This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
By Michael Raine
It’s commonly accepted that on-demand streaming has changed how people – especially young people – consume music. Apple Music, Amazon Music Unlimited, YouTube Music … They all feature a ton of playlists, but there is obviously one platform that, for good reason, has come to define this trend: Spotify. By making playlists a focus of its user experience, and not just for listening but also for engaging, Spotify amped up playlists’ importance in the music ecosystem.
Spotify’s innovation wasn’t simply allowing users to curate their own playlists, which could draw from the entire history of recorded popular music. The simple but important thing Spotify pioneered was allowing user-created playlists to be public for other users to follow. Intentionally or not, this created a whole ecosystem of music influencers out of average music fans. It also created a massive, data-rich “farm system” through which Spotify could move songs in order to better curate its own playlists.
Over the last few years, breaking into that playlist ecosystem and getting songs on the most popular ones has become something of a fixation for the music industry, and it’s somewhat justified. Playlist placements can help break an artist and greatly boost their numbers, but like most fixations, its importance can be overblown.
For artists, it’s important to understand how this playlist ecosystem works in order to better tailor your approach to the game – or decide if it’s even worth playing.
“I’d say about two or three years ago it really started ramping up,” says George Goodrich, founder of playlist pitching service Playlist Push, about when he noticed artists and industry really focusing their attention and efforts on playlists. “For an indie artist, just directly getting on a big playlist was super difficult; then, eventually, people started figuring out that there’s a huge ecosystem of these smaller playlists that have a niche following on Spotify that they could tap into to at least get the wheels off the ground, and then they could build up from there. Now even the bigger labels are focused on these user-generated playlists.”
Spotify’s playlist ecosystem essentially works like a pyramid that songs must climb. At the top are the biggest, human-curated playlists, such as the extremely popular Rap Caviar and New Music Friday, each with millions of followers. The second tier of the pyramid is a larger swath of Spotify’s own algorithm-curated playlists, which are usually more genre- or mood-specific and can have tens- or hundreds-of-thousands of followers. The base of the pyramid is the ocean of user-generated playlists, of which there are literally billions. Obviously, the quality and importance of these user-generated playlists vary tremendously. It could be a playlist of only Right Said Fred songs with zero followers made for an “I’m Too Sexy”-themed kegger. Or, it could be a well-crafted playlist of cool new indie rock songs with 30,000 followers. Sometimes, the curator is trying to be an influencer in a genre or scene; others, they just happened to make a good playlist for their own enjoyment with an SEO-friendly title.
“Most people tend to just focus on the big Spotify-branded playlists, but in reality, for the independent artists, those user-generated playlists are the big opportunity,” says Kevin Breuner, the VP of marketing at CD Baby, co-host of its DIY Musician Podcast, and an indie musician with the band Smalltown Poets.
If an artist is determined to break into the world of playlists, user-generated playlists are the open door in the basement. Because, unlike the major labels and larger indie labels, artists have no way of pitching directly to Spotify’s editors.* And, it should go without saying, you obviously can’t pitch to an algorithm. What an artist can do, though, with a bit of hard work and ingenuity (and good songs), is generate the analytics that the algorithms will pick up on.
If what follows – talk of analytics driving a song’s “success,” of music being a “loss-leader,” of telling your fans to do your bidding for the sake of major tech companies – all rubs you the wrong way, yeah, we get it. But it is what it is, and this is how it works.
*This isn’t 100 per cent true. With Spotify for Artists, ahead of a song’s release, artists can fill out a pretty detailed form on the song and it’s basically their chance to sell Spotify’s editors on the release. Of course, thousands and thousands of these are submitted every week, so the chances are slim, but it should still be done.
How to Get on User-Generated Playlists
It’s not just luck. With a smart, targeted strategy, indie artists can get their songs on some valuable user-generated playlists. There is also a burgeoning industry of playlist-pitching companies that, for a price, will send music to playlist curators. Let’s look at both options.
DIY Playlist Pitching
In essence, playlist pitching (also called just “playlisting”) simply means sending songs to a targeted group of playlist makers. It’s not complicated. To do it well, though, requires time and research.
