Music curation and playlists: the new music battleground (#midem)


With Spotify’s own playlists now generating more than 1bn weekly streams, it’s becoming clear just how much clout those in-house compilations are building. But what does it all mean for artists and labels?

A panel session at Midem today discussed the trend. It included Entertainment Intelligence’s Sammy Andrews; Slice Music’s Justin Barker; Deezer’s Alexis De Gemini; and Musimap’s Vincent Favrat. The moderator was freelance journalist Rhian Jones.

Barker kicked off with some statistics, noting that Spotify has playlists created by users, and playlists created by “other” – its own playlists, label-owned playlists, and everything else. “You’re looking at about this year, about 20-ish percent coming from playlists curated by other, and 40 to 50-ish percent coming from what Spotify defines as ‘collections’ – the playlists that users create themselves and what they add to their libraries.”

Andrews said that independent labels are performing well on streaming services, accounting for a 37% market share, while De Gemini talked about the importance of playlists to Deezer’s editorial strategy: it has 50 editors around the world creating its in-house playlists.

“Playlists on Deezer represent 40% of our streams, half of it coming from user-generated playlists and the rest of it from professional-generated playlists,” said De Gemini.

Is there a risk that streaming playlists will become dominated by major labels? “I intend to stop that!” said Andrews, referring to her role in the creation of an umbrella playlist brand for global independent labels.

“Majors are seeding tracks into hundreds of their playlists globally and selling that to artists and managers as a route to market, so we [the indies] do need it,” she said. “Being the last to the table with this is a good thing, as we can see where they fucked up… I’m not concerned that we’re last to the table. When we come out of the doors with an independent playlist brand, it will be an incredible playlist brand.”

When will this happen? “Don’t ask me timescales! Getting the entire world’s independent community together has been a challenge… and there are a lot of conversations to be had about who pays. Just watch this space is all I’m going to say on it.”

Barker said the majors are trying to “claw back” the dominance that Spotify currently enjoys in playlists on its own service, while Favrat said that these playlists are “beyond marketing strength or hype… it goes to how can independent music reach the right ears, and how can music go beyond the limitations of the physical world”.

What does it take to get a track placed in a big playlist? Barker said it depends on the playlist. Some are “pitchable” and some are not. The major label-owned ones fall into the latter category. “Their focus is on the repertoire that that particular label owns,” he said. “Those are largely uninfluenceable.” As for pitchable playlists, there are direct and indirect ways to pitch to them.

Spotify has a pitching process in place for its own playlists. “It’s quite limited, you’ve basically got a form that all of the labels have access to and a quota of tracks you can pitch to them a week, and a limited space available for context around that track: why they should add it to their playlists,” he said. “For smaller labels, there’s no feedback, and they feel it’s like a black hole that they send their pitches to, and maybe one day one of their tracks turns up on one of the playlists.”

Indirect ways of pitching? That’s about having a solid marketing campaign and online PR strategy outside the streaming services, to ensure songs bubble up on blogs and other areas that prove a track is cutting through.

“A lot of those playlists are very political… you need to justify why Track X is at number five and Track Y is at number 10. And a lot of the time that’s fuelled by data from whatever source,” said Barker. “And also, Spotify will look at what’s performing on the platform.”

Andrews noted that as songs fall down the playlists, the number of streams they get falls too. “There is a definite bonus in being in the top 10 tracks of a playlist,” said Barker, although he added that the popularity of shuffling for Spotify’s free, mobile users means that lower down, play counts level off.

Favrat talked about the need for services to understand their users better through data, and thus to serve them the right playlists for their tastes and habits – which in turn drives their listening up (and thus more streams for the labels and artists).

De Gemini said that Deezer “mainly use the good old ears to select tracks” rather than getting too tied up in big data or algorithms. “If we have experts in music selection, it’s their job to choose the next big song. Whether it’s a major company or an independent, we don’t give a fuck!

Andrews said the mix of human and algorithmic curation is important; human curation struggles to fully scale as the volume of music (and the number of users with individual tastes) continues to grow. Barker warned that there’s a limit to what even a really sophisticated algorithm can deliver in a playlist, however.

