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Penny Fractions: Billie Eilish: The Exception That Proves the Rule

Hi, hello, this is Penny Fractions! A weekly newsletter on the music streaming business with frequent
Penny Fractions
Penny Fractions: Billie Eilish: The Exception That Proves the Rule
By David Turner • Issue #107 • View online
Hi, hello, this is Penny Fractions! A weekly newsletter on the music streaming business with frequent peeks into the labor concerns of the industry. Last week I appeared on the podcast Art & Labor to chat about the history of the American Federation of Musicians. If you can, please do subscribe and check out the podcast’s Patreon page because it’s one of the best podcasts at the intersection of labor and art, hence the name! Okay, let’s get into 2019’s favorite pop star, Billie Eilish.

In May, Billboard ran a story with the headline: “Why All Eyes Are on Billie Eilish, the New Model for Streaming Era Success”. The question I wanted to raise is: what’s the “New Model”? According to Billboard, Eilish’s debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, involved “Eilish’s 16-member team spending nearly eight months developing a rollout strategy, always planning to coordinate the release date with a nighttime Coachella set. Every step of the way, it was clear she was promoting an album.” 
The absurdity that this idea of a teenager with a dozen-plus member team calculating all of her moves and decisions for years is supposedly a “New Model” is fucking hilarious. There’s absolutely nothing new about this approach. What’s interesting to me and what this newsletter will focus on is the commitment of an entire industry to stand behind a single teenager to sell the idea of music streaming to a new generation. Billie Eilish’s story is one of an industry desperate to make a broken model appear well-functioning.
The Viral Moment
The narrative of Billie Eilish’s career always starts at SoundCloud. She uploaded the song “Ocean Eyes” and, in a blink, she was on track towards stardom. Hits Daily Double captured this fairly well in a profile of Interscope-subsidiary Darkroom founder Justin Lubliner
He found Billie after she uploaded a song to SoundCloud, “ocean eyes,” which was picked up by blog Hillydilly. An Interscope intern who also wrote for the blog showed it to A&R player Nick Groff, who shared it with Lubliner—who then met with Billie’s management team.
What’s never remarked upon in the Eilish origin story is that the blog Hillydilly (here is the first Eilish post), and certainly a number of others, are written by kids underpaid by record labels to be cheap A&Rs with little disclosure of their major label connections. Instead of blogs existing as they did in the 00s (mostly independent outlets where people posted songs they liked), Hillydilly simply was a proxy for Interscope’s marketing efforts. I harp on this because when the song was released, Eilish was already more connected to the music industry than many artists will ever be in their entire lives. 
In a Music Business Worldwide interview with Danny Rukasin and Brandon Goodman, Rukasin talks about how he already was in contact with Finneas O’Connell, Billie’s brother, when that same month “Ocean Eyes” dropped and Rukasin became Billie’s manager. That’s the “New Model” right there. Have your brother know someone in the music industry, release a track that gets picked up by an intern at Interscope who writes for a major blog, and then have said intern push it up the chain of their employer. So, less than a year later, Eilish’s first Darkroom/Interscope single “Six Feet Under” was released. A purely organic rise
Apple Music Buys Billie Eilish Stock
Even though Music Business Worldwide wrote that “Six Feet Under” was “an independent release built on the hype” before Bellyache was released by Darkroom/Interscope in March 2017” — it isn’t true. The former track was released by Darkroom but more importantly for this section, it was premiered on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 show. This kicked off what’s become an almost absurd integration of a teenager’s identity within a music streaming platform. 
Around the release of Eilish’s debut EP, Don’t Smile at Me, in 2017, the press began to use a rather consistent way to frame her music: Pigeons and Planes (“Billie Eilish is a 15-Year-Old Singer on Track For Pop Stardom”), Harper’s Bazaar (“Billie Eilish Is a 15-Year-Old Pop Prodigy—And She’s Intimidating as Hell”), and W (“Meet Billie Eilish, Pop’s Terrifying 15-Year-Old Prodigy”). Let’s stick with W for a second (disclosure: I did write for them a bit in 2017) where Katherine Cusumano wrote her own retelling of Eilish’s origin story behind “Oceans Eyes”: “Then the blog Hillydilly picked it up, and that led to Beats 1 tastemaker Zane Lowe voicing his support—and the track went viral.” That is just not true, but rather it does show just how much work Apple Music put into reframing the Eilish’s own musical arc to better melt into the company’s narrative.
Back in January 2016, Billie Eilish signed to Platoon, an artist discovery platform that would later be bought by Apple Music. Zane Lowe premiered Eilish’s first major-label single “Six Feet Under.” And Eilish did perform at Apple Music’s 2017 SXSW event less than a year later. Then, one month after the summer 2017 W story, Eilish announced that she would be part of Apple Music’s UpNext Artist program. She was quoted to have said the words (which I totally believe were her own original words not crafted by anyone else): “Ever since UpNext was launched, I’ve thought all the docs about the artists were cool and insanely interesting. It’s so rare to be chosen, and the idea that they’ve chosen me is incredible.” Who hasn’t been obsessed with Apple Music’s UpNext documentary series?! 
