The Playlist Myth (Part 1)
9 min read

The Playlist Myth (Part 1)

Hello, hello. A fun announcement today. The podcast Money 4 Nothing by Sam Backer and Saxon Baird will be joining Penny Fractions. What this means initially is you, yes you reading, should subscribe and listen to the show (also check out their newsletter). More details soon, but I’ve been a huge fan of the show for a couple years, and cannot wait to work closer together. Additionally, if you’re interested in supporting my work, but also Money 4 Nothing, then do share our work and subscribe if you’re able. Now, let’s dive into a topic close to my heart: Playlists.

A few years ago, SoundCloud sought to build out its playlist product akin to Spotify, Apple, and the other major streaming platforms. If you read my newsletter back in 2018, or caught my own op-ed in Music Business Worldwide, you’d know that I was initially skeptical of the decision. My reasoning was that platform-driven playlists didn’t align to how most people consumed music on the platform and that it was a fairly naked copycat move. Still I took a role at the company, because I thought I’d learn a lot about an industry I love. That wasn’t wrong.

However my skepticism towards playlists never swayed and in fact intensified over the years as new hype cycles emerged (TikTok, Web3, etc.). Even with a hardened resolve it was hard to rebuff what felt like an industry wide move to position playlists as the new radio, where Spotify was vaulted to hold the cultural and economic heft of a vinyl production plant, Tower Records, and potentially a record label all in one. This reached a zenith with a New York headline: “How a Hit Happens Now  The most influential playlist in music is Spotify’s RapCaviar, which turns mixtape rappers into megastars. And it’s all curated by one man.”

Even if frustrated, I want to understand better why the record industry, streaming platforms, and fans were ready to accept a story of algorithmic playlist overlords. Before jumping into that work, I do want a brief outline of broken down cultural music hubs and markets. For the playlist to be positioned as the alpha and omega of music consumption, other institutions must’ve fallen.

Radio Friendly Unit Shifters

The record industry was booming throughout the late 20th century and much of that success can be credited to the rise of the CD, and what was a fairly robust market to produce and sell this singular product. A topic close to my heart is the fallout from the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed for the mass deregulation of radio. Chronicling the legislation back in 2019, I wrote: “it allowed for cable and telephone companies to consolidate across markets, while at the same time eliminating the caps that existed on just how much one company could own. The idea was to allow these then-smaller companies to grow and prosper but, unsurprisingly, as companies rapidly grew rapidly there was nothing to reign in further consolidation. This created fresh oligopolies across multiple mediums.”

A point I stressed years ago was that the legislation led to the loss of thousands of jobs, but perhaps I under-emphasized what exactly was being lost with these jobs and radio stations. The loss of these smaller stations closed potential doors for smaller acts without deep pockets to pay for access to major stations and led to increased homogenization, as more niche styles of music were pushed further to the edges. So, if one were wanting to get their music heard locally, there was even less of a chance a station might be available to play it.

The long term decay of radio can be seen in much of the functions of radio  in highlighting emerging talent, promoting concerts, interviewing artists, and more is outsourced digital publications removed from specific communities and also are prone to come and go with high turnover. Ironically one can see in recent stories about the relative success of Adult Alternative stations in playing new artists and finding an audience that the medium isn’t entirely left for dead but with its heyday long peaked. It’s understandable why a genre obsessed with youth and newness would’ve left the century old medium behind. Even if the audience for radio is still quite great, the ideal record industry consumer is spending time elsewhere. Government deregulation and decisions by companies like Clear Channel effectively strip-mined the medium into automated playlist boxes primed for maximizing advertising revenue over everything. Thus the scope of music that is able to afford breaking into this medium is ever shrinking.

MTV Played Music Videos?

MTV arrived in 1981 with a goal for advertisers to directly tap into the teenage American market. Tensions rose between labels and the channel over what got played, compensation for these works, and broadly staking out new media grounds. A fight worth covering another day, but what’s important today is that MTV created a new channel for record labels to promote artists. Flashy music videos would mint a new generation of stars that existed beyond what was previously being cultivated by radio.

The major stars of the 80s (Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, etc.) would be hard to imagine reaching the same level of success without the channel. MTV succeeded in pushing what was already in the major label pipeline towards new heights but a need to fill 24 hours of original programming saw certain genres get their own shows, or even certain genres like country their own channel. Artists weren’t just offering recordings in store for sale or to be heard on the radio; suddenly the aesthetic and lifestyle of the artists took on a larger role. This was particularly adopted in genres like rap but generally music videos further opened up the box of what a recording artist could, and potentially, should be for aspiring musicians.

