Sliding Down the Surface of Streams Vol. 1

Original Story by Tim C. / @wtshnn (2016-05-17)

Spotify is a multi-faceted music streaming service that allows users to stream their favorite tracks, create playlists, share them via social media, or have music recommended based on listening habits. Launched in a handful of European countries in 2008 and available in the United States and most of the rest of Europe in the second half of 2011 Spotify claims over 30 million subscriptions as of March 2016. Subscribers have an option of two types of subscriptions; free accounts that provide access to stream music with commercial interruptions or as a pay format that allows commercial free streaming.

Many artists have been critical of streaming services including Spotify. The reasoning for this can be the concern that streaming dilutes the power of an album or the financial impact. Artists like Taylor Swift, Prince, and Garth Brooks have prevented their music from being available on most streaming services. The Beatles catalog was only just recently added to Spotify in December of 2015 after being absent for years. Other artists are very selective as to what music they allow to be streamed; Adele’s 2015 album 25 is unavailable for streaming saying in a 2015 Time magazine article “I believe music should be an event…It’s a bit disposable, streaming.” The first single “Hello” off of the album is available on Spotify and is currently at 505 million streams.

Larry Mullen Jr has also publicly addressed flaws in streaming saying in a 2015 RTE 2FM interview that;

“Companies like Spotify, the new Apple service and all the others are really going to have to pay artists more. And I think it’s a matter of time, I think a lot of these companies and the individuals that are involved in them realize that as well. They know that artists are not getting what they should be getting.”
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Despite the criticism and boycotts of other artists U2 has the majority of their catalog available for streaming on Spotify. Always ones to embrace new technology U2 have long been interested in the digital distribution of their music. At the 2014 Web Summit in Dublin Bono seemingly defended Spotify and claimed the financial argument that artists have made against Spotify actually lay in the hands of the record companies.

“The real enemy is not between digital downloads or streaming… the real fight is between opacity and transparency. The music business has historically involved itself in quite considerable deceit and I think we just accept that. If we change that bit, and people can actually see how many times they’re being played, where they’re being played, get access to the kind of information on the people who are listening to them… When people pick on Spotify: Spotify are giving up 70% of all their revenues to rights owners. It’s just that people don’t know where the money is because the record labels haven’t been transparent.”
( (Bono’s comments on streaming starts around the 18:00 minute mark))

About the Data

Spotify offers a limited number of metrics for artists that give us some insight to their popularity but it doesn’t capture everything. For example, U2 currently sits at 189th place for the most streamed artist in the world with an average of 4.8 million monthly listeners. While compiling numbers for this article over the past three months U2 peaked at 167th place the week of St. Patrick’s Day. Spotify also reports that U2 currently have 1.31 million followers.

Another metric Spotify provides is the top five locations where an artist is most played. This is slightly flawed as it gives only raw numbers and doesn’t utilize a per capita analysis but it still provides new ways to look at the data. Interesting that three of the top five spots are in Central and South America, with the other two being in Europe.

But what if we could look at detailed numbers, what if we could see how frequently a song was played? What could we do with it? Well, nothing official but it gives a great insight into how popular certain songs are and how popular other songs aren’t.

First and foremost; this is nowhere even near scientific or exhaustive. The data is current to May 7th 2016 and became outdated minutes later. Spotify does not reveal at what point a track is considered played as such it is unknown if each count equals a song played in its entirety from start to finish or if it includes partial plays.

Additionally, while researching this article a test showed that pulling the counts up on three different devices at the same time revealed widely differing counts for the same song.

There are several issues when looking at tracks found on multiple albums as they are sometimes counted as the same and sometimes differently. “With or Without You” appears on six different albums on Spotify; The Joshua Tree Remastered, The Joshua Tree (Deluxe Remastered), The Best of 1980-1990, The Best of 1980-1990/B-Sides, U218 Singles, U218 Singles (Deluxe Version) and the play count for each of these instances is the same so that it is impossible to identify which album the track was played from.