Breuner’s own example is one to follow and stems from an instrumental guitar player who uses CD Baby. Breuner noticed this guy was getting 500,000 or 600,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, almost all through playlists, and so he asked how this happened and employed the same strategy for his band.
“I created a spreadsheet and I started finding all these playlists on Spotify that our band would fit. You need to go deep,” he stresses. Breuner tested numerous keyword searches on Spotify, trying the many terms people might use to describe his band’s sound/mood/genre, and cataloged the playlists that fit. He also went to the profile pages of similar artists to see which user-generated playlists they were on. Out of respect to the curator and to not waste anyone’s time, he followed the playlists and listened to make sure they were a good fit.
“Then I would see if I could track [the playlist creators] down online. A little internet stalking goes a long way,” he laughs. “It’s probably a bad habit we all have, but most people’s Spotify username is the same on Facebook and the picture they use on Spotify is the same on Facebook. So, in most cases, I was able to find playlist curators within five minutes. Then I would message them and say, ‘Hey, I am so-and-so from this band and I was checking out your playlist and love it. I feel like our music would be a good fit. Here’s a link, check it out.’”
Breuner was actually surprised at how successful this strategy was. He estimates about 50 per cent of the people he contacted replied to his message, and about 30 per cent added Smalltown Poets to their playlist. “All it was, was time. There was about a solid month where I was up from, like, 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. doing this every night and it actually made some good things happen; it was just a matter of putting in the work.”
Somewhere between this completely DIY approach and hiring a playlist-pitching service for a full campaign, which can cost several hundred dollars, is a service called SubmitHub. Breuner has used it and, given how inexpensive it is, says that it is worth trying out. With SubmitHub, for only a few dollars per song, artists can submit their song to a targeted group of playlists curators, which are mostly bloggers and some media.
“We have artists who can’t afford to do playlisting campaigns and have to go out and do it themselves. For them, we’re a fan of SubmitHub,” adds Erin Kinghorn, the owner of eEK! Productions, a Toronto-based traditional and digital marketing company, and co-founder of Digital Promotions Group (DPG), which specializes in playlist pitching and streaming promotion. “If you want to pay for it, you can actually get comments back. For some people we’ve been developing over the years, it’s good to actually see that kind of feedback on the song or video.”
Paid Playlist Pitching Campaigns
More established artists, or those with money to invest, can hire a playlist pitching service for a campaign, such as Goodrich’s Playlist Push or Kinghorn’s DPG.
“We always say, ‘OK, where are we starting from?’ Does this person have zero monthly listeners and this is their first song on the platform? Or are they already getting on those major Spotify playlists with millions of streams? Everyone’s expectations should be different, but we’re basically just an accelerant of what you’re already doing,” says Goodrich.
Beware: there are services that will take anyone’s money to send their songs to some curators, but both Goodrich and Kinghorn say that any worthwhile playlisting company will be selective in who they pitch for and will turn down artists who they feel aren’t ready.
“For us, it comes down to the song more than anything else. We work cross-platform and all genres and worldwide, so that means it’s not just user-generated playlists on Spotify. We’re also looking to people who are creating playlists on YouTube and SoundCloud and all the other components. We also don’t pitch directly to the [streaming services’] curation editorial teams; that’s what record labels, managers, and artists are doing themselves,” explains Kinghorn.
The good playlisting companies all work a little differently. Some, like DPG, do three- to six-month campaigns across multiple platforms with a rollout strategy for three or four songs to get the ball rolling for an album or project. Playlist Push is just focused on Spotify (though has its eyes set on YouTube for the near future) and does one song per campaign, with pricing based on how many curators they’ll reach. The credible playlisting companies have a large database of curators with detailed stats on their playlists and an understanding of what’s suitable for each.
“As with radio promotion and publicity, we can’t guarantee that we will get you a million streams; we just can’t,” says Kinghorn about DPG. “We’re trying to help artists salt the pot. So, say you got on a New Music Friday playlist on Spotify. That lasts six days and then you’re kind of done. Our job is, ‘What are the things you’re supposed to be doing after that?’ Because your song is not done after six days. You still have to keep working it and that is the service that we’re trying to provide. Then, when you go back to the curators and editors at Spotify and such, you can actually show that you’ve been … successful outside of that and can show a track record.”
