May 25, 2022

How to Spot the Real Hits in Streaming Data

Streaming data ought to be the best music popularity measurement ever created. After all, it shows us which songs people play when they’re in control of their music. That data comes from every single streaming user—not just a paucity of PPM panelists as MScore shows. Unlike library tests and callout, streaming data reflects every song available, not merely the songs you choose to test.

If you’re like most programmers, however, incorporating streaming statistics into your music evaluation has created more confusion than clarity in your work:

The #1 most-streamed song this week might plummet next week.

Your #1 song in callout might only be the 35th biggest song on Spotify.

And even though you know DSPs have gone mainstream, you still wonder if the people dominating streaming usage are relevant to your radio station’s ratings.

The fact is streaming data gives us a far more complete and nuanced understanding of music consumption than sales data ever did—but that also makes interpreting streaming data a more complex and nuanced task.

It is a task you can master by the end of this post.

In This Post…
·       Meet the Records family and see how they consume music
·       What is active and passive music consumption?
·       How to spot active and passive consumption in streaming data
·       Recommendations for using streaming data

The key is evaluating streaming data from the perspective of how real people listen to music and spotting the different ways those real people relate to music. To connect those dots, let’s meet the Records family.


Dave Records: He was (and remains) a huge fan of Rush. He discovered Rush in middle school when a friend loaned him the Moving Pictures LP and he was hooked. He harassed his parents into taking him to Record Bar to buy Signals the day it was released and listened straight through for weeks. (He later bought those two albums on CD and still listens to them today.) He sat in his driveway to play Roll The Bones for the first time on his new car’s CD player, although that album isn’t one of his favorites today. His family doesn’t understood why Dave was so distraught over Neil Peart’s death.

Stella Records: Dave’s daughter Stella loves music as much as her dad. She’s really into Mitski, who she discovered when she saw the video for the song “Geyser” on YouTube and immediately listened to her previous album Puberty 2 on Spotify. When Mitski dropped Laurel Hell in 2022, Stella immediately went to Spotify and played every track for days. Usually, though, Stella plays a playlist of her favorite Mitski songs or other playlists she’s created that include her tracks and other favorite artists.

Michelle Records: Despite not getting his whole deal with Rush, Michelle married Dave. She likes music, but as a kid, she was happy to listen to the Top 40 station on her boombox while doing her homework. She always knew the big hits, but Michelle was never the first kid at school to know whatever new artist the cool kids were into. She still listens to the radio in the car, but these days it’s the AC station. Lately, she’ll say, “Alexa, play 80s music on Amazon Music” when it’s her night to cook dinner. She’s heard of Mitski and a few other artists Stella loves but couldn’t name any of their songs.

Liam Records: Liam is more like his mom than his dad. He’ll check out a playlist on Spotify if a friend shares it with him. Sometimes, he’ll ask his parents to turn on the local Alternative station in hopes they play “Classic Rock,” by which he means Weezer. However, Liam spends a lot more time thinking about his soccer team than music.


While we’ve portrayed Dave and Stella as “Active” and Michelle and Liam as “Passive” listeners, that’s not the whole story.

Dave might listen to Rush intently, but Dave also listened to the local AOR station as a teenager, where he got to know a lot of other bands simply by hearing their songs over and over. He still plays the local Classic Rock station in the car. He cranks it up whenever they play “Limelight,” but he’ll also keep it on when they play Van Halen.

His daughter Stella claims to hate mainstream music, but she somehow knows the big hits from Post Malone and The Weeknd and has even been rumored to hum along to “Blinding Lights.”

Michelle usually wasn’t into music, but she was really into Madonna. She harassed her parents into taking her and her friends to the Who’s That Girl World Tour. Starting with Like a Virgin, she bought every new Madonna album for years, first on cassette and later on CD—although she never quite got Ray Of Light and she hid Erotica as soon as she became a mom. Michelle just created a Madonna playlist on her Amazon Music app.

Despite being far more into Fortnight than music, Liam just discovered Nirvana. Not only has he been playing Nevermind and In Utero on repeat, but he also keeps asking his parents for detailed personal accounts of the day Kurt Cobain died. He’s disgusted that Dave and Michelle weren’t paying attention that fateful April day.

Some folks are more into music than others. However, it is inaccurate to categorize people into “active” or “passive” listeners. Individuals exhibit both active and passive music consumption patterns for different artists and during different stages of life.


When Dave drove to Sam Goody to buy Rush’s Roll The Bones CD, he became part of the Billboard 200 album chart when SoundScan captured his purchase. We considered Dave’s cash register feedback “active” research.

When Michele was 18, she got a call from her local Top 40 station’s callout research company. She didn’t recognize the newest songs and didn’t have strong feelings about songs she only vaguely recognized. However, the big hits she did know well—she loved eight of them (including Madonna’s “Vogue”), downright hated two of them, and merely liked the rest.

We call Michelle’s callout call “passive” research because her feedback involved songs she didn’t choose to hear.

