In the streaming music world, playlists are a music format with growing clout: they’re at the heart of services like Spotify and Apple Music, whether created by in-house editorial teams, labels or music fans.

Tonight, Music Ally held our List For Life event in London, with a panel of experts discussing trends around playlists and music discovery. The event was sponsored by 7digital, and held at Reed Smith’s office.

The panel included: Sammy Andrews, MD of Sabotage New Media; Justin Barker, founder of Slice Music; Pete Downton, chief commercial officer of 7digital; Naz Idelji, head of compilations for Ministry of Sound; and Chris Price, founder of New Slang Media.

Our very own Eamonn Forde was the moderator, while other industry figures chipped in with video contributions to spark each passage of the discussion. Starting with…

“Playlists are very much what we’re talking about as the new package. It’s maybe not going to replace the album, but it will supplement that experience,” said 8tracks’ Jon Maples. “Where this is going is where context is combined with playlists and curation,” said Google Play’s Rory Woodbridge.

Over to the panel. How important are playlists really in 2015? “They’re primarily a tool for discovery,” said Barker, who said playlists only drive a significant number of streams when they have a truly mass following. The objective for a playlist creator should thus be to get people to sample its songs then add them to their own playlists – which still account for “around 50% of listening” on Spotify.

Price talked about his attempts to put some numbers to the playlist phenomenon, noting that only “a small number” of popular playlists on Spotify aren’t created by its own in-house team. “Spotify has about 97% of the playlist impact, Universal has about 1.5%, Filtr has about 0.8% and Topsify has about 0.2%,” he said – figures based on follower counts.

Andrews dived in: “Follower count means fuck all. It’s the actual streams that it generates that are the main thing,” she said, before moving on to the bigger picture. “All labels now, indie or major to some degree, are using playlist strategies… There are some successful consumer-owned playlists that thrive, or brand-owned playlists that are thriving… And in some of the more advanced markets within streaming – Scandinavia – radio are chasing placements that come through playlists. They’re using playlists to drive radio play and album sales.”

She continued: “If you can get a good placement on a very active playlist – and I don’t define that by it having a million followers, but by those millions of followers listening to it, it can have a huge impact… It is important, but we’re not sure how important yet.”

Barker talked about Spotify “carpet-bombing” Hozier into a host of popular playlists in order to prove that they could break a new artist, and warned that “it’s not a silver bullet when you get a track in a playlist: that you’re going to do 100,000 streams in a week… The number of streams that you need to do to affect chart positioning is so ridiculously hard.” So it’s important to have a track in lots of popular playlists, not just one.

Price talked about his research into the most-playlisted artists across Spotify. Justin Bieber is currently the most-playlisted on Spotify, on more than twice the popular playlists than second-placed Ed Sheeran. “Is Justin Bieber having chart success because he’s the most-playlisted artists on Spotify, or is he the most-playlisted artist on Spotify because he’s having chart success?

7digital’s Downton pointed out that it’s still “probably the Radio 2 playlist that drives the most sales in the UK music industry”, and noted that playlists – whether radio or compilations – have always been important for the industry “because most people don’t know what they want to listen to”.

Over to the video experts, with some views on the issue of commercial issues, such as major labels buying up popular playlists. Can indies compete?

The major labels appear to have acquired a lot of independent playlist brands,” claimed Lohan Presencer of Ministry of Sound. “In doing so, they are packing those playlists with their own repertoire in order to drive plays and therefore market share… It does raise the question about how editorially objective and independent they are.”

Back to the panel, and Idelji giving an independent label’s perspective. Are playlists being stitched up by the majors? “We are a compilation business: that’s what we do, we’re  a curator. We do have playlists across different services, but it’s an introduction to our brand,” she said. “As Lohan says, with the majors, a lot of the content is their own.”

Indies are setting up their own playlist brand to compete with the majors, with Andrews one of the prime movers behind it. “It’s not an easy thing to do. Trying to deal with every independent globally, not an easy thing to do whatsoever. But as indies we actually perform really well globally on the streaming services… and we have an amazing depth of back catalogue,” she said.

“The majors haven’t got it all stitched up. Yes, of course they got a head start, but we can learn from their mistakes as well… some of the majors’ attempts at playlists have failed, and we can use that as a learning experience.”

