'They could destroy the album': how Spotify's playlists have changed music for ever

Custom playlists on the streaming site can bring unknown artists to millions. But are they altering how songs get written?

Venezuelan singer Danny Ocean was languishing in obscurity when he released Me Rehúso independently in September – and then Spotify changed his life. As the track started to build slowly on the Central American viral charts, the streaming service – spotting these spikes in plays – threw its weight behind it, putting it into multiple playlists this year. It has now passed 261m streams on Spotify alone, and Ocean has signed to Warners, a label that, post-Luis Fonsi’s huge hit Despacito, views him as the next Latin crossover star.

If Spotify decides, as in the case of Ocean, to throw its weight behind a song in such blandly named playlists as New Music Friday, Today’s Top Hits, RapCaviar or Afternoon Acoustic, it can catapult an act from obscurity to the top of the worldwide charts. True, the Swedish streaming giant can make the already-big even bigger – see Ed Sheeran’s annexing of the UK Top 20 in March – but it can also give unknowns a huge boost. These playlists are becoming arguably more important than radio in bringing new music to the masses; they hold the hands of a mass-market audience that is moving over to streaming but can find navigating 40m tracks overwhelming.

With, respectively, 2.4m and 2.9m followers, Afternoon Acoustic and Peaceful Piano are among the leading Spotify playlists. They mark a switch from hard genre categorisation into a more nebulous mood-based categorisation, with acts like Dawn Landes and Mélanie Laurent among those currently benefitting from high placing on these playlists, putting them in front of a huge number of listeners that they might not otherwise have access to.

“Mainstream audiences generally need more guidance to help them discover new music or are seeking a ‘lean back’ experience,” says George Ergatoudis, former head of music at Radio 1 and 1Xtra, and now working on content at Spotify. “Playlists fulfil that function well.” But as more tracks are poured into these playlists, the faster the churn, creating an even greater need to tip more music into their expanding maw.

To keep the plates spinning, we are seeing a new type of multi-formatting. In the 80s and 90s, labels would pump out as many iterations of a single as the chart rules allowed, urging fans to buy them all to help propel a single up the charts. But today, it is not the recordings that are being multi-formatted, it’s the actual compositions.

Take Despacito, the biggest song of the year both in terms of how many plays it has clocked up (4.6bn and counting), and how many different versions have been put out. There is the original with Daddy Yankee; the globe-conquering follow-up featuring Justin Bieber; a Portuguese version; a salsa version; a pop version and an “urban” version; not to mention multiple remixes. As well as evincing the apparently insatiable appetite for a reggaeton song about having sex on a Puerto Rican beach, it’s a clear example of how songs are now moulded to get on to as many playlists as possible.

“I wouldn’t say they’re aimed at playlists, but we will often release remixes and acoustic versions; although really it is down to the artist and what they’re trying to do with that particular song,” says Elsa Vivero of Warner Music Group.

“Artists are also always being featured on another artist’s track,” adds Dominic Wallace, a music editor for the streaming service Deezer.

Click here to watch the video for the original version of Despacito.

The result is playlist carpet-bombing: as with Despacito, acts are vying to be on as many key playlists as possible to get the cumulative streams they need to have a serious chart impact. Alternatively, releases are being designed to have multiple impact points: with Coldplay’s Kaleidoscope EP, different tracks were drip-fed over several months to keep the release present on ever-refreshing playlists.

“The industry is getting much smarter at understanding the Spotify playlist portfolio,” says Ergatoudis. “There are pitches for specific playlists more often now. This didn’t happen even a year ago.”

Inevitably, there is a darker side to all this. First, at the extreme end, songwriting is now starting to contort to fit the aesthetic and audience of certain playlists; trying to second-guess what will connect best.

“There is absolutely no doubt that music is being written and put out to do well on streaming services,” suggests David Emery, head of global marketing strategy at music publishing company Kobalt. “But that’s in exactly the same way that tracks have always been written for Top 40 radio. The format the music ends up on determines how people write for that format.”

Second, Spotify, because it is so far ahead of everyone else (140 million active users, of whom 60 million are paying subscribers, compared with Apple Music’s 27 million subscribers), has become a playlisting priority for labels, ratcheting up its dominance yet further. Spotify has a vested interest in making playlists – particularly its in-house playlists – the lingua franca of streaming. “I think this is now Spotify’s entire world,” says Darren Hemmings, who runs digital marketing agency Motive Unknown. “Spotify doesn’t own the catalogue, so it has to have power on some level. They could be looking to completely destroy the album as a format, if we are going to be extreme about it, and replace it with playlisting.”

When I ask Wallace if he feels the album will be superseded by track-centric playlists, his assessment is blunt: “Probably, yes.”

Click here to watch the video for Danny Ocean’s Me Rehúsa.

Artists are even starting to pull apart the album format and create evolving playlists in their place. Drake’s much-vaunted “playlist”, More Life, was essentially an album given a zeitgeisty rebrand, but in 2016, David Gray released a “dynamic” greatest hits on Spotify where tracks were switched around depending on how popular they were, while there were industry rumours, subsequently scotched, that Calvin Harris was going to abandon the album entirely and instead release singles and EPs on a rolling basis. Now London rapper Avelino is planning an eight-track “evolving playlist” for the end of September where it will be added to and subtracted from on a regular basis. Playlisting now means the album no longer has to remain a fixed entity.

But while Spotify may be shaping the way music reaches us, ultimately the listener still has choice – and that power is built into the service’s architecture. Spotify watches which tracks get skipped, and those with high skip rates will be unceremoniously binned for stinking up its playlists. The onus therefore remains mostly on artists and labels to whip up momentum.

“There is a massive difference between being added to a playlist and what you get out of it,” Hemmings says. “We have seen it with acts of ours who have been added to playlists with 250,000 followers, and it’s led to 56 streams.”

“Spotify will support anything that is connecting,” adds Diluk Dias, managing director of AEI Group, the company behind dance music brands Drum&BassArena and UKF. “They will get behind the big stuff and there is no mystery to that. It’s the niche stuff that’s most interesting. You shouldn’t be obsessed with getting on the biggest playlists; it’s a more organic process, and you should see them as a bonus.” Ultimately, you can pull strings and call in favours to get your tracks on playlists, but if the songs are dreadful, they will sink.

However, just as artists, labels and users are starting to get a handle on how playlists work, the floor below them is about to give way. We see playlists as visual, text-based entities, but the rise of the voice-activated speaker – with Apple and Google looking to close ground on Amazon’s Echo – could change everything again.

“[The future] is going to be much more around situation and context for the user and the music they are looking for at a particular moment,” says Vivero. “People are going to have to know enough about a song or an artist to ask for it by name.”

Playlists are currently a buffet trolley of music, being wheeled in front of listeners to pick from and allowing conditional choice. But voice control could see everything reduced to trigger words – “happy music”, “60s”, “EDM”, “yoga” – defined by context. Asking Alexa for “new music” or “a song that will change my life” could see wildly variable results. Playlists are currently in a power-sharing agreement between the fan and the music industry, but the move to voice-control could ironically see record labels – those masters of hectoring – put on mute.

For now, the streaming services are writing new rules on the hoof. A Latin star having a global hit without a major label was unimaginable a decade ago, but things change. “Everything began when we got into the Spotify playlists, the song just went viral,” Danny Ocean told the Fader of his surprise success. “I don’t think any of this would have happened without streaming.”

Playlists cannot make everyone a chart star – or even famous for 15m streams – but in 2017, if you’re not on them, you might as well not exist.


Eamonn Forde

The GuardianTramp

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