Spotify Playlists – A Sordid Tale

To be a popular playlist in 2021, it needs to be picked up by other Spotify users. In order for this to happen, the playlist needs killer Cover Art that will catch the eye of any passerby. The cover art should include an easily identifiable logo or brand so that people will know it is associated with a specific group or individual. Ideally the cover art would be attention-grabbing and original-looking, but at the very least it should have some type of image or design that distinguishes itself from other playlists. Some companies place their logos in the corner of the front cover, as seen with Filtr and Digster. Others use large lettering with bold fonts like Topsify’s logo on their playlists and music videos on their homepage.

The best cover art uses high resolution, attention-grabbing images or graphics that follow a similar theme as the playlist’s music. A simple color gradient on the lower half of the front cover can help guide Spotify users to your playlist’s genre or mood, and is a good place to display text describing it further. Some playlists use the upper half (or entire cover) of the front cover for an image, but this is not required.

The ideal size and dimensions for a playlist’s front-cover art are 1920 x 1080 pixels with a maximum file size of 5MB. Spotify recommends that images follow its standard proportioning as closely as possible: 16:9 aspect ratio.

Changes In The Way Spotify Does Business

Spotify is currently striving for a never-before seen level of authority over how music is distributed, discovered and paid/not-paid.

Their ultimate goal seems to be building brand loyalty in the “magic” of Spotify; embolden that authority. Playlists are their top tool employed to expand platform empire with unprecedented grab for power and control in music.

Spotify launched in October 2008 as a free service, supported by advertisements. In 2009 the company announced they would be charging $5 per month for ad-free music streaming plus unlimited access to Spotify Open in new markets. The move divided much of its user base between those who felt that “Open” unshackled them from the now-requisite hassle of constantly updating playlists on their own and those limited by desktops or laptops with no internet connectivity who were upset about being forced to pay for services they could not access when away from an internet connection. Like most other extremely popular online platforms, Spotify has also been accused from time to time of collecting private information without proper disclosure, including such practices as logging search history and listening habits. In 2017 Spotify changed its privacy policy to allow it to keep track of users’ locations and usage habits whether or not they have the app open on their phone.

Spotify recently introduced new terms of use, asking artists to allow it to send promo emails and text messages directly to fans, and requiring them to provide videos with certain formats (e.g., .jpeg or .mp4 files) in order for Spotify to post said videos on playlists that promote an artist’s work. By 2021 Spotify had modified the ‘Browse’ function, incorporated Podcasting to independent artists and pushed their music onto over 300 other platforms like PlayStation.

In other words, for your playlists to really jump out at your intended audience – would they like, and/or promote YOUR playlist to their socials? Remembering that anyone can create a playlist, even make it Collaborative to gain like minded followers and promote it accross their own socials, however, how much more powerful would that playlist be if the actual artists themselves helped promote it – in other words, start small, reach out with your playlist through online platforms like SoundPlate and utilise the experience of music artist/promoters to get your best practise down pat.

How Can You Compete With The Major Record Labels?

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There are three major record labels who control the rights of 90% of all music: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group (WMG). Nine out of every 10 songs played on streaming platforms is owned by these three companies. In 2013 WMG made over $1 billion in digital music revenue alone; 90% of that came from streaming platforms such as Spotify and YouTube, more recently through TikTok.

When playlists are curated by algorithms, who is shaping the so-called “editorial voice” of Spotify?

It remains unclear how much control over its featured content major labels exert over the platform . Artists often express frustration with having their careers caught between the interests of their record label and those of streaming services.

In 2016, a video surfaced that showed Lefsetz berating Spotify CEO Daniel Ek during an interview at Midem for putting artist’s careers on the line by not properly compensating them for streams on the free tier (which Spotify does not disclose ). The video went viral and Lefsetz was widely condemned online for his tone and disrespectful attitude during the interview. This moves on to 2020 when Covid-19 struck and Spotify’s active user base went to 286 Million in another interview with Daniel Ek, mainly due to more listenners staying at home, with an amazing jump in Podcast listenners.

