The final session at AIM’s Music Connected conference covered streaming playlist strategies, with an expert panel.
They included Adam Cardew of Absolute Label Services; David Emery of Kobalt Label Services; Sammy Andrews of Entertainment Intelligence; Justin Barker of Slice Music; Zac Vibert of !K7 Artist & Label Services. It was moderated by Tim Ingham of Music Business Worldwide.
Vibert talked about there being a lot more to a campaign than just being on “flagship playlists” on streaming services, even though securing placement is a priority for labels.
How to do it though? Barker gave some of his tips for targeting influential playlists. “There’s a definitive distinction between playlists on the platform: one being pitchable, and one being not pitchable,” he said.
Label-owned playlists don’t really take pitches. Spotify’s own playlists do have a pitching process to try to get songs onto them. And playlists owned by independent curators are much more pitchable, he explained.
He noted that a growing number of YouTube and Twitch stars have big followings for their playlists on Spotify. “Getting in touch with those people is a way you can get your music in front of certain people,” said Barker.
He noted that some of those influencers’ playlists have an impact on Spotify’s own (algorithmic) Fresh Finds playlists for brand new music, so there can be a knock-on effect from successfully pitching to a non-Spotify playlist curator.
Emery talked about labels and artists creating their own playlists, and why the industry shouldn’t expect too much from these efforts.
“You’ve got to really question how much time you put into those sorts of playlists. As a label, you can put a lot of time into these playlists and get not much return from them,” he said. “If you’re an artist, you can generate small but decent numbers from your own playlists, and we’ve seen this across a bunch of our artists.”
He added that people search for artists on Spotify, go to their artist profile, where playlists are featured very prominently. Also, the free tier on mobile is much more playlist-oriented. “It can work out. You’ve got to do it, but don’t put too much focus on it… It’s something useful for your audience, but it’s just another part of your strategy.”
Vibert said that when pitching to Spotify’s team to get onto their high-profile playlists, they do check whether an artist is fully engaged with the platform – so having their own playlists might be a help.
“Yes, you need to make your own playlists: you might get 100 followers on them… but you need to do it for a reason and keep it up. 90% of ‘Artist Influences’ playlists launch but don’t get updated,” said Cardew.
Andrews talked about the fact that the major labels own their own playlist brands: is that a concern for independent labels, who are unlikely to feature much on them. Andrews, of course, is behind the efforts to create an indie-aggregator playlists brand to compete with them. Plans first mooted a year ago at the 2015 Music Connected conference.
After the formation of a UK steering committee, then feedback from indie labels elsewhere in the world, an international steering committee was formed. “I can let you imagine what those calls were like,” she said. The initiative has now come down to a shortlist of companies who might run it.
“We still have a massive question mark over who funds this: we’re not a major, we haven’t got a shitload of money in the bank that we can dip into,” said Andrews, who stressed that the initiative is needed.
“The majority of those top playlists [on Spotify] are absolutely Spotify-owned. But we think there’s a percentage of the market – about 8% at the moment – that are third-party brand-owned.” And the ones owned by majors are being used to break new artists, which independent labels should be doing too. “I really want to make this happen. I think we need it,” said Andrews.
The conversation turned to ‘playola’ – paying to get a song included on non-Spotify playlists, either for guaranteed inclusion, or paying simply to be considered for inclusion.
Barker’s company does influencer outreach and he thinks this isn’t as common as people think. “We’ve had one person ask us for that, and they asked us for $10. In my experience, which is very direct and quite considerable, I’ve literally encountered this once, and it’s grossly overstated,” he said.
“We should still not encourage it,” said Andrews. “It means those people with more money are able to buy more, which should absolutely not be encouraged.”
Barker said that the two-way relationship between an independent curator and a label should be more about helping that playlister build their audience: for example, sharing a link to the playlist on social networks with a ‘thank you’ when one of their artists is added.
“We need to be helping some of these guys grow their followings,” he said. “And if you’ve supported them in the past, they’re more likely to feature your track next time you come to pitch them.”
Emery agreed that popular third-party playlist curators would be a good thing for the independent sector. “But how are third party curators supposed to get paid? What’s the business incentive for them to do it?” he said. “It’s only going to be a bedroom activity if you’re making these things for the fun of it.”
