The Power of Fans: Charting the Canadian Music Industry Online
A data-driven approach to understanding the impact of fan-curated playlists on Canadian artists
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Getting Started

It’s no secret that online music streaming has been changing the game for Canadian artists, and with even more avenues for artists to self-release, self-manage, and self-promote, you can't ignore the impact services like Spotify and Apple Music have been having on the way listeners get our daily music fix. While we can simply hit shuffle on Spotify's Discover Weekly Playlists, artists can reach wider audiences and theoretically “make it big” from streaming without having to hit the pavement and sell CDs at their local house shows. But if we want to truly understand the way online streaming affects artists beyond what is advertised to us, we have to start asking the right questions and poking around in some data.

What is this study?

Over the course of the 2021-2022 academic year, I’ve been working at the University of Ottawa under Dr. Jada Watson's supervision to study the effects of online music streaming on the Canadian music industry through a digital humanities lens. The study you're about to dive into on this site is an exploration of Spotify artist data extracted from Chartmetric (a streaming and social data aggregator). The findings in this project draw attention to several areas related to who dominates the Canadian streaming market, who is underrepresented in our data, and what areas need further investigation. You’ll get a chance to play with some data on a larger scale, then look beyond the numbers using case studies to gain a better understanding of the voices this data represents. My study will link to outside sources, detail methods of collection and analysis, and provide a data feminist perspective through prompts and inquiries for each graph.
Sidebar: What is data feminism?

Data feminism is the framework this study rests on. Simply put, from Catherine D'Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein’s text titled Data Feminism, it’s a “new way of thinking about data science and data ethics that is informed by the ideas of intersectional feminism”. “Intersectionality”, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, is used to describe the way different people’s identities overlap. From a Time article, Crenshaw describes intersectional feminism as “a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other”. In the first chapter of their book, D’Ignazio and Klein explain how data science, while powerful, is power typically held by white, able-bodied, cis, straight men.  Data feminists believe that these structures that were created by and benefit those who hold the most power, can and must be challenged by applying intersectional feminist thought to our analyses. So, data feminism is a way for data scientists (or anyone interested in data), to challenge the way they collect, analyze, and visualize their data, to represent those who are most affected and uplift those who know the domain best from experience.

Why does this study matter?

The music industry by nature has been an incredibly difficult domain to make a full-time income from, and very few musicians truly do. However, streaming has been steadily dominating the industry and offering some musicians a chance to rise with it. From the Government of Canada’s 2021 Study of the economic impacts of music streaming on the Canadian music industry, a 2019 figure shows the distribution of Canadian dollars among rights shareholders in the music creation and distribution process. Notably but not surprisingly, record labels still hold over half the distribution. David Arditi in his book Getting Signed details the level of power that labels hold over the dream of getting big in music; actively pushing and maintaining the dogma that to be successful a band has to get a record deal and sign over their rights. 

Figure from the Government of Canada's 2021 Study of the economic impacts of music streaming on the Canadian music industry

And to some extent that remains true, but independent arts like Fanclubwallet, an indie rock group based right here in Ottawa, have seen great success using online streaming to their advantage during the Covid-19 pandemic. Pre-signing to AWAL (a British music distribution company owned by Sony) without in-person shows, interviews, tours, or merch tables, Fanclubwallet launched their project, which has now amassed over 299,000 followers on Spotify, and over 6 million plays on their top song Car Crash in G Major. Success stories like this can go a long way to show how powerful self-distribution can be in the digital streaming age, but is this story the same for the other 37,000+ musicians in Canada? Surely not, but why? Who are those being left behind and what are their stories? We’d be here for a while if we wanted to investigate every avenue that leads to success in the music industry, so instead I propose we look at the following question: how can we use data to better understand the Canadian music industry in terms of relationships between representation, documentation, and fan-engagement?    

Before we jump into the data, let’s briefly take a time hop back to see how far we’ve come with music distribution.

