6LACK's "Problems" has been heard millions of times, played across the globe and garnered praise and attention from the likes of Zane Lowe, Diddy and that teenage influencer of all teenage influencers, Kylie Jenner. There's also a good chance you've never heard the song, never heard of 6LACK period. Welcome to 2016.
There was a time when radio was capable of single-handedly making or breaking careers, and while that time isn't over, it's ending. Radio's in its Michael Jordan on the Wizards phase. In 2016, it's entirely possible to have a song blow up, even to get signed, without a single spin on traditional radio. All you need is a streaming service behind you.
As Buzzfeed explained in its excellent new piece, Inside the Playlist Factory, not only does streaming as a whole drive billions of listens to songs, but playlists are really the heart that makes the streaming services beat so powerfully.
"Spotify says 50% of its more than 100 million users globally are listening to its human-curated playlists (not counting those in the popular, algorithmically personalized “Discover Weekly”), which cumulatively generate more than a billion plays per week. According to an industry estimate, 1 out of every 5 plays across all streaming services today happens inside of a playlist." - Buzzfeed
This means that being included in a major playlist can drive more listens to your song than regular rotation on many radio stations, except you don't have to be signed to a major label to get it. That also gives the people curating those playlists the power to break records that major market radio DJs once had, and now we circle back to 6LACK.
On April 14, 6lack’s manager, Sean Famoso, reached out to Carl Chery — the [Apple Music] hip-hop and R&B curator from Queens — to share two new songs 6lack had posted that day to SoundCloud. Chery urged Famoso to release one of the songs, a lugubrious, late-night lament called “Prblms,” to iTunes, and within days of arriving there it was being played on Beats 1 radio (“This 6lack PRBLMS record is vibe for sure,” Zane Lowe declared) and seeded on over 10 Apple Music playlists, including “The A-List: Hip-Hop” and “If You Like… The Weeknd.” The song gained over 1 million streams in a week, and by late June, it had surfaced on the Snapchat accounts of Kylie Jenner and Puff Daddy.
“I was thinking about this the other day,” Chery says. “We often talk about being ‘on the pulse.’ But it’s different now; I’m getting to a point where I’m so far ahead of things that I’m actually able to shift them. Instead of reacting to what’s happening, I have a hand in shaping what’s happening.”
We're a long way from being able to declare 6LACK the next big anything, but this is undoubtedly yet another example of how streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify and SoundCloud are now putting on the artists that radio and the major labels go chasing after. Post Malone turned a SoundCloud hit into a world tour with Bieber in a year, and Bryson Tiller quietly put out a platinum album last year that was only quiet by traditional standards - in the streaming world Tiller's as big as The Weeknd right now.
The future of artist discovery is already here, and whether you're listening or not, it's moving ahead.