Physical album sales and digital downloads are down. But more people are listening to more music than ever, which presents staggering opportunities to artists like the Weeknd who connect with an audience.
It’s the model the Weeknd has pursued from the beginning of his career. In 2010, he started recording music–a genre-bending party blend–and distributed it free on YouTube in a series of mixtapes, picking the Weeknd as his mysterious nom de plume. “I didn’t want to put a face to it,” he says. “I wanted to create a fan base that loved me for my art.”
Abel “the Weeknd” Tesfaye parlayed his play count–5.5 billion streams in the past two years–into an estimated $75 million touring advance. To him it’s all part of the model he’s been following throughout his rapid rise, one that applies to all sorts of businesses: Create an excellent product, make it widely available and flip the monetization switch when the timing is right.
Steve Jobs would have been the logical choice to headline the launch of Apple’s eponymous streaming service, but by the time the tech giant rolled out Apple Music two years ago, he was busy putting dents into faraway universes. In his place was a pair of young musicians who walk the line between hip-hop, pop and R&B: Drake and the Weeknd. The latter stunned the crowd with the first-ever live performance of his new single “I Can’t Feel My Face,” which premiered on Apple Music and has generated more than 1.5 billion spins across all streaming platforms.
The Weeknd knows as well as anyone that streaming isn’t the future of music–it’s the present. As digital downloads and physical sales plummet, streaming is increasing overall music consumption–since their Apple appearances, Drake (No. 4 on our list at $94 million) and The Weeknd (No. 6, $92 million) have clocked a combined 17.5 billion streams–and that creates other kinds of monetization, including touring revenue.
“We live in a world where artists don’t really make the money off the music like we did in the Golden Age,” says the Weeknd, 27. “It’s not really coming in until you hit the stage.”
“The reason the Weeknds of the world and the Drakes of the world are exploding is a combination of a global audience that’s consuming them freely at a young age [and that] they just keep dropping music,” Live Nation chief Michael Rapino says. “They’re delivering an ongoing, engaged dialogue with their fan base.”
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