However, the distinction of sales data reflecting “active” appeal and radio’s music research reflecting “passive” appeal does not mean that playing a CD is inherently “active” listening or radio is inherently “passive” listening:

There’s nothing active about Dave’s mom playing “her damn Kenny G CD at every Christmas dinner for the last 27 years.”

There’s nothing passive when the radio plays “Holiday” and Michelle sings so loudly her kids pray none of their friends are anywhere nearby.


So, if it’s not listeners or the medium that is active or passive, what it?

It’s the music consumption pattern itself.

The same person will consume music both actively and passively. The same artist gets consumed actively and passively. The same media get used actively and passively.

Until now, however, the way we measure the success of a song separated active and passive consumption.

Song sales—whether 45s in the 1960s or iTunes downloads in the 2000s—consistently demonstrated a pattern of sales reaching their strongest point shortly after their release and steadily declining once fewer and fewer new listeners wanted to own that song.

Active Music Consumption
·       Fans seek out the latest music from their favorite artists as soon as its released
·       Consumption is greatest when a song is brand new
·       Consumption tapers off quickly once core fans buy or binge-stream a song
·       Represents approximately 20% of music consumption

When you consider how Dave Records rushed out to buy Rush albums, this pattern makes perfect sense for active music consumption.

Sales data captures active music consumption when sales are strongest upon a song’s release.

With the advent of callout research in the 1970s, the first lesson that rocked radio’s understanding of how listeners interact with music is the realization that most listeners take time to get to know new songs—and that most listeners continue to want to hear their favorite songs long after new sales of those songs have subsided.

During the 70s it was first estimated that only 20% of music consumption is active, by which they meant only 20% of consumers who enjoy music actually went out and bought music. The remaining 80% of listeners were content to consume music passively, as selected by their favorite radio station.

Passive Music Consumption
·       Listeners discover new songs when someone else (such as radio) plays them
·       Consumption is greatest when a song has been exposed for several weeks or months
·       Consumption tapers off slowly and only when listeners get tired of a song
·       Represents approximately 80% of music consumption

Thinking about how Michelle expressed more passion for songs that her local CHR station had been playing for weeks when she participated in callout research, this pattern also makes perfect sense for passive music consumption.

Callout results capture passive music consumption when listeners take time to warm up to new songs that someone else plays for them

Here’s where things get tricky.


There are two fundamental differences in streaming data compared to all our previous ways of measuring music:

1) Streaming data—for the first time—mixes together active and passive music consumption into one metric.

That’s because people use streaming services as substitutes for both record stores and radio stations. Whether Stella is excitedly sampling every new song on a brand new album from Mitski (active consumption) or simply playing a hit music playlist in the background that a friend shared with her (passive consumption), it counts every time she plays a song in streaming metrics.

The wording “every time she plays a song” is critical here.

2) Streaming data shows how many times a person plays a song, not how many different people played it—which amplifies active consumption.

When Dave bought a Rush album, it counted once in album sales data. When Stella plays a new song by Mitski 10 times the week after it’s released, it counts 10 times in streaming data.

Measuring plays instead of people can lead you to assuming that a song is more popular than it is because it amplifies the active listening consumption from its fans playing that song repeatedly.

Not only does the overall music consumption pattern of the top 10 most-played songs on Spotify resemble song sales—not radio airplay or callout research—but it is even more heavily weighted towards new releases than iTunes or 45s sales were.

Because streaming data shows a song’s plays, not how many people play it, streaming data resembles the active consumption pattern of sales data

“But wait,” you ask, “if listeners are playing a song so often that it’s the #1 song on streaming, doesn’t that mean it’s super popular and radio should be playing it, too?”

In radio, we need songs that as many listeners as possible know and love. At the very least, radio needs to play songs that a large percentage of listeners don’t downright hate.

But streaming data shows plays, not people. A very small number of listeners who are very excited about a favorite artist’s new release can make it the #1 most streamed song because of their binge listening, at least for a week or two.

In short, radio needs information about passive music consumption to find songs with widespread appeal, not the amplified active consumption of an artist’s superfans.

Here’s how you can spot the difference:


Let’s review the Spotify streaming data from two chart-topping artists.

Active consumption tops streaming charts:

When a popular artist releases new material, that artist’s fans flock to streaming and sample those new songs repeatedly. This active music consumption means the most streamed songs on Spotify are often brand new releases.

Not every song that debuts big stays big, however. Consider Taylor Swift’s “ME!”. The week she released “ME!”, it garnered over 13-million plays on Spotify in the U.S. making it the #1 song on Spotify that week.

Taylor Swift’s “ME!”’s strong debut showcases active music consumption

After just five weeks, however, “ME!” fell out of Spotify’s Top 30. The broader audience beyond Taylor’s hard-core fans never embraced the song (as our Integr8 New Music Research clients can attest,) meaning it never received massive passive consumption.

For “ME!”, its Spotify consumption resembled a record store: Avid Taylor fans bought the new album, but it didn’t catch on with a wider audience.

Passive consumption isn’t the most streamed song this week but rather is the song listeners keep streaming week after week.

