Before we dig into everything there’s to know about Spotify playlists at this moment in time, you should remember that just because someone has a ton of streams does not mean they have a ton of fans.
Streams are not equivalent to downloads or sales. Apples and oranges. When someone bought a song or an album it was because they were a fan of that song or artist. Fandom came first, typically, and purchasing came second. Now, streaming comes first, fandom comes second.
“Consumer consumption no longer means fandom. It’s not hard to stream a song. And it’s not hard for a lot of people to stream a song [from] a popular playlist. That doesn’t mean that you have millions of fans- it means you have millions of people who happen to hear your song. Who knows if they even dug it.” – Nick Bobetsky, Red Light Management at Expert Conversations on the New Music Business
Yes, some artists with lots of streams have lots of fans, but not all. Getting lots of streams does not mean you will get lots of fans. Just like one viral YouTube video does not make you a star (for more than 15 minutes) or give you a career – neither does a bunch of streams.
This all being said, every Spotify stream pays. Yes, it’s about a half a penny. But it can definitely add up. And if you don’t have fans at this moment willing to support your career, you could earn some decent dough getting included on some hot playlists.
It is now well-known that there are musicians that have gone from being able to quit their day jobs simply by getting included on enough hot playlists.
These playlists generate enough plays which generate enough revenue enabling them to pay all their bills every month – even though they can’t get people out to their local shows.
That also being said, you can acquire fans from getting your songs into playlists. Listeners, if they love your song, may save it to their library and come back to it over and over again and eventually may even take the next steps to actually engage with you on a deeper level – following your socials, attending a concert, supporting your crowd funding campaign, becoming a patron, etc.
Spotify (and Apple Music) have a long ways to go at facilitating a fan-artist relationship.
That’s not currently their M.O. They are currently focused on providing the best experience for the listener (and attracting more paying customers) – disregarding the fact that artists could use some help turning that listener into a fan. Showcasing artists’ concerts in your area is a start, but there is so much more that needs to be done (but that is another topic altogether).
Getting a song into a hot playlist can get you hundreds of thousands of streams in mere weeks. Depending on the popularity of the playlist, of course.
So that all being said, how do songs get into playlists? How can you get your songs into playlists? Well, there are a few ways to go about this.
First, you have to understand what kinds of playlists exist. There are 3 kinds of playlists on Spotify:
1) Spotify Curated Playlists
The first category is something everyone is familiar with. These are the playlists “Created by Spotify.”
Basically, there are people at Spotify who curate the playlists. They are called playlist editors. There are editors who curate both genre and mood based playlists (head of urban, head of chill, focus, workout, sleep, etc.) These people are pretty much the new music directors at radio stations. They have the power that the biggest DJs in the world did back in the day.
However, Spotify has been more so relying heavily on their analytics to see which songs people are responding to. And Nick Holmsten, Spotify’s head of shows and editorial told Wired that artists/labels can’t beg, borrow or bribe their way into the Today’s Top Hits playlist: “There’s absolutely no way to push our team. It’s no one person’s feeling that matters.”
You can kind of think of official Spotify curated playlists as a pyramid.
At the bottom are all the various playlists with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of followers, like Taco Tuesdays, Funk Outta Here, Totally Alternative, Singer Songwriter Coffee Break, Folk Pop and Summer Heat. And as you make your way up, fewer playlists have millions of followers, like Dance Party, Are and Be, Hit Rewind, New Music Friday, Chill Singer Songwriter, Peaceful Piano, Rap Caviar and at the top of the pyramid are Today’s Top Hits with 16 million followers.
No one person decides Today’s Top Hits.
The songs that get included into that playlist have been relentlessly tested in less popular playlists. If they do well (users add them to their personal playlists, save the song, listen to the song longer, DON’T skip the song) they move up the pyramid. And eventually they could make it to Today’s Top Hits.
