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RotD analyses the indie-major label split on prominent Spotify playlists to examine whether fears around a major label dominance are founded

As streaming platforms and the playlists become ever more important in the new music world, this rise has not yet been matched by a clear understanding of how the growing power of playlists affects labels, in particular. Many are quick to characterise steaming services as the 'new radio', but should labels really treat inclusion in streaming playlists in a similar way to plugging broadcast radio? And, crucially, do labels face the same kind of issues of unequal access to editorial streaming playlists as are often complained about in the broadcast environment? 

Some interesting radio data emerged in January, revealing that 94% of Radio 1’s 50 most-played songs of 2014 belonged to artists on major labels. It’s quite a staggering statistic when you think about it, especially considering Radio 1’s pride in its supposed championing of new and independent music. The independents have long been complaining about Radio 1 favouring major label music for its playlists. These alarming numbers would appear to justify those complaints.

Of course, specialist or one-off spot plays could never hope to break into this sort of list, despite the fact that Huw Stephens, Phil Taggart and Zane Lowe consistently cram their respective slots with independent artists. With specialist plays added, the bias towards major label content becomes much less severe. Nevertheless, there is still an overall heavy lean in favour of major label content on Radio 1, perhaps sending the message that if you want regular daytime spins, you'd better have the full weight of a major label behind you.

Questions and concerns about access to Radio 1 are hardly new. Recently however, similar questions have started to emerge around marketshare of editorial playlists on streaming platforms, and Spotify in particular. Do editorial playlists on Spotify show a similar bias towards major label content? Are indies getting a fair shot at inclusion in editorial playlists? With the 'Browse' page on Spotify taking on an ever more radio-like role, does this platform demonstrate similar characteristics to those which are found on Radio 1? 

RotD decided to take a look at some of the most popular editorially-chosen playlists on Spotify to produce some actual data to help begin to answer these questions. We made a thorough analysis of some of the most prominent editorial playlists to be found on Spotify. Playlists chosen for analysis were those which are exclusively curated by Spotify staff and did not include popular and visible major label owned/originated playlists such as Filtr (Sony), Digster (Universal) or those compiled by (Warner Music).

The results were rather surprising. Indies can be happy to hear that they're performing exceptionally well within the context of Spotify playlists, actually securing a larger overall share of playlist content than major labels did. Indies content made up 51% of the tracks in the playlists analysed (see graph in March 5 magazine). Majors secured a 46% share of those playlists, whilst the remaining 3% marketshare went to those hard-to-firmly-categorise major-distributed independents such as Dirty Hit and Glassnote.

We've been aware of increasing concern amongst independent labels that, as editorial playlists on Spotify become ever higher profile, 'organic' indie marketshare on the platform was becoming threatened by a growing tendency to programme major label content within these playlists. Our analysis doesn't however show any increasing stranglehold held by the majors over these playlists. Quite the opposite in fact – given that total indie marketshare is considerably smaller than that of the combined majors – a 51% share shows indies are performing exceptionally well when it comes to securing inclusion in these editorial playlists. 

Also notable was the fact that, of the playlists analysed, those dominated by independent artists tended to garner far more followers than those chock full of major acts. Ranked by sheer numbers of followers, the top four playlists all showed a decidedly indie-heavy lean. Fresh Dance Tracks ranked number one with nearly 1.1 million subscribers, and of its top 40 tracks, 63% were from independent labels. The slightly cringe-worthy titled Your Favourite Coffee House, with just over one million subscribers, saw 83% of its top ten tracks come from indie acts.

In contrast, the most major-leaning playlist, Hot Hits UK, saw 93% of its top 40 tracks come from major label artists, but draws in just over 93,000 followers. Similarly, Mellow Pop Gold saw majors take a 63% share of the top twenty, but only musters a mere 42,000 subscribers. Compared to the likes of the 353,000 followers of Indie Mix, majors appear to be lagging behind in their follower count.

What do these findings tell us about the differences between user behaviour on Spotify and Radio 1? One should be wary of making direct comparisons – the media are inherently different. Spotify is a narrowcaster with a nigh-on infinite number of editorially chosen playlists, all accessible at any given time. Radio 1 is a broadcaster which has to programme to suit the needs of a massive audience all listening to one stream at one time. As such, Radio 1 is forced to be much more selective in its choices and can’t afford to take nearly as many so-called ‘risks’ on independent artists. Spotify on the other hand can effectively act as Radio 1, Radio 2, 6 Music and beyond all at once, with minimal danger posed to its wider business when it takes such risks.

What these results also show is that when there is a bias towards major label acts on streaming platforms, it doesn’t necessarily lead to those playlists attracting more listeners. The most-followed playlists in our analysis showed an almost undeniable favouring of independent music amongst Spotify streamers.

Independents are certainly getting a more than fair look-in on Spotify. Could it be, that with the popularity of streaming already at an all-time high and set to sky-rocket even further this year, these numbers might also point to some wider trends in the direction of music use? 

Are we witnessing links between the varying popularity of different playlists on Spotify and the performance of broadcast radio outlets? 6 Music for example, now pulling in over two million weekly listeners, saw 54% of its top 50 songs of 2014 come from independent artists. Radio 1 on the other hand, with that 94% favouritism of majors, was down half a million listeners year-on-year at the start of 2015. We’re not necessarily saying this fall is directly due to Radio 1’s failure to put its weight behind music from independents, but it may nevertheless be indicative of developing trends in listener preferences – trends which are apparently demonstrated on a variety of platforms.

The apparent under-representation of independent music in Radio 1's playlists is an issue worthy of ongoing consideration. In the meantime however, independents can be satisfied in the knowledge that Spotify programmers are certainly taking their content seriously. We doubt that major labels should panic either. The demographic which currently favours accessing music via streaming services is inherently more well disposed towards independent content – this does not come as a surprise to anyone. It's also a trend which is unlikely to keep gaining momentum at a similar pace.

As more players prepare to enter the streaming space, so they will be looking to target a more mainstream audience that is currently generally engaged with streaming services. As more mainstream consumers enter the streaming model, their different patterns of music use will also change the overall usage picture where music fans are currently over-indexing. The best case scenario is that a range of successful streaming services will emerge addressing a range of consumer tastes. Whether any one platform can adequately serve all tastes will be interesting to watch. 

It was interesting to see our research showing that indies, far from being disadvantaged in the context of streaming playlists, are actually well outperforming their marketshare. This is not to suggest however that they will be able to maintain this exceptionally high marketshare over the longterm. All within the industry can be pleased that access to playlists seems fair and open – whilst fans are able to vote with their clicks over which playlists they choose to engage with.

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