How much control over its featured content major labels exert over the platform remains unclear. Artists often express frustration with having their careers caught between interests of their record label and those of streaming services.

Below are the most played songs on Spotify

Artist(s) Song Plays, billions Released, MM/YY
Ed Sheeran Shape of You 2.72 01/17
Post Malone, 21 Savage Rockstar 2.12 09/17
Tones and I Dance Monkey 2.09 05/19
Drake, Wizkid, Kyla One Dance 1.98 04/16
The Weeknd Blinding Lights 1.97 11/19
The Chainsmokers, Halsey Closer 1.95 07/16
Post Malone, Swae Lee Sunflower 1.82 10/18
Lewis Capaldi Someone You Loved 1.77 11/18
Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello Señorita 1.74 06/19
Ed Sheeran Thinking Out Loud 1.71 06/14
Drake God’s Plan 1.69 01/18
Billie Eilish Bad Guy 1.68 03/19
Ed Sheeran Perfect 1.64 09/16
James Arthur Say You Won’t Let Go 1.64 03/17
Imagine Dragons Believer 1.62 02/17
Camila Cabello, Young Thug Havana 1.56 08/17
Ed Sheeran Photograph 1.54 06/14
Juice Wrld Lucid Dreams 1.54 05/18
Justin Bieber Love Yourself 1.51 11/15
The Weeknd, Daft Punk Starboy 1.51 09/16
As of Feb 2021
woman playing guitar
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If you open Spotify right now, the first thing you’ll see in most cases, is a paid advertising section (such a Topsify playlists), then your own suggested mixes and your own playlists. The Browse page was launched in 2013 and helped users find new music by providing channels of moods or genres, however, many changes have occured since then.

The input goes on to describe how browse offers different playlists for everyday themes such as New Music Friday, Good Vibes Monday etcetera.

According to an anonymous source who wishes remain so Spotify has a lot more control over what gets played because they own all forms of visual real estate including their curated genre based playlist charts which are updated weekly with information from major labels that have tracks coming out soon (e.g., Lorde). The source also mentions that Spotify’s marketing team sends out weekly updates to advertise tracks coming up in a few weeks.

Playlist placement of the above artists on top ‘Editorial’ playlists are literally a pay-for-play arrangement, something Spotify istelf forbids artists to do!

Explore, which launched several years ago, is designed for discovering new genres of music or mood-based playlists created by Spotify staff and other users. The most popular category used to be New Music Friday with 8.3 million followers-a number that doubles when you add Good Vibes Thursday, Club Alert and Throwback Thursday etcetera. Many of these playlists are filled with songs from major label artistes but there are user generated playlists too as well as #1 Hits charts from all genres. Many of these lists are now depleted due to boutique curators creating and advertising their own playlists, a lot of these being record labels with a lot of $$$s behind them.

By creating, publicising and managing your own playlist(s), you can come into the radar of the ever growing list of independent artists looking to get their tracks on well followed playlists.

The input in this section begins with the definition of on-demand streaming which is when a user can choose what they want to listen to whenever they want instead of needing programming like radio does. It also gives examples of services that offer on-demand streaming e.g., Apple Music, Spotify etcetera. The input then moves onto discussing how these type of services have transformed the way we buy and consume music today by giving rise to digital sales and other revenue streams such as concerts etcetera, being the biggest one of course.

The input briefly mentions how on-demand streaming services have transformed the way we buy and consume music today by giving rise to digital sales and other revenue streams such as concerts etcetera being the biggest one of course.

On May 1, 2021, Spotify reported that they now had more than 260 million paying subscribers. The company also claimed it was attracting more than 140 million active users including those on the free ad-supported tier. That gives a total subscriber base of roughly 100 million users which is 3 times larger than its closest competitor Apple Music who currently has 70 Million.

The input describes Spotify’s growth over time in terms of subscribers and general usage statistics e.g., the number of playlists, top artists and tracks as well as how it has increased its revenue per user.

