Analysis

Tips from the pros: how indie labels make the most of streaming playlists


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Spotify playlists, YouTubers, music blogs and sundry other digital services are creating a new wave of music curators, even if quite a few of them are just the old curators trying on new platforms.

A panel at AIM’s Music Connected conference in London explored how independent labels are navigating the streaming waters, in terms of getting their music discovered through the music discoverers. So to speak.

The panel featured Domino’s Jason Reed, PIAS’ Will Cooper, Motive Unknown’s Lucy Blair, Spotify’s Chris Stoneman and Cooking Vinyl’s Sammy Andrews, and was chaired by Music Ally’s own Karim Fanous.

The discussion kicked off with some practical tips for indie labels on building playlists, whether on Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud or other services. “It’s a broader discussion for us as independents that we should be looking at,” said Andrews, noting that the major labels have increasingly large teams focusing on this area.

The majors are putting one another’s tracks on their playlists, which Andrews thinks indie labels should be doing more – for example through bodies like Merlin, AIM or Impala, collaborating on playlists to promote their bands and new tracks. She also advised labels to think about how they can build up their artists’ followings on streaming services, so there’ll be a ready-made audience for any playlists they then launch.

“It just makes sense. We have it independently, but we don’t necessarily have the resources or the time… It kind of seems mad to me that no organisation has stood up yet and said ‘let’s do this’ – we’re represented with [independent record] stores, but we should be represented with playlists too… We have to look from the consumer point of view. They don’t necessarily just want to hear from one label or artist. They want to hear from everything that there is to offer.”

Stoneman said that indie labels have had success pitching the major labels to get tracks onto their playlists, but he admitted that “there is definitely a gap in the market for an independent playlist curator, on Spotify at least”.

He warned that while a lot of labels think of playlists as being like mixtapes, there’s a crucial difference: “Once it’s done  it’s not done. It needs to be a living, breathing list,” he said. They may listen to it, but fans are only going to follow it if they want to know what tracks you’re going to add in the future.”

Blair added her tips. “Try to make your playlist a bit interactive as well,” she said. For example asking fans for suggestions about what to add, via Facebook or Twitter. “I would love for all the streaming services to be able to build features that would make it possible for artists to ask those kind of questions, and for suggestions on inclusions, within Spotify itself or whatever streaming service… where artists could communicate directly with their fans.”

Over to Cooper from PIAS. “We’ve curated a lot of playlists. We had about 250 playlists, but the large majority of them with very few followers. Clearly as a strategy that wasn’t working. Since the turn of the year, we’ve made 99% of our playlists hidden, and have just eight of our playlists shown at any one time. And we’re very clear about updating them,” he said.

So, PIAS has a new releases playlist updated every Monday, a Throwback Thursday playlist updated with older tracks every Thursday, and an artist takeover playlist that swaps over every Friday, for example.

Domino’s Reed agreed: his company used to create a new playlist every week, but ultimately that became “really overwhelming”, so it has now focused on four core playlists updated on a weekly basis. “If people are actively subscribing to your playlists, they want to be the first to hear, so you have to be really methodical about updating it,” he said.

Reed also talked about artists creating content around those playlists: Dan Deacon, for example, wrote an in-depth article about some of the tracks featured on one of Domino’s playlists.

Andrews said that labels have to get artists to fully understand how to use Spotify properly. “It’s a battle with some artists. Some of them have only just embraced streaming as a platform. Some of them still haven’t,” she said. She gave the example of The Prodigy, with the first single from their new album put into a playlist that was “clearly going to be built over time” – which picked up followers and which, once the album came out and was dropped in, generated streams that count towards the UK’s albums chart.

Cooking Vinyl also sat down the band’s Liam Howlett to talk about his musical influences in an audio interview that could also be chopped up and slotted in to the official playlist – with those tracks still earning streaming royalties for the label and band, just like any regular song. Andrews praised Billy Bragg for his work in this area too, with his radio-style Spotify playlists that blend songs he picks with his (spoken) thoughts on them.

The conversation turned to SoundCloud and other platforms, as alternatives to Spotify. Blair’s background is in dance music. “I think dance music and playlisting is a really interesting area. It’s not about playlists on SoundCloud or Mixcloud it’s about mixes. People go to follow the artists and the DJs. In large part because they’re natural curators… but also it’s because they have exclusive access to tracks and promos that people won’t hear on the radio or Spotify.”

