The Playlist Myth (Part 2)
9 min read

The Playlist Myth (Part 2)

Hello folks, I’ve got a couple quick announcements to make. I’m helping contribute to The Local, a bi-monthly labor and union newsletter by the New York City Democratic Socialists of America. Staying local, if you’re in Brooklyn, my friends and I will be hosting our party hulahoop at Mood Ring on September 29th. Now, let's get back to talking about those darn playlists.

The latest episode of Money 4 Nothing featured Cherie Hu, founder of Water & Music, talking about the state of artificial intelligence in music.

The stagnation of 20th-century media opened up a lane. What’s the 21st-century mode of music consumption: The Playlist?! Earlier this month, I quickly ran through music journalism's slow crumble; MTV abandoning the first letter of its acronym; payola and deregulation degrading broadcast radio; and the undermining of physical music media through predatory industry practices dating back to the 90s. Additionally, I should say that while piracy still overly weighs upon the consensus for why the music industry tumbled, as I’ve argued repeatedly, these other reasons opened the door for a new music medium to arrive on the scene. Enough preamble, let’s talk about the company that made the playlist king: Songza.

The Playlist Makers

What’s remarkable about the sudden rise of playlists is just how unassuming they were portrayed as only a few years prior. A decade ago, VentureBeat ran the  headline: “Spotify adds Songza-like ‘playlists for every mood’ and messaging with friends”. Hardly a headline that might imply that Spotify or its peers hold industry-shifting control over their recommendation algorithms. Songza was founded in 2007, and hired “music experts”, i.e. those distressed journalists I mentioned earlier, to build playlists around certain activities and themes. This was in contrast to the biggest streaming platform at the time, Pandora, which used an opaque recommendation system. Instead of being at the whim of a digital picker, one could gain a bit more control over the type of music they’d discover. Songza would eventually get absorbed by Google into Google Play Music, remember that, but its relatively simple idea would come to shape nearly every music streaming app.

Spotify earlier in 2013 acquired a Songza competitor called Tunigo, which offered similar playlists and curated recommendations for users. The fruits of that deal could be seen in the VentureBeat story: “Some of the types of playlists Browse can provide include songs for working out, going to sleep, or hosting a dinner party. Browse also includes access to new releases, which is something power users like myself have been wanting to see ever since the Discover feature replaced the What’s New box.” Sounds familiar.

In the excellent book Spotify Teardown, the authors interrogate an internal shift within Spotify that led them towards leaning heavily on recommendation algorithms to be a selling point of the company. The initial appeal of the Swedish app was basically “piracy but legal”, but the acquisition of Tunigo and a need to offer something to consumers beyond easy access to music, pushed curation towards the front of marketing speak. The integration of these recommendation systems into the user experience was so totalizing, that it’d be hard from the outside to gauge the impact of these choices. This perhaps might explain why in the second half of the 2010s, there was a notable increase in building up the brand of these curators, alongside making features like Discover Weekly appear magical. Spotify, in their telling, held so much data and insight that their playlists and “algorithm” could make or break artists overnight; this heightened mysticism wasn’t placed up on Pandora or its peers, which effectively offered the same product.

The Playlist Story

An early piece that dove into the human curators was “Inside the Playlist Factory” by Reggie Ugwu over at Buzzfeed News, another stalwart of mid-2010 tech-driven media hype. The piece followed the behind-the-scenes lives of playlist curators who use data to scout hits before anyone else and precisely tweak playlists for optimized listening. Another way to see it was a public relations campaign to turn middle managers into curatorial wizards. Suddenly, a new class of music workers is smarter than an old-school radio DJ, but also not some cold and inflexible recommendation system. The machine with a human touch.

That’s how you get the New York magazine headline in 2017: “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.” Such fluff would only be printed, digital or otherwise, in a world with both a decline in traditional music media and a desperate need to contextualize what feels like a new music industry paradigm. The declaration of the Spotify curation to become the new cultural gatekeeper insults readers and proves the atrophy of all arms of music promotion in the late 2010s.

These public relations pitches weren’t given much time before some level of pushback emerged. Liz Pelly, a friend for a number of years, wrote astutely in The Baffler, a number of pieces that complicate many of the narratives pushed by these firms, in particular, Spotify. These initial articles are all worth reading but I do think critics, myself included, made too much of the cultural impact of playlists. This isn’t to say playlists and recommendation systems aren’t parts of the way tech companies shape music consumption patterns but perhaps more should’ve been investigated to understand just how big the impact of a playlist might be beyond raw play count an a

In his Buzzfeed profile of playlist curators, Ugwu notes that just 20% of music listening on Spotify is done on playlists but doesn’t state what kind of playlists (algorithmic, editorial, or user). A couple of years after going public, Spotify said around 30% of listening happens via playlists, but again without any clarity around the type of playlists. That uptick is of course occurring both due to an increase in users but also with an aggressive campaign by streaming platforms to encourage this type of listening; opening a streaming platform in the last decade, the desired mode of listening isn’t a single or album, but the playlist. Thus it shouldn’t be people who do what the app told them.

However, listening habits are known to vary from platform to platform. Platforms like Apple, Amazon, and Tidal end up seeing far more listening through more traditional modes (i.e. the album) than a Spotify or a YouTube, which hardly ever encourage users to engage with music in that manner. I’ve harped on this fact in casual conversations with people for years because even if certain industry professionals are overly tuned to the ranking of specific playlists, many users continue to engage with music roughly the way the industry’s told them to for over half a century. That reality is in many ways obscured when either the algorithm or playlist curators are vaunted to this semi-godlike position that obscures and over-inflates their importance.

The Hype Cycle Never Stops

Now, if playlists weren’t ever the equivalent of radio in the 70s, MTV in the 80s, or even blogs in the 00s, then what exactly are they? The value of a “curator” and a need for context given to art, especially in ever more cluttered media landscapes cannot be brushed away, no matter how much tech companies talk about disruption. Unfortunately, that results in backwardsly projecting the cultural value of older media upon newer forms that aren’t built to last and thus turn over much faster. The relatively brief cycles of stories that were initially about algorithmic playlists changing music consumption, then suddenly about individual playlist curators, to now where the importance of playlists appears to be on the decline.

This particular cycle is why I’ve kept TikTok at an arm's distance throughout the pandemic. The ephemeral trends come and go so fast (remember sea shanties?) that it’s no wonder labels have grown wary of attempting to follow them. TikTok trends hold less weight than viral YouTube hits (something I covered nearly a decade ago), which already felt less substantive than 90s novelty hits where people at least were required to buy a CD. The thinning out of that ecosystem is why things can so easily come and go; because songs are thrust into the air with no infrastructure and can disappear back to obscurity.

There’s no way to turn the clock back on these trends, and those older models certainly weren’t perfect. Yet, if industry professionals correctly assessed how much changed over these decades, perhaps folks could better assess if it's even worth their time engaging in this hype cycle. Certain musicians won the playlist game, but after all the years spent receiving marketing advice from streaming platforms explaining tools they barely understand, it’s always worth taking a step back to see through that noise. Otherwise one day you’re optimizing for Spotify playlists, then TikTok’s For You page, or maybe some AI-generated clickbait-chasing trends with smaller and smaller returns to show.

Unheard Labor

The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes continue to march on with what appears to be little progress toward a resolution (though WGA talks are said to resume today). Certain high-profile showrunners have quietly expressed frustration with the prolonged labor struggle but reported chats with them and the WGA negotiators appear to be ever delayed, which makes me question the relevancy of such consternation. Though not music-related, the United Auto Workers announced a historic strike at the Big 3 (Ford, GM, and Stellantis) American automakers. They’re engaged in what they’re calling a “stand-up strike”, where they aim at certain plants to keep the companies guessing as to where a picket may emerge next. A clever tactic and example that the current labor struggle in America is certainly of a different character than previous fights.

Government Tunes

The US Copyright Office ruled payments to the Mechanical Licensing Collective by streaming platforms can be subject to late fees. Another small win for publishers and songwriters. Mike O’Neill, the CEO of BMI, is playing damage control as the industry sees if the company will be sold to a private equity firm. Last but certainly of the most personal interest, New York City “worked” with social media platforms to remove videos of subway surfing, an activity that’s led to a number of tragic deaths. Always very keen to see examples of when local governments can sway what types of content sit on bigger social media platforms.

A Note of Financialization

Litmus Music, backed by the Carlyle Group, reportedly paid $225 million for Katy Perry’s catalog. I could point out that one of the founders of Litmus used to run Katy Perry’s old label, so he's basically given an old client a ridiculous payday, but why ruin the fun? Now, Concord’s buying spree continues with Mojo Music Media. Founded in 2018, it spent the last five years picking a number of catalogs and labels. Again other player in this space effectively bowing out, as consolidation continues. Influence Media Partners, what a name, acquired the catalogs of the producers 30 Roc and Dre Moon; One Media iP picked up the “licensor’s income share” of the over 15,000 tracks owned by Entertain Me; and Multimedia Music hoovered up the publishing rights of Millennium Media. . Round Hill Music purchased Rident Royalties and plans to integrate it into its own neighboring rights platform, Sound Hill.

Apple bought BIS Records, a Swedish classical music label, for god knows what reason... One could speculate that this is to further expand the company’s classical music app, but that would imply people care about, or use, that app in the first place. Over the last few years, Exceleration Music has amassed a decent collection of independent labels (Alligator Records, Heroic Music Group, Kill Rock Stars) and that’s continuing with the acquisition of Red Eye Distribution, a major distributor of independent labels.

Lastly, Hipgnosis Songs Fund, desperate to appease shareholders, is looking to sell part of its catalog to the Blackstone-backed Hipgnosis Song Management for $440 million. Music Business Worldwide and The Financial Times provided nice commentary but I’ll wait until confirmation for a deeper dive. The move lines up with an upcoming shareholder vote on October 25th about remaining a public company.

The Incredible Resilience of the Music Industry - The Financial Times

Nice to read such a wide-ranging piece that centers on UMG, and the role of the label, shaping the trajectory of the music industry rather than another “tech changed everything” drivel. (Yes, I’m quoted in this saying UMG runs the industry!)

Popular artists to get ‘royalty boost’ on Deezer as platform readies ‘artist-centric’ model with Universal Music Group - Music Business Worldwide

I provided a few quotes to The Guardian on this news, but here are a couple of brief thoughts. The current pro rata model is screwed towards those in music with access to the most resources and obscures how money moves in the industry. This newly proposed “artist-centric” model, from my vantage point, further obfuscates and will likely increase major label leverage and market share, but also discourage certain bad actors (high volume distributors won’t welcome this change). The user-centric model would still be preferred and could better address issues like fraud, but this is a step in a direction, so why not see how it goes.

The Myth of Fan Power - exiledfan

Monia continues to forcefully push back against the “fans run the music industry” narrative. Again, fans are actively encouraged to act in these aggressively antisocial behaviors because of explicit marketing efforts. Manipulation of sales charts is well over a century old; now industry professionals can now just obfuscate that through “self-organized” fandoms.

Investing in French and Foreign Music Catalogues: Practices and Risks - CNM Lab

The Centre National de la Musique, France’s music think tank, released a follow-up report on the music catalog market and its prospects for France. I’m more skeptical of the space’s trajectory than the authors but it’s still a worthwhile read.

Clubbing Is Becoming Big Business. What Does This Mean for Dance Music? - Resident Advisor

An interesting, if a bit lacking, piece surveying the sudden influx of cash flooding into the electronic music world, particularly within the live space. Def could’ve interrogated how this is very much a post-pandemic trend and how that contrasted with previous electronic music boom periods. Maybe next time.

Leave It Be. - Music Business Worldwide

A simple plea by Eamonn Forde that perhaps there doesn’t need to be endless excavation and reanimation of old musical works. Now this isn’t a new observation but it’s worth reconsidering when new technology could allow Kanye West to sing a Nirvana song. Certain folks will dismiss any pushback as Luddism, but to Forde's point, maybe just listen to that original Beatles record and let sleeping musicians lie.

Shorts Risks Cannibalising Core YouTube Business, Say Senior Staff - The Financial Times

YouTube executives are so paranoid about TikTok, an unprofitable app, that they’re threatening to undermine the core revenue stream of the world’s most successful video platform. Middle managers of the world unite.