This set-up wasn’t particularly friendly to smaller artists, who likely never would end up on MTV but perhaps they might appear on more local music show equivalents. Thus the decade plus long shift at MTV to move away from music video towards cheaper reality tv programming might be easy to take for granted, and certainly for a period for easy mockery. Still, the trajectory of music videos wasn’t set in stone. The form saw heightened importance in the 2010s as more music consumption shifted towards YouTube but again waned with Vine, and certainly TikTok, capturing similar interest. That’s because there was enough time for music videos to exist and find a new home with technological shifts. The music video format isn't dead in 2023 but sits on the shelf of promotional tools rather than above the rest.

Does Music Journalism Exist?

The decline of radio and music videos is easy to see how that would erode the importance of music in the day-to-day lives of people. The fall of music media is rightfully a bit underappreciated. What’s notable to me is just how much music coverage used to exist. Music magazines, music reporters for alternative weeklies (i.e. The Village Voice), but also major city daily newspapers. These would be places to read reviews of tours, CDs, but also interviews and profiles about artists that weren’t prepackaged as branded content placed into oversaturated social media feeds. 20the century modes of context creation through these pre-digital media outlets are effectively lost and never properly rebuilt.

A shambled version emerged with blogs in the 00s and early 2010s but the arrival of streaming both undercut readership of those publications that relied on digital advertising. This leaves us with the hallowed media landscape where news is often best captured in fan Twitter or Instagram pages that are also easily here today and gone tomorrow. The ability of a publication like Pitchfork in the 00s to harness a convergence of 90s indie rock networks and online native readers into a coherent taste is long gone. What remains now are skeleton crew media brands that produce hollowed out content. (The collapse of record stores is also worth a mention here.) Taken in totality, it’s notable how much the scope for music promotion shrank, digitized, and ultimately streamlined into a more inefficient way of allowing the industry to reproduce 20th century style artists.

That’s quite a bit of history but what’s remarkable to me is just how easily these parts of the business are downplayed. There’s a reason I’ve written numerous newsletters standing against the narrative of digital piracy taking down the music industry, because it masks over so many shifts in the industry that help contextualize the world we’re in today. The degreditation of radio, particularly in the United States, isn’t to romanticize mid-century record label marketing preferences. Instead, to not forget when hearing music wasn’t the final step for a consumer and that monetizing listening rather than a physical product is going to produce a notably different recorded music business.

This also applies to MTV and the entire industry of music journalism. Obviously as someone who puts on and off the cap of a music journalist, I can feel the degradation of the industry acutely. Yet, it’s strange to see so much hand wringing about the record industry's lack of ability to produce stars or find new strong talent, when many of the pillars that would make a star no longer exist. Shows like TRL and publications like Rolling Stone and Spin not only helped produce these cultural products, but were also partly funded by the same labels, instrument creators, and other businesses that benefited from the growth of the industry.

The evaporation of these institutions is obvious in retrospect only further isolating and shrinking the potential level of meaning one can attach to music. This collapse of older parts of the record industry meant that while revenue started to return in the late 2010s, there needed to be some new cultural form to help contextualize this rise. So arrived the playlist, able to capitalize on a rebounding industry but also even more susceptible to ever shorter hype cycles than the media that came before.

Unheard Labor

A group of songwriter organizations, SAG-AFTRA, and even Universal Music Publishing Group are speaking out about the potential sale of Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) to New Mountain Capital, a private equity firm. The concerns are rightful, since BMI shifted towards a for-profit company, conducted layoffs, and may be eyeing shrinking its current roster. Curious what if any government push back this might receive. The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike remains on-going and the actors guild is preparing for a strike authorization vote against video game studios as contract negotiations continue out of Hollywood spotlight.

Government Tunes

The Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee within the UK Parliament reversed its more lax stance on artificial intelligence after artists and copyright holders balked at some earlier opinions voiced by the body. This just appears to be part of an on-going government between a desire to appear ready to embrace new technologies and being chastised by other forces of capital who aren’t thrilled with this new technology. Certainly expect ever more government regulatory whiplash.

A Note of Financialization

Reservoir Media bought RE Media, a Cairo-based distribution company with a number of prominent YouTube channels, and the catalog of the rappers El Sawareekh. The company quietly continues to pick-up more and more middle eastern catalogs. Billboard a slightly bizarre profile of this company JKBX, which raised $16 million from Spotify, Live Nation, Red Light Management, the Winklevoss twins, YouTube, and others. The company is seemingly just another firm trying to convince the industry and one day fans that their money should flow into financialized song assets. I’ve covered the history of these firms during the NFT boom a couple years ago illustrating how this idea has come and gone over since the financial crisis. Hopefully this will be left to history’s rear view.

Typically I don’t cover tech company capital raises but this one jumped out at me. Dice, the Softbank-backed ticketing company, which just dumped its marketing department, recently raised $65 million. I guess letting people know about the product is no longer on the company roadmap. Triller, a favorite of this newsletter, continues to have trouble reporting user statistics and is now interested in going public, for real this time. Just ignore all those times it didn’t happen!

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