It is very difficult to break into the official Spotify curated playlists without a label or a distributor who regularly talk to these editors. That being said, artists with no connections and no label representation do regularly get included in official Spotify playlists.
2) User Curated Playlists
The second category are playlists created by users of Spotify (yes, anyone can create a playlist) or a company, blog, label, org, what have you. Spotify has stated that there are over 2 billion playlists (mostly created by users). The major labels also have curated their own numerous playlists (Topsify by WMG, Digster by UMG and Filtr by Sony). It’s the cool new thing to have a hot Spotify playlist. It’s like you’re the owner of a radio station. And if you run multiple hot playlists, it’s like you’re the owner of a radio network.
3) Algorithmically Generated Playlists
And the third category are not human generated at all. These are the Discover Weekly, Daily Mix (which are actually customized per user) and Fresh Finds – which is generated based on tastemaker accounts. Spotify is monitoring about 50,000 user accounts who they have deemed “tastemakers” based on their listening history. Basically, if you start listening to a song weeks or months before it “breaks,” consistently, then your account is monitored as a tastemaker. If enough “tastemakers” listen to the same song at the same time, that song gets included into the Fresh Finds playlist (with 514,000 followers). If you get included in this playlist you’re almost guaranteed a couple hundred thousand plays.
HOW TO GET INCLUDED
Now that you understand what kinds of playlists exist and the current landscape, here are some ideas on how to get included:
Get Featured in Blogs
Most Spotify playlist editors read blogs and follow the Hype Machine charts. If you get written about by a top blog like Pigeons and Planes, Consequence of Sound, Stereogum, Indie Shuffle, Resident Advisor, Tiny Mix Tapes, Pitchfork etc. it can help your chances of getting included in playlists.
Now, how do you get blog features? Well, the easiest way to go about this is to hire a publicist who believes in you, has a track record with your type of music/project with the outlets you’re looking to target. Don’t, though, I repeat, DO NOT, just hire the first publicist who will take your money. Make sure you get references (talk to other artists they work with) and make sure they truly believe in your project. Many publicists will just take your money.
You can also go through SubmitHub to get in with blogs (I’ve heard very mixed reviews about this) or you can go the old fashioned way, hitting up bloggers directly. This works if done right. It does not work if done wrong.
Pay For Play
It has been reported that labels paying to get their songs included in big playlists is happening. It’s the new form of Payola, but apparently not illegal (yet) because playlists aren’t technically radio. This may seem slimy and sleazy, but to the labels (and apparently Spotify) it’s just business. Who, exactly, is being paid is unclear. The playlist editors themselves? Most likely. Does Spotify support this practice? Probably not (officially). Do they look the other way? Well, it seems that way.
Spotify makes it clear that this process of paying to influence playlists is against their terms and conditions, but label people freely admit this process is occurring.
Just like in the heyday of radio, paying radio DJs to play the labels’ songs could almost certainly guarantee direct sales. Which in turn brought direct revenue.
Now, getting songs included in big playlists almost certainly guarantees direct streams. Which in turn brings direct revenue (around a half a penny per stream or so).
But this isn’t just happening with big labels paying official Spotify editors.
I recently heard of a popular blog which runs multiple popular Spotify playlists offer an artist a deal where if they could get his song 100,000 streams in a month the artist would pay the blog $400. If the song generated anything less than 100,000 streams, the artist paid nothing. If you do the math, 100,000 streams x $0.005 = $500. Which would earn the artist a net positive of $100 in the end.
This practice varies greatly than scams that I have profiled in the past where a questionable entity would charge artists thousands to get them millions of streams (via an elaborate advertising scheme and auto refresh bot accounts). These streams were not from real listeners but rather accidental ones. This practice is against Spotify’s terms and when Spotify discovers these practices, it shuts them down (and deletes the artist’s account and doesn’t pay out the royalties).
In this blog’s case, the streams are from followers of the blog’s playlists. And the blog is (currently) only offering this to artist’s they have reviewed favorably. The only thing is, this practice seems to also be against Spotify’s terms and conditions. But it’s a very grey area.
