By David Rovics
David Rovics Blog
December 1st, 2020
On the first of every month, Spotify sends artists a summary of the previous month’s activity among their listeners. This month’s email from Spotify inspired a bit of geeking out on my part.
OK, we’re going to get seriously self-absorbed and geeky here at the same time here, be forewarned.
If you, like me and most people on the planet these days, have a Gmail account as well as a Facebook account, at some point in your day, or perhaps far too often during many days, you may find yourself taking note of messages and notifications about comments to your posts and such. In seeing such notifications, you’ll inevitably discover which posts are the ones that are drawing commentary, and which are being ignored or going unseen. If you’re into thinking about this sort of thing, or maybe even if you’re not, you may wonder whether it was due to an algorithm that a post got seen more or less, or due to genuine interest or disinterest from your friends and acquaintances online, or due to some other factor, that a post drew interest or not.
I’m just setting the stage here by starting with a phenomenon that most of us users of email and social media are now familiar with.
For any active musician who has been making an effort, for better or for worse, to distribute their music on the platforms people generally use these days, whether they were or are touring performers, or just recording artists, you can add to those daily email and social media notifications the daily flow of YouTube commentary, as well as the monthly summaries from Spotify.
Although Google eventually gave up their efforts at Google Plus social media, for musicians and other active content creators, YouTube is another social media platform that we are generally interacting with people on, maybe as much as on Facebook or anywhere else. YouTube, along with Facebook and Twitter, is where people see your videos.
For music, and increasingly for podcasts, the platform is Spotify. Whereas with videos on YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, people can comment, on Spotify things are much more opaque. There are no comments, little real opportunity to interact with your listeners — with your audience, that is, because increasingly, they’re all on Spotify, as it has become the path of least resistance, or the superhighway, or whatever metaphor you want to use. But what you do get from Spotify is a monthly summary of what’s been going on in your Spotify world. How many unique listeners you had last month, what songs they listened to most, and if you actually explore on your Spotify account, you can find out lots more, like what countries they’re all in. On YouTube, still more vast “analytics” data is available — the stated ages and genders of my listeners is easily available, too.
When a band has a hit, it is often the case that this song will remain their most popular song on any of the music streaming platforms as well. If they don’t produce another hit, their audience might stay significant, but it will age, and you can see that all laid bare online in various places if you’re into that sort of thing.
If you’ve never had a hit, or anything remotely resembling one, never even been played on commercial radio to speak of, answering the questions about who these people are and where they come from becomes more complex. Why did certain songs become the most listened to? I’d be interested in anyone’s feedback on that, but my own analysis of my own material tells me that it’s not so much about the quality of the writing of a particular song, or the quality of the recording, though good writing and good recordings don’t hurt. Certainly, algorithms will tend to keep a song high in the list, once it gets high in the list to begin with, so there’s that significant factor.
Leaning on the self-absorption a bit here, I have written well over 500 songs that I’d consider good songs at this point. Most of them have been recorded decently in a studio in one form or another. Most of them are overtly political, but there are a lot of possible songs with different sorts of themes and emotions to choose from.
Having thus laid out the many caveats and otherwise attempted to set the stage, when I get these monthly emails from Spotify, as I did this morning, today being the first of another month, what do I learn? What does this tell me?
Whoever these 10,000 unique monthly listeners are — and I imagine they are largely the same people that constitute my average 11,000 unique monthly viewers on YouTube — what is easy to see from the stats is they are 95% male, overwhelmingly aged between 18-34, primarily distributed between the , US, Canada, Australia, northern Europe, and Mexico, despite the fact that I have never done a tour in Mexico. Over the years, my audience seems to be getting more male, and younger.
And how do these 10,000 young people from around the globe look at the world? What is very clear, over the course of many years, is this: they are an inclusive, ecumenical bunch of people. They despise sectarianism, and they love international solidarity. They’re as interested in history as they are in current events. They sided with the pirates and against the British Crown during the Golden Age of Piracy. They were abolitionists against slavery, and they were on the side of Mexico in the Mexican-American War. They were on the side of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, and especially, against the fascists. They’re grateful for the Soviet Union’s role in liberating Europe from fascism. They want the Brits out of Ireland. They support the struggle in Rojava.
