• Sophia Hill

Are Playlists Curating The Music Industry?

Playlists have become our guiding spirit in the increasingly dense forest of music, providing serenity for the ardent music listener and a means to discover new sounds without having to filter through it all themselves.

Curation is defined as the process of selecting, organising, and presenting items into a collection or list. In the last decade, the burgeoning terrain of playlist curation has become an accessible means for sharing a list of music that might otherwise go under the radar. Whether these lists are put together by Radio DJs, editorial professionals, the computer A.I. that dictates us new music based on listening habits, or layman listeners and avid music aficionados.

Music streaming titans like Spotify, Deezer, YouTube Music, SoundCloud, Tidal, Pandora, and Apple Music inevitably spotted this niche in the market. Playlists quickly became the pillar supporting artist’s content exposure on streaming platforms and provided a map for listeners to navigate content. But what is the predominant role that playlists really play in the music industry? How does this become a sustainable option for content exposure? And what key players are contributing to the noise?

To help dissect the integral role which playlists have in the promotion of emerging artists, I spoke with Mishel Kazi who is currently shaking up the way in which playlists are perceived and has shared with us her secrets to success on Spotify. Her role involves working objectively alongside labels, distributors, producers and artists by introducing tailored marketing campaigns aimed at growing their engagement. Having started some of the biggest independent playlists for UK artists she has noticed a lot of “illegitimate and inorganic services” profiting on the novelty of the concept and the unknown territory it is for many emerging artists.

Succeeding in growing the largest subscriber base globally, Spotify has over 4 billion playlists, and can lay claim to over 36% of the global streaming market. With around a third of the listening time spent by users dedicated to Spotify-curated playlists alone. As the pandemic rolled out, concerts and festivals were cancelled, and working from home became the norm. Many of us came to realise just how much we really yearn for live music and as a result, the use of streaming sites surged. Yet, as it stands artists are still receiving far too little in revenue from streaming numbers alone.

Playlists can be administered to a number of scenarios, it might be your dance teacher putting together a bunch of tracks to warm-up to, a familiar publication releasing their guide to the ‘Best Tracks You’ve Missed This Year’, or perhaps just friends sharing their favourite songs on a collaborative playlist. When someone puts together a playlist of their own it can provide a sense of belonging to a taste, like going to a festival, there is a collective affinity to the music. Every single one of us knows there is an undeniable force and great power in music, music is a means for expression, whether it’s the internal chaos that becomes order through the multiplex sounds of Tool or navigating their way through a break-up with the bona fide, heartfelt vocals of Frank Ocean on Blonde.

In a recent interview with Sonos Sound System, Bjork revealed she has 21 years-worth of playlists archived on her laptop. A compilation of every good song she has heard, fitting each one into a different mood, “My heart skips a beat when I see the names of certain songs that send me back to a certain time” she goes on to say. A testament to the vital part playlists have played in the multiverse of music, it would be hard to ignore the colossal impact music has on our existence, our emotions, and our expression of self. As someone who has been making a playlist every single month since the age of 11, this resonates. I often find myself transported to a different era each time I go back to those old playlists, unearthing memories that have been collecting dust on the back shelves of my mind.

The UK’s Tim Westwood on his 1994 show. Full October ‘94 show available on YouTube.

Radio DJs have of course been an essential cog in the wheel of playlist curation, grandmasters and virtuoso’s in arranging catalogues of music. Radio presenters such as the UK’s Howard Stern, Emperor Rosko, Tim Westwood, Kenny Everett – all rock, pop and hip hop legends; and the DJ luminaries of NY that are Marley Marl, Funkmaster Flex, Roxanne Shante, Statik Selektah and Angie Martinez; masters of their trade and some of hip hop's greatest maestros, spinning single after single, allowing listeners to discover the sounds that would go on to create a seismic effect on the musical landscape that we hear and appreciate today. In recent years, however, the influx of on-demand streaming services has greatly impacted the value and currency of playlist making.

Larry Levan ‘the first superstar DJ’ in the booth at Paradise Garage in 1978. Photograph: Bill Bernstein

What’s the secret to success on alorigithm-generated playlists and Spotify’s recommendations?

Talking on the highly debated issue Mishel breaks down an understanding of the inner workings of algorithm-generated playlists like ‘Discover Weekly’ and ‘New Music Friday’.

“Playlists are vital to success on Spotify. Spotify’s aim with such playlists was to combine the personalised experience of discovering music with ease of browsing. Their approach is very much rooted in data-driven insights paired with deep machine learning, this reliance on the implementation of ‘success metrics’ apply specific theories like ‘implicit matrix factorisation’, ‘logistic loss’ and ‘deep learning’ on audio”. “To put it simply,” she says “the algorithm uses combined signals like saves, skips, user taste profiles and most importantly... playlists! It’s hard to control the number of skips or the taste profiles of listeners but getting onto popular playlists is something artists can do.”.

