Playlists have become a hugely important part of the music streaming world, and many of them have a tightly-curated theme, be it a musical genre or a specific mood or activity.
Not all, though. Some of Spotify’s most interesting emerging playlists – Lorem, Pollen and Oyster for example – are designed to be ‘genreless’. Today at Music Ally’s Sandbox Summit Global online conference, we heard more about how (and why) those playlists work.
Spotify’s Lizzy Szabo (editor, North America), Sophia Olofsson (studio project manager, Nordics) and Iman Hazheer (senior editor, Nordics) were the explainers, in a session moderated by CD Baby’s market development coordinator for Europe and the UK, Henriette Heimdal.
“We realised there was a gap where we needed to curate for culture rather than genres… Genres were expanding, and artists are experimenting with them,” said Olofsson, of Spotify’s initial moves into genreless playlists.
She noted that in the days when people were buying music and had a limited amount of money to spend: “Boxing yourself into a genre had a purpose… but with having access to everything through the digital transition, suddenly it’s no risk to experiment and explore.”
Szabo stressed that “genre is still totally important” for Spotify and its rivals. “It’s historically how we categorised music, but we realised today that the way people listen is more community based,” she added.
“Take things like Pollen, Oyster, Lorem. These are listening communities that we’ve seen on Spotify, off Spotify, on social media. I think they share a lot in common with the artists that we are putting in these playlists. It’s driven by culture, and it’s driven by these communities.”
Hazheer opted for a cooking metaphor in his description of this trend, with music represented as different spices that can be added to the overall meal of a playlist.
“The more spices [there are] to create with by the artists and the creators, the more spices [there are for listeners] to try out and it becomes a feedback loop. If culture is moving at that rate, we need to move with it. That’s where we question the status quo in terms of programming,” he said.
Szabo talked about Pollen as Spotify’s first experiment with a genreless playlist, with Lorem sharing an ethos with it, but targeting a different audience. And then Oyster is the equivalent in Spotify’s Nordic territories.
Playlists are “just a name slapped on a list of songs” she pointed out. “At its very core that’s what it is, and we hoped that with design and the right mix of artists , and just being able to speak to these avenues of fans that it would become something more. It really started as an experiment.”
Over time, these playlists have evolved. Pollen and Oyster now have attached ‘studio’ programs, where artists record original tracks, covers and collabs for Spotify. Meanwhile, the company is also creating video content around featured artists on these playlists, which gets distributed on YouTube and social networks.
In a way, that’s a riposte to one of the criticisms of playlists in general, which is that they can lead listeners away from knowing who the artists are, let alone caring about their stories.
How do artists get onto these genreless playlists? Szabo said that the submission tool in the Spotify for Artists dashboard is critical, promising that “we religiously go through our submissions”.
One challenge is that this submission tool involves tagging tracks with one or more genres, which can feel awkward for some of the music that might be well-suited to these genreless playlists. Szabo said that Spotify is tackling this by adding more genre options.
“I think we’ve got meme-rap in the works, hyper-pop in the works, things like that just to reflect what’s going on in genres,” she said, before pointing out that while Lorem, Pollen and Oyster may be genreless, the music on them is not. In fact, it’s often crossing several genres.
“Sometimes the music can sit comfortably between two, three, four genres so it would be a completely new sound,” she said. “These playlists are a mix of genres.”
Hazheer said that curating these playlists involves carefully monitoring the data from listeners, especially when there’s a new sound that has popped up from this kind of genre-splicing experimentation.
“You introduce something, see how the community reacts to it, see where the culture is going in the community… and by that case take one step forward,” he said. “Okay, we have this new spice that we can work with, because we’ve seen it in our submission forms, so how can we work with that?”
Szabo talked about another strength of these playlists, which may not have follower counts as large as Spotify’s biggest playlists, but have super-engaged listeners.
“Especially with Lorem there’s a very specific discovery oriented listener in mind,” she said. So, while popular artists like Post Malone and Billie Eilish can and do live on Lorem, “we love to have full confidence in someone that’s emerging and on their way, and put them in there.”
“For the listeners, we’ve built up trust, we’ve done our homework but we just absolutely love that music. Everything I’m trying to add to Lorem is something I absolutely love. So if I’m having that connection with that music and really understanding that community of listeners, I have confidence they’re going to love it too,” she added.
“It’s a playlist with a lot of saves, because kids are going in there and trying to find something they’re going to want to listen to for the rest of the day, week, and share with their friends.”
Has the emergence of these playlists sparked any changes in the way people create music? Are artists making music designed to get onto genreless playlists, for example? Szabo suggested a different impact: that the existence of Lorem, Pollen and similar playlists frees artists up.
“Our hope is that because we have opened the boxes, that creators feel more comfortable leaning into whatever new sound that they wanna experiment with or that they’re inspired by, because we’re trying to open more doors for them,” she said.
“Creating these playlists was also a reaction to how artists were expanding with their creation, and if we can make that happen even more, that’s excellent. But it was something that was happening organically, and that we just enabled spaces for,” agreed Olofsson.
