How Drake Conquered Streaming
The Toronto MC has emerged as the leader of the new industry model.
Drake’s summer 2016 chart dominance has put him in rare company: Since 1963, only three other artists have led the Billboard 200 and Billboard Hot 100 for at least 10 weeks with an album and corresponding single, as the Toronto MC has done with Views and “One Dance” (featuring Wizkid and Kyla) this year. But unlike Adele, Santana and Whitney Houston, Drake’s mastery of an emerging platform -- streaming -- paved his way.
The numbers speak for themselves: Since its April 29 release, Views has logged the six largest streaming weeks ever for an album’s tracks, and nine of the top 10. Its 20 songs have generated 2.1 billion on-demand audio streams through the week ending Aug. 4, according to Nielsen Music, the only album ever to pass the 2 billion mark. And 41 percent of Views’ 3.4 million equivalent album units earned to date have come from streaming units, compared to 42 percent from traditional album sales. The MC’s deal with Apple in mid-2015 aligned him with its digital power, while in May he passed Justin Bieber as the most-streamed artist in Spotify’s history.
As streaming continues to become the prevalent revenue and listening model, Drake, 29, has emerged as the format’s de facto Muhammad Ali. How much of that is strategy, and how much is luck?
“You can’t do this with just any artist; he’s got a great team around him that delivers,” says Apple’s Jimmy Iovine. “And when you’ve got a team like that, you can have things come out at the right time.”
Indeed, part of the success is down to good timing: During the first half of 2016, on-demand audio streams increased 97.4 percent year over year, according to Nielsen Music, with R&B/hip-hop leading all genres at 27.4 percent of that total. But Drake is singular in his ability to drive his fan base toward the format.
Statistics from MusicWatch provided to Billboard show that 80 percent of Drake’s fans have engaged with him -- in the form of follows, retweets and likes -- on a social media platform; 26 percent own music by him; and 19 percent actively follow him (as opposed to merely listening) on streaming services.
“Drake is very active on social, even sometimes controversial, and when you have an audience that reacts to social, it intersects -- it’s kind of like the 'Kardashian effect,'" says MusicWatch managing partner Russ Crupnick. “But also there’s a constant flow of quality releases, so something is always keeping fans’ interest; he’s active in collaborations with other artists; there’s always something stirring the pot.”
Unlike superstars for whom every move is an event, Drake keeps his activity at a constant simmer, peaking at strategic moments. Before 2015, he would release tracks every couple of months through his SoundCloud account, resulting in off-cycle platinum hits such as “0 to 100/The Catch Up” and “Hotline Bling” (later included on Views). But since signing his Apple deal, he has shifted his release forum to his weekly OVO Sound radio show on Apple’s Beats 1.
“With OVO Sound, Drake is fully connecting with subscribers on the streaming service, at least on Apple,” says Rob Markman, manager of artist relations at Genius. “He’s not just delivering music, but delivering events: On Twitter when OVO Sound is airing, you can see people listening and commenting. He’s creating a culture around streaming and embracing it.”
“One of Drake’s real gifts is that he doesn’t go away,” says New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica. “That feels real and also is a strategic choice. No matter what he said last year about disappearing to go finish work on Views, there is no actual disappearing.”
But perhaps most of all, the genre-spanning diversity of Drake’s music is key, particularly as playlists grow in importance. On Spotify, which receives more than 1 billion weekly streams across its in-house playlists, Drake’s music is found on Today’s Top Hits (9.8 million followers), Rap Caviar (4 million), Teen Party (2.2 million) and Are & Be (2.1 million), among others. ("He's not afraid to experiment with styles and genres; he can fit on any playlist," Markman says.) And Drake's tendency to lend verses to buzzing songs by emerging artists -- remixing hits by Migos, iLoveMakonnen and Fetty Wap in recent years -- keeps him connected to the younger demographic that represents the core of on-demand streaming's users.
“You have to consider where Drake’s fans are,” adds Caramanica. “His idea of soundtracking actually lines up very neatly with a streaming economy, where you don’t have to go dig and find something -- this thing is there for you in the moment when you need it. Drake is the titan of that.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 20 issue of Billboard.