Different versions of the same song are sometimes considered the same and show an identical play count an example would be the two versions of “The Sweetest Thing” found on the Best of 1980-1990/B-Sides. Despite being two distinct versions they have the same play count.

Additionally we cannot tell if someone searched for an album or a specific song. We are also unable to differentiate if a song was played as part of a public playlist. If someone were to search within Spotify for just “Fortunate Son” they may have been looking for the Creedence Clearwater Revival song and stumbled upon the U2 cover available on the “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” single.

There is also an issue when comparing songs that have slight variations. For example, “New Year’s Day” appears on several different albums with several variations that aren’t live versions or remixes. So there are different counts for versions that appear on the different releases of War, Best of, and U218 as such the counts below will not combine those numbers.

“The Wanderer” and “When Love Comes to Town” also show the inconsistency in Spotify’s counting as versions of the “The Wanderer” that appear on Johnny Cash albums have a different play count than the ones that appear on U2 albums. “When Love Comes to Town”, however, shows the same play count regardless if it is on a U2 album or a B.B. King release.

What’s the Point?

While the limitations and issues listed above might make this article seem without merit there is interesting information that can be derived from the data. For starters it can give concrete evidence as to the popularity of certain U2 songs. Few people would be surprised to see that “With or Without You” is the highest ranked U2 song but how many people would have guessed that “Song for Someone” would rank in at #8 of most played tracks? How about the fact that “The Troubles” ranks higher than “Angel of Harlem”? No Line on the Horizon has more tracks streamed than How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Interested in the least played songs? “Is that All” from October is the lowest played U2 album track, with only 180,000 streams. The lowest played song from any U2 album including bonus material is the Common Ground version of “Tomorrow” with only 41,000 plays.

Additionally this data can help draw comparisons between U2’s popularity to that of other artists and the use of streaming by fans. The total number of plays for the 260 versions of songs found on U2 studio albums is 760.5 million streams. While this number may look impressive it pales in comparison if we look at the most played song of all time on Spotify, Major Lazer’s “Lean On”, which that song by itself clocks in with 760 million streams even though it was released in March of 2015. Second place on most played song on Spotify is Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” and that captures 651 million plays.

How to Obtain the Data

When viewing an artist’s main page on Spotify there is a section that usually contains ten songs that are either their highest listened to or their more recent releases. This list shows the play count numbers for those particular songs.

To go beyond that requires the use of a computer as it does not appear to be possible to view further play counts on mobile devices. When looking at an album on a computer the far right of every song has a series of vertical bars which are intended to indicate the level of popularity that particular song has. Hovering your cursor over these bars will display the play count number as shown with “Bad” below.

This article will focus on the 14 albums put out by U2 from 1980-2014. Future articles will cover singles, U2 appearances on other albums, and even covers of U2 songs.


Boy represents the oldest U2 release available on Spotify and is listed under two formats; Remastered and Deluxe Edition Remastered. The Remastered version has 7.68 million total plays and when you add in the bonus material found on the Deluxe Edition it increases to 9.11 million tracks streamed. With just over 4 million plays it would probably come as no surprise that “I Will Follow” is the top track off the album

  • Album Plays 7,682,552
  • Bonus Material Plays 1,429,352
  • Total Plays 9,111,904
  • Rank # 12/14
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 1.3%


October is available for streaming on Spotify from one of two formats; Remastered and Deluxe Edition Remastered. October is the lowest streamed studio album in the U2 catalog, with 3.84 million plays of the main album tracks and 5.98 million plays with the Deluxe Edition bonus tracks added in. October is the only studio album that fails to have any tracks garner at least 1 million plays, “Gloria” sits at 934,000 streams which accounts for 24% of the total plays from the album. The song, “October”, comes in at second place on plays with 788,000 streams accounting for 21% of the total album streams.