Vibert talked about YouTube channels which are essentially curators and playlisters, which feature music. “And they’ve created a real business model because they’ve created a brand. That’s where the real opportunity is: if you can become a brand. You can do your own compilations, your events. And that’s the thing that’s maybe missing on Spotify, on Apple.”
Barker said that the top music curators on YouTube will be doing 1m views a day on their channels. “They’ll be earning at least $40k a month doing that. And it’s often just one person, and that’s just the money from YouTube,” he said.
Emery talked about SoundCloud, who he thinks have more potential to follow that model. “User-generated content and uploads is much more in-built into their platform, and now they’re licensing and legitimising, there’s more scope for that,” he said. Spotify and Apple Music are “very anti user-generated content, and I think playlisting IS user-generated content”.
Andrews agreed that this is a missing thing for the big audio-streaming services, but moved on to talking about numbers. Her advice: don’t think a playlist’s value is entirely about its follower count.
“That actually matters fuck-all: it’s about the number of plays generated from them… the small, well-curated playlist might be generating much more, because they’re trusted. And we’re still not paying those people in any shape or form.”
Barker said he’d like to see Spotify grow its social features in order to help curators build followings on the platform. “Spotify used to have better social features,” he said. “There may have been good business reasons for removing them… but if you’re growing a following, you really rely on those social features to interact with your audience… and to have a dialogue with your fans.”
Cardew agreed, before shifting the conversation on to music formats. “We’re kind of at a watershed moment in terms of the format an what people expect. Is an album really practical for 2016? It doesn’t feel like it is,” he said. “We started working with grime artists a few years ago, and that was the first time I heard from the artist side ‘We don’t understand the album any more. It doesn’t work for us, it doesn’t work for how our fans are consuming this’.”
The album still does well for a certain level of artists. “As we move into a streaming world, it’s just changed a little bit. The consumption has changed. So maybe rather than doing one single, two single, album drop, you might do five singles, and then three tracks available on the album that weren’t available previously,” said Cardew.
“Grime and urban artists are much more in that track-based format now, but for most artists you have to get the balance. Let’s do four, five, six tracks before the album comes out so you get multiple playlists, and traction, then let’s do more tracks after the album comes out,” said Emery.
Albums still matter though: for example, promoters care about them as something to hang a tour around, noted Andrews. “It’s a needs-must situation,” said Cardew. “A couple of years ago we said ‘streaming is going to soon become the most popular way to listen to music, so how does that change the way we release music… the way we roll out album promo campaigns on streaming platforms?’”
That in turn means disruption for the traditional gatekeepers to music: the reviewers in the press. “In the streaming world, the audience are the reviewers,” noted Ingham. “They won’t be driving the same sort of streams that a Spotify playlist will,” added Barker. “Simply because they’re not on-platform.”
The panel ended with Andrews talking about streaming exclusives, where an artist makes an album only available to stream on a single platform – Beyoncé on Tidal most recently. A welcome trend or a worrying one?
“I totally understand why they happen, because basically they’re the only differentiator that all of these platforms have,” said Barker. “Jay-Z has got a platform that doesn’t have that large a user base, it’s not that good from a technical view as is well documented, or from a UI view, but what does it have? All of these A-list shareholders… If you’re trying to grow Tidal, you want these permanent exclusives. You’re looking at the Netflix and Amazon Prime models. But it’s hard to do that if you know your content is going to be on Spotify in a month.”
Barker added that “people have forgotten how easy it is to pirate stuff” – from ripping YouTube videos to visiting KickassTorrent proxies. So streaming exclusives can spark piracy.
“Those level of artists, I’m sure we all understand why these exclusives take place,” said Andrews. “Exclusives are not a new thing. When we are nurturing a new ecosystem for the industry, that concerns me… For new artists, if we’re not growing this new ecosystem whereby we can get market saturation and the rate per stream up, how are we going to fund new artists? Those exclusives might lock in people to a streaming service they don’t like, or push them out.”
“Out to The Pirate Bay,” chimed in Cardew. Andrews praised Kanye West and Beyoncé for their creative innovation with their new albums – post-‘release’ changes for ‘The Life of Pablo’ and the video aspect to ‘Lemonade’. “But it’s very short-sighted of us as an industry… we drive people away. What if they like Spotify more than they like Tidal, or they like Apple Music more? Why are we forcing them to move around?“