Ever wonder why there are many ways to list a featured artist on a song? Over the years the “feature” was a way to show prominence on a track and receive credit. Today, a feature is structured for economic purposes. This is what we call the Featured Artist Economics.
The History of the Feature:
If you have a record player with some old records nearby, you would notice that the word “featured” on records meant something different than today. Back in the 50’s, bands would compose music but collaborated with different singers who would add the vocals. This was the start of the concept of “featured artists.” Being a featured artist showed you are an important contributor to a song, but you are not the primary (or main) artist.
As Hip Hop and Electronic music became more prominent in the 80’s, the feature title changed. In this era, we saw a lot of “vs” in between two artist names. For Hip Hop, it was to signify a song where two artists battled each other. For Electronic music though, it signified a remix. New technology during this time allowed producers and DJs to sample songs for the first time. Thus, DJs started to remix songs and sample them to create new works. As a way to provide credit to the original artists, DJs added a “vs” and the artist name they sampled. It seemed to work and was relatively easy to understand by fans.
The Feature Today:
Since the late 90’s/early 2000’s, music collaborations have become instrumental in Pop, Electronic, and Hip Hop.
Once artist collaborations gained popularity and became a regular occurrence, the industry standardized the credit by adding a “Feat.” in either the title or artist line in the album liner notes. It was short for “Feature” and was rather simple to do. It worked just fine until we entered the streaming era of music. Since artists would list the “feat.” in either the title or artist section of the metadata, there was a discrepancy in how it displayed on streaming services. It’s not a good user experience, to be frank, but it also had economic implications as well.
To change that, artists have added the “x,” the “&,” and “with” to the many ways of showcasing a featured artist. The x, &, and with all sit inside the artist metadata field. It helped showcase who the primary artists were for each song. These three additions also designate that a collaborator was instrumental in building the song. That person might’ve created it from scratch with the artist and are seen as having equal ownership of the song.
We still use the “feat.” today. It’s akin to what we’ve known it to be, an artist is a guest on a song. For Hip Hop, a featured artist would receive a “feat.” if they performed an 8 – 16 bar verse or sing on the chorus. In these instances, the featured artist isn’t a primary artist and would not receive a primary artist credit. Instead, their name would sit in either the secondary artist metadata field or in the title field.
Primary Artist credits are vital when it comes to making money on digital service providers (DSPs) a la, Spotify, Apple, etc.
The Primary Artist Credit
Each DSP has a way to ingest and show content for fans to go through and listen to. The foundation of organizing catalogs and making songs searchable is through the song’s metadata. The key piece of metadata that stands as the foundation for finding songs is the primary artist. This informs the service who the main artist is or better yet who’s song it is.
When Apple released iTunes, their platform didn’t have a way to showcase or organize artists that had a “vs” in the name. If it was Moby vs U2, the song would not show up in either Moby’s or U2’s artist page. Instead, it was treated as a new primary artist known as “Moby vs U2.” This made it difficult for fans to find these remixes and caused the industry to drop “vs.”
Since then, the services updated their metadata organization capabilities and use the Primary Artist section as a way to distribute songs to each artist’s page on the service.
Let’s look at how this plays into the economics of stream revenue.
Services like Spotify populate an artist’s latest release at the top fo their artist page. The way the algorithm does this is by searching a metadata field titled “primary artist” as mentioned above. For the most part, there would be one primary artist. A Drake song is going to have Drake as the primary artist. But when it comes to collaborations, remixes, etc. where two or more artists would want the song to appear on their artist page, they would both need to be listed as a primary artist. The most notable way of doing so is using the x, with, or & joiners.
This would add the new single to both of the artist’s pages “latest release” placement. Since this is prime real-estate for people to see and click play on, songs listed as the “latest release” tend to earn more plays and thus more revenue. It’s also helpful in building your fanbase if your song is now at the top of another artist’s page. You’ll have the opportunity to capture new fans from their fanbase. Here’s an example of that.
Let’s say you’re a new artist and are trying to break through. You are lucky enough to bump into Drake at Nobu in Malibu, spit him a few bars, and soon find yourself at his studio recording together. Not far fetched right? But let’s say you land a guest verse from Drake on your upcoming song. You may want to give him a primary artist credit as your song would then be listed at the top of Drake’s artist profile page. That could lead to hundreds of thousands to millions of plays. The economics build up and become the reason why artists fight hard for the primary artist credit.
Fight For Your Right As A Featured Artist
When you are the one featured on a track, you should make sure that your feature is credit appropriately. If you don’t deserve a Primary Artist credit, then be understanding of that and be grateful for a “feat.” credit. In some cases featured artists do not receive a “feat.” credit (such as Aloe Blacc for his singing on Avicii’s “Wake Me Up”). Instead, they may receive “vocals by” credits that appear in the album booklet. The positive of this is that you’d still be eligible for some Grammy trophies if that song/album wins. The negative is that these credits are not searchable on streaming services. That’s another huge issue, but that’ll be another post.
For now, fight for your right to credits. If you don’t want to be the bad guy or ruin relationships, have your management or label do it for you. There’s no shame in earning what you deserve. It can make a huge difference for your career.
The next time you see a song with a featured artist, be sure to look at how it’s titled. The title alone can tell you a lot about the structure of the deal between these two artists.