With these campaigns, artists shouldn’t focus on the direct financial return (i.e. streaming royalties). You would need a ton of new streams to break even on the investment. But, Kinghorn adds, “I know that a lot of … labels and agencies and managers are looking at Spotify [and social media] numbers to see if there’s growth before engaging with artists. So, is it going to break even? I come from the opinion that in the last 10 to 15 years, your music isn’t the thing that’s ‘making you money’; it’s your touring and merchandise and all the other things around it and your music is your loss-leader. It’s how you draw fans in and it’s how you’re going to be drawing your team in, so you need to be working it, but it’s going to actually cost you … to be dealing with.”
Essentially, hiring a playlisting company can be like hiring a publicist to boost your profile.
For our full conversation on playlisting with Erin Kinghorn, listen to the Nov. 20, 2019 episode of the Canadian Musician Podcast.
DO NOT Pay for Streams
There are companies out there often running ads targeted at artists on social media that promise to boost the artist’s stream count by a certain amount. Do not hire them. They’re likely using illegitimate means, like bots, to artificially inflate stream counts. The streaming services do not take kindly to this.
“First off, it just doesn’t help you out at all. Second, they will pull your music down and it gets marked as fraudulent activity,” says Breuner. “I actually had to help a very high-profile person in the indie community… who did this and got his music pulled down and I had to help him get it restored and it was not fun. They get really angry about it, so you don’t want to mess with that stuff.”
Analytics Do the Heavy Lifting
Like we said, getting songs on user-generated playlists is the first step. After that, the analytics determine if the song will be picked up by the algorithms for that middle tier of Spotify-branded playlists.
“I actually tell people you don’t want to get on one of those massive playlists until you’re ready, because if your song is just below Drake and Rihanna and everyone skips it, that is going to lose you that spot on that playlist the next time it updates. It basically tells Spotify that nobody likes your music, which could put you in a hole for future releases on the platform. The best thing to do is get the music out to user-generated playlists. That helps you build data for your profile,” says Goodrich. “Playlist Push can help you get on playlists, but if people aren’t saving your song and they don’t like it, you’re not getting those repeated listens.”
Spotify and the other services are tracking the performance of every song to determine whether it’s connecting with listeners and should, therefore, be included on other playlists. The main analytics are: repeat listens (self explanatory); skip rate (i.e. are people pressing “next” to skip to the next song); likes (do they hit the ♥); and “adds” (are they adding it to their own library and playlists?).
If listeners are doing these things, then the song has a good chance of climbing the pyramid, but beyond crossing their fingers, is there anything artists can do to help this happen?
Educating Your Fans
While streaming is obviously popular, general music fans have little reason to understand the finer details of how it works. So, artists literally need to tell their fans how to support them. In the pre-digital world, it was simple: buy th CD, support the artist. Now, there is a bit more nuance to it.
Right out of the gate, when a song or album is released on the streaming services, how it performs on the first day can give it a big boost by showing that fans are eager for it. One way of making this happen is to run pre-save campaigns. This can’t be done natively in Spotify, but there are online marketing services – Show.co and Presavetospotify.com being examples – that can facilitate these campaigns. By enlisting fans to pre-save a song or album ahead of its release, artists can boost their stream-to-save ratio in the first day or two after release, which triggers the algorithms.
At shows, on social media, through newsletters – wherever artists are talking directly to their fans – it’s smart to trumpet: “If you can do these simple things, it’ll really help me out.” They are fans after all, and want to help the artists they like, especially if it takes no money and little effort. So, artists can ask fans directly to follow them on streaming services, save songs, and add songs to their own playlists, etc.
There are also actions artists can take once they get a playlist placement to help their cause. An important recent development by Spotify is that for its algorithm-generated playlists, it now sends artists a notification when their song gets added. In this notification, Spotify provides a shareable link to the playlist. Here’s the important part: if an artist shares that link and someone clicks on it, that artist’s song will appear first in the playlist.