Songs that keep streaming steadily—albeit often down the ranker—are often songs receiving primarily passive consumption. Ultimately, passive consumption leads to a song receiving far more total lifetime plays than songs that saw early active consumption.

Consider Panic At The Disco’s “High Hopes”. It received only a quarter of the plays on Spotify in the U.S. the week it debuted compared to Swift’s “ME!”. Later, when the song was the #1 most-played song on U.S. radio, streaming plays for “High Hopes” steadily rose, presumably as listeners discovered the song on the radio and went to Spotify to hear it again.

Panic At The Disco’s “High Hopes” never even reached Spotify’s Top 10, but listeners continued steadily streaming it for months.

Both Spotify streaming and FM airplay simultaneously fell off for “High Hopes,” but the weekly streaming plays for “High Hopes” didn’t decline nearly as rapidly as it did for “ME!”

This pattern of growing, peaking, and falling over a long period of time is a passive consumption streaming pattern that resembles how listeners consume music on the radio.

Although “High Hopes” barely cracked Spotify’s Top 30 at its peak, steady streaming week after week for the song ultimately garnered it three times as many streams during its time on Spotify’s Top 200 chart than Taylor’s #1 debut garnered her.

“ME!” and “High Hopes” represent extreme examples of active verses passive consumption. Many massive radio hits that garner long-range passive consumption on streaming services also debut with massive active consumption by the artist’s fans.


Look at Spotify’s charts of the Top 200 most-streamed songs in the U.S. for the week ending May 19th, 2022.

Kendrick Lamar just dropped a new project, which occupies all of the Top 10, save for massive and relatively new songs by Harry Styles and Jack Harlow. (The blue dot beside a title indicates a brand-new release):

But the new release dominance doesn’t stop with Spotify’s Top 10; #11 through #20 also belong to Kendrick Lamar debuts, a Morgan Wallen debut, and songs Bad Bunny and Lizzo debuted the previous week.

During this week with a lot of new music releases, we must scroll all the way down to #29 to find an example of sustained passive consumption with Glass Animal’s “Heat Waves”.

All the way near the bottom of Spotify’s Top 50, we find a bevy of songs most radio stations would consider recurrents.

These songs garnered over 3 million plays on Spotify in the U.S. last week. While that figure pales to Kendrick Lamar’s 17 million+ streams for his debut of “N95,” it represents a steady number of plays that have been strong for months.

Finally, recognize the amplifying effect that measuring plays instead of fans has on songs’ rank positions.

Go back four weeks to Spotify’s top songs in the U.S. for the week ending April 28th, 2022: This week is before the big debuts of Hip Hop, Country, and Reggaeton superstars that dominate at the end of May.


Several songs that were pushed down to ranking #40 to #50 were among the top 12 four weeks ago. However, the actual number of plays these songs were garnering four weeks ago only dropped slightly.

For example, Oliva Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” fell from #9 in April to #47 in May! However, the number of plays “good 4 u” had only declined from 3.9 million to 3.6 million streams. Despite dropping 38 positions, Rodrigo’s raging rocker was still garnering 92 percent of the streams in May that it got in April.

1)    Treat streaming usage like record sales on steroids in a song’s first weeks (active consumption). The artist’s fans are checking out a new release—usage that’s amplified by the fact that streaming data measures a song’s plays, not the number of people who played it. Just as top-selling albums didn’t always generate Top 40 hits, don’t assume that strong active consumption always leads to mass appeal.
2)    To spot songs with widespread appeal, look for songs that listeners keep streaming week after week (passive consumption). Those songs won’t be the #1 song on Spotify. They may not even be in the Top 40. The top of streaming charts often belongs to artists’ fans binge-listening to new releases. When listeners keep streaming a song week after week at a steady pace, it’s indicative of the kind of passive music consumption that happens when a lot of people like the song.
3)    Don’t assume what’s huge this week will ultimately become a hit. Active consumption by an artist’s fans doesn’t always translate into mass appeal passive consumption by your station’s listeners.


When the way we play music is rapidly shifting to devices and media we couldn’t fathom two decades ago, it can be difficult to see the ways our relationship to music have remained unchanged.

Stella might pull a phone out of her pocket instead of driving to Sam Goody, but her connection to Mitski and her music is no different from the excitement and personal validation Dave got from Rush when he was her age.

Liam might play a friend’s Spotify playlist on his Bluetooth speaker when he does his homework instead of playing the Top 40 station on her boombox as his mom Michelle did, but the role of accompanying one’s activities with a soundtrack is the same.

Finally, be wary of those experts eager to dance on the grave of new music. Most contemporary radio genres have been in a rut recently. As anyone who endured Air Supply and Michael Bolton ruling CHR can attest, we’ve seen slumps before.

We’ve also seen new generations of young fans take musical subcultures mainstream immediately after each slump, from Alt Rock and Hip Hop, to EDM, to Rock ‘n’ Roll itself.

The disruption of how to evaluate music consumption metrics can amplify the feeling that the rejection of new music is different this time. It isn’t. Bubbling in the lower ranks of those streaming rankers are the songs that point towards what’s next for new music.

Get to know someone like Stella to see it.

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