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The current focus within the industry on streaming playlists and ‘playola’ doesn’t show any signs of going away, David Balfour comments.

With Apple Music now joining Spotify in the streaming space, the intense focus coming from labels about how best they can promote their content on streaming services is logical. Despite streaming having been present as a model for many years, declining download sales have upped the urgency for labels, managers and PRs to find better ways to market themselves on streaming services. 

There’s currently virtually no comprehensive, publicly-available data about just how impactful it can be when an artist’s track secures inclusion in a high profile curated playlists on the major streaming services. Anyone who has studied the play data coming from these services can be in no doubt however, that a feature in a well-followed playlist can provide a massive boost to stream counts. In a world where the impact of press or online reviews becomes ever more nebulous, playlists provide an indisputable boost which arguably deliver more direct and measurable impact than press or online reviews ever did. 

It’s no surprise that everyone wants their tracks to be prominently featured in playlists. The processes by which labels can achieve that however are varied, and not always obvious. First choice must be an inclusion in playlists run by the services themselves. A track featured in the Spotify Browse tab, or on one of Apple Music’s curated playlists, can benefit immensely. Those services have both sensibly developed an internal structure where their playlist compilers are to a large extent kept at arm’s length from labels, whilst their frontline label relations teams have limited influence on the playlist choices. This at least creates a good foundation for an apparently level playing field where all labels have a similar chance of securing inclusion. Larger labels will of course enjoy a certain leverage which comes from being able to say “you’re going to have to support this if you want access to that”. Whether the services choose to respond to those pressures is entirely up to them, and they must make their own judgements on this.

If we work on the idea that these ‘official’ playlists are effectively un-riggable, labels must then work out where else they can hope to gain a competitive advantage. This is where the third party playlist curators begin to provide a powerful promotional opportunity. Labels want support from those curators but, as Slice music and former Digster Boss Justin Barker wrote in MusicAlly this week, the curators find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. They want to stay true to their audiences and editorial identity, yet their work in creating playlists is also a labour of love which requires great investment of time and care. Under the current system however, they are not rewarded in any way for their influence and reach. Although most do not accept money for featuring tracks, who could really blame them if they did?

Meanwhile, many of the other highest profile playlists are basically owned and controlled by major label interests. Topsify, Digster and Filtr are all major-owned playlist brands which acquired critical mass before the playlist space on Spotify became so competitive with the launch of the service’s own-curated playlists, which understandably enjoy preferential placement on the Browse tab. Other labels are therefore faced with a choice either between trying to acquire other prominent playlist, or building their own playlist brand from scratch. With Spotify having apparently banned the buying and selling of profiles in its most recent T&Cs, only the final option remains viable. This is the route which AIM/WIN are pursuing, looking to build their own independent playlist brand. With the space already having become crowded however, this is anything but an easy path to take. Even if Spotify does support this new initiative, it’s going to be a difficult job to ensure that this new playlist brand is wide-reaching, equally accessible to all indies, whilst maintaining balance and quality and appealing to music fans. 

The fears of playola, the fact that many high profile playlists are controlled by vested interests, combined with the difficulty for new entrants to gain traction, lead to a general feeling that the current marketplace is actually pretty dysfunctional. An awareness is also growing that those who compile successful playlists are very poorly rewarded under the current system. Apple Music has to date limited its third party curators to those with a wider brand which can benefit from the work involved in compiling playlists. On Spotify however, many curators stand to benefit very little from their influence.

Ministry of Sound’s Lohan Presencer this week joined the debate, supporting Justin Barker’s suggestion that there needs to be a better system created for rewarding playlist curators. Ministry doesn’t currently operate as an active curator on Spotify, despite its world-renowned expertise in the field of curation. With the label typically not owning the master rights within its compilations, it finds itself in the frustrating position of being unable to benefit from its proven expertise within the current model. Presencer voiced some frustration with Spotify, noting that “music services who espouse the value of curation, and their support of independent labels, need to put their money where their mouth is”, and adding that Spotify doesn’t currently “seem to be making any moves to rectify that situation.”

We have doubts that Spotify is sufficiently motivated to break apart its existing model and start rewarding curators. There’s a growing feeling, however, that labels are increasingly open to the idea of cutting curators into revenue streams. As for the curators themselves, they are placed in a highly frustrating position where their efforts and expertise go unrewarded. It’s likely that many would quickly come to favour a service which rewards their efforts better, provided there was also an audience there. Creating such an environment might be a lot of work for a service which was prepared to do it, but it might also deliver a significant competitive advantage. 

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