De Gemini talked about how Deezer’s 16 million users are listening to music. Their music habits are being scanned to create maps of relationships between artists and genres. “One of our jobs is to make people take a trip. A trip in music,” he said. “This is where collective intelligence comes into play. We can analyse all this data and mix it with our curators’ tastes. It’s really machines in the service of humans.”

Barker moved the conversation on: the average person needs several listens to a song to decide whether they like it or not. He warned that streaming recommendations shouldn’t just pander to people’s tastes: traditional radio might introduce a new song and keep playing it to people until they like it. He warned that streaming curators shouldn’t be too quick to drop tracks if they don’t immediately perform well on a playlist – perhaps they need more time to convince the audience.

“What I don’t believe in is to take only hard science into account,” said Favrat. “You have to have soft criteria too… The curators at Deezer want the machines to help them to be ultra-humans: to be closer to their emotions!.. They want to be empowered to make 100 times more playlists than they are used to doing, to get the music to the right people.”

“So basically we’re saying the best playlists get made by cyborgs!” laughed Barker.

Andrews and Barker criticised Spotify for its homepage only promoting Spotify’s own playlists. “There definitely needs to be spaces for other voices on that platform,” said Barker. “With the best will in the world, there’s a limit to what Spotify and other platforms’ editorial teams can do.”

He used YouTube as a comparison, where it is a range of influencers – in games, in beauty and in music to some extent with brands like Trap Nation and UKF – who are recommending content to people, not in-house teams of editors. Barker would like to see Spotify doing more to foster such influencers on its platform.

How influential are blogs in playlist decisions? Barker said they can provide backup for playlister’s decisions: if a track is getting lots of buzz, putting it high up on a playlist (even if it’s not from a major label) will meet less opposition.

Andrews said that playlists are also “incredible for surfacing catalogue that people have put away, and maybe even never digitised [before]” – she cited the example of world-music labels getting their tracks to “generate a shitload of money because it’s on a load of yoga playlists.” Also: “Sleep playlists. Fucking hell! Who knew how much money there’d be for the music industry in sleep playlists?

“We have a lot of amazing music, and every time someone listens to something we earn some money. So let’s not just focus on the hits. And that’s what some of the services are doing. Resurfacing some catalogue that may have never made money [digitally] has some incredible potential.”

Favrat agreed: “Discovering new music every day is maybe not what you want,” he said. Barker warned that on these kinds of playlists, the connection between the listener and the artist may be much weaker: they know they’re listening to a nice yoga or sleep playlist, but they don’t know who’s making the music – which means they’re unlikely to turn into fans of those artists.

Favrat said he wants to know which playlists are the most successful: is it new music discovery ones? “Discovery playlists are not the ones that work best at all. People pretend that they want to discover new music, but they don’t. They want to listen to the songs they love over and over again. It’s part of our problem,” said De Gemini.

That’s why working hard to understand people’s tastes, and then introduce new music to them that fit alongside those loved classics, is such an important task for all streaming services. “If you call it ‘discovery’ it doesn’t work,” said De Gemini. But as personalised recommendations become a bigger part for all streaming services, music discovery will be less about choosing a ‘discovery’ playlist, and more about new tracks being mixed in with familiar favourites.

“The number one playlist on Deezer is made by the user… your heart playlist,” added De Gemini. “It’s billions of streams that come from the heart of our users. There’s nothing better than the user selecting the music that they love… One of the things we are going to introduce in Deezer is the ability for the user to say whether they are in a discovery mood or a lean-back mood“.

That will influence how many new tracks they are recommended by the system – a feature that long-gone streaming service MOG pioneered back in the day, but which has been lacking from the industry since. “We’ve been talking about playlisting and big data, but this is about giving the power back to the user. The more they can personalise Deezer, the more engaged they’ll be and the longer they’ll stay with us… they build their own service out of us.”

He added that Deezer is also creating a tool called ‘Deezer for Artists’ so that artists can also get more power – in terms of accessing the data on streams of their work. “Deezer is a house for artists. We are talking about playlists, about tracks. It is important for all of us not to forget about the artists: this is their creation that we are trying to convey,” said De Gemini. “Our job is definitely to help them take this as a tool for their future success.”

Stuart Dredge

Read More: Analysis
Leave a Reply

(All fields required)