Why, Why, Why Are Playlists so Boring
6 min read

Why, Why, Why Are Playlists so Boring

Hello! I’m actually doing okay for the first time in a month so that’s nice. I’m debating if next week I’ll write about Spotify going public (old news, boring, idk) or just spitballing industry rumors (yay, fun, hearsay!). Check your inbox week to see what captured my attention. As, always if you enjoy the newsletter recommend it to friend or shot me an email at pennyfractions@gmail.com.

I doubt this will be too shocking, but I find playlist to be a bit of a bore. Apple Music, Spotify, SoundCloud, whoever. Unimaginative is also a good word, the last few weeks I’ve actually returned to the prescriptive monotony of FM radio to escape jumping from playlist to playlist and seeing the exact same Migos and Post Malone songs. Great music radio at a minimum have strong curatorial taste, but they also often feature strong on-air personalities that allow for a greater sense of community. A community not only shared by similar tastes, but geographic closeness and that’s something no platform due to their scale has quite figured out how to do.  

Last year I profiled the Greensboro, North Carolina rap station 102 Jamz for Scalawag Magazine, based in my home state of—you can guess it—North Carolina. Thoughout college I listened to the radio station and eventually learned they’ve broke a number of acts on the radio the last few years (Khalid, Russ, Dae Dae). The microview of curation leading to national success is a story that’s existed since the earliest days of radio and is the same throughline of many Apple Music or Spotify stories. The idea of their being a great curator—in this case Big Mo—who hears the music and with mix of data and gut continually breaks hits. The difference between 102 Jamz and a Spotify playlist is that Big Mo’s taste can spread nationally but the core audience is local; where Spotify is always aiming for globe. Below is an image that Austin Kramer, who runs most of Spotify’s electronic music playlists, tweeted out last year.

The image quality isn’t great, but it offers rough blueprint for how songs can travel through Kramer’s electronic music playlist system. When an artist manager mentioned this to me last year, it really pushed my thinking when I eventually wrote about RapCaviar last year, and specifically examining how much influence major labels hold over Tuma Basa’s former playlist.

Nearly 40% of songs on RapCaviar were put on the same day of release, which showed that unlike Kramer’s rigid system, the best to get on RapCaviar appeared to be a direct connection to Basa. Kramer layered an old school radio system of allowing a song to upward to bigger and bigger markets, but now this is updated for a singular digital platform. That might be why I’ve soured recently on playlists, because while Atlanta and New York City might’ve played 70% of the same songs, the master playlist was immediately in front of my eyes. Hearing and witnessing that sort of homegony is zaps the enjoyment of music discovery, when it feels like everyone is hearing the same songs.  

(A couple months ago, I was at dinner with a friend and we decided to go through Apple Music’s major rap and r&b playlists (Breaking R&B, R&B Replay, It’s Lit!!!, etc). They never use the service and were genuinely curious about the curation—yes this friend works in the industry. Now we both understood that playlists are major label marketing tools, not places for authentic music discovery; still my friend and I were surprised at how repetitive these playlists were on Apple Music. The difference between “The A-List” and “#GYMFLOW” felt indistinguishable. Far too many artists and songs were repeated to not just get the feeling Carl Chery, the head of artist curation at Apple Music, just forgot to clock into work that day. The lack of diversity in music was one thing, but the sequencing showed no arc or flow. Eventually we closed the app and laughed after observing how little effort was being put into a platform with over 38 million paying users. Maybe we caught Chery was having an off week, been there dude.)

Last year, I did a short post about Apple Music’s The A-List: Electronic playlist, because I noticed that Four Tet’s most recent album, New Energy, was sequenced from front-to-back at the top of the playlist. I texted and emailed a few industry people and most assumed it was an error, cause not even Drake gets an album fully on a single playlist.

I emailed Four Tet’s PR team and was told he wasn’t doing any press for the album; I asked Apple Music and received radio silence. Eventually a source got back to me that this was indeed a marketing gimmick in promotion of New Energy to gauge how fans would react to a playlist takeover. Personally I grew to love the Four Tet album, but I also know I didn’t explore much of the playlist that week. Still as a silent experiment, at least according to my source, it showed a more exciting side of playlists than I often see reported or when I search on these services.

(I’m leaving aside questions of this effectively being a way to guarantee income for album if you know how many plays each slot gives and for how many days such a promotion might last. That’s kind of a big question, but another week we can ask that.)

The prominence of playlists in contemporary listening is barley five years old, but a language is starting to form in this space. Even if I dismissed Carl Chery’s curatorial ability, I still prefer Apple Music’s slightly nerdy approach to playlists (multiple artists and genre playlists) rather than Spotify’s preference to mood and an infinite consumption model. There is a satisfaction to completing a song or album that Spotify’s approach feels fundamentally against.

Four Tet’s under-publicized experiment last year reminded me of just how much space there is to have fun within this new system. I still love radio and actively seek out DJ mixes, because after decades of existence they know how to provide context and narrative to new and old music, which is a skill playlist curators are still learning. That’s why I loved Apple Music fucking with their own playlists. The experiment showed that there can be fun ideas with this new form.

Response 2 Last Week

I wanted to highlight a tip I got from rap reporter and writer Christiana Lee, whose works has appeared in the Guardian, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone. She sent me a couple links of T-Pain playing video games on Twitch that y’all should check out. Her email reminded me that even if I didn’t highlight them, there are a number of artists using Twitch in fun interesting ways. The slight goal of last week’s newsletter was to show that beyond hobbyist uses, Twitch could reorient how an artist or even a label approaches how to be musician in 2018. The platform can remain a fun afternoon activity, but I wanted to kick around a few thoughts for those that might wanna go deeper. Anyway, thanks Christina for the T-Pain videos.

Spotify Enlists Its Users to Add Music Metadata (EXCLUSIVE) - Variety
Spotify is potentially worth over $20 billion and they just announced a crowdsourced way to categorize music. I’m sure—hell I’m probably one of them—there are nerds excited to populate through metadata, but putting such responsibilities on the community feels weird.

Inside the Booming Black Narket for Spotify Playlists - Daily Dot
This Daily Dot story goes into the ways people are attempting to promote music within Spotify’s limited playlist system. The main way of course is simply paying for playlist placement, which brings us to the lovely word of payola. Check out the article to get sense of how money continues to be the main barrier of entry into music, and if you’re like me...if a small playlist costs a few bucks...then how much would it cost to get to Spotify’s own top tier playlists.

The "Infocalypse," Conspiracies, and the Future of the Internet With BuzzFeed's Charlie Warzel - The Ringer
Frequent readers of the newsletter will know at this point I stan pretty hard for Charlie Warzel, so hearing him talk about the current madness of the internet with Bill Simmons last week was a real treat.

Lessons From Spotify - Stratechery
Ben Thompson’s read on Spotify is oddly more positive than most, even if it’s couched within some fairly critical analysis of their position with regards to major labels. Essentially Thompson struggles to see them being a Netflix, but doesn’t quite want to deny them the chance it could happen. I still feel major labels hold too much a thumb on the company, but I guess we’ll soon see what the markets tell us.