English singer-songwriter Tom Misch represents the quiet fame of many indie artists in the streaming era. He’s released only one full-length album so far, Geography (in April 2018). But the 24-year-old now has over three million monthly listeners on Spotify; he’s in the studio with John Legend, was invited to play at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival and once made Barack Obama’s favorite songs list alongside world-renowned artists from Cardi B to Kendrick Lamar.
AWAL, the label-services company behind Misch, says one underrated secret for indie artists to make it in a streaming world, as Misch has, lies in the back-catalog. Misch had been building his for years before he was signed, by releasing tracks one-by-one on SoundCloud, then on Spotify and other paid streaming platforms.
When Geography came out, Misch’s back-catalog kept listeners satiated. From March to April 2018, his back catalog sextupled in streams from 2.5 million to 15 million streams, according to data that Spotify provided to Billboard.
“Tom’s not the type of artist who relies on hits,” Matt Riley, vp of A&R at AWAL, tells Billboard. “He has a really consistent sound. And if you do happen to have a hit song, everything will get an uplift if your catalog’s in order.”
Misch’s success is not an anomaly. In 2017, a similar pattern occurred with former AWAL artist Rex Orange County. When his single “Loving Is Easy” came out, his previous, lesser-known songs on Spotify also benefited, thereby skyrocketing the singer-songwriter’s overall streaming metrics. “The rest of the catalog exploded,” says Riley. (Rex’s upcoming album, Pony, will be out on October 25 via Sony Music.)
Today, every artist’s back-catalog has the potential to rise in value. According to Nielsen, the proportion of recorded-music revenue going to back-catalog has risen to nearly 70 percent of total annual consumption. That means music dating older than three years old far outweighs newer music in terms of number of streams.
Digital streaming services (DSPs) like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music and YouTube have made catalog exploration much more accessible for listeners. In the heyday of physical formats, fans had to front a significant amount of money to be able to dive into an artist’s catalog — i.e. by buying each record individually. Now, that exploration is a matter of a few clicks on a screen.
“If people are discovering artists’ entire bodies of work at no additional cost, thinking about releases in a segmented way [of older versus newer] doesn’t make much sense anymore,” AWAL CEO Lonny Olinick tells Billboard.
One might think that back-catalog consumption would threaten up-and-coming artists, since the latter group presumably has less material to offer. But as AWAL found with Misch and Rex Orange County, signing an artist with a prolific, consistent output is often enough to keep listeners from straying. It’s become a sustainable strategy for indie artists in particular, whose success hinges on organic fan growth, as opposed to major-label artists vying for radio-friendly hits or high-profile playlist placements.
Misch is an illustrative case study in the context of playlists: Between July 2017 and April 2018, the proportion of the artist’s audience that came from organic versus Spotify-programmed sources rose from 35 percent to 52 percent. That upward trend is important for artists who want to have more control over their audience relationships.
And to Olinick’s point, new music is no longer the only way to retain fans. Ironically, Misch stokes his own Spotify engagement by amping the back-catalogs of other artists, via an unwieldy self-curated playlist called “real good shit.” The 88-hour compilation is eclectic — Herbie Hancock, Flo Morrissey, Justin Timberlake, two tracks from Aja — and is followed by over 84,000 users.
Misch’s manager Duncan Murray, director at Playlist Agency, sees potential for playlist-branded merch or even a “Real Good Shit” festival down the road. That may sound wildly hopeful considering “real good shit” isn’t even hyped on the Spotify homepage.
Then again, for fans desiring a connection to Misch, the relative anonymity adds even more cachet. As Olinick puts it: “Today, you’re not selling the [music] so much as you’re trying to get people to care about the artist.”