“We’re not in a secret cave just grabbing artists off the street! It starts with the managers and labels first: they now know we’re open for business.”
Tom Calderone, the former VH1 president who is now Spotify’s global head of content partnerships, is explaining the streaming service’s new Spotify Singles initiative to Music Ally.
Announced in late November, it will see artists dropping in to the recording studio in Spotify’s New York office to record two-track originals – an ‘A Side’ new version of one of their own tracks, and a ‘B Side’ cover.
We weren’t the only ones to wonder what labels would think of Spotify’s latest foray into original content, as well as who’d own the rights to these recordings.
The answer: while the Singles are exclusive to Spotify, which is funding the recording process, the master rights belong to the labels. According to Calderone, it’s a deepening of Spotify’s partnership with labels, not an attempt to squeeze them out.
“When the timing is right – when the label, the artist and the manager feel together that now’s the time to do it, they know we are open. The great thing about Singles is there’s no [set] time-frame to it: when the artist is ready, we’re ready,” he says.
“Nothing is done on our platform without the involvement of the labels and the management, although whatever deals we have with each individual label or artist are confidential.”
Calderone joined Spotify in March 2016, and his team has since been working on a slate of audio and video projects, from TV-style (but shorter-form) shows to Singles, which will be released every Wednesday. John Legend, Tove Lo and Juanes are already on board.
“The way we look at original content, both on the audio and video side, is that not everything is a turnkey format: there’s not a perfect fit for everyone. That’s what makes all of the stuff incredibly special,” he says.
“Whether it’s an artist that wants to come in to our studios in New York with their label and manager, saying ‘I’m going to express myself in a different way, show a different version of my current single, or do another song that’s special to me’ – all the way through to doing mini-documentaries like Landmark. We can retrofit to an artist the way they want to be expressed. One size does not fit all here.”
Calderone says that in recent months “the brainstorming around all this has got deeper and richer” as labels and artists have grasped what Spotify is up to with original content.
For example, the launch of Drawn & Recorded, an animated series narrated by producer T-Bone Burnett, has sparked more animation pitches, while Spotify is also exploring ways to expand on its ‘Landmark’ documentary strand: “deeper storytelling around a particular artist or about something that’s passionate to them.”
When Spotify first announced plans to add video to its mobile app in May 2015, the emphasis seemed to be more on aggregating video from other platforms – YouTube in particular – and media organisations. In 2016, that strategy seems to have shifted to focus more on originals.
“That is correct, yes. It’s commissioning, but also driving some of the self-generated [within Spotify] ideas about audio and video, so we can put things on our service that feel uniquely Spotify,” says Calderone.
“It isn’t like we would say no to a great piece of licensed content, but the biggest win for us are the self-generated or commissioned ideas that are nurtured, grown and developed within the Spotify ecosystem… If it feels derivative to other places, it doesn’t connect as well.”
Calderone adds that while Spotify is looking for strong storytelling with a unique slant, music will always be its foundation. He’s also keen to point out that it won’t just be about the big stars.
“There are a lot of artists out there on Spotify making some incredible music, and they have incredibly great stories to tell, in so many different ways. Our challenge is to tell as many stories as we can from the landscape,” he says.
“We did a series with Marc Anthony and his dad, who’s 81 years old. They’ve never recorded together! It’s not Metallica, it’s not Blink-182 or some of the other artists we’ve used for series. But it had the essential storytelling elements to it which is music and family.”
Like anyone making video for mobile consumption in 2016, Spotify is learning as it goes about how the form of these shows is evolving and, in many cases, shortening.
“Our challenge – and it’s a high-class problem to have – is how do we take all this content and chapter it up into a bitesize, snackable format that doesn’t test the patience and attention span of our fans?” says Calderone.
“The formats are anywhere from two-and-a-half minutes to just about six-and-a-half minutes, but we chapter them up. A series for Spotify could be a traditional one half-hour series length, but we chapter them up so you can digest them in a snackable format.”
Recently, a Music Ally staffer got what appeared to be a test feature within the Facebook app on his smartphone, where the ‘Requests’ button in the bottom menu bar was replaced by a YouTube-esque play button described as “your new home for video”.
It led to a collection of videos published on Facebook, including a channel for Spotify:
Within days the feature was gone, but it hinted at a.) Facebook creating an in-app portal for professional video content and b.) Spotify’s original content living outside its own service. And if it can live on Facebook, why not also on Snapchat, YouTube and other platforms too?
“Our goal is to have all of our content live exclusively on Spotify. But we also know it’s important for us to get the trailers and teasers out on other social platforms,” says Calderone. “That’s as far as we want to go. That is our goal, that is our mission: to make sure that this content lives on Spotify.
He adds that his team is also keen for the original video and audio shows to lead to more listening from Spotify’s music catalogue: for fans who watch a Blink-182 show or listen to Tove Lo’s Single to feel like exploring the archives for those artists.
“The creative part of all this is not just creating these audio and video series, but it’s about how can we connect this to the rest of Spotify. It’s an amazing challenge, as well as an amazing opportunity,” says Calderone.
He also encourages artists to come to Spotify with their ideas for original shows, even if they need help with the production side of things.
“Sometimes an artist directly will come to us with an idea and we’ll pair them with a really good producer. It’s why we like to be nimble in this space: the artist may not know the infrastructure or how to produce things, but we can help navigate who the best partner is to work with them,” says Calderone.
“The main goal is that when the artist is on set shooting whatever they’re shooting for us, they feel comfortable and ready to create.”