Justin Barker runs consultancy Slice Music, which specialises in playlists, content-curation strategies and streaming marketing. He previously worked at Universal Music, where he created the Digster playlist brand in the UK
The topic of “playola” – labels paying independent curators of playlists on music-streaming services to include their tracks – has received much coverage in the music press over the last year or so.
However, the general thrust of the conversation to date has come almost exclusively from rightsholders. Without wanting to dwell too much on the morals of this debate, I wanted to provide another view – that of the independent curator – and highlight some of the realities that are misunderstood.
Disclaimer: I curate professionally for brands and labels, and have never accepted money to include a track in a playlist.
Let’s get this out of the way first: building, and more crucially maintaining playlists is hard work. It requires a significant amount of passion, research, thought and dedication to do well.
On top of that, organically growing an audience to an influential scale on any social platform, let alone Spotify, is an even harder task which can take years to achieve. In short: done right, playlist curation can be a full-time job in itself.
However, on any social platform – Spotify included – once a sizeable audience has been built, there is an increasing awareness among their owners that there is an intrinsic value to this. Similarly, valuations of online businesses in general are often predicated on their audience size, and the ownership of and access to it.
Young people know this all too well. We now live in an age where, in the absence of traditional career paths, they are increasingly turning to entrepreneurial endeavours. And where being ‘internet famous’ is seen as a realistic (and potentially lucrative) career ambition.
The music industry too, certainly understands the importance of being on the right playlists, with playlist-pitching now a standard practice. Even the owner of a playlist with around 1,000 followers could be bombarded with pitches from promoters, artists and labels, and this phenomenon is only becoming more pronounced as dedicated companies like DigMark emerge to provide this very service.
As a curator, given all this, even if you have never thought about asking for money before, all it takes is for just one of those parties to offer it to you, for the seed to be sown suggesting that this may become the standard.
It’s no surprise then that independent curators realise that placement on their playlist has a direct, monetary value, and that they could reasonably expect payment either for including individual tracks, or by simply selling those playlists outright to bigger companies keen to take a shortcut into this space. To these curators, it must feel like fair reward for their work.
The more I think about this, though, the more I find the term “playola” more a sensationalist shorthand for “influencer outreach”, which has become a commonplace facet of digital marketing in 2015.
Influencers with large audiences on Youtube, Instagram, Vine, or any social platform you care to mention have for some time commanded large fees for endorsing products, and the same thing is effectively going on here albeit on a much smaller scale.
Smart influencer outreach isn’t just about getting a big online star to promote something that has no relevance to their audience, though. It’s about finding one that already has that relevance, and getting them to promote a brand or product in as subtle a way as possible. I think that’s more or less the case with playlists too.
Just as with any social following, if a playlist is deemed to be losing credibility or just decreasing in quality, people will simply stop following it. That’s something no aspiring curator can afford: followers define the value of what they do.
The most successful curators are also very passionate about what they do and don’t want to compromise the integrity of their playlists. These two factors being the case, the risk of curators including tracks that are totally asynchronous with what’s bee featured in their playlists before is genuinely quite low.
Where is becomes muddier is when considering the sheer volume of tracks being released every week, never mind in total. There is such an embarrassment of riches for curators that it fosters situations where the choice may be between featuring one song that they like and another which they don’t like quite as much but someone is offering them money to include – and crucially, which still fits the playlist.
At that point, it’s easy to see how some people might just think ‘Why not?’. This becomes more problematic the bigger a playlist becomes, where the number of tracks being pitched to them will rise. This kind of decision could become more common.
“Playola”, though, is really just a symptom of the deeper issue of how curators are able to monetise their efforts on Spotify, and the incentives that exist for them to choose to grow a following on that service versus YouTube, SoundCloud or others.
Right now, whatever the issues of morals and transparency, charging to include tracks in playlists is the only direct option available.
This is why it’s in the interest of all parties that Spotify comes up with some kind of revenue model that works for its influential curators, so that they don’t need to take payments from labels or other third parties, and can instead function more like traditional online-editorial portals.
That’s very much in Spotify’s interest too because it encourages platform advocacy. It’s very telling how big YouTube curator brands like Majestic Casual, The Sound You Need, Mr. Suicide Sheep, etc are nothing like as active on Spotify (if at all), despite it being by far the platform with the most dedicated music fans and the best plays to users ratio.
Surely it would much better for Spotify if brands like these directed their huge 2m-3m subscriber audiences to it? That’s never going to happen if they aren’t incentivised to do so in some way, though.
Spotify, for all its merits, has not been the kindest platform to its community of independent curators in the last couple of years. Platform adjustments have greatly reduced the exposure for non-Spotify-owned playlists, and limited the ability of regular users to grow their followings organically.
Curators who were able to build audiences in the years before those changes – the Browse feature above all – have a distinct advantage over those that came later, who are not seeing the same opportunities
This has a bearing on the playola debate too, because it narrows the field of pitch-able playlists, and hence confers upon those that do have big followings considerable market leverage.
If there were better tools to assist other curators in growing their followings, there would be more audience fragmentation, and the value of being on one of those select-few playlists would be reduced.
Spotify has also recently changed its terms and conditions to clamp down on the buying and selling of profiles, eliminating another potential avenue for curators to make money. This heavy-handed approach is out of step with other social media platforms, that encourage or even actively celebrate micro-economies on their platforms.
It’s also pretty hypocritical, considering that Spotify owes its own editorial offering – Browse – to the 2013 acquisition of the profiles and playlists of Tunigo, a Swedish playlist-curation company.
If nothing is done to help independent curators, the danger is that they will abandon Spotify for platforms where their efforts can be rewarded. Or worse, simply not start building followings there in the first place.
At that point, all that will be left will be Spotify’s own playlists – which can only cover so much, and are already, understandably veering towards serving more mainstream users – plus a handful of major-label owned brands or others owned by companies with deep-enough pockets for promotion such as the BBC.