If Music Be The Food Of Love, Put A Playlist On
Thoughts, musings and predictions on the thriving Spotify playlist culture.
I’ve got a confession to make. Something that I’ve carried with me for some time now. It’s not easy to write this, but it needs to be said:
I’m obsessed with music.
Describing it as an obsession might reek of melodrama, but there’s no other word for it. From mundane tasks such as doing the washing up, right through to momentous occasions like getting married, I soundtrack my life with the kind of care, due diligence and meticulous attention to detail that should arguably be applied to other supposedly more important facets of my life.
I inadvertently treat everyday events as if they’re integral scenes in my Oscar winning biopic, which, if you’re wondering, would most likely be directed by Wes Anderson. At this exact moment, I’m stressed and I’m anxious, whilst simultaneously imbued with a reassuring sense of calm and positivity. I might be up against the clock, immersed in writing the best possible article ahead of yet another impending deadline, but the Spotify playlist I made for such occasions is, quite frankly, reassuringly on point:
From Philip Glass and Hans Zimmer through to Sigur Ros and Explosions In The Sky, my ‘Deadline Vibes’ playlist has served me very well since returning to academia. Relaxing yet uplifting, nothing says “YOU CAN DO IT” quite like the quintessential, triumphant, omniscient crescendo that is truly synonymous with instrumental music.
Of course, I’m not alone in making my own playlists. Recode recently revealed that there are over two billion on Spotify alone, most of which are created by users. However, of those two billion plus, the majority of the most popular playlists have been curated by Spotify’s rather secretive team of playlist professionals, with ‘Today’s Top Hits’ being the most popular with almost 16 million followers.
In recent times, I’ve become more trusting of other people’s playlists. Just last weekend, my wife and I attempted to escape from modern life for a few days and went for a roadtrip around Scotland in a vintage VW campervan. Ordinarily, I’d relish the opportunity to compile a few roadtrip playlists, but unfortunately, sometimes life gets in the way of living and I just didn’t have the time. Thankfully, a search on Spotify for “Roadtrip” provided us with a brilliant user curated playlist called ‘Roadtrip Rock‘ and one of Spotify’s own playlists, ‘Indie Roadtrip‘, which even had a Campervan in its cover art. It was clearly meant to be. They were both brilliant accompaniments to the plethora of lochs, eerie low cloud and utterly breathtaking scenery.
Spotify’s own playlists are either algorithm based, such as ‘Release Radar’, ‘Discover Weekly’ and ‘Your Daily Mix’, or curated by actual real life human beings, such as ‘New Music Friday’, ‘Your Office Stereo’ and the aforementioned ‘Indie Roadtrip’. With the recent news that Spotify now has more UK listeners than BBC Radio 1, the importance and influence of the platform’s own playlists is undoubtedly greater than ever. Of course, the comparison between Spotify and Radio 1’s listenership is all the more pertinent when reflecting upon Spotify’s appointment of George Ergatoudis, former Head Of Music at Radio 1, as its Head Of Content Programming a little over a year ago.
In an unexpectedly sunny beer garden at a chic central Liverpool music venue, Simon Pursehouse, Director of Music Services at independent publishing company Sentric, tells me that, “The power is notably shifting from broadcast to personal consumption and the powers that be behind collating playlists will be the future kingmakers of the music industry in the very near future.”
Confident and approachable, Simon’s passion and enthusiasm for new music is matched by his knowledge and expertise. We discuss the amount of influence streaming platforms have when it comes to music discovery and the amount of prominence major labels are now giving to Spotify playlists. Simon says, “Relying on any specific service is a dangerous game to play, but as someone taking a product to market you need to play to the markets rules, and currently, Spotify is ruling the market.”
Although he is incredibly positive about the impact Spotify has had on emerging acts, he’s still keen to see improvements. “As a rights holder, it’d be great to have a guideline on how to pitch our key artists for inclusion to these playlists as the platforms are still being very standoffish about it. It’s understandable as they don’t want to open the floodgates, but as a trustworthy source, it’d be good to be able to put our music in front of them in a way it’ll get noticed. Because it really does deserve to get noticed.”
