Clearing the Air

Okay, let’s go ahead and acknowledge the elephant in the room before the vibe gets too awkward, because I’ve heard tell that unacknowledged room-elephants grow in size until they either force you out of the room or mercilessly crush you against its walls: I have not gotten one million streams on Spotify. I just haven’t.

However, having just now counted my aggregate streams across both mini and full-length releases dating back to 2018 or so (how have I never done this before?), I’m actually weighing in at just under one hundred thousand streams, and while that number actually feels pretty reassuring (that’s either a lot of humans listening to a lot of my songs or my mom listening to them over and over, and either way somebody loves me, I guess), it’s only one-tenth of a milly.

I’m no authority on this subject, just a hustler trying to get paid, much like yourself.

If you flip this coin over to check out its other, shinier side, though, that side presents a different way to frame things, and that framing sounds something like “holy shit, I’m one-tenth of the way to a million streams!” I’ve learned quite a bit during this years-long climb up to my not-so-ivory tower, and if I squint, it’s not that hard to make out a viable strategy for climbing up to those scary, higher-altitude peaks.

Yeah, a million streams is way up there, but it’s visible.

A Caveat

While we dream about those peaks, we should also, of course, acknowledge one of the bleaker facts underpinning the music industry in 2024.

Which is, that one million streams may sound like a huge number, but when you finally claw your way up to that snowy plateau and feel that rosy glow in your cheeks from a combination of frostbite and pride, and then Distrokid or whoever shows up at your door to present you with an oversized check as compensation for such elite-level accomplishment, that check will only be redeemable for approximately five thousand U.S. dollars.

The hard truth is that you’re going to need way more than one million streams to make a living doing this.

Who Has A Million Streams?

Now that you’re fully deflated, I say we start attacking this topic by establishing exactly who it is hanging out up there at the top of Everest.

Fortunately, I’ve developed a few helpful, totally unofficial, unsanctioned, probably mostly inaccurate rules of thumb to identify the artists occupying this “middle tier” of streamer-ship. This first rule works for me, but it may not work for you, and that’s because it’s based entirely on what songs Spotify’s almighty ALGORITHM deigns to drop into my personalized Discover Weekly playlist.

Basically, Rule #1 states as follows: the artists populating my Discover Weekly playlist are way beyond “unknown” and, while they almost always fall well short of Lady Gaga streaming numbers, they tend to have one or two songs with a million-plus streams.

My guess is that Spotify wants to hedge its risk by declining to promote the huge percentage of artists who have less than one thousand streams – for all Spotify knows, their songs are just two minutes of static – but also doesn’t want to look stupid by trying to convince listeners that they’ve “discovered,” like, Bruce Springsteen. Or maybe it’s just a me thing – the algorithm is mysterious.

That sort of leads me to Rule #2, though, which is that, if an artist is a household name – if you could casually mention them in conversation with your parents and they would know who you were talking about or at least experience some genuine glimmer of recognition – that artist has a lot more than a million streams.

In the grand scheme of things, Mumford & Sons doesn’t hold a candle to, uh, I guess Bruce Springsteen again, but I’m willing to bet most people you know have at the very least heard their name. Mumford & Sons’ top five songs on Spotify have over one hundred million streams apiece.

My point isn’t to dishearten you, but rather to try and make clear that the middle tier – the one occupied by the bands on my Discover Weekly playlist – is not out of reach for you.

You too can become a relatively unknown musician with over one million streams to his or her name. And your parents said you’d never amount to anything! (I realize I’m talking a lot about parents and disappointment in this article, and yes, maybe I should see someone about that.)

Legacy Artists

With all of that perspective-heavy preamble out of the way, let’s feast on our meat ‘n potatoes. How do you get one million streams?

First, be a legacy artist. Here are a few weird stats: according to The Atlantic, “old songs now represent 70% of the U.S. music market,” and the “200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams.” That article is from 2022, but there’s little indication that anything significant has changed since then.

If those stats have any truth to them, then who is it that’s making up the bulk of the music and streaming market? Well, mostly bands from the late twentieth century like The Police and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Again: weird stats, and it’s not clear what the takeaway is or how we should apply it here; if anything, those stats probably speak to the disposable nature of today’s pop music, or, inversely, the longevity of music from the 1960s through the 1990s (to be clear, I’m a millennial, even though I’m talking like a boomer).

