The Life Of Pablo’s 250 million streams, explained

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Tidal recently hit its one-year anniversary, and to celebrate the streaming service unloaded a ton of data this week related to its growth and success over the last twelve months. The company says it now has 3 million paid users, up from just over 500,000 at launch, but it did not reveal any information regarding how many free trials had been used during the same period. The number of total subscribers is still far below the 11 million who use Apple Music, not to mention the alleged 30 million users claimed by Spotify, but it’s growth nonetheless.

The far more interesting factoid from this data dump, and the reason for this post, revolves around the claim that Kanye West’s new album, The Life Of Pablo, received more than 250 million streams in its first 10 days of release. That is an impressive number when taken at face value, but when given several seconds of contemplation it’s also fairly meaningless. Tidal does not state whether they are referring to full album streams or the cumulative number of streams for each track on the record. They also do not clarify what constitutes a stream. Is it one full song, or is a stream counted even if I change the track a few seconds after another one begins?

Before we try to breakdown just what this number might mean we must first consider how many people had access to the album during its first 10 days of release. Tidal required users to signup for a their service, or at least a free trial, to hear The Life Of Pablo, but since there are no numbers available for trials that were not converted to subscribers we’re going to have to make some assumptions. Let’s say Tidal has a 50% conversion rate on new signups (they don’t), and just for fun we’ll pretend the 2.5 million new subscribers all joined when The Life Of Pablo was released. That means at least 5 million people signed up for a trial of Tidal, which means somewhere around 6 million people had access to the stream. Again, this number is not hard science, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll use it for all the math we do moving forward in this post.

Let’s say 250 million streams referred to complete front-to-back plays of The Life Of Pablo. With a running time right around 60-minutes long (59:41), this means the album was played for the equivalent of 625,000,000 days in the first 240-hours it was online. With an estimate of 6 million users with access, this means every user would have played the record enough to have heard for more than 104 days of their life, and that is assuming every Tidal user was even interested in the record.

Maybe the 250 million streams comes from the cumulative number of individual song streams for every track on the record, which would make the most sense. The average runtime for a song on The Life Of Pablo is 3:12, which puts the estimated cumulative amount of time the album was played in those first 10 days at 13,000,000 hours, or just under one full day per user. This is still a ton of listening hours, but it’s far more reasonable than the number in the previous paragraph.

What is most likely true is that 250 million streams does come from the cumulative number of individual song streams for every track on the record, including partial streams. Like iTunes, it’s likely Tidal counts a song stream after a certain amount of the track has been played (usually around 30-seconds). This would mean tracks off The Life Of Pablo had been started at least 250 million times, which is still impressive, but not that 250 million tracks had been streamed in full.

Speaking from a sales perspective, the industry ratio for streaming is 1,500 streams equals that of one album sold economically. Using 250 million as our base number, this means Kanye moved 166,000 albums in what is essentially his debut week of release. This would mean a 50% drop over West’s previous debut week low of 327,000 units for the 2013 release of Yeezus. 166k is certainly nothing to scoff at, but considering the large disparity between those first week numbers it’s hard not to question if the decision to make The Life Of Pablo a Tidal exclusive, not to mention releasing it without a download for consumers, ultimately hurt Kanye more than the press garnered for the move helped promote his record’s release.

Let’s also not forget that The Life Of Pablo was pirated from torrent sites more than 500,000 times in its first few days of release. That number does not include direct downloads from piracy blogs or downloads from services like Zippyshare, which would likely push the total number well beyond the million mark. The fact the album still hasn’t been made available for purchase or downloads has only continued to encourage piracy, and with each week thousands of additional illegal downloads occur as a result.

Tidal mentioned in their initial data dump that Kanye’s ‘Yeezy Season 3’ fashion show, which doubled as the official premiere for The Life Of Pablo, was watched by 23 million viewers. In theory, Tidal could count this number towards total album plays mentioned in their press release, but if true that would be some exceptional and largely unnecessary number boosting. After all, who is Tidal hoping to please with these numbers outside their core investors? They have shown growth, and with more artist collaborations additional subscribers will come in time, but their biggest exclusive to date has doubled as a commercial low for the artist on the other end of the deal. Maybe this is Tidal trying to show us the glass is half-full when we know it’s half-empty, and if so then I am still unconvinced. Until Tidal can show its platform benefitting musicians in a way neither of its main competitors can match it will remain an overpriced alternative to larger, more recognized brands with superior catalogs.


James Shotwell is the Digital Marketing Manager for Haulix. He is also a professional entertainment critic, covering both film and music, as well as the co-founder of Antique Records. Feel free to tell him you love or hate the article above by connecting with him on Twitter. Bonus points if you introduce yourself by sharing your favorite Simpsons character.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.