Since Spotify launched in Europe, they have not only grown their subscriber base but also diversified their revenue stream by adding music streaming services to TV and Video and more recently integrating with car manufacturers such as Volvo– which allows users to control Spotify through their infotainment screen. The input then moves on to briefly discuss how advertising sales are still an important part of Spotify’s financial standing despite the fact that most of its revenue comes from subscriptions. This is because “a significant proportion” of the total time spent on Spotify is free-tier usage.

“A few years ago, it was more of a wild west in the playlist world,” says Jeff. “Companies like Filtr, Digster and Topsify could exist as well as individuals who could create playlists that users found through Search.”

“If I wanted to find a psych rock band,” he continues with an example “[I] would say ‘Okay Joe from California actually made this playlist and it has 50 thousand followers.’ There were functions-and labels were doing this – where you can message people within the client via Spotify. It’s not unheard of for musicians to do so too: To reach out someone on Indie Morning Playlist [with 5 thousand followers], said hi ____ (said hello) or gave them some songs to listen to. And a few people did.”

Jeff puts Filtr, Digster and Topsify in the same camp as average Joe in California, but of course that’s not the whole truth. These are huge companies owned by major labels and they shape most of Spotify’s editorial content with their deals – they have influence whether it’s direct or indirect. The majority of so-called “editorial” content is shaped by major labels’ marketing agreements within their deals.

“When Spotify launched,” Jeff explains “the majors had to sign deals to license their content, which means they have access to gratis advertising inventory, for instance if you’re non-paying Spotify user, you see an ad for McDonalds, then you see an ad for Ed Sheeran, the latter is coming through Atlantic and WMG because they have that inventory every month. The majors also bought Topsify, Digster and Filtr.” They already had large followings, hundreds of thousands of followers and thousands of playlists with which to market their music.

singer singing on stage beside guitar player and bass player
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Filtr, Digster & Topsify, but what about you?

Outside of the Spotify staff-curated playlists, those curated by Filtr, Digster and Topsify have more visibility on the Browse pages than any other playlisting brands.

In order to generate activity for their own material, major labels are effectively using these playlists to pump their artists into Spotify’s algorithmic plays.

Often on Spotify even paid subscribers will see front page advertising takeovers promoting major label playlisting brand disguised as “announcements” rather than “advertisements.” The majors decide between curation sales marketing teams what type of promotion they want that day; so at a certain time you may be viewing different types of content depending if it is daytime or night in your area!

“I think the reason why it works so well is because there are three major labels on board, and we have access to all of their content. And then you have Filtr, Digster and Topsify and other playlist brands doing very similar things. So we have an entire playlists of music for every genre that we can pretty much just plug into our backend system which will be full of users that want this type of music. It doesn’t work if only one label has got a playlists dedicated to beach-time tunes or whatever – but if three are [making playlists like this], then suddenly everyone’s happy.”

Often when Spotify staff curators make a playlist (like Release Radar), they add several tracks on behalf of the playlist owners, and those tracks then become popular in other playlists; being plugged into Filtr and Topsify gives them a huge advantage!

Independent Playlist Curators can learn from this practise, even improve upon it.

“This is something I think Spotify is really happy with, how reliant we are on their systems. They like that our success depends on their music system actually working… We have to wait for [their] algorithms to pull out certain things before we can even think about promoting certain content. They exhaust every opportunity they possibly can to make sure all [of our] labels are getting prominent feature slots as well. And it works! That’s why you see so many records from independent labels doing so well around Christmas time – because those features have been seen by millions of people over Christmas.”

Spotify has always relied on a hybrid system of human curators and “algorithms” to find new music. But with the streaming wars well under way, Spotify is under pressure to show it can compete head-to-head with Apple Music and Amazon’s Prime Music for exclusive album releases from artists at all levels. Since Chance the Rapper released his hit mixtape “Coloring Book” exclusively on Apple Music.