“Also, make sure that you’re promoting the playlists you’re getting on, no matter whether it’s Spotify- or user-generated, because there’s a partnership there,” says Kinghorn. “There are tastemakers who are trying to build their brand, so make sure that they feel like they’re in a partnership and don’t feel like they’re putting on your song and then you’re not doing anything with it. Directing people to where you are in the playlist and getting people to directly play from that playlist is really helpful. It’s one thing to just get on the playlist, but once you do, there is a lot of work to do.”
“Also, from the perspective of the DSPs like Spotify and Apple, they love it when you sort of stroke their ego a little bit,” adds Marc Cremonese, label manager at Royal Mountain Records (Alvvays, Mac DeMarco, PUP) and an artist manager. “Add yourself to the backend on Spotify for Artists and Apple Music and Amazon when it comes. If you direct any social media posts to one or the other, or take out some social media ads and tag Spotify or Apple, they really love it because they’re all competing with each other and any traffic that you send them, they will show you love in return.”
Another tool worth mentioning is Spotifycodes.com. It’ll create a unique QR code-type image (but nicer looking) that people can scan in the Spotify app to go to an artist’s profile or album. “I have an artist client called Featurette who are fantastic and they have their code printed at their merch table because they only release digitally,” says Kinghorn. “They’ve got t-shirts and cool stuff and then their Spotify code [on a sign]. So, if you want to get a copy of their record or follow them, it’s like, ‘Follow us and click the code.’ It’s a call to action. It’s the same thing that we’re finding on social media and that sort of thing where we’re having to educate people – click the code, follow us, like the song, etc.’”
Is This All Worth It?
After all this, we’re still left with the question: does getting on playlists matter in the long run? Is all this time, investment, and effort worth it? Like much in life, the answer is: it depends. Remember, getting streams doesn’t necessarily equate to getting fans – especially on playlists.
“The interesting thing is at CD Baby, because represent around 750,000 artists, we’ve seen a lot of artists doing very well on playlists that have made them money but made them zero fans. You think, ‘How can that happen?’ Well, the thing is, with the streaming world, you have to understand that people are listening to music very differently than they used to,” says Breuner. “People are listening to music by mood, by very broad genres, or by activity, and things like that. So, they are getting music fed to them that they may like, but they’re not necessarily becoming fans of those artists.”
Remember the instrumental guitarist with 600,000 monthly listeners on Spotify who taught Breuner his strategy for getting on user-generated playlists? Well, Breuner adds, “His follower count was like 2,000 because he wasn’t making fans. He was on these playlists, he does a lot of covers and people liked his music, but it wasn’t creating fans. Now, he was making a nice pay cheque, but if he goes on tour, no one is going to show up.”
“I don’t think it’s definitely a positive thing to get on playlists,” adds Cremonese. “You know, you make some money and generate some streams, but I don’t think it’s necessarily make-or-break for your career. One of the artists we worked with this year, Orville Peck, got no Spotify playlisting for the first six months that he was signed to Royal Mountain, but it didn’t affect his overall trajectory to where he’s at today. Maybe that is an outlier, but I do think it’s possible to have it not really affect your career that much. Ultimately, what I notice in the analytics of Spotify and Apple Music is you tend to get followers from being on the road and making fans through that and that brings people back to the DSPs.”
The nature of the playlist is a big factor, too. For example, right now on Spotify, there are dozens of user-generated playlists with the term “studying music” in the title that have between 1,000 and 20,000 followers. The express purpose of these mellow, mostly-instrumental playlists is to not pay much attention to the music; nonetheless, they generate a lot of streams, and if music is more a side-hustle and getting on these passive-listening playlists and earning some money is what you’re after, there is nothing wrong with that.
That said, there are playlists that do the opposite; they tend to be genre-specific and seek out the best new music. These playlists attract active listeners who are motivated to find something new to love. These kinds of playlists really can create new fans, not just streams.
“I think the one thing that has been annoying to me for the last year or so is people really think that if they get on a playlist, that it is going to solve their whole entire life. It’s like, ‘Oh, I got on the Viral 50 and my life is made!’ You have so many other things to be doing along with playlisting. As an artist, you need to be looking at your songwriting, how you’re releasing, your touring, your merch, how you’re interacting with your fans, your socials, and playlisting is a part of a whole system,” Kinghorn stresses in closing. “It’s a lot of work and it’s a lot about how you do a number of steps in a number of different ways.”