All this is abundantly clear from which songs they keep listening to the most, as well as from the next several dozen top songs, month after month, year after year. Although the older songs have a natural, algorithmically-enforced staying power in “charts” such as these, new ones will quickly rise up, when they capture the imaginations of the people out there, which pretty much only happens if a song becomes another of a certain elusive type of song about international solidarity that really speaks to people, which most recently happened in 2017 (“Rojava”), and before that in 2014 (“They All Sang the Internationale”).
It’s all reinforced by the fact that it’s largely the same group of songs that is consistently on top among my songs on YouTube as well as Spotify, despite the fact that what these platforms offer is very different. What people find on Spotify are far more studio recordings, really high-quality audio. On YouTube what they’ll find much more of are live performances, sometimes well-recorded, but still just solo acoustic renditions, unlike the full band recordings some of the songs feature on Spotify, sometimes with well-known accompaniment provided by folks such as Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello. None of this seems to have an impact on what gets to the top of my own little charts. It is different versions of “St Patrick Battalion” or “They All Sang the Internationale” that rises to the top on the different platforms — one live and one studio — but the same song, either way, that people were apparently looking for.
The political orientation reflected in the song choices are reflected most directly in the comments on the videos people find on YouTube. There are many videos hosted on other people’s YouTube channels, and the comments on those do not end up in my inbox. Nor are the views reflected on my channel’s views, so my perspective here would be more realistic if it reflected an even more out-sized importance of international solidarity, for it is those same songs that people most often record in one form or another, by filming me at concerts when I sing a certain song, or by making cool music videos that YouTube unfortunately takes down sooner or later for copyright violation.
But among the comments I do see, the pattern is consistent with which songs are most popular. The songs I’ve just posted will get comments, of course, along with recent interviews and rants. But beyond that, the daily fare tends to involve at least one new comment from someone in Mexico, in English, Spanish, or both, praising the Irish, and affirming Mexico’s eternal connection to Ireland. Often a similar comment from Ireland or the Irish diaspora, in English, Irish, or so combination thereof. There is an active, ongoing discussion that never ends, in the comments section of a couple of videos of “I’m A Better Anarchist Than You,” about sectarianism. The discussion is always fueled anew by someone who comments on the song, who doesn’t quite grasp its ironic intent, or does, and is offended anyway. Then the anti-sectarian majority piles on once again, usually with good humor.
On most days, there is a new comment to be found as well from people who don’t think like the majority of my listeners at all. Each new day includes one of the following: either someone will comment on a video of “Send Them Back” who understands the irony but is pretending not to, or who thinks it’s genuinely a pro-fascism song, and they will say something supportive of genocide. Or on either “Song for Michael Reinoehl” or “Time To Act (Song for Willem van Spronsen)” someone will say that others like Michael and Willem, such as the author of the song, should meet the same fates they did. I’ve deleted hundreds of such comments and banned scores of fascists, but such comments are still almost as common as seeing “long live Ireland” pop up in there. These songs don’t get viewed all that much, but the far right likes to leave threatening and/or hateful words regularly.
For the first few years of YouTube, I didn’t realize that comments existed. For many more years, I don’t know if I realized I had any influence over what happened in that comments section. Later I thought it best to just leave it alone and see what people said, before eventually being convinced that it was better to block the fascists, they don’t need a forum in the corners of the web that I can control. But they keep finding me and certain songs, at a predictable trickle.
So there are my readings of the stats and the comments, for anyone out there who may or may not have ever wondered, who are those people who listen to that guy? (Now, if there actually is anyone out there who was wondering just that, I’d love to know that I didn’t just explore this rabbit hole all for my own entertainment, because I’m still not sure.)
David Rovics has been called the musical voice of the progressive movement in the US. Since the mid-90’s, Rovics has spent most of his time on the road, playing hundreds of shows every year throughout North America, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Japan. He has shared the stage regularly with leading intellectuals, activists, politicians, musicians and celebrities. In recent years he’s added children’s music and essay-writing to his repertoire. More importantly, he’s really good. He will make you laugh, he will make you cry, and he will make the revolution irresistible. Check out his pamphlet: Sing for Your Supper: A DIY Guide to Playing Music, Writing Songs, and Booking Your Own Gigs