The Rise Of The Playlist And How It Became King


“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 As compilation tapes have been replaced by the streaming playlist, though, the flaws of Gordon’s philosophy have worn deeper, much like the grooves of the records he plays as delusions of grandeur dance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.”

While the foreground is the focus of any snapshot, the background can often offer a glimpse of what’s to come, as playlists have the ability to tease what the world will look like in the not-so-distant future.

Within the past few months, rising hip-hop star Kyle just released his debut album Light Of Mine and starred in the Netflix original movie The After Party, but before that, his breakout single “iSpy” peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. According to Ben Willis — the co-founder of Indie-Pop, the management company that counts Kyle among its clients — playlists were largely responsible for the song’s success. “Streaming playlists played a big part in helping break Kyle’s ‘iSpy,'” Willis said. “In fact, the song went Gold due to the success it had at streaming before we even took the song to radio.”

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Mainstream successes are a part of the playlist story, but the tales of prosperity aren’t limited to just the big-timers. Sam Friedman, who releases music as Nerve Leak, saw one of his songs added to a popular playlist, and the result was instant exposure.

“An A&R rep reached out to me when my track was added to the Fresh Finds playlist,” Friedman said. “Once I saw my plays jump up by the tens of thousands within a day, I was immediately thrilled. I actually thought my Spotify page had glitched and the play count was wrong or something. Once I really processed what happened, I felt sort of like I had won a golden ticket. I didn’t submit my song to anyone for the playlist — it just happened on its own.”

Friedman even managed to earn a few bucks thanks to the increase in listeners: “I was surprised by how much I actually ended up making, especially because I released my music independently. I was able to make back all I invested into the single and more.”

Not only does this lead to more listeners and some quick cash, but it has the potential to draw the attention of somebody in a position to turn an aspiring musician’s hobby into a full-time job.

“The biggest benefit is solely the promotion you can get on a popular playlist,” said Askia Fountain, Mass Appeal’s vice president of A&R. “It can be explosive for an artist’s career, in addition to more revenue from increased streaming by the playlists’ followers. It helps me discover artists that I may not be checking for all the time.”

A playlist is more than just a list of songs that are currently popular or might be more notable in the coming weeks, though. This is where that High Fidelity quote is still relevant: A playlist’s songs have to make sense in the context of each other. You can make a playlist without a narrative, but it won’t have as much soul or resonance as one that was more carefully considered.

“It all depends on the hypothesis of the playlist,” Basa said. “If it’s a party playlist, then you’re looking for records that will get a party popping. One thing for sure on any playlist is making sure that the song you’re considering matches the other songs already on there. It’s like putting an outfit together: The color coordination has to feel right, and it makes no sense to wear church shoes with basketball shorts ’cause they collide.”

Rob Lowry, a music supervisor who has worked on shows like Man Seeking Woman and The Bold Type, believes that high quality playlists like these have taken over roles that radio used to best fill in certain respects.

“There’s so much new music coming out every single day and finding all of this music is a full-time job,” Lowry said. “So playlists not only cut that out for you, but they curate it in a way that if you’re listening to a very specific playlist, the likelihood of you enjoying four out of five songs is very high. So it’s a bit of a fail-safe — it’s a more evolved version of radio in some ways. It’s eclectic, it’s always changing, and there’s enough music that you’re not repeating the same 30 songs every couple of hours.”

While some might say playlists are the new radio, Apple Music — home of the popular Beats 1 radio station — finds that the two actually work well together, instead of against each other; Plagenhoef says that “playlists are the space in which our editors and programmers worldwide spend the vast majority of their time.” This is because while the methods of radio and the playlist aren’t the same, their shared goal is to bring new and exciting music to the world.

“There are playlists that have brand equity and are working as powerful delivery systems,” Plagenhoef said. “There’s still radio and trust for radio as a delivery system for new music, but increasingly, more people are in the playlist space. Playlists are a better reflection of a wide range of ways in which people engage with music. At this point, whether it’s something we do or something your friend does or something an artist does, this is the most powerful and direct way to engage a large audience at a single time.”

Playlists have managed to be different things for fans, artists, labels, tastemakers, and other folks in the music industry, and in its current state, the playlist is riding a high. There’s still a need for caution, though. Where the playlist must be careful is to not get too caught up in its own success and spell its own demise.

“Playlists are definitely part of the future,” Basa said. “They may evolve into something else, but they’re just like any other body of work or ecosystem: If they stay consistent and honest, they shall remain trusted filters. If they start slipping, then it’s a wrap!”

At the moment, playlists really are powerful. They have to potential to change the way that artists and labels promote or even create music, for better or worse as the definition and relevance of an “album” is constantly being changed and challenged. “Artists are really working the single model hard because they fear that no one is going to pay attention for very long,” Friedman said. “There is too much content out there fighting to be noticed. And while everyone will always sit down to listen to a Radiohead or Kendrick Lamar album, not every rising artist has that kind of power to command people’s attention for a full album (or even EP). In many ways, if an upcoming artist is focusing on building an audience, releasing an album can be too much effort for such little payoff.”

