For 31 weeks last year, Adult Swim dropped a new track every Wednesday from artists like Earl Sweatshirt, Tim Hecker, and Run the Jewels. This year, the TV network is going to extend Adult Swim Singles to 52 weeks. When I asked Adult Swim’s creative director Jason DeMarco why he decided to stretch the annual music program to a full year, his response felt like an encapsulation of how Adult Swim wants you to perceive its totally chill business model: “Just to see if we could.”
That nonchalance could be one reason for Adult Swim’s wild card status in the music industry. The Singles program started in 2010, a few years after MP3 blogs began dying off, and about a year after Spotify announced its first million users. Despite listeners’ increasing apathy toward downloading, Adult Swim stubbornly made its tracks available as free downloads as well as streams, even as streaming cannibalized the industry almost entirely. Beginning today, the network’s download dedication is over. Adult Swim Singles is heading into its seventh year, and for the first time ever, it’s moving to an all-streaming model.
“People don’t download music anymore,” DeMarco said, noting that the program’s number of downloads each year only make up “less than one-sixth of the overall numbers.”
But poor download numbers aren’t enough to sink Adult Swim’s confidence in its cool, calculatedly haphazard passion project. Artists in this year’s lineup include Migos, Brian Eno, and Julian Casablancas, with dozens more still to come. With 52 artists in the roster, there’s bound to be nearly something for everyone. And even if there’s not, the network doesn’t have any real competition to worry about.
“We’re doing something no one else does,” DeMarco said. “I don’t know why they don’t do it. Maybe they don’t want to, or maybe no one is motivated enough to do it. But it’s been seven years, no one else is doing it, and I get the feeling that no one else is going to.”
I talked with DeMarco about the trajectory of the music industry, SoundCloud vs. Spotify, and what a TV network gets out of making MP3 mixtapes.
Why did you launch the Singles program in the first place?
The thinking was, when we originally had a label called William Street Records, which isn’t around anymore, we thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we could release a single every week?” And we couldn’t pull it off. Part of my job is to create things that we can use advertiser money for, and so we thought about, “What if we did it for two months, where we gave away one song a week from different artists, and then it got sponsored and we gave sponsor money to the artists.”
Has it been difficult to convince an artist to write an original track specifically for this program?
Absolutely. It’s less about the artist. If the artist has heard of Adult Swim, they’re usually down. It usually goes one of two ways: “Who the hell is Adult Swim and why should I do this?” or “I love Adult Swim!” There’s really no in between. So usually the artist is down, but it’s more about convincing the label and the publisher that there’s value in giving away something for free that their entire existence is based on monetizing. And frankly it’s one of the reasons we’re moving to an all-streaming model. Between the number of people who actually download music decreasing drastically in the last five years, and labels and publishers, for some reason they look at downloads as way more valuable than streams. A lot of times everything will be going along great and then we’ll say, “We’re giving it away for free download,” and then the label will be like “Why?” like we’re giving away gold.
The Singles program has been uniquely obsessed with downloading tracks while the rest of the industry turns away from it.
Yeah, I think the reason we did that was because I wanted it to feel real. It’s very routine now for every artist to offer a stream of their album before the official release date a week out, and so I felt that it was less special. But I’m an old man and I still download music. Basically, when we looked at the numbers this past year, we realized that the downloads were like, less than one-sixth of the overall numbers. People don’t download music anymore, and they listen to music on their phones. I would say it was a little bit of me not wanting to accept the reality that no one wants downloads. And it makes our deals easier. We can actually reach for bigger names if we want to because it’s much less of a big deal to ask for a stream than a download.
Are you moving off-platform?
We’ll have our own proprietary player that’s embeddable so that anyone can embed tracks in their blog, but we’re also going to put them on the Adult Swim SoundCloud, at least for now. We’re talking about maybe putting them on Spotify, although that complicates things for various reasons. We put them all on YouTube as well.
Why is it more difficult to get the tracks on Spotify or Apple Music?
Legal issues and the fact that sometimes labels or artists will already have exclusivity deals of their own with these services. It just complicates things because of their existing relationships with labels and artists. I want to be able to reach out to whoever I want to reach out to and not worry about, “Oh I can be on Spotify but I can’t be on Apple Music,” or any of that kind of stuff.
We have a very short exclusivity period so each artist controls the music. They can put the track up on their own wherever they want to after a short window. So if they want to put it up on Spotify, it’ll end up there. But initially, we want [fans] to have to go to our site.
How long is Adult Swim’s exclusivity window for each track?
This varies from artist to artist, but it’s usually at minimum 24 hours, and at most five days. Normally, after more than 48 hours have passed, most of the people checking out the song will be either a) big fans of the artist, or b) fans of Adult Swim. That initial release window is where we have the best shot at reaching people who might not otherwise check the song out, just through the normal music news cycle.
How does the program fit in with the music industry as a whole?
We’re kind of an outlier in that TV networks and licensing are one of the only remaining important revenue streams to artists. So in that way, we’re like a TV network because we’re licensing music for a purpose. But we’re unlike a TV network in that we’re not licensing these tracks to use in commercials, we’re just doing a music program, which most TV networks don’t do. So we kind of stick out in that ecosystem, because we’re doing something no one else does. I don’t know why they don’t do it. Maybe they don’t want to, or maybe no one is motivated enough to do it. But it’s been seven years, no one else is doing it, and I get the feeling that no one else is going to. But Adult Swim is a small and idiosyncratic network, and someone like me who loves music is empowered to do this thing that’s not a direct and obvious revenue driver, whereas someone at Viacom might not have that support.
In the music ecosystem, TV is still one of the most important revenue streams. It’s live shows, merch, and licensing. Until TV truly dies and advertisers won’t spend money on it anymore, it remains a revenue stream, but I think that is shrinking and I don’t know what replaces it.
How does the program fit in with Adult Swim the TV network?
I think music has been a part of our identity since we started, with shows like Metalocalypse to the music that’s in between our shows in the bumps. We’ve heard time and time again from fans that they love the music we use on the air, and the music in this program reflects that. On air that’s electronic music, hip-hop, and metal, and those are the three genres that the Singles Program usually focuses on.
Habitual Adult Swim fans, who are the kinds of people who would bother coming to a website every week to hear a new track, are people that are used to Adult Swim giving them music that is great. My only thing is to continue supporting artists that I think make good music and to never put a song out that I don’t really like.