“Rap Caviar” and the Spotify Playlist

The Spotify playlist is, for millions of Spotify users around the world, the ultimate expression of music taste. Whether it’s a hand-crafted and personal playlist you spend hours poring over, a Spotify discovery playlist created through the magic of data analytics, or a curated playlist that focuses on new releases, the Spotify playlist has proven to be the radio of the digital age.

download

A little known Swedish company only 9 years ago, Spotify has become the most influential company in the music streaming industry. Their pseudo-IPO valued the company at $26 billion, and the company has a whopping 160 million subscribers, with 70 million with a paid subscription and 90 million with a free subscription. The next closest competitor in the streaming market is Apple Music, growing steadily but still only at 30 million paying subscribers. Even if the rocky debut at the NYSE raised some questions about music streaming, Spotify can at least feel secure about its position within its industry.

And what an industry it has become. Although it really doesn’t feel like too long ago when iTunes and digital purchases ruled the music space, nowadays music-streaming websites consist of 62% of the revenue in the music industry as a whole. Digital purchases grew 15% from 2016 to 2017, and huge chunk of that is thanks to a 53% increase in music streaming revenue in that same span. So when Spotify acts as a curator for new music, a good portion of the world is eager to listen.

It became a cliché for any popular band or songwriter to recall the first time they heard their song on the radio. Stop me if you’ve heard this: the car broke down in a driving rainstorm, a flat tire dooming a little known band. A couple of the members might have been rethinking that whole cross-country tour thing. Only the hum of the radio, playing their proud creation, is enough to get them out of their doldrums. They’ve made it!

Now? The biggest thrill comes from a notification on your Spotify account that you’ve been added to a popular playlist. Music discovery playlists, which involve analyzing a listener’s music habits and presenting a guess at what you might like, are a different discussion altogether, but I’m going to talk about curated playlists. With enough followers, a playlist becomes a true “tastemaker” that is the authority on what is popular in that specific genre. It’s best summed up by the words of an anonymous music executive: “no cool kid is listening to Top 40s radio”. Pretty harsh, but definitely reflects the Spotify mentality.

For the pinnacle of Spotify’s curated playlists, take Spotify’s “Rap Caviar”, updated every week. Easily accessible from Spotify’s main “Browse” page, the playlist has 10 million subscribers, making it the second most popular playlist on the entire platform. Along with new and popular songs, the playlist consist of music videos and some promotional videos. It is the ultimate accomplishment for any young and upcoming rapper to make an appearance on “Rap Caviar”, and it’s considered the best sign in streaming that they’ve “made it” and are on their way to stardom. Spotify has even started a four-city “Rap Caviar” sponsored tour featuring some of rap’s biggest names, like Migos and 2 Chainz, to help market its online offerings. For hip-hop especially, a genre that dominates music streaming services more than any other, the fate of an artist’s success can rely on a single song making the cut. Full album releases have lost some luster, as now artists keep pumping out singles in hopes that one will catch on.

rap-caviar

It is an extraordinary amount of power to wield, and it’s interesting that in this era of data analytics and collective intelligence, it was still just one man doing the curating. You know a playlist is huge when its curator leaving a company makes the rounds on tech news outlets: Tuma Basa, the soft-spoken man with his finger on the pulse of rap, left his duties at Spotify in early March of this year, taking a job at YouTube. As Spotify’s “global head of hip-hop”, Basa was responsible for analyzing user trends to find what songs were catching on among its user base: what songs were being searched, what songs were skipped more often, and of course, what kind of listens a song was generating. Since he still asserts in interviews that the final decision really came down to his “gut” feeling, here we can see an interesting combination of old-fashioned curating and new-era data. In addition to his personal savvy and taste, he relied on Spotify’s extensive collection of user data to make his choices. It’s pretty safe to say that when Funkmaster Flex was curating his 97.1 “Hot 97” playlists in the early 90s, he didn’t have the same degree of Notorious B.I.G. stats at his disposal. Busa is “part data scientist, part romantic laboring over a cassette mixtape”, a natural evolution of radio.

