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The Biggest Artists You’ve Never Heard Of — Welcome to the New Mainstream

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

Arijit Singh is not very active on social media and does not do much publicity. “Media is a business and I have no business with it,” he once said in an interview for the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS). “Only my work has business with [media]. I work, and if it is good enough, [then] it is a product for the media.” With Singh being that private, it would be understandable that you might have never heard of him, or have no idea what he looks like. You may not even know he’s a singer. In your defense, it’s worth pointing out Singh is not signed to any big label or management company that promotes his music or image for the masses, nor in or outside India; he doesn’t even have a YouTube channel that takes his name. With all that being said, Arijit Singh is also one of the biggest artists in the world right now.

On the week of November 4th to 10th 2022, Arijit Singh’s “Kesariya” was the 5th most streamed song on YouTube in the world, with its music video uploaded under Sony Music India’s YouTube channel amassing 303 million views in 3 months. Singh is also the 6th most followed artist on Spotify, which makes him the most Spotify-followed Asian artist in the world. In YouTube’s Top 5 Global artists, Singh is joined by three Indian artists who, like him, are known as “playback singers” (singers who pre-record music to be synchronized to Indian movies,) and by Puerto-Rican trapper and reggaeton singer Bad Bunny.

If we’re discussing the biggest artists in the world, there’s a lot to unpack in this Top 5 alone. On one side, one may wonder if YouTube charts are a worthy metric at all, or if artists whose work is mostly made of soundtracks even fit the debate since they barely have concerts or albums of their own.

To spice things up, let’s point out another thing here: there are no artists from Canada, the United States, or the United Kingdom in YouTube’s Top 5 Global Artists, even though these places are home to some of the most popular acts of the past and present (Canada: Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, Drake; USA Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande; UK: Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Harry Styles, Coldplay, Dua Lipa.)

To be fair, many of these artists we just name-dropped are still immensely popular across the globe, and so is their music. It’s just that the link between fame and commercially successful music is getting weaker by the day. More often than not, lists about music sales, box scores, and streams are headed by artists whose music doesn’t play on the radio nor is known or consumed by you or your close friends.

Welcome to the new mainstream, a place with an unclear circumscription despite being ruled by some undisputed truths: 1) it is no longer a kingdom that has English as its one and only language; 2) the Internet plays a huge role in it; 3) even in spaces historically dominated by wealthy institutions, social mobility is possible if an artist has a loyal and committed fanbase.

Take BTS, who started on a small Korean label in 2013 and made it to IFPI’s ranking of best-selling artists in 2018. It was possible because YouTube helped their music reach people from all parts of the world, and these fans coordinated efforts to get BTS to win fan-voting awards and have their albums sold at retail chain stores. See Bad Bunny too, the Latino superstar whose breakthrough was via Soundcloud. To this day, he keeps relatively low profile marketing strategies (he announced the title of his 2022 album, Un Verano Sin Ti, through a Puerto Rican classified ads website. It’s now set up to be the worldwide most commercially successful album of the year.)

If you scroll through a social media post reporting on BTS and Bad Bunny’s achievements, you can find both fans passionately expressing support in various languages, and several people using words such as “bots”, “social experiment”, “mass buying”, “mass streaming”, even “money laundering scheme.” Comments like these imply that the artists’ success is not organic. In practice, these words have become online jargon to describe an artist someone simply is unaware of.

Fair to say, BTS had hits in 2020 and 2021 — “Dynamite,” “Butter” — but they were pulling world tours, and filling up Wembley, Stade de France, and Tokyo Dome way before these. Bad Bunny gained popularity by collaborating with Cardi B (“I Like It”) in 2018, but he was charting on Billboard before that too. As the popularity of these artists grew, so did their fanbase — even if the demand for their music would remain restricted to their own niche, for the most part. These are artists who sell out stadium shows while their music mostly remains unfamiliar to the general public — that is, the casual listeners whose music taste is mostly influenced by mass media outlets.

Photo credit: Sebastain Ervi, via Pexels.

If BTS and Bad Bunny, or even other Korean and Latin artists like them, had arisen one or two decades earlier, they might not even have gotten to where they are right now. It used to be mass-targeted marketing backed up by a decades-long established label that could get an artist worldwide projection. But nowadays, as an A&R who preferred to stay anonymous told Billboard, “a No. 1 radio song doesn’t mean f*** anymore.” The mediums and stakeholders that made icons like Elvis, Madonna, and even Rihanna are still around, and many artists still dream of getting a record label deal. This is simply not the standard route to success anymore. As varied and unpredictable as these routes get, what we get are different stream levels of popularity and success: from underground or alternative, to “midstream,” to mainstream.

For what it’s worth, having your song played on the radio, having your face on TV or corporate marketing campaigns still counts as going mainstream. What has drastically changed in that regard is who gets you there. It used to be your label or manager; now it can be your fans or whatever forces of the universe push a social media algorithm in your favor. In a scenery where “niche is the new mainstream” (as music researcher Mark Mulligan once wrote,) any type of music, sung in any language, can become mainstream. It doesn’t necessarily mean that its singer will be able to pull out a world tour or will be recognized when walking in the streets, though.

Even on a local level, in genres that have infiltrated the “traditional mainstream,” such as hip hop in the United States, new artists arise without necessarily being well known by the masses. YoungBoy Never Broke Again is 2022’s second most streamed artist in the USA according to HITS Daily Double; but back in 2019, he was ruling YouTube while making lesser noise on Spotify. Thanks to a consistent video strategy, the rapper built a dedicated following on YouTube, but it took time until it scaled to other platforms too.

It’s suggestive of how fragmented media is today that niche fandom can catapult artists or entire music genres to commercial success. Or, that one artist or genre can dominate one channel without necessarily performing well on another. Or, fundamentally, that it’s hard to define what are the channels that should serve as metrics for success. Ultimately, these answers define how accurate the picture of what’s popular in the world is. Korean and Indian artists have billions of Spotify plays coming from all parts of the world, but Korea and India barely use Spotify. China, the 6th biggest music market in the world in 2021 according to the IFPI, does not use it all. “Conventional” metrics such as sales neither reflect the reality of music markets such as Brazil or Arab countries, where piracy is largely widespread.

The new mainstream is a common denominator between the “old” and the “new” channels and metrics, the online following and the offline support, the community-building power to the acknowledgments on the streets, and the commercial symbols of relevance from a wide array of countries and cultures. This is by no means an easy equation and we are yet not close to its result, but it should be a fairer one.

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Do you think the meaning of “going mainstream” has changed much?

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This content is published for informational and entertainment purposes and does not constitute legal or financial advice, nor promotion of any of the companies or artists here mentioned.

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