2020: How Digital Platforms Viewed Their Year in Music

September 2021 Edit: This post was written before I joined Spotify. All views here are my own.

Happy holidays! We are just about a week away from the end of the year. In the spirit of reflection, many digital media and streaming platforms released reviews on their year in music over the course of the past few weeks. The reflections, ranging from a list of the most popular songs on Pandora’s platform to customized insights into SoundCloud listeners’ preferences, to TikTok’s blog post promoting its importance in artist discovery, made for what I felt were some interesting observations about how each company assessed its contribution to music trends and culture this year.

What It Means to be No. 1

For Spotify and Billboard, the dominating track of the year was The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” having been played 1.6 billion times on the streaming platform and spending four weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart. Elsewhere, however, the track’s popularity wasn’t as ubiquitous. SoundCloud’s users preferred to listen to Lil Mosey’s “Blueberry Faygo,” the platform’s most streamed track of the year, twice as often as “Blinding Lights.” On Pandora, The Weeknd’s single placed No. 6 on The Top Thumb Hundred, behind other hits like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” and Roddy Ricch’s “The Box.”

Artists’ popularity varied across platforms as well. SoundCloud’s most streamed artist, Pop Smoke, placed Top 3 on TikTok’s list of most viewed artists by catalog, but not amongst the Top 5 most popular artists on either Spotify or Pandora.

All this goes to show that what it means to be “most popular” or “most streamed” looks very different depending on the type of platform. TikTok and SoundCloud have track records for providing the means to launch rookie musicians into the mainstream, and listeners have learned to seek out and embrace emerging artists on these platforms. On the other hand, Spotify has been streaming’s market leader for years, and the artists that do the best on its platform are more likely artists that most listeners already know. This is why being popular on Spotify also aligns nicely to charting on Billboard’s Hot 100, an industry standard that favors established singers and lags in charting emerging artists.

From Established Strengths to General Dominance

As alluded to above, one of the reasons why different artists and songs are popular on different platforms is because each platform appeals to a different type of listener and occupies a differentiated position in the music ecosystem. In the news and reviews around year-end, however, many platforms have revealed intent to expand their musical offerings and push into new touchpoints for listener engagement.

I’ve been writing a lot about K-pop, but it is because some of the biggest movement on Western media platforms has been around the embrace of K-pop. On the heels of BTS’s Grammy nomination announcement, YouTube highlighted K-pop’s importance on its platform in consistently breaking music video debut records. YouTube has become closely intertwined with K-pop culture in the past few years, with K-pop agencies uploading most official music videos to YouTube and viewing the platform as a primary distribution channel. In addition, more than 350 K-pop idols have created personal YouTube channels, posting vlogs to interact with fans outside of official group activities. Most of these channels were created in the last two years, and are oftentimes the main avenues of communication between idols and their fans. Highlighting K-pop in its “Year in Music” is YouTube’s way of enforcing its importance as a platform to the ever-growing genre.

Other players have also been eager to grab a slice of the lucrative K-pop pie. BTS members are known to drop members’ solo releases and covers through their SoundCloud account, and SoundCloud did not hesitate to highlight this twice in their 2020 Playback, crowning BTS member Jungkook’s “Still With You” as its “Longest Reign” and “Buzziest Drop” titles of the year. Last week, Spotify also announced its plan to launch in South Korea in the first half of next year. Despite strong local streaming players and delays from the global pandemic this year, launching in South Korea will help Spotify secure its place in a music market responsible for some of its most streamed songs and playlists.

Accommodating increasingly mainstream genres such as K-pop or Latin music is one of the ways that platforms are trying to expand their audiences and niches in music. TikTok, however, is also looking to accommodate mainstream music more broadly - not only did the short-form video company proclaim itself to be “America's go-to platform for music discovery” and tout its role in helping over 70 artists sign to record labels, it also, in the same year-end article, reminded users of its relevance to established artists as well, highlighting the TikTok accounts from Elton John, Queen, and more. TikTok’s efforts to court incumbent musical talent after establishing its dominance in discovering new artists demonstrate that the path to becoming the reigning music platform comes in many forms.

Social and Cultural Involvement

Music is often tied to moments, and media and music platforms wasted no time in stressing their contributions to those moments this year. The biggest mention, of course, was the coronavirus pandemic. Spotify focused on statistics that revealed an increase of playlists on its platform that accompanied listeners who worked from home. In its “Culture” section, SoundCloud highlighted tracks that addressed the health situation head-on, including Diplo’s “Corona World Tour” DJ set. To assist listeners in feeling more connected to the world around them, live performances and real-time releases also grew significantly, with YouTube stressing that livestreams helped the video platform become “the world’s largest virtual stage,” and SoundCloud reveling in the delight of artists dropping surprise tracks to react to societal events “live.”

In addition to helping users weather the health crisis, platforms made sure to underline their involvement in sounding the anthems for 2020’s largest social movements as well. The Black Lives Matter movement and the consequent surge in streams of Black artists was spotlighted by Spotify, YouTube, and SoundCloud. TikTok paid tribute to Black artists by dedicating June as #BlackMusicMonth, one of a few cultural initiatives the company led this year. Music was important in defining these cultural moments, and music streaming platforms made it known that they were very much a part of these moments, every step of the way.

Looking Ahead

For all the reflection posts that were published in the past few weeks, what caught my notice was Pandora’s list of artists to watch in 2021, posted the same day as their “Top Thumb Hundred of 2020” list. The traits of Pandora’s 2021 favorites are not unfamiliar - these emerging artists are already buzzing on TikTok, have collaborated with established artists, give off nostalgic and retro vibes, or have already created new and confident styles that are somehow danceable at the same time. While Pandora’s peers may not have publicly released their own predictions, other music and music media distribution platforms will without a doubt stay keenly aware of whatever new trends take shape next year. In 2021, music will continue to be democratized, globalized, and unpredictably evolving, and I’ll be hard pressed to find a technology platform that won’t also be democratized, globalized, and unpredictably evolving in order to survive.