overlay

Things can go wrong, however, when playlists are so influential. Spotify recently took action against a 3rd-party playlist curator, SpotLister, after a Daily Dot investigation discovered that small artists were paying a nominal fee to appear on the company’s curated playlists. Starting at just $5 when the company started, artists were now paying thousands of dollars for a spot on their most influential This was a direct violation of the Spotify terms of service, which prohibits “pay-to-playlist” techniques. It’s hard to blame artists for trying, especially when that company had access to playlists with a collective 12 million subscribers, but it speaks to the ways that music streaming platforms can be distorted by the almighty dollar. Spotify largely ignored the practice before the Daily Dot investigation brought it to the public eye, so it remains to be seen if that enforcement continues or was only to save face.

d79f2974bb2fc3d6-2048x1024

The concept of the curated playlist is basically as old as radio itself, so it’s interesting to see how Spotify as a streaming service has placed its own unique stamp on the practice. With its unique blend of data and personal touch, Spotify will no doubt continue to bring new artists to light for millions of its users around the world.

Sources:

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-03-23/spotify-s-playlists-are-more-powerful-than-radio

https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/1/17067530/tuma-basa-rap-caviar-playlist-spotify-leaving

https://www.theverge.com/2018/4/3/17194208/spotify-ipo-nyse-music-streaming-market-valuation

https://www.dailydot.com/upstream/spotify-playlist-black-market/

https://www.digitaltrends.com/music/spotify-spotlister-crackdown/

http://www.vulture.com/2017/09/spotify-rapcaviar-most-influential-playlist-in-music.html

https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/4/16971436/apple-music-surpass-spotify-us-subscribers

9 comments

  1. Jobabes121 · ·

    Great post, Ray! I remember someone posting about the music industry completely changing with the subscription base, and I believe this one furthers that thought by analyzing deeper into spotify and the playlists. Playlists are also great ways for people to express themselves and connect with their friends. I have listened to my friends’ playlists instead of making my own, as many of them have similar music taste as mine. I supposed that’s how the popular playlists go viral, where the list has a wide range of great, trendy songs that everyone seeks. Instead of going on Youtube or downloading the songs one by one, this seems to be an efficient and effective way to share music.

    I thought your point about SpotLister was very interesting, and it appears in many of the “recommendation” service providers/functions these days. Same goes with Yelp, recommending websites for reviews where it is feasible that certain restaurants or companies pay a certain amount to be advertised as such and such instead of the servicer seeking a great one that is not well-known yet. Although it would be impossible to catch all of these “cheap” behaviors, I am sure people will recognize that some songs/artists are blatantly bad even if they try their best to market themselves. If they are good, however, it is a plus for the listeners as well. It is just a matter of the type of recognition they receive with a given opportunity.

  2. jennypenafiel11 · ·

    I’m a huge fan of Spotify playlists! I currently have an extensive amount of playlists that I have made myself and also some that I have subscribed to. RapCaviar is one of them. I remember when I first joined Spotify premium and loved the app so much that there was no going back to the non-premium version. It was the perfect way to have all the music I wanted at a better price than paying for each individual song. It was a cost that was very worth it. Its really interesting to see that Spotify has been able to take their playlists and turn them into something much bigger. I didn’t even know about the tour though. That’s really cool. However, one of the things that has been implemented into playlists like RapCaviar is the videos and I’m not sure yet how I feel about them because sometimes they list multiple videos after another and the format/layout is overwhelming. Instead of having thumbnails for the videos, they are all playing as you scroll and it is just a lot of visuals at the same time. Being that I am used to just seeing song names, these videos are throwing me off. I think there is room for improving how the videos are mixed into the lists. However, I do appreciate that you can lock your screen and still listen to the music even if you are not watching the video. In terms of the issue regarding artists paying to be on playlists, I really do wonder whether they did enforce it just to save face or not. I do not know enough about their company culture to know whether they enforce ethical behavior but I do know that getting artists to want to be on Spotify’s side is important to them right now so I’m sure they weren’t mad that artists wanted to be on their playlists so bad that they would pay for it… Its an interesting and very relevant dilemma for sure. All that being said, Spotify is in my top five favorite apps and I hope they can continue to grow, improve and keep providing me with the best music streaming service.

  3. kennedy__bc · ·

    I thought the most interesting part of this article was your discussion of Tuma Basa, I had no idea that a singular person wielded so much power in the music streaming space. It’s great to see a situation where songs are still being chosen from a person who has passion for the music industry rather than completely algorithm based (which is what I assumed it was). Furthermore, I like how Spotify has continuously allowed Basa so much freedom when it comes to creating such an influential product that can make or break careers; that confidence is refreshing to hear. Basa’s move to YouTube is a move on Alphabet Inc. to further get their foot in the door of the music streaming industry by making him the head of one of their new YouTube Red paid subscription services. It will be exciting to see how Basa’s position evolves at YouTube and to see how much freedom he is given.