One advantage of playlist curators being difficult to approach is that unsigned and independent acts don’t have to rely on huge budgets and big marketing campaigns to pick up playlist support. One such band, husband and wife duo The Daydream Club, have accumulated in excess of 20 million Spotify streams despite self-releasing their music. “On Spotify, we’re on playlists positioned between Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Ben Howard, Lucy Rose and Iron & Wine. It’s next to impossible for us to get even a late night spot play on standard commercial radio and we would have to pay a small fortune to be in with a chance to have that late night spot play” explains Adam Pickering.
“Unfortunately, the Majors are slowly realising the power of Spotify and are increasingly forcing their control… we’re currently in the golden era of streaming, but for how long remains to be seen” adds Paula Pickering. With major labels now earning over $150 per second from streaming platforms, it seems that the majors have already harnessed the power of Spotify et al.
Of course, it’s not just the majors that understand the importance of Spotify. Jonny Hooker runs York based independent label Young Thugs Records and says, “streaming is a very high priority for us, both in terms of raising the profiles of our bands and also the label.” However, Jonny is more interested in quality than quantity and isn’t placing too much emphasis on merely reaching big numbers for big numbers sake. “Streams ideally need to be active plays, so targeting the correct playlists with the right listenership who will engage with the band, rather than just plays purely for statistics” he tells me.
Having achieved success with his previous band Fossil Collective, Jonny’s new band Luuna are, thus far, finding support from Spotify hard to come by – despite numerous national radio plays from BBC Radio 2 and BBC Radio 1. “Finding the correct digital distribution partner is a priority for us, as it will hopefully help relationship building with Spotify and all being well act as another route to increased support” suggests Jonny. It is notoriously difficult to approach playlist curators, but working closely with a digital distributor who really gets behind an artist’s music certainly can’t do any harm.
Speaking after an endearingly awkward set at Stockton Calling Festival last month, esoteric singer-songwriter James Leonard Hewitson explains that having his debut single turn up in one of Spotify’s curated playlists was quite unexpected, to say the least. “I was surprised, as I had no contacts that were closely affiliated with Spotify when my music was selected for one of their playlists and I’d only done a handful of shows at that point.”
He went on to say that, “Since Spotify avidly looks for new music to push, regardless of what resources an act has, it certainly helps emerging bands. Whether or not it creates a level playing field is debatable, however, as an emerging act may have a song selected for one Spotify playlist, whereas an act with serious backing may have their song selected for five Spotify playlists.”
James also explained how data collected from Spotify’s own artist insights website had influenced and shaped his touring plans, something which in my experience as an artist manager, isn’t necessarily as straight forward as simply looking at the graphs that Spotify provide you with.
In his rather quirky practice space, housed in an upstairs room of an independent art gallery in Middlesbrough, one of the acts I manage, Cape Cub (the alter ego of producer Chad Male), surmises that if anything, being featured on playlists can make it hard to analyse listener data.
“If your listens are purely organic, then seeing where people are listening can maybe help you target different towns and cities for touring. With playlists though, you can end up with thousands of listeners in places where very few people might actually turn up to see you play live.” He adds, “A friend’s band gets 20,000 people listening to them on Spotify in Berlin every month, but when they played a gig there, less than 50 people showed up.”
A few miles down the road from Middlesbrough in Thornaby-on-Tees, sibling led band Cattle & Cane, who I also manage, are baking sour dough bread and making green lentil soup in their mam’s kitchen. The food smells absolutely incredible, prompting eldest sibling and keyboard player Fran Hammill to wryly joke, “If the band doesn’t work out, at least we’ve got a good plan b.”
In between kneading bread and stirring soup, we talk about how the band have been making the most of Spotify. “Earlier this year, we were lucky enough to be awarded Momentum Funding through the PRS For Music Foundation” explains youngest sibling and vocalist Helen Hammill. “As part of that, we were invited to an event at Spotify’s London offices where we got to meet some of the staff and talk to them about how we could be using our own profile better” she adds.
“Things like developing our own artist playlists and releasing regular singles have really helped us pick up more listeners and new followers” explains the band’s main singer/songwriter and middle sibling, Joe Hammill. “We’ve also been lucky enough to get a lot of playlist support, which is really invaluable to a band like us”, says Joe.
