TV / film, games, politics, etc. 

As my colleague Tatiana Cirisano put it:

“The result is that scenes are becoming more complex and splintered. Consider the seemingly endless range of subcultures on TikTok, from #cottagecore to #EGirl, or the Instagram account @starterpacksofnyc, which has garnered more than 64,500 followers by crystallising super-specific, yet eerily-familiar, personality types.”

This rise of scenes is what will shape the future of marketing, with scenes becoming the new territories, transcending borders and cultures. Superstars will get smaller, but they will get better at monetising their superfans (this is why Taylor Swift’s Universal Music Group deal includes a broader range of rights than just recordings, as her sales were only going to go in one direction). Superstars are not dead, they are changing, become smaller and less, well, super. It is an inevitable second-order consequence of streaming splintering listening and the smart labels will harness the trend rather than try to fight it.

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1 Comment

  1. This article I had made about approximately 15 to 20 years ago. I was starting to acknowledge returning to the ambience miniparcially since so many groups I own now. I am alive and I am … I am returning the entire dusty industry to STOP all what’s not necessary.Soooooo, I really need a hand to stop all the scattered business mini anglings I own to making a more communicationally way to identify all the information about sales,entry data’s without any corrupted signals, a more angled central station to identify all.organixations a through Z plus space in between to id each reference.dress codes and confort home angle single with no marriage to nothing, nothing meaning nobody that’s not identifyingly identiknowlegdely compatible with sins that hurt my soul, because it hurts.the hurtings is the misleadings, the I sold I bought, I don’t want a stupid crew of liers or misleading gossips.the who is who and identifyingly to snitch and quick arrest is a must.because I hate everybody…..,everything that moves and breaks my heart I hate and I don’t want in none of my offices.hang on, what office, I’m beginning to rethink where the hell was I and how I got here, who is who,no presidents please,I’m tired of clones, I don’t want any…..hint.no dirty perverts claiming to owning my artist and offices then think that they will be owning part of my stock or anything at all what so ever.hintys anyone.no brivaries, no frauds, no broken commandments, no lies, no misleadings, no guilts, when I say guilts…I don’t….I loved you and you knew it….I gave you so much in whola and in part…which ever face you all are…you are you and I love you….it hurts….I hate doing and then regrets. So no breaking laws that hurt our balance.no dudes for you or mi….hahahahahah, I’m not a faggits…..I’m not a black tinted fraud, I’m simply a ,let mi think….after I was born again the same day, at another life, waking up after being blown up at another life by a, let see,so many car issues for buying used cars or not had fired the mechanic soon enough mechanics you are firing yourselves all not necessary.go to school and if you don’t know it, then sorry…get another retirement.next, new car new from dealership with a long term payment plan without hippocrits in life. No frauded friends claiming to being no baldies in my life.no black tinted beings in my life fraudings and claiming to being friends.no no no no no.no faking to beings are never needed.no I did this and then a faker claims to have done it .no misleaded news, no I think we sold some number or overhiping sales because it should be direst reports not info only direct sale about how much sales are done at stores…ok so where is the new not risky with direct Fotos of the real vocalist and no I am not doing any freebies, those days are over. No I am not, no I am not bringing my artist to a free gig, no I am not doing free authograph signings, no I am not doing any small gigs, no I am not doing anybody a favor, no I am not being hurted by who I trusted in.no I am not hiring you total sh_ts who disrespected my hearts, my artist,my high school friends, my so many lifetimes missing my sister’s, my x girlfriends, my lovie dobies, my true friends, my identifying mi love and friend forever and it hurts, because you know one look in your eyes and my eyes melt to tears, my memories, my similar you go girl identical to who, oh yeah, muahsz memory lane lets go to dinner and yes I love you and dress responsably and cover them legs and cleavage I ain’t promoting them and nothing else,and no I am not letting them live not even if law requests it I am the law and no I am not forgiving nobody who disrespected. And yes,I did remember,better one way or another, and no I am not sissilianing, and no I am not ok with any marriages, and yes it hurts, I did get divorced and I don’t feel my life….it was only for mi to get married with an Identica to mi even if it meant all of you all around the entire all…yes I always cared, yes I am jealous,always when I’m mi…and yes I hate , and yes I got you the divorce,and yes you don’t need the nobody’s signature,you can divorce yourself simply.and no I am not giving up on my truth…I am not them, who ever cheated mueranse. And I know, I’m a hot dedicated lustful to my self on my dedications.straight only.and yes I know….the problem with lesbianity is that it hurts because your heart particians and WHAT About mi, not that suspicious prick.aa haaaa, and no , spying is no good. No spying.not even your breath…brush your teeth. A moment from life there.oops, well ,no I didn’t raise anybody, only a few years, I gave up on lies.i didn’t want my heart caring if it wasn’t mine. I did do the best, I was partially caring to prove myself,it hurts because it simply does,I wanted simply to being a natural and it really doesn’t work.parcially does and do they really appreciate.to many life confusions, I don’t believe they grew it was only part life from a supposly crossed life.so no….I don’t believe I’m the real anything to them.i was too heart broken from all.i did care about when we were and suddenly then my life vanished. I woke up in another life.my broken heart, to many lives scattered and the being blamed for having another,it was mi in another life and I don’t know how it happened, it’s simply my heart was hurting from all the ups and downs, the not knowing how to explain, the similaritys, the reactions then, lustful stupiditys that, really hurted mi. I hate everybody.i wish they all die all who lied. Mi,I made billboard for dedication, music,music sales, ticket dales art,drawings,now I want to do Billboard Art,sales about my drawings,sketching,licensing my music and arts, sketchings,ideas, drawings,logos I have designed, brands I have made and designed..alot of them, collectionally, connection able, contentoably, simply not someone else.each a through Z separately. No more invites. Fired.anything lying a separate magazine to fire all who aren’t true. Why cloned,no clones, a snicharow about clones and faked identity. So listening to my pre what mouth,I am not a robot means no voices of anything for mi.so I need a new start. So get some rest.no programs.only good rest.no selling to nobody any business to nobody fake, to nobody who misleads or to nobody.only did to protect my own self earnings.so stop anything that ain’t worth the time .print all evidence.tha k you all.in advance thanking all who didi your parts to HELP my business and your separate affiliations and business a more communicationally between only two. I’m here.and girl only to my heart. So anything else.no.

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