“2016 was absolutely about playlisting. If we could pick one word that sums up the industry’s year, that’s it.”
Beth Appleton, SVP of global marketing at Warner Music Group (not to mention Outstanding Achievement recipient at Music Ally’s Digital Music Awards) is at the sharp end of the industry’s latest digital transition.
That includes the question of globalisation and homogeneity, where Drake, Rihanna, Justin Bieber and other big stars may elbow local artists out of the top slots on the big playlists in some countries.
Appleton hopes that this landscape will evolve, noting that in Scandinavia, Spotify’s big playlists are more focused on local acts, thanks to the way they developed before that service launched in the US.
“They’ve got established local playlists, which means they’ve got a more established and more local chart. That means it’s a lot easier for the music industry to actually break local artists, because they’re not competing in a global Today’s Top Hits world. But we’re just not there yet in some of the more recent [country] launches,” she says.
WMG famously worked with Spotify to break Danish band Lukas Graham worldwide thanks to heavy playlisting of their track ‘7 Years’, but Appleton hopes that 2016 can be the start of more variety in the big playlists around the world.
“What’s critical in the next year – definitely the year after but hopefully we’ll get there next year – is that we’ll have these strong local playlists, that allows us to still bring new and developing bands through, and not just be seeing the top of the pops,” she says.
“At the moment it’s self-cyclical: Drake, Rihanna, Bieber… It’s becoming a little bit too vanilla at the moment. We need to do our job to bring a little bit more colour.”
Other marketing trends tracked by Appleton in 2016 include a further tilting of emphasis towards individual songs rather than albums, with singles capable of peaking six months or more after their initial ‘release’. Plus the challenges of making sense of a deluge of data from streaming and social networks.
“I actually think that simplicity is key. We can drown ourselves in data sometimes because we don’t know what we’re looking for,” says Appleton, who oversaw a project for WMG to create its own tools to make more sense of sales, streams, airplay, charts and social media stats for artists.
While enthusiastic about the way this can inform decisions on a daily basis, Appleton thinks that 2016 was also a year in which the industry remembered not to discard its intuition.
“As people in the music industry, we should remember that it’s passion that breaks an act. If we look [just] at skip rates and ad collection rates, we’re killing our own ability to be part of culture. Because the thing about culture is that it can be something new, which might make you go ‘what?!’,” she says.
“If we see data telling us something isn’t doing so well, and we just stop, we might as well shut the doors and go home. Because that means actually all we’re doing is putting a song out and going ‘let’s see what happens’. It should never be our job to just see what happens. It should be our job to make things happen, and that’s about enthusiasm and passion.”
It’s also about taking risks, which is a skill that Appleton thinks has continued to improve within the industry in 2016, despite the history that means some outsiders will always see labels as risk-averse when it comes to anything digital.
“The worst thing is if there is amazing technology, and it takes two and a half years to get some paperwork in place, then nothing happens,” says Appleton.
“When you’ve got things that are happening, and you can see that they’re happening, it’s important that you’re part of that, and part of making it better, not part of stopping it. That’s the difference: in the days of peer-to-peer, it was literally ‘How can we stop it?’ and not ‘How can we make it work?’.
“Actually, most people who are out there and want to use music, they want to use it legitimately. People understand that music is copyright and that it’s the livelihood of the writers and artists, which maybe wasn’t so much the case when you look back.”
Appleton has encouraged her team to say yes to every meeting offered by a startup – “one in ten, at least, you’ll learn something super” – while pointing to WMG’s first-mover status in licensing social app Musical.ly as a sign of its intent in 2016.
“Our job is to find the new partners of tomorrow, as much as to work really well with our partners of today. That extends to YouTubers or somebody on Musical.ly or Instagram with hundreds of thousands of followers,” says Appleton.
“We’re in the world where we can hopefully be enabling a lot of smaller partners, rather than just having a few big ones. It’s about all the different levels on which people can work with us and our content.”
Appleton has been thinking about YouTubers, Musical.ly stars and creators on other social platforms a lot in 2016, and wrestling with the challenges of establishing partnerships with those individuals that suit both sides.
It’s tricky on YouTube, for example, where if a creator uses a piece of copyrighted music, the label can (often automatically) claim it using Content ID, and thus take all of the revenues.
“They could make the most amazing piece of content, but we go ‘no, we want all the money’ so they don’t use our music. We haven’t got another model in place yet,” says Appleton.
“But if you look at the many production houses building up, who will go and create music that people can use in their YouTube videos? That is growing, and that says to me: opportunity! We have to look at how we can collaborate with our publisher partners and make that a model. At the moment there is no value on the table [for YouTubers] because we’re not enabling it to happen.”
WMG has been trying to find one. Appleton cites the example about Zay Hilfigerrr and Zayion McCall’s ‘Juju on that Beat’, which became a YouTube meme through fans and creators uploading their own dancing videos. Some of those creators – South Korean YouTuber DJ Soda for example – worked with WMG on their videos.
“Our marketing teams are going to YouTubers to get them to do something. This is the new Top of the Pops. It’s the new MTV. You look at the audiences out there, and you just want your music to be part of that. It’s not one partner, it’s many partners, so you need to be able to network it,” says Appleton.
“Imagine in a world where it’s all licensed, wouldn’t it be amazing if on the same day you dropped your song onto streaming services, you also had 100 creators around the world that had done something fantastic with that song.”
“And you’d just go ‘Bang!’ – you’d have your premieres on radio, your playlisting on streaming services, and people doing really funny dances or amazing cover versions across YouTube,” she continues.
“You suddenly reach an audience of X million. That would be really exciting, and it’s very feasible: we’re not far off that. You’ll reach a larger audience which means more people listening. And essentially we’re in a ‘listening’ business model now.”
Monitoring new trends in how fans interact with music is a key part of that. Appleton says the emergence of Snapchat is one of the trends that kept labels on their toes this year.
“We’ve gone through a world of one-to-many, where YouTube is one-to-many, Facebook is one-to-many and MySpace was one-to-many. But we’re now in this world of Snapchat, where we’re going much more like one-to-a-few,” she says.
“And the content may not be stored, so it’s one-to-few for a moment, which means it’s all about how we create amazing things that could be one-to-few many times, and for a moment. We have to keep thinking about what we create, so it can fit.”
Appleton thinks that this and other trends in 2016 have shown there is even more opportunity for labels and artists to collaborate – with fans, with startups and with brands.
“I feel optimistic because there’s more people to work with, and more people means more ideas, which means more creativity, and from that you get great stories that we can all enjoy.”