Music News: SXSW, Pandora's New Paid Streaming Service, Drake

Mar 15, 2017
Originally published on March 15, 2017 6:30 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We want to check in next with our friends at NPR Music. Many of them are in Austin this week at the annual South by Southwest music festival, an industry showcase that draws bands from all over the world. Now, in the past week, several international performers have been denied entry to the U.S. as the White House has put more effort into Customs and Border Protection.

Now, to talk more about it and to get the latest in music news, we're joined by chief editor at NPR Music, who is still in town, Jacob Ganz. Hey there, Jacob.

JACOB GANZ, BYLINE: Howdy.

CORNISH: All right. So this started as a conversation about South by Southwest. But tell us what's going on.

GANZ: Well, basically what's happening is that a bunch of different musicians are coming into the country for South by Southwest. It's a huge festival. Thousands of bands play it. And the way that they usually come in, or many of them usually come in, is through this thing called a visa waiver program, where they don't get an artist visa or a work visa to come into the United States. They get what's called the Visa Waiver Program, or ESTA, to basically come in as tourists and come to what's essentially a conference, right? They're meeting with a bunch of their peers. They're playing an unpaid showcase in many ways.

South by Southwest, before the festival started this year, basically said you're not allowed to play more than one festival. You might be deported if you are. You know, we've been following this story all week. And we know of at least eight bands who have been turned away at the border, bans from Canada, bans from Egypt, bans from Chile, Norway, Australia and Spain, and some of them for reasons that seem pretty straightforward. You know, they've actually scheduled performances beyond the South by Southwest performance that they're supposed to play, that they have the letter saying they should be let into the country from - they're just not allowed to do that.

And many bands don't know that. Many bands probably do know and are trying to sort of sneak in and do a little bit of extra work while they're here. But there are a bunch as well who think that they have and are saying that they have been turned away for reasons that have more to do with increased scrutiny on who comes into the country at this moment under this administration.

CORNISH: I want to talk about business news as well because the music streaming service Pandora's launching an on-demand service. I know we're always kind of talking about the inside baseball of streaming services. So why does this moment matter?

GANZ: Well, this matters because Pandora has a big head start in that they have 250 million registered users. Those are people who have logged in, who have listened to a radio station that they've set up. The question for Pandora really is can they convert those people into paying subscribers? Can they take those people and convince them that what they really want to do is use Pandora, use this system that they've had maybe for a decade or so to do the thing that Spotify and Apple have been doing for a couple of years already. And maybe they would have chosen to go and do that, if that's what they really wanted.

Pandora does have one thing sort of in its pocket, the Genome Project, which is their algorithm for recommending songs. Say if you like this thing over here, they'll use all of these data points within a specific song to say you might like this thing as well. They've used that to power the radio, the playlists that they generate. But if they can turn that into something that allows people to use on demand and discover new things, they might have a leg up in converting all of these users into paying subscribers. But basically from this moment, they're starting at a pretty significant disadvantage just because they took so long to get into the game.

CORNISH: All right. So we've talked to festival news. We've talked business news. And now I want to just talk about new music coming this weekend from Drake. It's a project called "More Life." I know about it because of a trailer on Instagram. Yep.

Besides the marketing aspect, I want to ask you about something specific which is that this is a kind of long album. It's 25 songs, which for those of us who grew up with CDs and the limits of CDs where they were 18 songs, this feels long. But you say there's a business reason why artists might be doing this more and more.

GANZ: Yeah. Well, there's no limit to the number of songs you can put on a album on a streaming service, right? It's a album or a mixtape or a playlist. It doesn't really matter. But Billboard, the magazine that charts the best-selling albums or the most streamed albums now uses this criteria to determine how well an album is doing if it's just on a streaming service, right? Fifteen hundred listens to a single song equals one album sale.

That basically means that an artist knows that if they put out an album with ten songs on it and people press play and listen to it, they'll get a certain number of sales, you know, in air quotes. If they put an album with 25 songs on it and people press play and listen all the way through, they'll get two and a half times as many album sales. And that's basically just the way that an artist like Drake, who knows he's going to get a certain number of people just rushing on day of to hit play and listen to everything new that he's got, they're going to sell just a massive number of albums and, again, sales in air quotes.

CORNISH: So let me get that math right. The same number of people can generate twice as much money just 'cause you have a longer album?

GANZ: Exactly. Not even a longer album, it could be a album of 25 one-minute songs. And you would generate an enormous number of sales, yeah.

CORNISH: (Laughter) That's Jacob Ganz, senior editor with NPR Music with music news for us. Thanks so much, Jacob.

GANZ: You're welcome, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITH YOU")

PARTYNEXTDOOR: (Singing) It's about us right now, girl, where you going? It's about us right now, girl, where you going? I'm with you. Yeah. I can't get enough of you, babe. Bottles open up so you can try and open for me, baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIL WAYNE AND DRAKE SONG, "WITH YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.