There’s a certain flash-in-the-pan-ness to today’s biggest “hit” songs, a feeling that they’re driven by virality and devoid of staying power – I blame TikTok, and I don’t think I’m being unfair, and it’s not because I don’t understand TikTok (but…I don’t understand TikTok).

Be Consistent

Back to you, though. You want one million streams, and you’re not a band from the 1970s (…are you?). To me, the lesson to be learned from this slightly bizarre industry fact is “release often.”

Chances are, you’re not going to release the next “Hotel California,” a song that will become a generational touchstone, somehow encapsulate the unique anxieties of our era in six-and-a-half minutes of transcendent musicianship, and be eternally treasured by your peers, their children, and their children’s children. Not because you’re not good; that’s just not how music works anymore.

Instead, release new material at a regular cadence. Whether that’s a new song every month, every three months, or an EP or LP every year or so with lots of content drops (performance videos, social media, etc.) along the way, staying top of mind with your audience should be a prime directive.

Ideally, as you release more and more music, you’ll gather momentum, and your audience will begin to expect and anticipate your output and grow accordingly. Maybe your first few songs only generate a few thousand streams, but if you’re doing all of your homework, those numbers should begin compounding as you keep driving forward.

The more people that regularly listen to your music, the more likely the mighty ALGORITHM takes notice of your futile endeavors and graces poor, unworthy you with the rare boon of a playlist placement.

And of course you should strive to write songs that have real meaning and staying power and don’t beg to be immediately trashed like a used Kleenex – aiming for quantity over quality won’t get you very far – but, then again, it…well, it takes a lot longer to work through a whole box of Kleenex than just one Kleenex, and by the end of the box, you’ve…uh, you’ve grown accustomed to the damn things.

(I know that metaphor doesn’t really work, but I had too much fun creating it to just…trash it like a used Kleenex.)

Do Your Homework Responsibly

Now, notice that I’m not spending much time on the nature of that homework I mentioned you should be doing – that’s Marketing 101 material, and I’ve already discussed it at length. If you’re shooting for one million streams, you’re in the AP class, and you should have the fundamentals down pat by now. If you don’t, go read up.

Still, though, it’s worth reiterating that, in order to get to one million streams, you need to be doing all the things, and doing them well, constantly. You need to be creating, releasing, marketing, posting, and performing regularly, and if we’re being real, “regularly” means “daily.”

And, most likely, you need to be spending money on those things; your music needs to sound good, and you need to ensure that it’s heard by the biggest, most specifically-targeted audience that you can pinpoint, and both of those things (paying for technically proficient recordings, plus ads and/or playlisting) will set you back as many dollars as you’re willing to shell out.

Fudge The Numbers

It’s also worth considering the math you’re applying to count your growing pile of streams. After all, you never said (at least, I don’t think I remember you saying) you were targeting one million streams of a single song, right? A million streams is a million streams in my book, and if you get to that number by using some simple addition to tally up the stream counts of multiple songs, all the better, I say!

You may remember me employing this very tactic at the top of the article in order to arrive at my almost-100k number, and frankly, I’m still feeling jazzed about it.

The point, though, isn’t to fudge the numbers to give yourself some kind of meaningless metric to feel good about; there’s a reason why shooting for a million streams in the aggregate is just as worthy, if not more worthy, a cause as trying to clear that threshold with one song. Think about it this way: the more songs you have simultaneously generating streams, the more they each have the opportunity to compound the others’ growth potential.

If the ALGORITHM, in its infinite wisdom, starts to notice that Artist X (in this hypothetical, that’s you) has five songs trending, it will assume (rightly!) that listeners are feeling Artist X and start to push those five songs towards new listeners through Discover Weekly playlists, algorithmic radio, etc.

Those new listeners then discover you through those channels, buckle down to do what listeners do best (y’know…listen), and suddenly the ALGORITHM’s ears are perking back up as it notices that even more people are listening to Artist X’s superb output, and it has no choice at that point but to disseminate Artist X’s songs even more widely. You get it.

Marching Orders

As we come to the end of this article, you may be getting suspicious. You may be inhaling a lot of the smoke I’m giving off and wondering where I’m hiding the fire. And you’d be right to wonder, because the fact of the matter is I haven’t told you how to get one million streams on Spotify, at least not in a “Follow These Three Easy Steps!” sort of way.

It’s not that there’s no checklist, it’s just that the checklist looks a lot like the one you should be using to get your first thousand streams.

Do that, but magnify everything.

Be awesome, be diligent, be consistent, and you’ll get there.

You’re Artist X, damn it, and your songs are amazing.