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With so many aspiring musicians trying to get their work heard, it’s a challenge to compete, and no matter how talented you are, there’s some element of luck involved. In one way or another, some artists and management teams have tried taking luck out of the equation through less scrupulous means for as long as the industry has existed. The most famous example of this is the radio payola of the ’50s, when all it took was a few bucks to get a song to hit the airwaves. While payola in that regard might not be as productive today, there’s still a danger of delivery systems being compromised in similar ways (for the record, Spotify officially banned payola in 2015).

“I’m not saying there’s payola going on, but we’re seeing a similar trend where labels, artists, management companies are doing everything they can to cater to these Spotify playlists to add their music to a certain playlist in order to get the streams up,” Lowry said. While there may be some truth to that, the music industry has changed significantly since the days of radio payola, and with listener feedback that’s more instant and widespread, forcing a product down a customer’s throat doesn’t work as well as it used to.

“We’re in a space in which we have a lot of information,” Plagenhoef said. “There isn’t just a two-way street between a label and a provider anymore. There are analytics that combat that. Increasingly, labels are going to put out music and let the audience react, and they have an understanding of what works. When you put out a Future mixtape, it might take a minute, but you’ll figure out pretty quickly what the hit is. That’s not something that’s really dictated to the audience in general anymore.”

If anybody’s doing the dictating nowadays, it’s the listener. Fans play what they want when they want, so if they don’t like a song, it will not do well, regardless of the level of promotion behind it. Case in point: In the lead-up to Eminem’s 2017 album Revival, he released “Walk On Water,” a duet with Beyonce that was clearly meant to make a big splash — you don’t bring Beyonce on board if you’re not looking for a hit. However, the song didn’t connect with an audience and only debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a relative disappointment. To be blunt, it was a flop, so much so that Eminem stopped promoting the track as a single. Fans didn’t like the song, and their lack of plays determined its fate.

With the aforementioned changes to the Billboard charts’ incorporation of streaming data, listeners can exert their influence and tell the world what’s popular with their streams, not just their music purchases, which are becoming less and less common, and therefore not as strong an indicator of cultural relevance. There’s also real money at play with getting on a big-time playlist: A recent study showed that finding your way onto Spotify’s “New Music Friday” playlist can lead to additional streaming revenue of $84K and $117K, which inclusion of “Today’s Top Hits” can bring in $116K to $163K (!). All of this comes down to the fact that streaming listeners are capable of making a song successful. However, that doesn’t mean they have the ability to singlehandedly propel an artist to greater heights.

“I take no fan for granted, and I am thankful to Spotify for giving me the exposure,” Friedman said. “However, there was never a huge rush or influx of fans that you might expect when your song is being streamed thousands of times a day. In a way, it sort of felt like a drag having so many people listen but so few of those listens turn into actual fans.”

Playlists are significantly better at drawing less devoted listeners than they are creating real fans. Using Kyle as an example, he currently as about 11 million monthly listeners and around 600,000 followers on Spotify, which could be interpreted to mean that roughly five percent of his Spotify listeners stick around and would consider themselves fans. Compare that to Eminem, who has around 40 million monthly listeners and over 20 million followers. Getting on playlists and achieving streaming success is definitely a strong way to start, but to create something longer-lasting, it takes more than that.

“I feel like you should use it as a tool to promote and not depend on it,” Willis said. “At the end of the day, you don’t want to rely on playlisting, but it’s great if you get it.”

What it takes is resonating with the listener beyond the one song they heard that one time. Now more than ever, consumers control the media. Listeners inform the music world, and therefore, are more informed about it. The average person has a better understanding than they used to of what a good song is and what curation involves. This allows anybody to craft a successful playlist that has the potential to resonate with an audience. It’s no longer just compilation CD makers who can get a mix of songs in front of a giant market: Anyone can do it.

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“Because people are making playlists themselves, they know the thoughtfulness that they require and now can appreciate a good playlist,” Basa said. “Playlists aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

Basa’s right: Playlists are here to stay, so it’s up to Spotify, Apple Music, and the other players to remain relevant. It’s inevitable that a formidable competitor will come along and try to wipe them out. Heck, that’s the battle Apple Music and Spotify are in right now. No matter how big either company is at the moment, though, if some company becomes better equipped to give customers what they want, subscribers will be quick to change their loyalties.

“Whether it’s sustainable or not really depends on consumer trends,” Friedman said. “There was a time where MySpace felt like the biggest thing ever, and now we laugh at it when it’s mentioned. I don’t see why that couldn’t happen to Spotify or Apple Music as new technology is introduced.”

No matter who is on top, they have to know what it takes to stay there, and that means realizing that what works now might not be effective even a year from now. Streaming music and playlists are sticking around, so remaining successful is just a matter of discovering what the next iteration of them will look like.

“I don’t think [streaming] is a fad in the same way that radio wasn’t a fad — I think it will always exist in some way,” Lowry said. “I don’t know what the next stage of the evolution looks like. Pandora felt like an evolution of radio in the streaming age, and all of these streaming platforms are a further progression of that.”

There’s one more thing that Rob Gordon was right about in regards to mixtapes and playlists: There are a lot of rules. With streaming playlists, though, they are still being written, and like everything else online, the conventions of today might be unrecognizable just a couple years from now. What we do know today is why the playlist works. It keeps listeners informed. It brings exposure to deserving talent. It gives us something to throw on while hosting a party, cleaning the dishes, or doing homework.

Most importantly, it serves the listener, the driving force of the modern music industry. As long as it keeps doing that, the playlist will remain king.