October 11, 2017:Pitch perfect: the trends around pitching to Spotify and Apple Music playlists

In 2017, pitching tracks to the in-house playlisters at Spotify, Apple Music and other music-streaming services is an important cog in labels’ marketing campaigns. But it’s also a discipline with plenty of mystery around it.

How do labels pitch these curators, and what kind of pitches are most likely to succeed? A panel at Music Ally’s Sandbox Summit conference in London today explored the topic.

The panel included Lucie Watson, head of music at Platoon; Justin Barker, global director of streaming strategy at PIAS; Rene Andreasi-Bassi, head of digital marketing and promotion at FUGA; and Wesley T A’Harrah, head of training and development at Music Ally. The chair was Music Ally’s Eamonn Forde.

It’s very difficult if not impossible to achieve genuine scale without getting some support from playlists,” said Barker. “You can start with smaller ones, maybe your own, and then work your way up.”

“Getting on those smaller user-generated playlists is so key, because Spotify is looking at that data and seeing how people are reacting,” added Watson, noting that playlist strategies must be more than just pitching to the biggest in-house playlists.

“When it comes to those bigger ones, don’t get your hopes up, first. It’s really important to go for the smaller ones and have really good contacts. If you don’t have the contacts, you’re basically screwed, so that’s where it starts,” said Andreasi-Bassi.

The panel gave short shrift to the idea of ‘playola’ – paying playlisters for slots on their playlists. “It’s a very overstated problem,” said Barker, who related his experience running more than 20 campaigns for labels, and only being asked for money twice.

“There’s people who have Patreon accounts and they’re just asking for monthly support: just for reading their emails and considering the tracks for their playlists. And then there’s the people saying ‘pay me £50 and I’ll put the track on my playlist’ which means the playlist just loses [credibility].”

Andreasi-Bassi said it’s vital to do due diligence on a playlist where money might change hands: for example, using analytics platforms to see how its follower count has been growing.

Or, indeed, shrinking. A’Harrah noted that even some of the biggest third-party playlists are “losing hundreds and hundreds of followers a week” – sometimes because ‘fake’ accounts are being culled by Spotify.

Barker noted that some playlists managed to build hundreds of thousands of followers in the early days of Spotify, but in recent times the emphasis has firmly switched to the playlists curated by the teams within these services.

How much investment should labels be putting into playlists of their own? “They certainly are major sources of revenue for majors,” said A’Harrah, referring to label-owned brands like Digster, Topsify and Filtr.

Other than the actual direct streams and revenue that come from them, there are also algorithmic benefits from that first flurry of streams that you won’t get unless you have that direct route to market,” added Barker. He added that more than half of streams on Spotify still come from users’ own libraries, so persuading fans to add tracks to their own playlists should be as much of a focus for labels.

How is the pitching process evolving when it comes to the streaming services? “While it does come down to having contacts at the DSPs, which is always really helpful, it is a cliché but it really does start with the music. You have to have good music!”

“Terrible songs get on playlists as well!” noted Forde, but Barker clarified: “You have to have music that performs well [on the streaming services.”

He continued: “Playlists all have different hierarchies. There are tiers three, two, one playlists, and some of them are very specific in the genre they cover. So having understanding of what the sonics are in a playlist is very important before you even think about pitching to them. You have to have an idea of what the landscape looks like, and where your song can fit in.”

He also talked about the importance of remixes and different edits of songs, geared towards different kinds of playlists. Watson: “There are also some artists that are literally making music for playlists. It’s not even remixed versions.”

“You’ve always had opportunists in music jumping on the bandwagon of a scene. How many super-average Britpop bands were there who still made decent money? That’s always been there,” said Barker.

The panel talked about the ability of the top slots on big playlists to drive hundreds of thousands of weekly streams. Andreasi-Bassi noted that these slots tend to go to R&B, urban pop and dance artists, while Watson suggested that for other genres, seemingly-smaller playlists can have a bigger impact.

If you’re a soul singer and you can get on a playlist like Sweet Soul Sunday on Spotify, that’s way more value than getting on New Music Friday,” she said.

The panel also talked about ‘shuffle listening’ to playlists, meaning that once you get 20 or 25 tracks deep into a playlist, the number of streams stabilises – it doesn’t fall that much as you go down – since people who hear those songs are likely to be using the shuffle mode.

The conversation shifted on to voice control in devices like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, and what they mean for the playlists landscape. “This might be one of the reasons why the streaming services are putting so much effort into building their playlist brands, in a landscape where a lot of the music is increasingly listened to in the background,” said Barker.

“People, unless you’re a really big star already built before the streaming era, people don’t know artists by names any more. The keyword searches for voice are going to be mood or contextual-based things,” he continued. “If you’re a casual hip-hop fan in the US, you probably know what RapCaviar is… People will just say ‘Alexa, play RapCaviar’…”

Stuart Dredge
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