“The making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art, many do’s and don’ts. First of all, you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel: This is a delicate thing. […] The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick it off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.”
These words were spoken by Rob Gordon, John Cusack’s character in the 2000 record store rom-com High Fidelity, a character who has been quoted endlessly by music snobs in the 18 years since the movie was released.
Some of what he says still rings true: Making a mix specifically for somebody is a vulnerable and personal experience for both parties. As compilation tapes have been replaced by the streaming playlist, though, the flaws of Gordon’s philosophy have worn deeper, much like the grooves of the records he plays as delusions of grandeur dance in his head, behind the pensive, self-important look on his face.
To Gordon, musical taste was a pissing contest, and a mixtape the ultimate display of who is holier than thou. In 2018, that doesn’t feel right. Music — the good, the bad, the popular, the obscure — is only ever a click, swipe, tap, or even voice command away. Music belongs to the people, and today, it’s streaming playlists that are bringing it to them.
The playlist is king. How did we get here?
Between 1999 and 2009, revenue from music sales plunged from $14.6 billion to $6.3 billion, a drop of well over half. This was largely due to rampant music piracy, but now those lost album sales have been at least partially replaced with streaming music. The emergence of platforms like Spotify and Apple Music shook up the industry so much that in 2014, Billboard had to change how they tracked album sales by introducing the album-equivalent unit, which takes plays on streaming services into account. Two years after that, Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book mixtape became the first release to place on the Billboard 200 as a streaming-exclusive album.
This change was a long time coming, and the shift has introduced a new generation of tastemakers that use playlists as their means of communication. Yes, playlists have expanded well beyond the function of a person-to-person mixtape: In 2016, Spotify reported that their in-house playlists were generating over a billion streams per week, a number that has surely risen since then.
Then there’s Spotify’s Discover Weekly, a two-hour algorithm-generated playlist for every user that came out of a desire “to make something that felt like your best friend making you a mixtape, labeled ‘music you should check out,’ every single week,” Matthew Ogle, formerly a product manager at Spotify, said when the feature was introduced in 2015.
It’s not just Spotify making the mixes, either: Spotify is home to around two billion playlists, with two million new ones being added daily by over 80 million users. Apple Music’s 75 million users are surely busting out playlists en masse as well, meaning that there’s a good chance a playlist might be the first place you heard your new favorite song.
To put it simply, the streaming playlist works because it’s a new version of something that has always worked, just modernized along with the technology we use.
“From a tactical point of view, playlists are a good delivery system for the way people engage with music now, where people are the organizing principle when you go to any kind of digital space,” said Scott Plagenhoef, Head Of Music Programming for Apple Music. “Creatively and emotionally, people have been organizing music this way whenever technology has made it possible, whether it’s recording songs off the radio, or creating mixtapes or mix CDs for other people. People have always wanted to unbundle music from the way it’s delivered to us. Different people are using music for different purposes, and playlists can reflect all of those.”
One of the primary goals of the modern playlist is to represent what’s going on at the moment, and if it does that well enough, it can even shape the culture it initially aimed to honor. RapCaviar — the Spotify playlist that has over ten million followers, has been the subject of deep-dive stories, and inspired a live hip-hop concert event that shares its name — is perhaps the strongest example of that. Tuma Basa, who is now Director Of Urban Music at YouTube, created RapCaviar, and he attributes its influence to being genuine. “RapCaviar became successful because of its honesty,” Basa said. “It was an honest snapshot of the culture, in proportion to what was popping and in the moments that it was popping.”