How Do Songs End Up On Spotify Playlists Anyway?
I’ve got a playlist on Spotify that has 1500 followers and recently I started getting contacted by agencies and artists asking me to put their songs on it.
I’m just a regular guy with a small following, yet labels are interested in getting their songs on my playlist. At first I was flattered but then I got to thinking, “I’ve only 1500 followers, what do the guys with millions of followers get offered?”
So I started to look into it.
None of the labels or promotion companies were offering me money in exchange for placement but they were still asking me to expose their artists to my audience. Sound familiar? That is exactly what influencer marketing is: Social media stars who have a large following, get approached by brands who want them to pitch their product to their audience. The difference is, the influencers are getting paid.
Are the music curators with large followings getting paid too?
According to Spotify the answer is no. A spokesperson told me, “We have great relationships with all of the labels, managers and artists. Our ultimate goal is to give fans the music they want to hear and our playlists are a reflection of that. We have the tools to know when a song isn't working on a particular playlist and when the audience isn't responding to it. We have a democratic and unique approach to playlisting, so for us it's all about good music. Labels can not (or don't) pay to get on Spotify's owned and operated playlists.”
But what if you could get a hold of one of these playlist makers, and slip them some money to get your song on a Spotify owned playlist? That would be illegal, right?
Actually no. According to Michael Sloane, of Streaming Promotions, “Pay for play has its roots in radio. Payola, the term for paying radio stations in exchange for spins, is a violation of FCC rules; which only applies to radio stations. Currently, there aren’t any regulations on Spotify. It’s still the Wild West out there. We have a good relationship with the folks at Spotify, who work in curation, and I can tell you that they’re not accepting money to get placement on one of their playlists. As far as the non-Spotify owned playlists go, it’s against the user agreement to sell real estate on the playlists. The playlists are actually owned by Spotify.”
One of the important things to realize is that there isn’t just one guy in a basement somewhere cranking out Spotify owned playlists. There are teams all over the world working on compiling the hundreds of Spotify playlists out there. They’re also using extremely sophisticated information to decide which songs make the cut. Data drives the business. So there’s almost no chance for funny business because there are so many people involved in the decision making process and because data is such a huge part of determining which songs make the cut.
Charles Alexander, from Streaming Promotions, told me, “Spotify is based on how users engage with the music. If it doesn’t resonate with an audience, the data tells you that. If it doesn’t belong, they take it off. Even if someone got their song placed on a Spotify playlist, in a deceptive way, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the artist will gain traction or get paid. In order for a stream to count, someone has to listen to at least 30 seconds of a song. If a song is skipped at a high rate, that counts against the song. If this happens multiple times across multiple songs, that counts against the artist. If a playlist has a lot of songs with high skip rates, that counts against the playlist.”
The opposite is also true. If a playlist has songs that are listened to in their entirety and that are saved to the personal playlists of listeners, it helps both the song and the artist. If this is happening a lot on a particular playlist, Spotify considers it a “tastemaker” or “influencer” playlist and incorporates them into their discovery algorithms.
So if money won’t buy you placement on a popular Spotify owned playlist, how does someone get a song added?
Spotify has an artist’s site, where they can generically submit a song. This isn’t the most effective way to get a song heard, which is why so many labels and artists are using streaming promotion companies. They help to build a case of why a song should get added to a Spotify playlist. They include good press from the larger music community, the ability for the artist and label to generate a buzz around a song, and examples of the song appearing on popular independent playlists. They also have strong relations with the Spotify editorial team, which the independent musician probably doesn't.
Now if an artist is trying to get placement on an independent playlist, it works a little differently. The independent curator doesn’t have the data analytics that Spotify does. They also don’t have the formal application process that Spotify does. The tastemakers are relying solely on their ear and their experience to determine if a song will work on a playlist. If a new song blows up on independent playlists, it’ll usually appear on Spotify’s editorial team’s radar in a short time and probably be added to a Spotify owned playlist.
These independent curators have their pulse on what’s current, reactive and popular. They are like the old programmers at radio stations, using their gut to try to figure out what songs are going to resonate. Some of them are A&R scouts for the record labels and others, like Scott Verner, choose the music that gets heard in TV shows and movies.
Some are big influencers, like Lele Pons, who use their massive social following to expose people to the songs that they like. It’s more of a fun thing; wanting to share music that moves them. Pons told me. “I created my playlist as a soundtrack to my social media pages. I add a lot of music on my Instagram and YouTube videos so I get a lot of comments asking me what the song title is.”
The final piece to the puzzle is, what happens once a song gets placed on a popular playlist? Do the artists just put their feet up and wait for the money to start rolling in? Nope. That’s when the real work begins.
Alexander breaks it down for us,“The most important part of being added to a popular playlist is what you do with it. Say you’re getting 5,000 streams a week, then 10,000 the next week, then 15,000. How do you pour gasoline on the fire and keep the momentum going? The simplest thing is obviously to share it on social and tag people. You can get a good PR firm to promote it among the big music bloggers, etc. but the key is that you’ve got to take advantage of the opportunity and get creative."
Lele Pons had a great post on Twitter last week promoting her playlist. She said that she’d follow her fans on Twitter if they followed her playlist. Genius marketing! She got 50,000 followers in a week.
So at the end of the day, the only way that you can get on a popular playlist is to have a great song and promote the heck out of it. There’s no amount of money that can make someone in his or her car listen to your song if it’s terrible.
There goes my music career.
This article originally appeared in Forbes, July 31, 2017.