  • Album Plays 3,849,300
  • Bonus Material Plays 2,134,104
  • Total Plays 5,983,404
  • Rank # 13/14
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 0.8%


Like the preceding two albums War is available in both Remastered and Deluxe Edition Remastered. Total plays for the regular version account for 39.1 million streams and that number goes up to 41 million when the bonus material is added in. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” blows the rest of the tracks away with total plays of 32.7 million which accounts for 80% of the total album plays, “New Year’s Day” is second with just 1.92 million plays or 4.7% of the total plays of the album. The 32 million plays of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” puts it in fifth place for U2 songs on Spotify.

  • Album Plays 39,620,559
  • Bonus Material Plays 1,988,436
  • Total Plays 41,608,995
  • Rank # 7/14
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 5.7%

Under A Blood Red Sky

With only eight tracks Under A Blood Red Sky clocks 3.22 million streams of the live songs featured on the mini LP. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is the top played song with 578,000 streams accounting for 18% of the total songs streamed.

  • Album Plays 3,228,223
  • Bonus Material Plays DNA
  • Total Plays 3,228,223
  • Rank #14/14
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 0.4%

The Unforgettable Fire

Spotify makes two versions of The Unforgettable Fire available to listeners with the options of Remastered or Deluxe Edition Remastered. Total streams of songs off the album sit at 32.7 million with another 4.31 million from the Deluxe Edition raising the total count to 37.9 million streams. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” is the top track with 22.4 million plays which covers 64.5% of the total streams from the album. “Pride” sits in the #6 spot for most played U2 songs.

  • Album Plays 33,134,759
  • Bonus Material Plays 2,112,198
  • Total Plays 35,246,957
  • Rank # 8/14
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 4.9%

The Joshua Tree

Like most of the preceding albums The Joshua Tree is available in both a Remastered and a Deluxe Edition Remastered. The combined tracks of The Joshua Tree make it the most listened to album in the entire U2 catalog with a total of 173.7 million streams. That number increases to 198.8 streams when it is combined with the bonus material on the Deluxe Edition. “With or Without You” accounts for 54% of the album plays with 95.7 million streams; this is the most listened to of any other U2 song in all of the U2 albums available on Spotify. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” comes in with a respectable 53.9 million streams placing it as 3rd most played U2 song.

  • Album Plays 176,666,735
  • Bonus Material Plays 22,162,846
  • Total Plays 198,829,581
  • Rank # 1/14
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 27.4%

Rattle & Hum

This is the first instance (chronologically) of a U2 studio album being available in a single format and comes in with 30.7 million plays of the tracks off the album (if “Freedom for my People” and “The Star Spangled Banner” are removed that numbers drops to 29.8 million plays). “Desire” is the top song on the album with 7.02 million plays or 23% of the album tracks and the rest of the singles are close for second place with counts of 4.6 million for “Angel of Harlem”, 4.8 million for “When Love Comes to Town” and 4.4 million plays of “All I Want is You”.

  • Album Plays 30,710,219
  • Bonus Material Plays DNA
  • Total Plays 30,710,219
  • Rank #9/14
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 4.2%

Achtung Baby

The only version of Achtung Baby that is available is the two-disc Deluxe version released in 2011 as part of the 20th Anniversary set. The collective track count for the first disc is 81.4 million. “One” is the clear winner of play count with 48.7 million which puts it in 4th place for most listened to U2 song and it accounts for 60% of the streams on the album. “Mysterious Ways” is second on the album with 9.7 million plays.