“Our new album is quite mixed in terms of genres, so that’s meant that we’ve been added to folk playlists, pop playlists and even chill out playlists too” explains Helen. “We’ve had YouTube comments from people who’ve discovered us on Spotify, so it does show that some listeners will check you out on other platforms too” adds Helen.
Converting passive playlist listeners into active fans of a band is one of the biggest challenges facing bands, labels and managers. Wesley Hartley from fan engagement start-up Leaf Grow thinks that, “Where technology once enabled you to do something, it now seems that technology is ‘the something’; a distracting influence, a barrier between artist and fan, a warped mirror directing attention towards ‘the self’.” He continues, “Not only are artists competing with each other for the eyes and ears of the audience, they’re now competing with entire the collective online ego of the audience avatar. This is a new phenomenon and one symptomatic of the 21st-century digital attention economy.”
This is clearly a subject close to Wesley’s heart and he elucidates, “Music streaming and social media sites now own artist fanbases and hold key actionable data hostage. Playlists, not artists, are at the heart of music consumption. People are being introduced to so many new artists every week via playlists that it’s becoming harder and harder for an artist to build a core fanbase. What’s more, these streaming sites lack the necessary tools for artists, to enable them to hook transient listeners into their world and take them on a journey to being an avid fan.”
Converting passive playlist listeners into active fans of a band is one of the biggest challenges facing bands, labels and managers.
Away from Spotify’s own playlists, user generated playlists are harking back to the mixtape culture of days gone by. Filmmaker Alex Crowton is currently developing a film about the secret life of what he calls “the lovers tape.” In his warm and welcoming Brummy accent, Alex explains, “Spotify and streaming culture in general has the effect of trivialising and devaluing art and artistry. The presentation of a long awaited album can now be tossed out, betraying the historic intrigue of visiting a shop, reading liner notes, studying its producer, appreciating it’s artwork, I hasten to stop there.”
He continues, “What it has afforded me, though, is an opportunity to re-visit ‘tape culture’ that I shared with various girlfriends and music lovers in the late 90s and early 2000s. This has served my curatorial nature and has allowed me to download some important memories of my youth as well as affording me the opportunity to re-evaluate and re-connect with a former-self and former friends.” Clearly, Alex has developed something of a love/hate relationship with Spotify, but he feels it’s perhaps the responsibility of users of the service to really make the best of it. “Like a cassette or even a CD mix, users will find a way to customise or personalise even the driest of media forms and for the cataloguing and reinvigoration of past loves, near misses and the songs, tapes and narratives that made us who we were and are, I’m thankful.”
Another person rekindling the mixtape ethos via Spotify is Stephen Hastwell from Leeds. Stephen spent much of his youth playing drums all over the UK in numerous punk bands and recently set up a monthly Spotify Mixtape Swap Club to fill the void left by no longer swapping mixtapes and reading friend’s playlists in fanzines.
“I know loads of my friends are into great music, so the Spotify Mixtape Swap Club was just an idea to get that old mixtape feeling back again, something that I’m sad that this generation will probably not get the opportunity to feel!” he tells me.
While Spotify’s own playlists may drive music discovery for a lot of users, it’s unlikely that Stephen is alone in still relying on peer recommendations. He explains, “Since the start of the year, we’ve had a little pocket of regular playlists that have all been totally different, and I’ve heard loads of awesome new and old music that I wouldn’t have had the time to go out and seek before.”
He adds, “As I’ve become a boring adult, I still love music but rarely get time to sit down and seek out new music. User generated playlists have been great for me listening to some new stuff. I’ve also enjoyed jumping into some random playlists and picking up on something interesting. I spend a lot of time on the road, so it’s a double bonus for me when I’m driving.”
Having created 92% of the top 200 most followed playlists, Spotify is by far and away the most influential playlist curator on the platform. Despite that, it’s refreshing to know that the mixtape culture of the pre-streaming era is still, just about, alive and kicking.
With Spotify’s subscriber figures expected to continue to rise in the coming months and years, it’s going to be interesting to see how the music industry adapts, or in fact, whether it has indeed already adapted…