Being on popular independent playlists on Spotify massively increases artist's chances of being added to algorithm-generated playlists, and consequently editorial playlists. According to Mishel, “This is where the power of playlists lies and why they are key to success on Spotify. I’ve seen this time and time again with my own clients, being added to ‘Discover Weekly’ within weeks of being added to one of mine. It does also appear that the algorithm favours certain playlists over others too. T​o continue to stay relevant, in this already crowded space, playlists can help create direct links with potential listeners organically.”.

“Unlike other marketing streams, playlists allow artists to engage specifically with listeners who are interested in the type of music they make. Targeting listeners who are most likely to become part of their fan base. Playlists also allow for more efficient leads than social media - artists are not paying people to just scroll past their ad - it’s about connecting eager listeners with talented artists efficiently. That’s where their power lies”.

“In curating some of the UK’s first biggest playlists, I have been able to use this power to help emerge thousands of artists worldwide and have been working to legitimise, and emerge this model of incorporating playlists more centrally within marketing strategies ever since. Playlists are now being recognised as one of the most efficient marketing streams for artists. Their value in music marketing is ever-growing.”

Spotify was founded in 2006 in Sweden by Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon with aims to create a legal digital music platform that could challenge the ongoing battle with music piracy in the early noughties. Record labels eventually conceded and agreed to share their content for a 20% stake in revenue. These factors combined with Facebook backing led to an instant success. Over the years Spotify has kept ahead of competition by introducing novel formats of playlists that are delivered to listeners as a personalised selection of tracks for specific moments. This includes ‘Discover Weekly’, ‘Release Radar’ and ‘Your Daily Drive’ – features that are specifically tailored to what an inbuilt computer A.I. determines to be your taste in music.

There is of course the highly anticipated end-of-year ‘Spotify Wrapped’, a ‘gift’ donned to users which rounds-up the quantitative data from their most played tracks and artists, along with further details of the users listening habits from that year. In 2019 more than 60 million users engaged with this feature according to Business of Apps, other influential playlists include “RapCaviar” with over 12.8 million followers and “¡Viva Latino!” with 10.6 million followers (April 2020). Streaming services such as Apple music have followed suit in recent years with their ‘Replay’ feature (mocked by Spotify devotees).

If you’d like to see a chaotic but fun rendition to the ‘Spotify Wrapped’ feature, check out this unapologetic A.I. from The Pudding.

In order to keep pace with advancements in tech and competitors Spotify, is constantly patenting new features which may or may not become a part of the platform’s service. The latest (and possibly the most alarming) is a new patent which would be monitoring users speech patterns, called the “Identification of Taste Attributes From an Audio Signal”. According to Forbes it will extract “metadata from your conversations like emotional state, age, gender, and accent, and combining that with environmental metadata like physical environment and social environment”, Spotify outlines “an entirely different approach to collecting taste attributes of a user”. Which leads me to pose this question: is the future of our listening experiences to be dictated by A.I.?

Metropolis (1927) – A sci-fi film directed by Fritz Lang, depicts a futuristic utopia set on top of a world of mistreated workers.

Is this leading to a democratisation of the music industry?

The way in which artists can create revenue has experienced a significant shift in recent years, as income is no longer dependent on the sale of physical records and merch, it is down to streaming numbers and the artist’s prevalence on music platforms (i.e. playlist adds). The total revenue for Spotify in 2020 was £7bn, so the total take for rights holders would be roughly £4.4bn, this amount is then distributed between rights holders in accordance with their stream counts, that is, after payments are made to labels, distributors, publishers, and copyright collection societies. Which means that a single stream doesn’t entitle them to a payment of a fixed amount per stream at all.

The point of getting emerging artists onto trending playlists is a valuable technique. Especially considering that on platforms like Spotify 10% of all streaming revenue flows to the top 4% of artists under the pro rata system (according to a 2017 study by Finnish Music Publishers Association). A user-centric system could help to cut the revenue to that top tier almost in half and increase the overall flow of money to less popular artists. A bold move on the chessboard came with SoundCloud's announcement that they will be the one of the first platforms to offer a user-centric payout as of April 1; shifting the subscription fee from fans to the artists they actually listen to each month. French streaming platform Deezer has also shifted to a user-centric system but reports have not yet concluded on the outcome of the transition.

The UK’s creative industry has experienced the impact of the pandemic on a monstrous scale and boosting artists through playlists has become vital, now more than ever before. For some artists, the cessation of tours and gigs is their entire income gone, streaming numbers and socials alone are not enough to boost an artist’s signal; especially with a lack of aid from government bodies.

Unions have begun to assemble in the fight for better pay and support of musicians. The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) and the Keep Music Alive Alliance have initiated campaigns pushing for government review of the streaming industry. With hopes of regulations over the way payments are distributed, they have suggested the use of a ‘user-centric’ payment system – and the amazing thing is that this has led to an inquiry from the UK government last Autumn investigating whether the current music streaming model is paying artists fairly. As the inquiry unfolds we are currently awaiting an update on any affirmative changes to these circumstances.

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