Just how popular is Soca?

Swedish audio streaming giant, Spotify recently announced that it was expanding its reach by offering its subscription service to 80+ new markets around the world, including the Caribbean: Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.

Trinidad and Tobago is a new market for Spotify

It’s not all about altruism that Spotify is venturing into the Caribbean and other regions. It’s about growth and supporting its share price for its investors in the marketplace: “For all of Spotify’s hard work, the realities of running a streaming audio company are unavoidable: Margins are slim and competition is strong . . . For its part, 12-year-old Spotify argues the streaming audio business is still in its early stages and that growth, not profits, should be its focus.”

What does Spotify’s official presence mean for the Caribbean music industry? New music discovery by listeners and a global platform for creation and collaboration are potential benefits to expand the reach of our music. Soca, dancehall and all their sub-genres can now be heard in these new Spotify markets by a potential audience of a billion fans. Spotify’s goal, of course, is to convert many of those new listeners from the freemium level to the paid premium subscription level, thus boosting the company’s share price.

This announcement and the analysis of the move by Spotify reinforces that the music industry is a volume business. Having hits is the goal of artists nowadays. Millions and billions of streams and views, likes and follows are the desired counts for artists to make a living. But what is our reality here, and what do we have to do to get that global significance, such as how a name like Marley is iconic, or a song like “Despacito” is universally popular? Some genres are big, some are not, and examples of both exist right here in the Caribbean. And let’s be honest, despite the efforts of many for five decades, soca music is not that big. Yet.

I have been doing some data collection and collation to get a better understanding of where we are, and how others see us and deal with us in the marketplace. Prior to Spotify’s official entrance in the Caribbean, YouTube was the platform used by many to discover music. YouTube has long been the largest music streaming service on the planet with 2 billion music users on the platform at the end of 2020. The service provides data which can be used as a gauge of global popularity of the genres and their stars. The stark difference between soca, dancehall and reggaeton is the difference between millions and billions. It’s always better to see it to understand the gulf between a popular tune in Trinidad and a global hit.

This is what a billion looks like.

Soca music is now Caribbean music. It is also still closely allied with Carnivals, with releases focused on the Trinidad Carnival cycle. However, if one is not a fan of Carnival, this music gets lost in the broad choice of music for dry season, for summer, for fun times in the tropics, for dancing. Compare the proliferation and the increased engagement of dancehall/reggae. Now, look at reggaeton/Latin hip-hop, and see where the markets for consumption really are, and by extension where soca music has to look for new listeners.

Most popular Caribbean videos on YouTube. Click to Expand

The above table shows the popular videos for the different genres. Note that it is not the tune’s popularity being counted, but the video. A song can have many videos and collectively generate multiples of the view statistics here, but for the purpose of this exercise, the focus was on artist-controlled channels. Where possible, official released videos are cited, but in a few cases, fan uploads provide multi-million views that can’t be ignored. Right away, we see that for soca, New York-based aggregator and distributor JulianPromosTV acts as the premier video channel for this music. Machel Montano is the only soca artist whose channel is doing the business that music distributors are looking for.

Critical to this analysis of soca’s popularity are the numbers. We can see above what 10 million looks like in comparison to 100 million and to 1 billion. The top 15 soca videos have a smaller aggregate of views than any of Sean Paul’s 3 biggest hits: “No Lie” 793M, “She Doesn’t Mind” 418M, “Got 2 Luv U” 395M. While a few songs have been on YouTube for over a decade and have accumulated among the highest grosses, videos uploaded between 2016 and 2018 dominate the popular choices, but the numbers pale in comparison to dancehall by multiples of 10. As a side note, the recent flourish of Trinibad music shows signs of instant popularity; for example, Prince Swanny has 25 videos on his channel released just in the last 2 years at 1M views and higher, and one with over 10M views, “Catch 22” at 13M.

[Editor’s Note: The song “Champion” by cricketer Dwayne “DJ” Bravo has over 100M views on YouTube! Deal with it.]

The domination of reggaeton and the impact of Puerto Rican talent and global Latino audiences are why every major label and all streaming platforms have expanded into the fastest growing music market in the world since 2019, Latin America. That should be where soca looks for growth. Kevin Lyttle found a new audience there recently with a collab with Colombian singer AstrA on his 17-year old hit, “Turn Me On”. Rupee tapped Daddy Yankee’s clout to remix “Tempted To Touch” one year after the original release. Rupee is still getting that song remixed, recently for the Indian market. I have written before about the collaboration route as a minimal key to hits, but the new paradigm suggests that who you know and who knows you better have more clout than you.

Cross Platform Performance (CPP) ranking sample. Data courtesy Chartmetric. Click to Expand

I read the blog post, “What measures an artist’s success in today’s music industry?” by Keith Jopling on Midia Research at the end of 2020, which led me to investigate, what were we measuring when we say X song was the most popular for Carnival, and noting that TUCO is having a virtual road march for Carnival 2021, which won’t be on the road. How this connects to soca’s popularity is that we have to measure the artist’s popularity more than the song. More artists doing the business of music with analytics to show can provide a data-friendly environment for soca’s growth. The Chartmetric table above with the measure of the Cross Platform Performance (CPP) of various top artists in their respective genres is a guide of soca’s relative position versus dancehall and reggaeton.

Streaming and popularity numbers matter as they too affect royalties. And those royalty dollars are already miniscule. The Caribbean has a number of factors working against a high royalty rate. Among other things, those royalty rates depend on:

  • The listener’s country and location
  • Whether the listener has a paid subscription or free account
  • The specific artist’s royalty rate
  • The relative pricing & currency in different regions

With the extremely low per-stream royalty rate for the region minimally supplying Spotify’s accounts payable, it’s important that soca’s numbers increase for the health of the industry and the business value of the genre. Outside is where soca has to thrive, and beyond Carnival. Market access may happen with Spotify’s introduction into the region, but regional governments, Caribbean Export Development Agency, and Caricom, which have been studying and putting out reports on the music industry since the mid-2000s, should be listening to regional music stakeholders as they begin their march outward for listenership and diversification delivery. Preparation of feasibility studies and reports are prolific here. Action and investment are preferred.

For Spotify to be more than a fad in the region, the business of music must happen and proactive decisions and action by policy makers would be a change from the time when everyone believed music was entertainment while one worked, and musicians were hobbyists. A future of music analytics and potential growth is hoped for. The new kid on the block in streaming services could be a catalyst. That, and a determined effort by soca artistes to move outside the Carnival cycle. Being a big fish in a small pond may be exciting for one’s ego, but certainly not for one’s career. Think big!

© 2021, Nigel A. Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

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