The power of discovery and sharing of music online is increasingly led by its listeners through curated playlists on streaming platforms. The process by which Mr. Probz’s “Waves” — currently at No. 3 on the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart — independently broke into the U.S. market illustrates the newest era of music discovery, what many are calling the “curation era.”
Originally sung by Mr. Probz and later remixed by Robin Shultz, “Waves” broke international barriers, streaming one million times per day for three consecutive months on Spotify. Even more incredible, Mr. Probz achieved this success without a major public appearance in the States and without any major media push. To date, the record has certified gold in the United States, and Mr. Probz now sits at No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 as of the week ending Nov. 16.
“Platforms like Spotify definitely helped spread the music way before it even hit the radio in a lot of countries,” Mr. Probz (real name Dennis Princewell Stehr) tells Billboard. “My reaction couldn’t really comprehend the idea of a million people listening to my music but I sometimes try to picture it. It looks amazing.”
The Dutch artist, songwriter and producer broke into the hip-hop scene through graffiti culture after becoming known for producing songs in both Dutch and English. Back in early May 2013, disaster struck when an electrical fire destroyed his house and home studio, leaving the artist homeless — although he was able to salvage his laptop, hard drive and passport.
“The first two days were rough but then I realized that I literally had nothing left to lose, so it could only get better from that point on,” Probz says. “The incident itself didn’t really change me. I’d been through some close calls before but what I think helped change my focus and drive was the amount of love and support I received from all over the world.”
Three days after the incident, his luck changed when “Waves” debuted on Holland’s top 40 chart. An avalanche of remixes followed, but it wasn’t until a remix by German house producer Robin Shulz emerged that “Waves” was licensed to Ultra/Sony Music Entertainment (Netherlands).
“At the time there were a lot of remixes and bootlegs everywhere after the original hit the ceiling in Holland. But when my manager told me about Robin Schulz’s version, I gave it a listen and right away we already knew that if we would want to make a move like that, it should be that version,” Probz says. “After numerous labels outside of Holland started hitting us up to see if we would be interested in releasing it officially it was all a no brainer from there. We contacted Robin’s people after that and the rest is history.”
Mr. Probz’s album The Treatment was officially released onto iTunes in February — but it was Spotify curation that helped the track catch on in the first place.
In late September, Spotify Insights released a case study, “Anatomy of a Hit: How Mr. Probz came to America.” The article revealed that German users were the first to discover the track on Spotify. The study also noted that the majority of German users discovered “Waves” through lean forward discoveries, which can be better understood as voluntary searches. To date “Waves” has been downloaded over 500,000 times in Germany.
U.S. listeners first began discovering “Waves” through lean back discovery, meaning that users first heard “Waves” on a playlist created by Spotify. Between February and July 2014, more than 60 percent of U.S. listeners discovered “Waves” on Spotify playlists. Radio was the last to ride the wave, having broadcast the song only 2,000 times in the U.S. within four months after the song was released on iTunes.
But as U.S. radio plays increased, U.S. user behavior shifted from accidental discovery to initiating the search for “Waves.” In other words, it went from a lean back to lean forward method of discovery.
“For Mr. Probz, and an increasing number of artists with a similar journey to discovery, what’s interesting is that Spotify playlists were the broadcasters, not marketing dollars. That’s important as it implies a higher return on investment,” says Will Page, Spotify’s director of economics. “For Mr. Probz, the story is truly remarkable in that he didn’t have a house in January, never mind a record deal. Yet he now has a Gold record in the United States with very little intent,”says Spotify’s Director of Economics, Will Page.
As we approach 2015, streaming is arguably becoming more vital to the evolutionary cycle of an emerging artist. According to Spotify, about a quarter of the RIAA points that amounted to Mr. Probz’s U.S. Gold certification came from streaming. Although top-tier artists like Taylor Swift may choose to boycott Spotify, music streaming platforms can play a pivotal role in boosting emerging artists’ careers. With the exchange of playlists created by users, we have entered a new era, where the users themselves are becoming the curators of talent.
As for Mr. Probz, the anticipation for his next album is high thanks to the runaway success of “Waves,” which most recently saw a remix by Chris Brown and T.I.
“The concept for my new album is built around the fire and how I lost everything I owned, but got the world in return. And also about how finally releasing The Treatment gave me a chance to start a new journey,” Mr. Probz tells Billboard. “It will still have hip-hop influences but I can’t say where it will end up taking me. The only thing I hope to accomplish is making an album that I can still play and enjoy in 10 years.”