  4. Really great post. A really interesting “behind the scenes” angle of how some old issues in the music industry play out today, as well as a combination of art and data. It’s really in line what Margaret Gould Steward said in her video we watched earlier – data can’t make a bad design (or playlist) good, but it can make good design (or playlist) great.

  5. Keenan Neff · ·

    I watched a video about Spotify earlier in the year about how they create these playlists for millions of people. It is unreal how much data is used to put together these playlists. I myself am a Spotify premium subscriber, and I love the benefits that come with it. Being able to just type in a few key words like “Hype Country” and having a playlist with over a hundred songs queued up and ready to go. I think that it is unbelievable how now when I open the app and go to My playlists, they have 4 different playlists set up for me based on what I listen to. That being said, there is one thing that Apple Music does better than Spotify. If you have an Apple Music subscription, you have the ability to listen to almost every single remix of a song. Spotify does not do a good job posting remixes. I think that if they extend their inventory to include remixes of songs, they will gain even more premium subscribers, and capture even more of the market share than what they already have.

  6. realjakejordon · ·

    One of my favorite posts in this class so far, Ray. I always wanted to know who the people are who were so in tune with music that they could crank out those playlists every week, particularly Rap Caviar. It’s cool to be able to put a face to the name. For a long time I figured they had a bunch of interns collaborate because young people seem to have the pulse of the industry most of the time, but this makes a lot more sense. I guess my thought on music is that it primarily evokes emotion, and isn’t something that you can really judge based on incoming data. Theres songs out there that have a ton of plays that, in my opinion, don’t take much talent to produce (“Call Me Maybe”, “Friday”, “Gangnam Style”). I guess thats where the “part romantic laboring over a cassette mixtape”. It’s comforting to know that data is making our playlists better, but is still influenced by a human touch.

  7. tuckercharette · ·

    I find that Spotify has captured a lot of different aspects of my music listening habits and that is why I’ve stuck with them so fervently. I used to use Pandora a lot for their recommendation “Radio” feature but then Spotify was successfully able to offer me that option while also allowing me to create my own playlists while using the software. This allows me to explore the music sphere on the outside while also being able to then listen to my own stuff. I love that Spotify can give me access to new releases the day they come out, something I didn’t have time to do before and now I can listen to full albums. While most people actually use Spotify to create tons of playlists, I really enjoy listening to full albums of random artists to get a vibe for their music. Lastly, Spotify allows me to find completely new genre’s of music easily. Different vibes of EDM music and Classical Piano for studying are easy accessible with Spotify’s Browse feature.

    Where Spotify is going wrong is trying to create a platform where I spend my time fully engaged. I do not want Spotify to become Youtube. I don’t want it to become all flashy and as @jennypenafiel11 mentioned, the formatting can become overwhelming. I fear that Spotify will make the same mistake that Twitter did which is sacrificing simplicity for flashiness. Twitter added GIFs and Pictures and Videos and sacrificed the simplicity of witty humor, what I loved about it. If that is the case then I am out. Spotify is an audio-only one stop shop and if they abandon that, I could totally see myself going over to Apple Music.

  8. markdimeglio · ·

    Nice article! This is a really interesting topic for myself as I am a huge listening of Spotify and have come across this playlist many times.

    I thought the head of Hip-Hop, Tuma Basa, had a really interesting perspective. I think that looking at data as something human is really valuable. After all, data is driven by human behavior, and if you look at it the right way you can drive some pretty incredible insights.

    Something I thought was encouraging was Spotify’s reaction to the “pay-to-playlist” drama. I really like that they are not trying to monetize their playlists in that way and are enforcing these policies. I think that it is a smart business decisions as well as a decision that will protect the integrity of their user experience!

  9. graceglambrecht · ·

    I worked for a record label a few summers ago so I have looked heavily into Spotify’s advanced analytics data that is just given to labels and artists! Play count, time of day, over all charting, comments, public playlist inclusion. I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of data and calculation that goes into one playlist or even the choice of one song over another for Spotify. Spotify is truly a great example of using data to better serve its users and help along new artists as well, while optimizing its own platform and product available to users. Hopefully, as you mentioned above, we don’t see Spotify start to take advantage of their user data or allow others to do so. Awesome work!

%d bloggers like this: