Annie Ortmeier

The first time Annie Ortmeier saw a country streaming chart, she remembers being thrilled that Universal Music Group Nashville had three tracks with a million weekly streams. “It was a big deal,” UMG Nashville’s VP, Marketing-Digital Accounts tells Country Insider. “The Top 10 would have only a few songs each week over a million.” Quickly, though, million-streamers comprised the entire Top 10, then the Top 20. These days, Ortmeier says, “you can’t get into the Top 200 country streaming chart without doing more than a million.”

For programmers interested in keeping tabs on streaming data, “The best way I could tell somebody to do that would be to look at the country streaming chart each week,” Ortmeier says. But as Ortmeier, former Big Loud national director of promotion and radio marketing Kenny Jay and MRC Data’s Head of Independents Haley Jones noted during the CRS360 “Talk Data To Me Too” webinar last week, getting a handle on those numbers is a challenge.

“Streaming is a moving target, and it’s moving really fast,” Jones said during the webinar.

And country has been moving faster than most other genres over the past year or so. During 2019 and 2020, country’s on-demand streaming growth outpaced the overall industry’s, according to MRC’s Music Connect data presented to Country Music Association members during another webinar last week. That upward trajectory has continued into the first quarter of 2021. In fact, on-demand streaming now accounts for more than 80% of total country consumption, even as country’s share of the audio streaming universe edges up.

Ortmeier sees evidence of country’s constantly shifting streaming landscape throughout the streaming chart, from a baseline that keeps rising for entry into the lower rungs all the way to the top. A year or two ago, she says, she considered the country tracks getting the most streams to be outliers, usually with some level of pop crossover — Maren Morris, for instance, or Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope” or the occasional Taylor Swift song that charted country. “You might see 10 to 12 million in the top three spots of weekly total streams,” she says. “They would stand out and be really separate — two or three at the top with astronomical numbers, then this huge gap. Now, you have to have more than 5 million streams to get into the Top 10.”

Beyond staying familiar with the weekly streaming charts — and the constantly increasing totals it takes to earn a spot there — market-by-market breakouts are extremely useful for those who can access it.

“The best thing to do is to start to pay attention to what’s happening in your market,” Jones said during the CRS360 webinar. “If something’s growing on streaming without airplay, that would be something that would get my attention.”

Because streaming data reflects consumption behavior almost in real time, listening spikes, sometimes big ones, are common. A couple of factors often cause large spikes, Ortmeier said: promotions on a specific streaming platform or inclusion on a marquis playlist with a massive follower account. There can be other real-world reasons, though: an awards-show or other television performance, a sync usage in a popular new Netflix show or, on a local level, a concert appearance or use in an arena-level sporting event.

“TikTok is driving a ton of music interactions, and that’s carrying over to downloads and streaming,” Ortmeier says.

What likely isn’t causing large spikes, Ortmeier says, is manipulation of the process. “When you see a jump like 500,000 to 900,000, it would be really difficult for that to have come from a fraudulent situation, because the data is scrubbed so many times before MRC ever publishes that,” she says.

Still, such streaming spikes aren’t any more indicative of ongoing popularity than a world-premiere placement across a large chain of radio stations. Massive spikes may not mean much for radio programmers unless they’re accompanied by trending growth over a period of weeks.

Consistency is key, Jay says. “Start with your metrics,” he said during last week’s webinar. “If you’re sitting in a radio chair, in an MD chair, and you’re looking at these things, make sure you have a consistent baseline, that every song is getting judged on the exact same merits.”

With relevant data coming from so many sources and in a constant state of flux, missing something is practically a certainty. And properly interpreting the data will remain a challenge. Jay and Ortmeier both recommend finding knowledgeable, reliable people who can help make sense of it.

“For a radio person, I would hope that’s going to end up being your rep that is educated on a lot of this data and trying to learn more, as we’re all learning more,” Ortmeier says. Having allies within data measurement and analytics companies like MRC is also helpful, she adds. “You just have to build your own network of people and sources that you trust.”