  • Album Plays 81,430,470
  • Bonus Material Plays 1,312,741
  • Total Plays 82,743,211
  • Rank # 4/15
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 11.4%


Only available in one version Zooropa has 13.4 million plays. “Stay (Faraway, So Close)” is the highest ranked track with 3.6 million plays or 27% of the album. “Numb” and “Lemon” are 2nd and 3rd with 2.1 million plays each. Zooropa is interesting when it comes to “The Wanderer”. Spotify isn’t consistent with how they track songs and play counts especially when there are multiple artists associated with a track. When we look at “The Wanderer”, with U2 as the album artist, Spotify says it has 852,631 plays. When we look at “The Wanderer” with Johnny Cash as the album artist it shows as having been played 2.73 million times. The difference is that the versions that appear on Johnny Cash albums (The Mystery of Life, The Legend of Johnny Cash, and The Definitive Collection [1985-1993]) omit the final minute of dead air and siren making his version only 4:44 as compared to the 5:41 of Zooropa.

  • Album Plays 13,404,190
  • Bonus Material Plays DNA
  • Total Plays 13,404,190
  • Rank # 10/14
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 1.8%


Pop is another U2 album with confusing circumstances around the play count. The album is missing four songs from the track listing in the United States; “Discotheque”, “Last Night on Earth”, “The Playboy Mansion”, “Wake Up Dead Man”. The best guess as to the lack of availability on these tracks is that licensing rights of the samples used in these songs prevents them from being streamed. Because of these missing songs, two of which are prominent singles from the album, the total album play count is relatively low with just 9.6 million songs played. “Staring at the Sun” is the top song with 2 million plays which equates to 21% of the album streams.

  • Album Plays 9,624,624
  • Bonus Material Plays DNA
  • Total Plays 9,624,624
  • Rank # 11/14
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 1.3%

All That You Can’t Leave Behind

Available in only one format, All that You Can’t Leave Behind clocks a total play count of 114.8 million streams. “Beautiful Day” is the top track with 78.2 million streams earning it the rank of second highest song played from the entire U2 catalog on Spotify. “Beautiful Day” captures a strong 68% of the total streams off of All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

  • Album Plays 114,838,953
  • Bonus Material Plays DNA
  • Total Plays 114,838,953
  • Rank # 2/14
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 15.8%

How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

With only one version available for streaming How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb has 45.1 million streams of all the tracks on the album. “Vertigo” is the top track with 16.9 million plays which earns it the #7 spot for most played U2 song. “City of Blinding Lights” earns a respectable 8.3 million streams and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” takes third place with 7.2 million streams.

  • Album Plays 45,168,923
  • Bonus Material Plays DNA
  • Total Plays 45,168,923
  • Rank # 6/14
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 6.3%

No Line on the Horizon

Available in only one format, No Line on the Horizon has 45 million song streams. The most played song is “Magnificent” with 11.6 million streams which earns it 26% of the streams from the album. Widely criticized at the time for the decision of having “Get On Your Boots” be the first single the rough numbers of this album suggest that many Spotify fans agree that it was not a smart choice as “Get On Your Boots” is the 6th most played song off the album with a play count of only 3.8 million.

  • Album Plays 45,392,405
  • Bonus Material Plays DNA
  • Total Plays 45,392,405
  • Rank # 5/14
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 6.3%

Songs of Innocence

Available in two formats Songs of Innocence puts up some good numbers for an album that was available for free to all iTunes users for a month. Due to the exclusive distribution rights of Apple for the first month, Songs of Innocence didn’t reach Spotify until the full retail release in October of 2014. Even that delay didn’t slow Songs of Innocence down as it has reached 74 million song streams in just over a year and a half. “Song for Someone” takes the most frequently played song with 17.3 million streams which helps move it into 8th place for most streamed U2 song on Spotify. “Song for Someone” grabs a 23% stake of the album streams. When the additional tracks available on the Deluxe Edition are added in the total plays for the album rises to 87.4 million song streams. The acoustic version of “Every Breaking Wave” is the highest played song off of the bonus material with 2.8 million streams.

  • Album Plays 74,033,228
  • Bonus Material Plays 14,085,280
  • Total Plays 88,118,508
  • Rank # 3/14
  • Percentage of total catalog streams 12%

Special thanks to Jenn Escher and Chris Aubin for their assistance in obtaining and analyzing the data.

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