Barker used to work at Universal Music in its playlists division, building the Digster playlist brand internally from the end of 2011, reaching about half a million followers by the end of 2014 – beating rival Sony Music for streams. “Is it ever too late to market? I don’t think so. I think if anything we were late to market, and we totally stormed them,” he said.

Andrews talked about the niches in back catalogues that can fill playlists, pointing to the popularity of playlists aimed at children, and playlists for adults to fall asleep to. It’s not just about the obvious genres and themes, in other words.

Price said that the independents will have the advantage of “incredible breadth and depth… when you listen to a Digster or Filtr or Topsify playlist it’s often really front-loaded with own-repertoire,” he said.

Downton said that the old compilations business, aside from some strong independents like Ministry of Sound, “was really about joint ventures and marketing budgets” – talking about ventures like Now That’s What I Call Music. “If you were lucky and had a great hit single as an indie, you could fight your way onto it. This new world is far more democratic,” he said.

Idelji moved the conversation on to curation: Spotify and Apple both have their own curators, as well as Google Play Music. “The interesting thing here is the curation side of it: the journey you take listeners on through any playlist is important,” she said. “When you look at the way playlists are created when they are from labels, they are there to really play their tracks. What’s nice about what Apple is doing: they’ve curated it, and there is less of a pressure to put certain tracks on.”

Price praised Apple Music not just for its curation, but for the playlists that its recommendation algorithm served up to him “pretty quickly” after he joined the service.

“The reason we talk about Spotify so much is because if there was one platform that isn’t in early-adopter phase any more… They’re very imminently going to announce 100 million monthly active users. That’s a point where it is mainstream. This isn’t just early adopters any more, and that has a bearing on curation,” said Barker.

He added that between 60% and 80% of Spotify use is currently happening on mobile devices, which also affects playlist consumption: free users can only listen on ‘shuffle’ mode rather than listening to playlists all the way through in order.

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Over to the video experts, and the can-of-worms that is “playola” – labels paying a playlist creator to place certain tracks in their playlists.

“If we can make something as compelling and sophisticated as a playlist really work… it becomes a living thing, then of course people are going to want to pay to get onto that. It’s going to happen… I don’t think we should regulate against it, we should just make sure it’s clear and transparent,” said Jeremy Silver of Mediaclarity.

“It’s just natural,” said Maples. “It’s another revenue stream as well. There is going to be a little bit of pushback from consumers with it, mostly because it has to align with what they want.” And Presencer wondered just how prevalent playola is really, but questioned how else playlist curators are going to make money.

The panel gave their views. “A total fucking farce is what it is. It devalues every part of that playlist. If you’re paying to go into a playlist, it’s there because you’ve been paid: it’s not because you’ve got any skill in curating… I think it’s a dreadful thing,” said Andrews. “But I do think we absolutely need to find a way to benefit curators if they’re putting time and effort in… but there isn’t any mechanic for that to happen yet. It’s rare for me to agree with Lohan, but he’s right… As traditional radio dies out, we’re going to have to find ways to reward curators.”

Barker talked about Slice Music’s experience. “When reaching out to independent curators with decent followers, we really haven’t encountered that,” he said. But he did cite one curator who openly sells slots on his playlists on sites like Fiverr. “When you actually look at his playlist, it’s just a hodge-podge of rubbish,” he said. “Even though he has 60k-70k followers on his playlist, he’ll drive 20, 30 plays [of a track] in a week.”

Price chipped in: “The moment you compromise the quality of your output, that’s the moment your audience starts to desert you,” he said. And Barker said that the owners of the biggest independent playlists on Spotify “really care about their brand: they won’t jeopardise that”.

The final question for the event: what the rise of playlists means for the album format: from artist albums to compilations. The video experts first: MixRadio’s Jethro Borthwick talked about two kinds of albums: first, the ones that tell a story and take listeners on a musical journey. “This as a concept may exist, although the length may vary,” he said, noting that albums with a few good tracks and a lot of filler will have more problems.

Meanwhile, Ministry of Sound’s Presencer talked about the future for compilations: those mixed by DJs are not (yet) cannibalised by streaming playlists. “In fact, our compilation sales have increased this year on last year. However, in the long run, as music consumption habits move to streaming services, we imagine that the consumer will be buying less and less, so it will have an impact on compilations.”