Again, what is the New Model here? Being signed to a major label at age 14 and premiering a song on Zane Lowe’s radio show and spending the following year becoming further integrated into Apple Music marketing tactics? Is that it? The reason I ask is that Eilish’s Apple Music connection didn’t stop there. A couple of months ago, Apple announced that a selection of its stores would have stations where users could remix her music via GarageBand or other similar apps. Music Business Worldwide ‘broke the news’ that Eilish’s debut album secured over 800,000 pre-saves. An entirely bullshit stat, meant to sound similar to pre-orders and imply that one will listen to an album and thus produce more money. But this is in no way analogous to putting down more money prior to a product’s release and exists to help reaffirm the value of the album, which her Billboard profile was obsessed with perpetuating. 
The integration of Billie Eilish into Apple Music doesn’t discredit her music but speaks more to the fact that it was created, to an almost comical degree, simply for the purpose of pushing forward a particular narrative of music streaming success. That’s why the industry centers press around how she’s found success doing various styles but still wants to make an album, which is supposed to run counter towards the music age of singles. The Billie Eilish experiment is an effective part of a larger public relations campaign run by Apple Music to establish itself as the upholder of traditional music values against the disruptor of Spotify’s algorithms and playlists. Of course, that’s nonsense but I’ll admit the story does sound good when told through baggy clothes, wild hair, and a give-no-fuck attitude.
Everyone Must Love Billie Eilish
Earlier this year, Music Ally wrote an amazing headline: “The Battle of Billie Eilish: Spotify, Apple, and YouTube scrap it out.” Many lives were sadly lost in the great 2019 Eilish Wars. Not to be outdone by Apple Music, YouTube Music created an entire artist-driven mini-series that debuted with Eilish, and Spotify hosted aggressively-tedious live events dedicated to Billie Eilish’s album that I’m sure almost no one remembers six months post-release. Yet, beyond showing just how seriously Interscope wants to make Eilish a thing, the label also showed just how desperate these streaming services are to not miss out on the Eilish Express. 
This my final (still rhetorical) question: what is the New Model? What’s fairly obvious about the Billie Eilish project is that it’s meant to present a rather bizarre vision where music streaming can function in the same established, album-first model that’s defined music since the rock era. Eilish’s anxiety pop is meant to not just calm the nerves of established artists but also build up the idea that the streaming model is indeed good and sustainable, despite what other artists may have said about Spotify and other platforms throughout this entire decade. I don’t find the Eilish narrative compelling in stating that music streaming can work for other artists as it did for her, because no artist will be able to fully absorb their career with a brand like Apple Music as she did. And even if that were possible, would that really be a desirable future for music? Personally, If a music career needs a years-long campaign run by a company that at one point was valued at a trillion dollars in order to work, then maybe this new model holds many of the same old flaws.
Corrections
Two corrections from last week’s newsletter. The metrics centered on Instagram, Spotify, Twitter, and YouTube followers ranks who saw the biggest change in 2019, not simply the most popular acts by the total number of followers. That was an oversight on my part. I was also informed that Chartmetric’s new website is: chartmetric.com, chartmetric.io. So, remember, Chartmetric Dot Com, Not I O.
Unheard Labor
First up, Kickstarter still refuses to recognize their workers’ demands for a union. Terrible to see. Click here to see how you can show solidarity. Last week, the Black Madonna, a dance DJ, said she was gonna pull out of the Intersect Festival due to its relation to Amazon Web Services. This sparked broader discussion around artists working with the company due to its connection to ICE, Homeland Security’s abuse along the US-Mexico border. Musicians looking to organize against the company can find a joint struggle with cartoonists, even a cluster of Amazon’s own workers.
6 Links 2 Read
Nearly every Lyor Cohen interview makes me question if he knows what company he runs but this rather odd remark that YouTube’s algorithmic recommendations shouldn’t produce an echo chamber feels outright nonsensical. Does Cohen just skip all of the meetings where YouTube execs explicitly state that they need for people to lock into the platform until their eyeballs fall out? Weird, Cohen may wanna start attending those. 
TikTok stores really are just a cease pull of sinophobia. Yet, I find this even more annoying because the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA) citing Chinese censorship and copyright infringement in the same breath is so tacky. What’s a better way to try to line one’s pockets than evoking racial, Cold War-era, fears? 
Is music streaming a viable business model? Each additional piece of information would say no, no it isn’t. However, let’s not rush to judgment. 
The anxiety of too many music charts is even ratting brains over at the Economist. Personally, I think this is amazing news and I hope to follow the trend of economics publications getting worked up over incredibly minor music industry concerns. 
If you’re reading this and are interested in the market of investing millions into music labels, this is a nice primer of the market. I’d also suggest that if you’re able to just simply throw around such money, then… the Penny Fractions Patreon can be found right here! 
I’ll fully admit that the music news I find worthwhile has been rather slim over the last few weeks, but this lawsuit is also exactly what I loathe about how copyright is treated within music, where it’s essentially a moonshot to transfer wealth from the already-wealthy.
The Penny Fractions newsletter arrives every Wednesday morning (EST). If you’d like to support it, check out the Patreon page or follow it on Twitter. The artwork is by graphic designer Kurt Woerpel whose work can at his website. The newsletter is copy edited by Mariana Carvalho, with additional support from Taylor Curry. My personal website is davidturner.work. My current job is Curation Analyst at SoundCloud, so all thoughts here represent me, not my employer. Any comments or concerns can be sent to pennyfractions@gmail.com.
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