Coverage from Techcrunch implies that Spotify is adopting strategies from competitors in order to secure big exclusives: “TechCrunch understands that Spotify is offering deals worth between $400k and $4m to independent labels in exchange for two year exclusivity windows. This would keep the albums off of Apple Music and Amazon Prime Music for two weeks, forcing users to switch over to Spotify.”

It is unclear how this works from a moral standpoint (does Spotify pay an artist directly? or does it use some other round-about method?). But either way if those numbers are accurate they’re massive compared with what independent artists can earn via high profile deals through platforms like iTunes or Bandcamp.

According to data released by Kobalt in October 2015, 99% of digital income on average goes directly to musicians’ pockets. So when you consider that these exclusives could mean $400k+ going into the pocket of one single artist, this can have a huge impact on their career trajectory!

Carrie, whose background is in radio and has been working with major labels for some time now as the VP of Marketing at Sony Music Entertainment’s Filtr music streaming service. She spends a lot of her day making to meet the needs and desires that people have while also considering what would be best from an advertising perspective.

Carrie says “whether you’re listening to Today’s Top Hits or Pop Rising or Rocked if you don’t go back and get the best experience for that mood or genre regardless who owns it [users] will see through that.”

She talks about how she balances between building playlist brands (Filtr) which are disguised but not because they want their own identities like Sony Music Classical and Sony Music Gospel, but they want to be the “parent brand”.

Her main aim is to have a parent brand that no one really knows about because it’s not pushing out there or wants users to connect with. It is just known as for .

There are challenges for any labels and artists of all sizes when navigating Spotify.

One challenge is that Spotify controls what their cover images look like, which often leaves small companies with very little creative freedom over the design process. For example, they can’t put font in certain places or use certain color schemes too similar to those used by spotify themselves; there’s a whole guideline steering where these picture-wise have to go within this streaming service provider (which we know has an enormous amount of control).

This holds true also with regard other details such as whether your music gets placed on display before people start browsing new tracks–a “browse pitching” process so you try pitch playlist brands into place! But if it does get accepted then its benefits are clear: Spotify will put more efforts into your music and you’ll end up having a higher chance of hitting one of its algorithmic playlists, thereby helping your song climb the streaming service’s overall chart.

“They analyze everything about it. But they’re currently not open for any pitches for Browse submissions,” Carrie tells us. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen in the foreseeable future, but I imagine they will because it hasn’t been updated for some time.”

Carrie also notes other challenges smaller labels face when trying to work with Spotify, including trying to figure out how much money they should be paying out based on plays received. Then there’s getting listed in places like Top Lists , which is done manually by Spotify employees. “I think they’re just on top of it right now,” she says, referring to Spotify’s efforts to improve the transparency and fairness behind its streaming platform…although, of course, no matter how much effort you pour into your work in order to make yourself or your artists successful on this platform it will be at the mercy of their highly powerful algorithms which all boils down to what playlists you are being featured on.

Pay-to-playlists are real and labels have been trying to find ways in which they can influence Spotify’s created playlists.

It is evident that the label has a relationship with Spotify where both parties provide value for each other so it would be difficult for any party involved to even think about severing ties since these relationships, while not direct, allow them more access than before as well as better positioning on platforms like Browse.

The thing here though is that this deal struck by Merlin only applies if you’re part of their network of independent record labels but there isn’t anything mentioned yet regarding representation from indie curated playlist creators or music curators on browse who will now have much less power over what people see when browsing around because unlike how it is now, it will only be the major labels who will have the most power over what people see and hear.

Rock band Mach-81

Where Your Playlist Stands

This means that if you’re an indie artist or label trying to get your music out there, you might still feel too left out in the cold when getting attention from listeners. This is where the growing niche of Independent Playlists, curated by music lovers, labels and advertising companies really come into their own. It also means that since there won’t be as much curation going around on browse, chances of you being discovered by being placed and alot of playlists will also point the spotight on for potential consideration by major playlist editors. Otherwise this would mean less consideration for music which are not being pushed by majors so in essence, a potentially good service like Spotify’s Browse turned into another tool for them to use against independent artists and music makers behind a paywall.

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