“In the end, this is a question about control,” said Jeremy Silver. Albums are an artist-controlled format, and compilations are a label-controlled format. “Control is the question, and if you have control does that mean you have the value of the playlist itself, and therefore can you monetise it?” he said. “And will it actually become a format in its own right?”

Idelji addressed the compilations issue. “If you’re not a brand and you’re out there putting out compilations that are very much like playlists, yeah, it’s the end of the road,” she said. But in Ministry’s case? “It’s a listener experience: that’s what we’re about.”

Downton – “a recovering record company executive” – talked about his experience at labels. “On average albums would sell about 75% of the volume in the first three months of release,” he said. “What this does is it means albums that don’t have a third and fourth and fifth track will disappear really quickly from people’s consciousness, but great albums with depth will continue to be discovered.”

Andrews said that “because streaming rewards longevity, there is a long game,” she said. “We’ve never had access to more music… but in playlists, it’s resurfacing back catalogue that has potentially never been monetised before. I don’t think the album is dead by any means: a few albums this year have proved that. But we are maybe consuming differently, and entering albums in different ways than before.”

She added that she expects “a lot more” brands to follow Burberry into the area of streaming playlist curation – Burberry is one of Apple Music’s partners, with its own set of playlists. Meanwhile, Idelji said that Ministry of Sound is working as a curator for non-music brands such as TomTom.

“My worry is with stuff like Spotify and playlists… where are they going to be in 10-15 years time? We’ve got to a place where young people especially no longer have this relationship with artists… how are they going to have a relationship with artists and music when we’re throwing tracks at them daily?” she said.

However, Andrews talked about the importance of the data coming out of streaming services, which is helping managers and labels understand who the keenest fans of a particular artist are – with playlists playing a role.

Barker took it back to album listening on streaming services. “Based on research that we did at Universal a year and a half ago, we looked at free users, we looked at their album listening habits within a one month period, and we found that fewer than 10% of them listened to an album in full within that period. That’s something everybody’s got to wake up to,” he said.

The event finished with questions from the audience. Starting with one about the business model for playlist curation, and whether services like Spotify could do more to incentivise external playlist creators.

Barker talked about YouTube influencers creating playlists of music videos on that service: “What incentive is there for them to put that on Spotify?” he wondered. But if Spotify found one, those people might be driving their millions of followers to listen on Spotify rather than YouTube, he suggested.

“It’s in Spotify’s interests and the curators’ interests,” said Price. “If it doesn’t fall on Spotify’s shoulders, it falls on the labels,” added Andrews, floating the idea that in the future “it’s not an impossible concept” that labels might give up some of their share of streaming income so that playlist creators could be compensated. “Let’s at least have a really good look at it to see if it’s possible: it could be a really good thing for the industry,” she said.

Another question harked back to Andrews’ quote of “when traditional radio dies”. “It was slightly flippant of me: it’s not going anywhere any time soon,” she admitted. “But as consumption patterns change… I’m not saying it’s going to go tomorrow, but at some point it will.”

“We’re in an age where the consumer is driving what all of us are doing, and they clearly want playlists,” she added. Downton noted that currently “a handful of players” are controlling the market for streaming playlists, and said “we have got to hope the industry brings some competition to the marketplace” – referring to the small number of streaming services with global traction.

“We may think that digital music has been around for over a decade in the major developed markets, but it’s just getting started in most markets,” said Downton. Barker pointed out that Spotify is only live in four Asian countries, not including China, India or Japan. “Over half the internet doesn’t even have access to it, so there’s definitely opportunities.”

Barker noted that within a service like Spotify there are still a relatively small number of people in control of curation on the in-house playlists, and said he hopes more independent curators can get traction to provide an alternative power base in playlists.

Downton talked about it being early days still for premium streaming services. “They’re still one step on from spreadsheets,” he said. But he sees plenty of potential to improve the “feels-like-free” tiers that are based around radio-style playlists – grabbing a bigger share of the advertising spend that currently goes to broadcast radio.

And that was a wrap.

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  1. Very interesting discussion. I’m a little surprised that the conversation focused so heavily on Spotify with talk of YouTube/Vevo and other outlets only getting a brief mention.

    Also – Andrews mentioned back catalog opportunities within this model which has me wondering how the future will play out with the rumblings of iTunes AND Spotify shying away from the “anything and everything” model according to a few distributors and aggregators that I’ve discussed this with.

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