This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Canadian Musician.
By Michael Raine
Attend a music industry conference this year and you’re bound hear that “streaming is the new radio” – maybe even a few times. Radio used to be an indie artist’s ticket to fame and fortune, or at least a decent SOCAN cheque and a noticeable boost in ticket sales. While Nielsen surveys show radio’s influence is still significant, streaming playlists, especially on Spotify, are having a huge impact on artists’ earnings and popularity. The importance of these playlists has become obvious, but what is still less clear is how songs get added to them. Like radio, is it largely the domain of the signed artists with the backing of label-employed pluggers, or can indie label and self-releasing artists get their songs on these playlists? The answer to both is “yes.”
For starters, there is much more to Spotify than the mega-lists with millions of followers, such as New Music Friday or Top Hits. There are over 2 billion playlists on Spotify, the majority of which are user-generated or algorithm-generated; human beings employed by Spotify curate a just a minority of premier playlists, like the very influential RapCaviar.
“The thing is, you have to look beyond just the top-tier playlists,” says Kevin Breuner, a member of the band Smalltown Poets and the director of marketing at CD Baby, as well as co-host of the DIY Musician Podcast. “Indie artists need to realize there is opportunity and the whole playlist world is far, far deeper than they probably ever imagined. They have to do a little bit of work and a little bit of digging and they can find those second-, third-, fourth-tier playlists that can do a lot to generate significant boosts in revenue and exposure for them.” The lower-tier playlists can easily boost a song’s stream count by tens of thousands while also increasing the likelihood that song will be picked up by one of Spotify’s higher-ranking playlists.
The best way to break into this world of playlists is to first focus your efforts on getting onto user-generated playlists. For one, they’re just easier to get onto, and two, Spotify heavily relies on analytics when creating its own playlists. If a song’s analytics show it’s performing well on smaller playlists, the song moves up the ranks, so to speak, to the official Spotify lists. “Performing well” means a low skip count and high listener engagement, which includes listeners liking it, adding it to their library, and adding it to their own playlists.
Kevin Breuner at CD Baby’s DIY Musician Conference [Photo: Becky Yee]
“You can find the users fairly easily who make these user-generated playlists and then you can contact them directly on Facebook,” says Ari Herstand, an independent musician and author of How to Make It in the New Music Business, as well as a columnist for DigitalMusicNews.com. “But you have to go about it right. You don’t want to just go, ‘Hey, I’m amazing! Put me on your playlist.’ That’s the way not to do it. The way to do it is to start up a relationship with this person. Like, ‘Hey, I’m really loving your playlist, great work with that.’ ‘Oh, thanks so much, man.’ And then next week, ‘Oh, by the way, I really love the song that you just added on that playlist.’ ‘Oh, thanks so much; I’ve been digging on it and just saw them last week.’ Two weeks later you hit them up: ‘Oh, by the way, I’m a musician. I just released this song and I think it would work really well on this playlist. Let me know.’ And then they get back to you and say, ‘Oh yeah, actually this does work really well. Cool.’ Now you’ve built up a relationship and you’re not just like, ‘Hey, do me a favour even though you don’t know me!’”
Bruener has his own experience with this after his band’s songs were added to a user’s Christmas playlist. “I was able to see that there was this one particular playlist that was driving tons of plays. So I looked it up and it’s just a random user; it’s not some curator,” Breuner says. Getting a bit curious and using a bit of what he jokingly calls “run-of-the-mill internet stalking,” Breuner wanted to see if he could find out more about the playlist creator. “I did a little digging and found out he’s big in the Airsoft [paintball] world. Like, he loves that stuff. I felt like I was a bit of a stalker, but I was just very curious about this one particular instance of how this happened. He didn’t have a bunch of playlists that were performing well and it wasn’t like he was this curator that people followed; he just happened to have this playlist that tapped into some keywords that made this particular Christmas playlist have an audience. I think the audience was about 12,000 people that followed this playlist. It’s not like this mega playlist of millions and millions of people, but it generated about 90,000 streams for us between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.”
While ending up on that random user’s Christmas playlist was pure luck for Smalltown Poets, Breuner says that with a bit of focus and effort, it’s very conceivable to turn those 90,000 streams last Christmas into 250,000 this Christmas. “It seems very doable when you start looking at it in those terms. There’s these users that have playlists that have built audiences; they’re not curators, they’re not doing things to be the tastemaker of a particular genre, but they have, for whatever reason, people listening to their playlists. I think when you start looking at that as an independent artist from that perspective and doing some digging and get away from the obvious mainstream stuff, there is lots of opportunity that is tangible. Really, what you need to do as an artist is get on some of these playlists, show a bit of a track record, and that makes it more feasible to get on bigger playlists.”
You won’t hit your target every time. If you reach out to five playlist creators, it’s unlikely they will all return your email or Facebook message, let alone add one of your songs to their list. You can improve your odds, though, by spending some time with the playlist before reaching out, making sure your music is a good fit, and maybe most importantly, being a genuine fan of the music.
Herstand insists artists should never approach a playlist maker for a playlist they don’t listen to. It’s just insulting. (Cough – kind of like emailing a magazine editor asking for an album review in a magazine that doesn’t do reviews, so it’s obvious you’ve never read the magazine – cough, cough. Just saying…)
“Approach playlisters whose playlists you’re a fan of and you can have a conversation with. Similarly, you can help out the other artists and be a member of the community. Maybe reach out to the other artists on some of these playlists you’re eyeing, these other indie artists, and say, ‘Hey, love your new record. I’ve been spinning the tracks non-stop and I discovered it on this playlist. How did you get on this playlist?’ and they’ll give you some insight into it,” says Herstand. “It’s just about being a member of the community and always thinking about being respectful and the value you’re going to offer the other person. It’s not about what they can do for you only; it’s what you can do for them as well, and just kind of being a respectful member of the community.”
You may be able to identify some playlist makers who are clearly trying to become tastemakers within a particular scene or genre. With them, it can be especially important to offer value. “You need to bring your fan base to the table and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been checking out the playlist and my music would be a good fit. If you’d add a track or two, I’ll email my 10,000 fans and tell them to follow the playlist.’ Then that person is thinking, ‘Hey, I’m going to get something out of this deal,’” says Breuner.
Really, this is only scratching the surface of the playlist world. There is much more that can be done, such as connecting with folks at radio stations, consumer brands, and other companies that have branded playlists – or even creating your own playlists, and there is a science to doing that effectively. Just understanding how Spotify’s analytics and algorithms work and how they influence playlists is a fascinating conversation. (Interesting fact told to Herstand by someone at Spotify: the service has identified roughly 50,000 users it deems “tastemakers,” meaning they have a track record of listening to hits months before they break. Spotify’s algorithms factor in these users’ recent listening history when creating playlists, but these users don’t know they’re tastemakers). So do a bit of research, join the Spotify community, and see if you can boost your streams.
Michael Raine is the Senior Editor of Canadian Musician magazine.