The ethics around this practice are questionable, yes. But, as an artist, if I was offered this deal I would probably take it. It beats advertising on Facebook to try to get someone to your Spotify profile. And these are REAL listeners. Real music fans. Real fans of the playlists. Potential new fans. And real money.
If Spotify comes out against this practice, well, they better be able to defend the multiple allegations (and revelations) from major record labels paying Spotify employees for a similar practice (just on a much larger scale).
Again, this blog isn’t offering this to anyone who can pay. They are only offering this deal to artists they have reviewed favorably in the past (and tested on a playlist of theirs already).
It’s like when publications would review an artist favorably, but let that artist know in advance of the review release to purchase advertising. This is a very common practice in the music publishing industry.
Hype Machine officially came out against the practice of publicists (hired by artists) writing their own articles for popular music blogs cataloged on the site – and is why Earmilk and other popular blogs were ousted.
Where does Spotify stand on these kinds of practices? Unclear. However, they aren’t really doing much to help artists with a clear path forward.
We are in currently in uncharted territory.
There are playlist plugging companies (kind of like publicists, but for playlists) whose sole job is to pitch you for inclusion in playlists. But be very cautious with this. I just spoke to a manager who spent $5,000 on a 3 month campaign to get their artist’s new songs included and after 3 months they got 0 playlist inclusions and were $5,000 poorer. Be very careful about hiring anyone to pitch you with no guarantees. Yes, the publicist model is very similar in the sense that they get paid regardless of the amount of press they get you, but at least they are earning part of their salary based on helping you craft a brand, story, bio, press release and aesthetic (at least the good ones are).
I reached out to a few playlist plugging companies for interviews to understand their business a little more and one declined my request. Which makes me think that this one, in particular, is not very successful and are afraid to admit that publicly (even though they are making lots of money with this business).
However, one playlist plugging company I did speak with was very proud of their track record and mentioned to me that they charge $500 for 30 days to work one song. And he told me that they have never gotten less than 50,000 streams on any track they have ever worked. This company had built direct relationships with hundreds of playlists ranging from 100 – 10,000 followers. He mentioned that some day he would like to own popular user playlists – however purchasing (and selling) playlists is in fact against Spotify’s terms.
Contact Playlist Editors Directly
This was the common practice for the past few years, but is quickly becoming less effective. Yes Spotify playlist editors have relationships with every major label (and many major indie labels). Yes they (typically) answer their calls, open their doors and their emails. But I recently heard that some editors are receiving around a thousand emails an hour! So cold emails to the biggest editors is probably not your best bet anymore – if you have absolutely no relationship with them.
And just being with a label or a big distributor doesn’t guarantee you placement. Just like with radio, there are only so many spots on the playlist. And there are way more releases than spots. Unless the label is putting all of their weight behind you and doing everything in their power to get you featured, just being with a label isn’t going to get you on big playlists.
Yes, there is a form distributors, labels and others with the access can submit their artists’ new songs for consideration, but from what I hear this process is very hit or miss – mostly miss. And nothing is guaranteed, of course.
That being said, you can get creative with the ways you contact editors.
A cold email probably isn’t going to work anymore. But I recently just spoke to a DIY artist who found the contact info of the biggest playlist editors at Deezer. She sent them personalized postcards in the mail with her artist name and 3 songs she thought would work for that specific person’s playlists. And it worked! She got responses back and inclusions on some huge playlists. Boom!
This same artist told me that she actually went up to an official Spotify playlist editor at a music conference after the panel. She handed the editor a napkin, similarly with her artist name and 3 song titles that she thought that editor would like for her specific playlists. 3 days later this artist had those 3 songs included on gigantic playlists. 4 months later she’s looking at nearly 4 million collective streams.
This, my friends, is how you get creative and make shit happen. Of course, your music has to be great and similar to the other songs on the playlists you are going after.
