In January, “Pushin P,” an eerie, low-slung track from Gunna, swept into the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at No. 7. The song was credited to Gunna & Future featuring Young Thug, and through the chart dated May 7th, it remains the only top 10 hit in 2022 to have an artist billing incorporating the word “featuring.”
In the last decade, typically between 20% and 30% of top 10 Hot 100 hits per year have involved a credited feature; during the first three-and-half months of 2022, that number stands at just 4%. In fact, the use of “featuring” hasn’t been this unpopular since 1995, when just three of 68 top ten singles incorporated the word.
But this does not mean that hit collaborations are on the decline. While “featured” has fallen out of favor, dual billings — linking artists with “&” or “X” — are rocketing upwards (think of top 10 hits like Imagine Dragons X JID’s “Enemy,” or the Kid LAROI & Justin Bieber’s “Stay”). This style of crediting was basically nonexistent among charting hits at the start of the 2010s. By 2019, nearly 20% of top 10 Hot 100 hits were labeled this way. And so far in 2022, a full 25% of top 10 hits rely on “&” or “X.” The most notable example is “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” which set a new record for the most artists ever credited on a No. 1 hit.
Styles go in and out of fashion; slang changes. But the A&R reps, major-label marketers, lawyers, and publishers who spoke to Billboard for this story were adamant that this shift in labeling is being driven by one company: Spotify. The streaming behemoth has caused the music industry to track “monthly listeners” — the big number that appears on artists’ homepages right under their name, which reflects the number of total unique visitors over a rolling 28-day period — with single-minded intensity, and that number can be impacted by the way that artists are credited.
The back end of the streamer allows for what’s called “primary” artist tagging, and when two acts are identified as the primary artist behind a single — at both the “track level” and “product level” — sources say that each performer’s monthly listener count stands to benefit when someone clicks play. This can be especially beneficial for a smaller artist who manages to secure a collaboration with a bigger act; as long as the more popular performer’s fans check out the track, that will help drive the lesser-known performer’s monthly listener count upwards. And if two acts are both labelled “primary” on the back end, that makes it seem pretty reasonable to give them co-billing on the front end as well.
Take the case of rising star Fireboy DML. In December, he released a new version of his propulsive Afrobeats single “Peru” with Ed Sheeran, who enjoys co-billing alongside the Nigerian artist. Fireboy DML’s monthly listener count on Spotify was around 2.7 million on Dec. 23, according to the analytics company Chartmetric. By Jan. 21, his monthly listener count had ballooned to 11.2 million.
In addition, when two acts are awarded primary status at the product and track level on Spotify, their collaboration qualifies to appear in the “Popular” section at the top of each performer’s page if it’s driving listening activity. In contrast, sources say that if one of the collaborators is tagged as a “Featured Artist” in the streaming service’s back end, that performer’s monthly listener account will be unaffected by a wave of interest in the collaboration.
Not only that, the track will live in the “Appears On” section of the featured performer’s page, which is lower down and organized by popularity rather than chronological order, meaning that it does not provide great visibility for a recent release. (Everyone who spoke for this story said competing streaming services from Apple and Amazon don’t highlight “monthly listeners” in the same way, making crediting conventions less important on those platforms.) Though, making things more confusing, some artists attempt to have it both ways on Spotify, granting both collaborators “primary” status but including a “feat” credit in the title of the song, which marketers believe might help with search.
The metadata is the message. “The formatting of the artist and collaborator name can have a huge effect,” explains entertainment attorney Gandhar Savur, who runs Savur Law. “Choosing that formatting correctly and delivering the metadata to streaming services properly is crucial because it impacts many important aspects — such as from which artist pages you will be able to find the track directly and how and when a track can be pitched for playlisting.”
Securing that primary artist designation “has really become a big deal” when putting collaborations together, adds Yaasiel “Success” Davis, vp of A&R at Atlantic Records.
The “featuring” credit initially came into vogue primarily to highlight a cameo appearance by a major act (“Don’t Know Much” by Linda Ronstadt featuring Aaron Neville) or when a producer tapped a vocalist for a collaboration (“I’ll Be Good to You” by Quincy Jones featuring Ray Charles & Chaka Khan). When hip-hop conquered the mainstream in the 1990s, “featuring” became increasingly common, as rappers brought in other MCs for a verse or enlisted an R&B singer to sing a sticky chorus. In 2003 and 2004, at least 40% of top 10 Hot 100 hits included a feature credit.
But that was before Spotify, which grants both acts extra visibility when they nab a “primary” descriptor. In a streaming world where everyone is constantly battling for eyes and ears, it would make sense for nearly all contemporary collaborations to be co-billings: Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow are treated as equals on “Industry Baby,” as are Nicki Minaj and Lil Baby on “Do We Have a Problem?”
A variety of factors complicate the primary artist equation, however. These include the relationship between the two or more acts involved in the song, how much each artist contributed musically to the track, the extent to which the singers’ or rappers’ labels are getting along that week, and what else is in the release pipeline. In addition, only three acts can be designated as primary, so if an artist releases a posse cut, someone will end up being a featured act.
“Primary artist designation is often a point of contention in negotiations when you’re trying to get these features cleared,” explains Karl Fowlkes of the Fowlkes Firm. “If you don’t get [primary artist designation], it feels disrespectful. You’re like, ‘man, that’s fucked up.’ “
Still, acts routinely get snubbed. If one performer asks a second performer to team up on a track, but the latter “has another song coming out the same day, or he recently released a song and he wants all the eyeballs going to that [on his Spotify page] rather than a song that he’s featured on, that might lead someone not to grant that primary artist tag,” Davis says.
In addition, both artists’ labels must sign off for a collaboration to come out, and corporate politics can make this process tricky, lawyers say. Memories in the music industry are long. And if one label believes another was too pushy during a round of negotiations, the former may be nursing a grudge the next time a feature request comes through. “Sometimes labels won’t grant the primary, and they won’t give us a reason,” says Matt Buser, an entertainment attorney. “I think it’s just label politics.”
Popular artists can also dangle primary artist tagging to extract better deal terms from lesser-known collaborators. “If you want somebody on your next single and that artist is bigger than you, [the latter] might say, ‘Hey, we’re not gonna give you primary artist [tagging] if you don’t pay us $20,000 more,’” Fowlkes notes.
For Buser, jockeying over primary artist status has gotten to the point of “over-negotiation.” He recently worked on a deal where one act was only granted primary artist status for 24 hours. “We can get hit really hard by big artists,” Buser continues. “You’re charging us a couple hundred thousand dollars for a verse and video, you want half the income on the back end, and then you’re only going to allow it to appear on your artist’s primary Spotify page for one day? It’s like highway robbery.”
So lawyers joust, trying to maximize the potential exposure for their artist clients without giving too much away in exchange. Fowlkes works closely with the rising independent rapper Blxst, who has achieved co-billing recently on a new remix of Fireboy DML’s “Peru” — alongside 21 Savage — and Snoop Dogg’s “Go to War.” “We haven’t had too much trouble getting [Blxst] primary artist designation, because he streams well, and he’s an exciting new presence,” Fowlkes says.
And when potential collaborators are reluctant to label Blxst “primary”? “Usually,” Fowlkes adds, “there is a dollar amount that can persuade somebody.”