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The role of playlists in music marketing

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records in a jukebox

Playlists have hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons recently, after a Billboard article blew open the widely known trend of ‘payola’. That is, when labels/managers pay the curators of popular playlists to put one of their artists’ tracks in. It’s a questionable practice, because the public rely on such curators to include music that’s good, not just the music that has a major label’s marketing budget behind it. Essentially, independent and unsigned music de facto loses out. But controversies aside, playlist promotion is a large part of music marketing campaigns and can launch an artist’s career (and Spotify has promised that its updated terms will make it harder for such dodgy practices to go on).

The practice of playlisting can lengthen the traditional album campaign by placing select tracks in lists throughout the year, giving artists a reason to talk to fans when they want to promote something new. Marketing is all about engagement in the digital age, Spotify’s head of label relations, Will Hope, told me at PrimaveraPro earlier this year, and getting tracks into other people’s playlists are “key for consumption and discovery”. Spotify has over 1.5 billion playlists, and it’s where “the majority” of listening happens, according to Hope. Getting a track into a playlist - whether that be a Spotify curated list or that of a third party - should be where the marketing process starts, he said.

How to get an in

So how do you do that? All of Spotify’s playlists are hand-curated, and the three major labels, Universal, Sony and Warner, have their own playlists via Digster, Filtr and respectively, that feature other catalogue aside from their own (around 50% is usually the label’s repertoire). Recommendations of tracks to include in label or artist playlists are made via Facebook and Twitter, while Spotify’s lists are decided by their in-house editorial team. According to Spotify’s Chris Stone, who revealed some top tips at AIM’s digital day earlier this year, the first step is to start a conversation with them, showing how you plan to build Spotify into a marketing campaign. Get your first few plays and a bit of a following, and then start pushing a track to the team, who will look at a range of playlists and ask if the track feels right for any of them.

Building up a follower count first, and then starting to place tracks in playlists when release date comes around, taking note of the wealth of choice there is available (some of Spotify’s themed playlists include: study, chilled out, exercise, focus, and lots of genre led lists), and finding the perfect spot for your track, was the advice offered by Cooking Vinyl’s Sammy Andrews. Utilising back catalogue is another idea: do you have any older tracks that could sit perfectly in a playlist you’ve seen? Pitch them, they could be earning money. Ditto Blog said creating your own playlists featuring your music, as well as music by others that you think your fans would be interested in listening to is a sure fire way to keep them wanting more. "Less is more here. People don’t want to be oversold to, but they like to discover new music and will wonder what the track is," the website explained.

Building your own playlist destination

Looking at it from another angle, curating your own playlists - whether as a label, an artist or even a manager - could garner listens for your own releases and earn a few new fans in the meantime. Stone says it’s vital to keep adding to the playlist over time (on a weekly basis is a good idea, and if it focuses on new music, as soon as tracks are released), as that’s the secret to getting a following. “Sometimes people may look at a playlist a bit like a mixtape, but the key difference is you really need to keep on going after you’ve made that playlist, refresh it, add a couple more tracks over time. Once it’s done it’s not done, it needs to keep on being a living breathing list,” he explains. “People are only going to follow it if they want to know what tracks you’re adding in the future.”

Interaction is key for Lucy Blair, director of digital marketing consultancy Motive Unknown, one of whose clients has a Monday Morning Blues playlist, curated by fan suggestions sent over social media. And quality not quantity is the rule Will Cooper, general manager of digital distribution at PIAS, abides by. “We had about 250 playlists all with very keen followers, but since the turn of the year we’ve made 99% of our playlists hidden and now have eight live at any one time,” he says. “We focus on those and make sure they are updated regularly, our new release list is added to every Monday, a catalogue playlist called Throwback Thursday and a takeover playlist on Friday based on different genres.”

Exclusive insight

Jason Reed, head of digital at Domino Recordings, has witnessed really good listening results with playlists based on artists’ sharing insight into their creative process. It doesn’t have to be music, you can record a spoken word track and still earn money (remember when that US band Vulfpeck asked fans to stream their five-minute album of silence to generate money for a tour? They made $20,000). A big part of The Prodigy’s marketing campaign for their latest album, The Day Is My Enemy, was centered around Spotify playlists. As soon as its first single was released, it was dropped into a playlist, which had thousands of followers when it came to album release week.

Band member Liam Howlett also recorded a few excerpts of him talking through the influences for the record. “He’d never really done that before, so to a Prodigy fan it was really interesting to hear what has shaped their career,” says Andrews. “The audio still slotted in with all the new releases that were in the charts, and Liam talked about some of that too. Finding new content is really important, additional content adds even more worth to what we’re doing already, whilst showcasing other acts that are in that playlist.”

In the world of streaming, where music consumers are faced with more music than they’ll ever consume in a lifetime, artists need to create enough material to make a visit to their page worthwhile. The challenge is to make sure each track that gets released is “fucking awesome” said The Orchard’s Scott Cohen at PrimaveraPro. No longer do artists get away with putting a load of fillers on their LP around a few single worthy tracks, they earn their money these days by getting fans to return again and again and again. Being very strategic about how they promote that music is a vital part of that.

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