Work inside the machine: How pre-saves and algorithmic marketing turn musicians into influencers

Streaming platforms allow users to add upcoming tracks to their playlists, in order to listen to them as soon as they are released. While this sounds harmless, it changed the habits of independent musicians, who feel they have to adapt to yet another algorithm.
Foto von Salemi Wenda auf Unsplash

“New track coming soon, to pre-save it, click on the link below.” “Can’t wait to share this song with you, pre-save now!” This is how some artists promote their unreleased tracks in advance. Initially created by Spotify, the idea is simple: Users click on the “like” button relating to the track’s announcement, and when it is released, they get a notification. Deezer, Apple Music, Tidal, and other streaming platforms offer similar features.

Artists who already have many followers – think about Ariana Grande or Megan Thee Stallion – also have plenty of fan accounts posting pre-save links. This feature “helps create organic streams, which is super important to boost the release of a new track,” composer David Abakan explains to AlgorithmWatch. 

However, independent artists and newcomers often have to promote the pre-save of their next EP or LP on their own: “For new artists, there is an obligation to try and reach more people, to try and expand their fan base and the amount of people aware of their work,” he says. This is where the transition from a mere musician to a platform influencer takes place.

Sophian Fanen, a music journalist and author of Boulevard du stream, describes the pre-saving phenomenon as part of what some call the “fan economy”: a “whole ecosystem that tries to monetize the link between artists and their audience.” For fans, it can be an interesting tool to get more involved with a cherished artist or to access special merchandising and limited concert tickets.

The system works basically like the one that enables Instagram influencers to monetize their accounts by gaining followers, except in this case, users also give data to third parties. Since pre-saves are linked to music platforms on which users have a personal account, record labels can access statistical data about them: their age, gender, or country of residence, for instance. The platforms receive not only money for subscriptions, they also gather sociodemographic data, with which they can categorize listeners and adapt their advertising strategy.

Music is a data business

DistroKid, Ditto, or Linkfire are some of the names independent musicians will stumble upon when trying to boost a future release. They are the kind of companies they work with to obtain pre-saving links, along with user data generated from it, such as the e-mail address used to pre-save the song or album, profile image, type of subscription, the country of residence, or the kind of playlists the users listen to. 

Some artists balance the pros and cons of these products. French feminist activist and singer Mathilde considers features such as pre-save as a way to control her work’s distribution and obtain “100% of your royalties.” She’s also interested in the generated statistics, as they allow her to know “who’s interested enough to pre-save” and thereby better target her audience. On the other hand, she describes such tools as symptoms of the “uberisation” of her work.

Before pre-saving, Deezer will ask users to share all personal data from their account (including names) and will require access to such data at any time. Streaming platforms capitalize on their users’ saving and listening activities. In 2021, Wired reported that more than 100 billion data points were recorded by Spotify every day. 

A trove of information with an impact on privacy: French researcher Thomas Louail works on users’ listening habits and has found that “for most people, we only need very few amounts of data, like 2 or 3 songs they liked, to be able to deanonymize them.” This only works for those who use likes, pre-save, sharing, or similar features, he adds: Those who only use streaming platforms as libraries in which they choose albums to listen to leave less identifiable patterns.

“One among many algorithmic signals”

According to composer David Abakan, the algorithmic mechanics of Spotify or Deezer work like “a multi-stage rocket ship.” People who pre-save help launch the song in its first stage. Thanks to them, the track is picked up by a recommendation algorithm, which makes it visible to new audiences. “Then maybe the track will get noticed and added to hand-picked playlists, and so on.”

Deezer’s Aurelien Herault thinks that the pre-save feature was indeed a way to boost engagement, but it wouldn’t be a game changer for a new artist. “For our algorithmic systems, pre-saving a song is just one signal among others,” he explains. The importance of a “like'' is more or less the same, “no matter if it has been clicked on before or after the release.”

Among other signals Deezer’s algorithms take into account, he mentions “the activity on the artist’s or the album’s page, the user’s activity before liking that one specific song, whether a track is directly played from a user’s library or in a more passive way, through a playlist, etc.”

As Sophian Fanen puts it: “Inequality of access to data is ultimately what is at stake here.” The platforms have much more information than what they share with the labels and with the artists, he says, “and within the industry, a major label will have much more leverage in negotiating with the platforms than an independent label.”

Aurélien Herault, chief innovation officer at Deezer, tends to confirm that statement: “We send daily, weekly, and monthly streaming reports to the labels we signed agreements with.” However, he thinks that younger artists should “keep away from all this data and concentrate on their music.” Deezer offers specific tools for independent creators, including a pitching tool (a Google form) that allows them to reach out to playlist curators and try to convince them to add their music to their selections.

Artists, influencers, or both?

Mathilde says that the pre-saving feature helped her learn to some extent how to use the algorithms to her advantage. She now understands the interconnection between the platforms she uses: “If I am getting shadowbanned or harassed on a social network [she has been targeted by violent misogynistic cyber harassment campaigns over the years], for instance, it might impair the number of streams I’ll have on a streaming platform.”

“Artists tend to get stuck between the conflicting injunctions to create music and to sell it, which are two different jobs,” Sophian Fanen explains. An established artist can entrust these tasks to professionals. “Emerging artists, on the other hand, find themselves forced to do some marketing, even though they don't necessarily have the skills or the desire to do so.” That’s not specific to the music business, he adds: “Similar trends exist in journalism and other creative work,” where the challenge to get the work noticed arises on top of the challenge to do the work itself.

Having started her musical career in 2008, Mathilde is used to promoting her work. She says that she spends 80% of her time on this, and only 20% on producing music. “Streaming platforms came and went without resembling each other, but there has been one constant: To make a name for yourself, you have to find a way to exist online.” Mathilde describes a “scale problem”: “Bigger artists get more help to reach their audience, as they have larger marketing and professional teams to work with.” 

She publishes all her content on Instagram, YouTube, and other social media platforms. This (and her participation on the TV show The Voice in 2015) helped her expand her number of followers, likes, and re-shares, which also helps her get more streams. Still, earning enough money from it to make a living remains a challenge: “For 1.5 million streams, I get 4,000 euros. I have to share half with my producer. Even though 1.5 million streams is good, what remains is not a lot.”

David Abakan concurs: “For 150,000 streams for a track, you don’t even earn 400 euros, even though you created a video clip, promoted your music everywhere, poured skills and time and resources into it.”

For some artists, increasing the number of streams also means maximizing their online presence. This can be done by posting as much content directly related to their artistic production as possible, or by developing related strategies. David Abakan, for example, shares his expertise in music marketing via blog posts and videos. Ultimately, this impacts the size of his online following and, he thinks, his number of streams: Marketing publications, after all, are also content that feeds the machine.

For some, however, combining the two different jobs is especially difficult in the algorithmic context. Mathilde says that she needs an X Blue (formerly Twitter Blue) subscription if she wants to profit from the platform’s algorithmic boosts. To get a verification on Instagram, she would have to pay for a Meta Verified subscription as well, but she won’t, as it requires “displaying a real picture of me and giving my full name.” She fears her harassers would use it against her.

Mathilde Saliou

Former Fellow Algorithmic Accountability Reporting

Mathilde is a French journalist specialized in digital issues. A graduate of Sciences Po Paris, she has worked for The Guardian, RFI, 20 Minutes, Les Inrocks, Next INpact, and others. In 2023, she published the book Technoféminisme, comment le numérique aggrave les inégalités ("Technofeminism, how digital technology is exacerbating inequalities") with the French publishing house Grasset.