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.
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.
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.
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.
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.