The Post-Playlist Music Industry
Hello, I hope you readers are doing well this week. A quick heads up this week is fairly meta, but next week hopefully be a bit more tightly focused. If this is your first newsletter just know they don’t get much weirder than this. Until they eventually do get weirder at a later date to be determined. Anyway, if you have any concerns, needs, or random news you crave my opinion on please send to email@example.com.
Playlists are the future. The Guardian said it ever so subtly last year: “'They could destroy the album': how Spotify's playlists have changed music for ever.” I got started writing about music in a moment that valued newness and trend spotting, so even with music streaming my eye looks towards new artists and emerging trends, not just what’s happening now. Plenty of articles the last couple of years wrote about the rise of playlists and how algorithmic and editorial, to use Spotify’s phrasing “Algotorial,” is the future of music consumption. I wanted to investigate that this week and peak into a playlist first music industry, but first let's take a quick step back.
Spotify, and journalists alike, love to trout out the story of how Sean Parker, an early investor in Spotify, helped establish the career of New Zealand singer Lorde with his playlist, sidestepping the fact she was already signed and found her real early success through SoundCloud and Tumblr. What’s funny about that story of playlist discovery is that it’s predates Spotify’s own dive into playlists. The reason a Parker could grow a playlist i Spotify's early days is because people could search and discover new playlists, since Spotify didn’t offer their own internal ones. Companies like Filtr, Topsify, where able to rise during this moment and were eventually brought into the major label fold as playlists on the platform started shifting from user to upper tier creators—read: major labels and Spotify.
In 2013, Spotify bought Tunigo, a company that specialized in playlist curation and laid the foundation of their biggest playlist brands like Today’s Top Hits. A deeper dive into the history of playlisting can happen another week, but generally once Spotify began favoring internal playlists user created ones like Parker’s started to be harder to discover and if you go search on the main playlist page only Spotify and Topsify/Filtr appear, but even those major label owned playlists languish at the bottom of genre pages. That’s why in lead up to going public they touted how 31% of overall plays on the platform arrive through their own playlists. Much in the way that 70% of views on YouTube come from the recommended page, the company sees the value in strong curation to keep people from leaving the platform.
A couple weeks when I wrote the phrase “post-playlist” I got some response to clarify what I meant by that, cause it seems like an odd phrase when so many resources getting put into playlists and so much attention it getting put into curators—Carl Chery moving to Spotify was certainly an interesting headline this week. Again, I was probably being too much of a music nerd because I meant “Post-Playlist” as an analog of “post-punk,” where it’s not to say playlists are over; rather that the central genre, or in this case medium, is about to break and diffuse into far more interesting ways. Yes, this was nerdy.
Kieron Donoghue, formarlly of Warner Music last month on his blog, made an interesting observation about Calvin Harris promoting his playlist (Calvin Harris Radio) via Instagram stories. He wrote: "I can only think that it’s a smart move to invest in the playlist long term and in a very thoughtful way. By keeping the playlist authentic and not filling it with Sony priorities they will build engagement and trust with his fans and grow the playlist faster. Maybe they plan to grow it and then when Sony songs come along that fit the playlist in a natural and organic way, i.e. something that Calvin will play himself in a set, then they can seed it in and help it grow."
According to charts from a source with access to Spotify’s charts of playlist performance during the month of January within the United States 24 of the most popular playlists were created by Spotify. This shouldn’t be too surprising because of just how much Spotify promotes its own playlist and effectively offers very little opportunity to other creators. Below is that list of top United States playlist for the month of January:
1. Today’s Top Hits
3. Hot Country
5. Peaceful Piano
6. United States Top 50
7. New Music Friday
8. Get Turnt
9. Jazz Vibes
10. Beast Mode
11. Peaceful Guitar
12. Brain Food
13. Global Top 50
14. ¡Viva Latino!
15. Deep Focus
16. Songs to Sing in the Shower
17. Your Favorite Coffeehouse
18. Chill Hits
19. Pop Rising
20. Have A Great Day!
21. This Is: Drake
22. Soft Pop Hits
23. Night Rain
24. lofi hip hop beats [lo-fi hip hop] Chillhop Music \ Chilledcow
25. Hit Rewind
What immediately stuck out to me was that “lofi hip hop beats [lo-fi hip hop] Chillhop Music \ Chilledcow” was #24 above flagship EDM playlists like Austin Kramer’s mint playlist. I wrote about the lofi hip hop trend on YouTube last week—specific Chilled Cow’s channel, but should’ve stressed it’s success on Spotify. This circles back to Kierson’s idea of establishing playlist brands and the longer term investing of connect with fans not through playlist placements, but through getting creating one’s own curatorial brand. If Spotify’s own premier EDM curator can’t crack the Top 25 of the United States, then perhaps it’s worth flexing and establishing one’s own EDM playlist that is wholly controlled by an artist/label?
The highest ranking non-Spotify curated playlist is the “This Is: Drake” playlist, which is selected by Spotify, but is essentially just a greatest hits. A quiet but subtle trend I’ve noticed is artists bucking that particular playlist and instead promoting their own greatest hits playlist on their Spotify page. The Weeknd for example doesn’t promote “This Is: The Weeknd” playlist, but instead pushes fans to his own “The Weeknd Essential Playlist.” One that is controlled by this label, team, or whoever, which potentially could result in more experimentation in what is being offered and suggested to fans.
If Republic Records wanted to try and break a new artist, why not place them on the official playlists of some of your biggest acts—think: Ariana Grande, Drake, The Weeknd, and Post Malone. Once the act started to get some buzz, the conversation with Spotify isn’t upselling on a new act, but rather just showing through their own internal playlisting this new act is already a budding star and it’s time for them to hop on the train.
(Essentially this a reverse of King Princess, who is currently getting an extreme push almost exclusively through playlists and sits with nearly 10,000,000 monthly listeners, but only around 22,000 followers.)
When I put out the original idea of “Post-playlist” a reader Bouvy sent me an email with a link to a story by Jason Joven from ChartMetric, who researched that the biggest Spotify playlists weren’t genre specific, but rather mood based. Joven article points out just how much growth and increase there’s been in these “Context” or “Mood” playlists compared to “Content” ones that center around genre. This tracks out in that if you search major artist with Spotify’s desktop app and got to the about page most artists’ top playlists are mood not genre with exceptions in rap and country.
I always compared those playlists to essentially turning on the radio and just listening to a pop or easy listening station. They exist for background music, rather than music discovery. Not to say one might not enjoy a song “Songs To Sing In The Shower,” but I’m not sure how many new playlists saves are being generated by that playlists compared to one that is targeting a niche. (Lovely managers with access to artist insights and information of that kind please me know :0)
Those playlists are to me more filler to inflate metrics like monthly listeners rather than grow a fan base—again managers prove me wrong! Joven pointed out just how much space there is still on these platforms to build and cultivate an audience, because that really isn’t Spotify’s goal. Spotify wants people to continuously use their platform, but potentially building an IRL connection with a band or record label certainly isn’t in their interests. That’s why Donoghue found it interesting Calvin Harris was building his own playlist, because even if Spotify owns the platform; if Calvin Harris can create a playlist that is more influential than Spotify’s own curators, then what purpose do they serve?
The live streaming YouTube music channels I wrote about last week often pushed people to Spotify, not just to better compensate artists but to further build up their brand outside of a single platform. If Calvin Harris Radio is a Spotify playlist brand, then I’d expect to find it on SoundCloud, a 24/7 YouTube stream, etc. What limits Spotify is that their playlist brands can extend into live promotional events, but they’re locked on their platform. Where if Calvin Harris, or any artist/label, held the keys to the most influential playlists the goal would be that it’d be able to cross platforms. Community would be able to form around an artist’s playlist brand, much in the same way around their music, in a way that Spotify, or any platform’s, editorial team could never equally match, even with endless playlists of filler mood plays.
Spotify in their F1 filling put this as one of their risk factors: "If we fail to accurately predict, recommend, and play music that our Users enjoy, we may fail to retain existing Users and attract new Users in sufficient numbers to meet investor expectations for growth or to operate our business profitably."
Last year Taylor Swift quietly announced a Spotify playlist of her own (Songs Taylor Loves), which was #78 on the January playlist rankings. The playlist says it was created by Spotify, but the wording “a playlist created by Taylor Swift” made me wonder who made the curatorial selections. The playlist hasn’t been updated since February, but if Taylor Swift was constantly updating a playlist of new music, it effectively would be able to recreate the news cycle she perfected back on her 1989 tour, where each tour stop got a surprise special guest. Imagine if Taylor Swift held a Top 40 Spotify playlist and on the night where Tegan and Sara joined her, they appeared on her playlist the moment they hit stage and were IRL and URL introduced to thousands of potential new fans. Could be cheesy, but so is stressing out over how to get on a “Songs to Sing in the Car” playlist.
That’s why when I see all the hiring that’s going on at major labels over playlisting part of me wonders if it’s labels building up teams to pitch Spotify or simply building their own internal playlisting teams so that one day they’ll completely bypass meetings with platforms. Instead of needing to get onto RapCaviar, it’s just about internal self-promotion and waiting for the DSP (digital service provider) to follow the label’s lead. Now that’s I’m so far down this rabbit hole, I’ll say this could just lead to the rich getting richer, and a further consolidation of music power. Yet, if all recorded music is graded on the same couple second streaming curve, then this is the world we created for ourselves.
6 Links 2 Read
Jason Aldean's 'Rearview Town' to Test New Model for Spotify, YouTube: Streaming First for Paying Subscribers - Billboard
This will likely become a newsletter in May. I’ve been waiting on a couple other announcements in this space before doing the newsletter, but eh fuck it. Anyway Jason Aldean finally used the windowing so that only premium subscribers could listen to his album, so hopefully some people would still buy it rather than stream. Y’all I’m gonna just talk about this more in a couple weeks, cause I have too many thoughts to place here.
Spotify Acquires Licensing Platform Loudr - Variety
This isn’t a newsletter about licensing and royalties, well at least not yet. Still I wanted to mention this, because there is likely to be no more endlessly confusing and frustrating conversation than music royalties and licensing at least until 2910.
The 360 Deal and the ‘new” Music Industry - European Journal of Cultural Studies
I got asked about 360 deals and ended up recommended this academic article about the origin of the phrase “360 deal” that I guess surprisingly, or perhaps not, started in the live music space. I’m sure music industry vets will know a lot of this, but this is certainly a good read for those still catching up on music business history.
Music Modernization Act Passed by Us Judiciary Committee - Music Business Worldwide
What I said about Loudr, also applies right here as well. I won’t bullshit y’all to say I know a ton about music law, would love to know more and certainly reading up, but until I don’t think I’ll sound too dumb. Will post links and deeper commentary will follow soon.
Spotify-Backed Muzak Streamer Boosts Catalog to 26 Million Songs - Bloomberg
Y’all one day I’ll just post my endless research about Spotify, muzak, and background music streaming company. Today isn’t that day, but just wanted to note that this is such a big industry that almost no one mentions.
How YouTube’s Channel Recommendations Push Users To The Fringe - Buzzfeed
I’m back on my bullshit of just saying again that YouTube remains one of the strangest online platforms. Last week Buzzfeed wrote up a story on how YouTube rabbit holes eventually lead to Alex Jones and conspiracy videos. Bless the algorithm.