In today’s music climate, technology gives us a constantly-updating snapshot of how our music performs over streaming platforms via play counts. The higher the counts are, the better the music is, or so goes conventional thinking. This is flat wrong for lots of reasons. Yet, with a healthy desire to find an audience for your music, it can be easy to give in to this idea in ways that damage your creativity and career in the process. There’s nothing wrong with wanting lots of listeners to love your music. In fact, wanting to build those connections is an essential part of building a music career. But if your only metrics for musical success are the stats behind your music, then you’re missing the point.
They don’t judge the true value of your work
If your songs rack up lots of plays, then your music is probably brilliant. But if they don’t, there must be something lacking with you as an artist, right? Maybe, or maybe not. The numbers can’t tell us the true value of our music. Some songs take off and find audiences over streaming platforms because they’re great. Others become favored by algorithms in ways that make it easier for listeners to find. Therefore, those are played far more than other songs. With today’s tech-centric and playlist-centric music culture, it’s far too simplistic to think that songs can only get their value from the number of plays they have. There are countless songs out there that are listenable, meaningful, and engaging that have under a thousand plays. On the other side of things, there are plenty of massively popular songs that lack originality and endurance when it comes to creativity and listenability.
Numbers can’t tell the whole story of what’s going on with your music
It’s completely possible today to have songs with millions of plays but few devoted fans. While playlists and streaming platforms are undeniably giving unestablished artists easy access to wide audiences, there’s a lack of connection and intimacy that can happen when listeners are barraged with a constant stream of new music tailored specifically to their needs. For many artists, it’s literally and figuratively easy to get lost in the shuffle today, even if their music is racking up a lot of plays. Developing artists without much visible play count momentum have the chance to earn fans by building intimate, music-forward relationships through live performances and direct online engagement. The same goes for musicians who generate high streaming numbers as well. Since the numbers can’t tell the whole story about you and your music, you have to find a way to bring that story to fans directly any way you can.
Your focus should be on creating the best music you can, not the numbers
With a constant stream of stats and analytical information being thrown at musicians in today’s music industry, it’s easy to think about releasing music like a video game––the highest-scoring songs win. But the truth is that thinking like this is like taking a sledgehammer to your creativity. If your first and largest intention during songwriting is to write music that generates lots of plays, your mindset is a universe away from where it needs to be. When we let the human connection be the focus of our creative energy, we’re free to make our best work. But when the burden of thinking about the numbers enters our process, we’re less likely to pursue our best and most human ideas. Think of it this way: When you write music, are you thinking about the human beings who will (hopefully) listen to it, or the numbers you hope it’ll generate? If your thoughts center more around play counts than actually living, breathing people, then something needs to change with your process.
It’s not always easy, but we can have a thriving creative practice as musicians with a strong desire to have our songs heard at the same time. But if play counts is your most important way of measuring success, you’ve got it wrong. Dig deep enough into what it is you truly want out of making and sharing music, and you’ll quickly see that connecting with people is far more important than the numbers.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.