That’s why she thinks dance artists and DJs put more effort into SoundCloud and Mixcloud rather than the likes of Spotify. She noticed that Armin van Buuren is one example of a dance star who’s been working hard on Spotify playlists, basing his on his existing weekly radio show.

How about YouTube? “A great way in in terms of directing people towards interesting curated listening experiences,” said Reed. “For instance if you go to a video on YouTube, you’ll be driven to this endless list of algorithmically-generated tracks, YouTube Mix… but if you’re linking out from Facebook, instead of linking to just a video from an artist, why not link to a playlist of their videos?”

He noted that there are YouTube-owned playlists on YouTube where Domino has seen success for some of its artists’ videos. But he praised Spotify for its approach to its in-house playlists, which he said were “very supportive” of new independent music.

Cooper claimed that playlists “don’t sit quite as well” on YouTube, while he sees Deezer as being better for a radio-style experience than about curated playlists, at least for now. “Our focus for now is on Spotify, and getting things right on Spotify that we can then roll out across platforms,” he said.

What about curators who aren’t Spotify or major labels: from celebrities to regular music fans who’ve managed to build up big audiences of followers for their playlists. How are indie labels working with these “super-curators”, if at all? “You need to build up a strong channel for the artist,” warned Reed. “We get a lot of requests from third parties,” agreed Andrews, who also said there’s a danger of “taking the focus away from the artist’s channel… if the impact by far outweighs what you could do by putting something out on your channel, maybe it makes sense.”

Stoneman gave Spotify’s view on these new super-curators. “Sometimes it’s guys in the bedroom who have huge followings,” he said. “The bigger brands: the BBC is one, and we’ve got many others, they can be impactful. But it’s just a case of finding the right audience and being really early.”

He admitted that the famous example of Sean Parker putting Lorde on his Spotify playlist and helping her to break globally has been somewhat over-talked-about in the last couple of years but added that Spotify has seen this happen elsewhere since.

Stoneman also talked about new user behaviours. “Nobody would ever have bought a sleeping album on iTunes for £10, but a lot of people do listen to sleeping playlists, or music to work to – one of Spotify’s most popular playlists is for people who want concentration… new use cases where people behave differently in streaming to how they would in a la carte buying.”

How do indie labels grab the attention of Spotify’s in-house curators? Stoneman said he’s in touch with many indie labels in the UK. “The first thing is to start chatting to us,” he said. “And then we’ll start pitching that track to our editorial team. They’ll look at a range of playlists and think, does that track feel right? They’re there to serve our users, so they’ll look at plays and analytics. Is the track ready now? Is it taking off or is it not?”

Blair said she’d like to see more analytics to show how tracks have been added to playlists, and what the impact has been. “I would love all the streaming services to be able to give you much more granular data on when your track is being included on playlists, and where, and by who,” she said.

Is there a prospect of the popular playlist creators outside Spotify – users – starting to try to charge labels to add songs to their playlists? Andrews said it shouldn’t be a surprise, citing the history of music blogs as an example: as their clout grew, some decided to start charging (in some cases) to write about songs.

She added that YouTube already sees this model too, when Cooking Vinyl has the chance to make videos available through other companies’ channels. “People do see the monetary worth, it’s not unusual for us to be taken a hit on ad revenues for a videos if we place with a third party on YouTube… I don’t think it’s something we should discount,” she said.

Cooper agreed. “We’ve been asked for money,” he said, of some big user-generated Spotify playlists. “They seem to think that they can make money from it. It seems clear to me that someone’s been paying them money, otherwise they wouldn’t be so confident that they can charge?… it’s not a surprise. Clearly payola worked well in American radio, so why wouldn’t it work well on Spotify?”

Stoneman said “It’s certainly something we’ve heard is happening, people asking for money. The key thing to remember is people only follow a playlist beaue it’s good. People aren’t going to follow a playlist that is throwing tracks in because it gets money… they’ve got a duty to those followers to keep that playlist fresh and keep it for the good music,” he said.

Reed said he’s more “worried about the authenticity of some of these playlists, particularly some of the major label ones” – citing the example of one major label-owned “Top 40” playlist which contains 40 tracks, but the first nine are all from that label.

Earlier in the day, industry analyst talked about the music industry needing to think less about revenues and more about attention, yet it seems the new curators capable of capturing that attention also see it as a source of revenues.

Stuart Dredge

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