Get In Touch With The User Generated Playlist Editors
It isn’t very difficult to find the curators of many of these user generated playlists – since most users link their Facebook to Spotify (so you can see their actual name). Don’t just hit them up asking for inclusion. That’s the wrong way to go about it. You can contact the person and compliment them on their playlist. Maybe even suggest a song (not your own) that you think would work for the playlist. Once you’ve developed a respectful relationship then you can pitch your music. This editor will definitely check out your socials and what not, so your stuff better be up to snuff.
Even the major label playlists (Topsify, Digster, Filtr) include songs by self-released artists (a small percentage), but it happens.
And of course, you have a much better chance of making contact with playlists with fewer followers (because fewer people are hitting them up). So don’t just go after the biggest ones.
It was just reported by the BBC that major labels are able to pay to include songs in user playlists. Will this practice be opened up to indies and artists? Here’s hoping.
Love for Love
If you point people to Spotify, Spotify may point people to you. Spotify has also said that they like when artists create playlists themselves and promote them to their followers. If you show Spotify you are an active user they may show you some love. Also, it’s widely reported that Spotify playlist editors get invited to hot parties and festivals. If labels are flying out the editors or top dawgs at Spotify, putting them up, wining and dining them and hooking them up with VIP everything, well, technically they’re not PAYING them with a stack of cash in an envelope like back in the day, but they might as well be.
Visiting the Spotify offices is also a common practice that helps get artists included on playlists. So, do not pass up the opportunity to get to the office and play some employees some songs. You, of course, need to be invited. I wouldn’t just show up.
Troy Carter, global head of creator services, recently mentioned at the Music Biz conference in Nashville that Spotify doesn’t care about the artist’s social media presence. All they care about is the data. Well, this directly contradicts playlist editors who have publicly stated that they DO care about what’s happening with the artist’s career and that it’s not just about how good the song is. It seems that, as it stands now, there really aren’t marching orders that Spotify is dictating to their editors on how to operate or what to look for in new additions. It seems many editors have the autonomy to place whatever they want, and oftentimes these editors want to place hot new bands – not back catalog from a defunct act.
“I think it reshapes the entire business. What I love about Spotify is that it’s a very honest platform. We play a game called best song wins. It doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest artist in the world or an act that was on Soundcloud and finally went to Tunecore and uploaded on Spotify, then the listeners don’t lie. This isn’t call-out radio research or anything like that — this is actual people leaning into records, and you’re finding out whether things are fake or real really quick. And I think creators and artists having access to that sort of platform is powerful and I think we’re already seeing that the entire business is going to be reshaped.” – Troy Carter, Global Head of Creator Services, Spotify
And this all being said, it seems the trend is pointing towards algorithmically generated playlists across the board. Will it ever completely replace human editors? Maybe, but probably not soon. Spotify does like priding itself on the fact that they have the human touch. But with entire businesses being built around convincing these people to include the songs, it’s becoming untenable. Or, rather, at least very unfair. Those with the biggest bank accounts (i.e. major labels) should not have the most access and success. But ain’t that America…
A Better Way Forward For Spotify
There are much better ways to go about this. Like potentially having every song go through a screening process before being considered for playlist inclusion. Like that of which Audiokite and Crowd Review provide – where hundreds of anonymous, everyday listeners rate songs (for money). If the song gets a high enough score it should automatically be considered for review by these editors. That’s the most democratic way to go about this.
But a big perk of being an official Spotify editor is the power and benefits they enjoy. They do get invited to all the hottest parties, get taken on lavish vacations and well, paid well for this. But if Spotify wants to get away from these bribery practices, then they better redirect the ship quick – because it’s starting to drift into unfriendly waters.
Ari Herstand is the author of How To Make It in the New Music Business, a Los Angeles based musician and the creator of the music biz advice blog Ari’s Take. Follow him on Twitter @aristake and Instagram @ariherstand