Radio has long played a significant role in the distribution of music. Dating from the 1920s, artists would tour radio stations to perform live, not just to entertain but also to promote their latest recordings. In the 1940s, live performance was replaced by deejays playing records and over the course of the twentieth-century, radio stations (formatted to genre categories like country and R&B or audience types like adult contemporary) took a central role in shaping the taste of audiences and the evolution of the industry.

In Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regulates radio with quotas to encourage and incur promotion of home-grown artists, with requirements such as 35% of music selection needing to fit into the MAPL criteria deeming the artist or band Canadian. Unlike current-day online streaming platforms (which are unregulated), Canada’s radio’s regulations try to maintain a general interest in fostering a lively community in Canada, and as a result try supporting local artists. And fortunately, radio still today remains one of the most listened to audio formats, with 88% of 18+ Canadians saying that they still tune in to the radio.
The phonograph (also known as a gramophone, or record player) grew in popularity post-World War II when 7-inch records were introduced to the market by RCA Victor. The smaller discs held less music but shook the record market with their ease to produce and distribute to radio stations- making them perfect for pop music while the classic 78s people had gotten used to remained in fashion for jazz, blues, and “more serious music”. However as rock’n’roll took hold of soundwaves and teenagers became a growing demographic of music pursuers, pop and rock sales on 45s dominated the markets.
Cassette Tapes
Cassette tapes brought a higher quality audio option into the homes of millions. In the mid 1960’s, 46-minute cassette tapes became even more common for personal listening without the need for a radio or a large record player to be hooked up. And once the Walkman was introduced by Sony in 1979, mobile listening changed forever.
In 1982, the widespread introduction of CDs was brought about, and its popularity grew when its advantage to cassette tapes became clear; because cassette tapes used a magnetic tape to play music from left to right, you had to flip them over when one side was done, however CDs allowed listeners to skip directly to the songs they wanted to listen to without the hassle.
Portable MP3s
Since 2008, CD sales have declined by about 10 million every year, all thanks to digital sharing services and MP3 technology. While the first MP3 players were released in the late 1990's by Audio Highway and SaeHan Information System's MPMan, Apple’s iPod was the first MP3 player to truly dominate the market in 2001. Listeners were now able to listen to large amounts of music on the go, skipping, shuffling, restarting tracks all without the need to flip a tape or hook themselves up to an outlet.
With the rise of MP3 technology, digital sharing services were born. Napster, though highly problematic (encountering many lawsuits that set in motion legal fights over rights to protect digital media from copyright piracy) reached almost 25 million users in 2001. Napster allowed users to download tracks from the internet for free to their computers, which in turn could let users burn these tracks to CDs, play them on their MP3s, or share them with friends. Distribution became infinitely easier, but the legality of this distribution and payment became a whole lot trickier.
Digital Sharing
Music Streaming
Using sites like LimeWire for pirating digital music files quickly became inconvenient due to the malware that could easily infect your computer upon file-download, so Apple’s iTunes store rose up as a viable option for protecting your computer while still getting the newest tracks. Later in 2005, Pandora, a subscription-based streaming service owned by Sirius XM Holdings was launched and pioneered the form of streaming services we now frequently use today. Services like Spotify, Tidal, YouTube Music, Amazon Music, Apple Music, and more all allow us to pay monthly fees and gain practically unlimited access to any music released online to their platform. From hovering around a radio to having the world’s entire musical discography at your fingertips, Spotify and similar services have changed the way listeners listen and artists distribute.

And it doesn't just stop at downloading songs to a library, with Spotify’s algorithmic playlisting features, users can get the same feel of a curated playlist from radio host during a segment. Users can also create their own playlists and share them between other platform users. Combining a social element with algorithmic recommendations, Spotify has become one of the world’s number one streaming platforms for music and is thus why I’ve decided to use it as my jumping off point to observe the Canadian music industry online.
Moving Forward

With our data now positioned in present-day streaming conditions, we can move on to our analysis of the over 11,000 artists identified as Canadian in Chartmetric’s dataset. We will be looking at scatter plots comparing various variables that show trends in underrepresentation, as well as draw our attention to further areas of research. I will also then lead us into a short discussion of some individual artists which have both helped me to guide my research, and provide perspective as to who these numbers represent.