Szabo was on hand for a follow-up panel – moderated by Heimdal again – on the future of playlists more generally, alongside artist mxmtoon and Ty Baisden, co-founder of Colture.
mxmtoon talked about the role playlists have played for her career, not just in terms of helping her music reach listeners, but on her as an artist.
“It’s been really pivotal for me growing up in this era of playlisting as an artist, because it’s helped me to find my sound. Which is odd, because it’s supposed to be genreless!” she said.
“As an artist, it shows me who my peers are as I’m looking at the landscape of artists and music… If it does anything, it really helps me feel there are less limitations on what I can do wit my own artistry. It’s something I’m slowly realising is having an effect on my music.”
She would return to this theme later in the panel. “The way that playlists have helped support me as an artist is really maintaining that feeling of no limitations. Being on playlists that don’t define me as a genre, but as an artist,” she said.
“I think playlists have really helped me find that core group of people who’ll stick with me and listen, and not leave me because I want to test the waters [with new sounds and directions].”
Baisden talked about the need for artists not to see playlists as the be-all and end-all of their ability to reach listeners, and for their labels and managers to ensure their marketing strategies are not solely focused on playlists.
“I do think it’s financially a business risk to just lay all those eggs in a basket. The fans are everywhere, so you have to try to figure out your best guideline and plan to tap fans on all the different platforms, and figure out which platform works for which artists,” he said.
“There may be artists that don’t do well on streaming, but they do really well in the sync world, or touring, or selling vinyls… If you have a client that does not perform well on playlists, are you just gonna give up?”
How might playlists evolve in the future? “What interests me the most is how can someone interact more on our platform? Is it fan to artist, is it fan to platform? How can you be a little bit more and more in charge of your listening experience?” said Szabo.
“How can the user dive in deeper, go through a rabbit hole, and be able to more and more influence their listening experience… Is it a more personalised playlist? Is it being able to dive in deeper to who those artists are?”
Artists as playlist curators, including temporary takeovers of those owned by the streaming services – Billie Eilish’s recent stint in charge of Lorem for example – is also something we’ll continue to see.
“Artists are devoting their life to their craft, so naturally a lot of them are going to have really good ears when it comes to the type of music that they listen to,” said Szabo.
She also later talked about Spotify’s early moves in playlists combining music and podcast clips, like Your Daily Drive, Daily Wellness and Daily Sports.
“I probably wouldn’t take time out of my day to meditate, so it’s maybe a nice reminder that this kind of listening experience is an option now on Spotify. It’s a great door opening into what else is out there,” she said.
“I think it would be cool in the future to have users get a little bit more involved in that. I’m not interested in sports and meditation, but I am interested in news and specifically music news, so I want the app to automatically read what I’m into and factor those in… not in a creepy way, but in a way I can just open it and have the experience I want. I would hope that’s the way we’re moving.”
Baisden addressed the best strategies for artists. “Especially in the early stages of an artist’s career as they’re developing their fanbase, it’s important to stay active on the platform, and being active on the platform is just consistently releasing music at a pace that is acceptable for fans to keep discovering you, and that you can keep building your story through music,” he said.
He compared this to the dynamics of a platform like Instagram, where the more you post, the more your content will find its way into people’s feeds – and even the wider discovery feed.
“It’s almost the same way with Spotify… all of the algorithm based things that don’t have curators, you can still be able to take advantage of that even if you’re not getting primarily on bigger playlists.”
“The future of music is investing into these platforms and being active on these platforms that help you discover the music,” he continued. “This is the first time that we’ve had the same platform that is selling the music also be the same platform that is helping you discover new music and new artists, so I think it is important for the artists to understand how powerful that can be for them, if they invest into that model.”
He went on to suggest that playlisting will continue to be a powerful way for artists below the streaming-superstar level to build their careers.
“I think we’re going into an era where people just want to make music without all of the other stresses that come with it. And I think that playlisting is going to be able to do that for the independent market, for artists, and hopefully that can be something that will balance the overall market and the playing field, between the independent creators and the major label artists,” he said.
“So that there’s more options to be a middle-class artist. And you just are doing what you love, you’re taking care of your family. You have fans, you can’t get around that part, but you don’t have to succumb to the stresses of having to compete with Beyoncé and shit like that!”
mxmtoon agreed. “Playlisting will always be a pivotal party of music curation. Evening the playing field is definitely something I think about constantly… playlisting is a wonderful way that is going to redefine the landscape in terms of helping artists,” she said.
“But maybe my piece of advice is that it is a pivotal part but it’s also [just] a step. The work you have to do around it is still necessary. Make sure you build other aspects of your business, but understand that playlists will be important.”
Music Ally’s Sandbox Summit Global is taking place online this week, with two hours of talks and panels every day starting at 3pm BST (4pm CEST / 10am EDT / 7am PDT).
It’s broadcasting live on Zoom and – thanks to our sponsors Linkfire, Chartmetric and MQA – is completely free to access. You can see the agenda and register here.