This decline may be simply because the concept of a playlist is now more normalized in global music culture, to the point where users don’t need to search what the word means to understand what it offers. But it’s nonetheless a sobering reminder that the idea
of a playlist (which, at the end of the day, is simply a collection of songs
) is nothing new or unique to our present time, nor is proactive consumer interest in the format really growing.
This is despite the fact that streaming services continue to hammer new playlist announcements onto consumers and the media, to the point where such announcements often sound boring and imitative. As David Turner recently wrote
for Music Business Worldwide
, there is a contradiction whereby “the playlist story is so crucial to [Spotify’s] narrative
,” yet playlists also arguably make Spotify “[blur] into a digital haze that also includes the likes of Apple Music, Deezer, TIDAL and YouTube, and their actually-pretty-similar products.
Related to engagement is the question of whether playlists drive meaningful fandom for artists. Spotify has been latching onto features like its new playlist-pitching system
as an important public-relations tool for strengthening relationships with the indie music community, for positioning themselves as “artist-friendly” and for touting playlists as indispensable to artists’ careers (which in some cases is true).
Yet, by design and by necessity, the playlists that get the most reach and engagement on Spotify treat their artists as disposable.
That might sound bleak, but just think about it: Spotify’s playlists need to serve Spotify as a product first and foremost before serving the artists they feature. As a subscription service, Spotify needs to keep users “sticky” and engaged on their platform, which in part means not turning users away with badly curated playlists.
What this means for curation depends on the playlist. For more genre-focused channels, the content needs to be updated regularly and kept as “fresh” as possible; for more mood-driven channels, the content doesn’t need to change as frequently, so long as it continues to provide functional value to the end user, regardless of which artists show up. In both cases, the artist is disposable in service of the product, just like features are disposable in the ongoing development and improvement of software.
Hence, “post-playlist” can be characterized as a growing attitude of disillusionment among up-and-coming artists and labels that playlists are not as meaningful to or aligned with their business as the hype had promised. Yes, some playlists can lead to a significant spike in streams (and, hopefully, revenue) for new artists, which could then fuel the marketing and listener-acquisition flywheel by increasing those artists’ chances of being algorithmically recommended to new users. But there is almost always an inverse relationship
between listener growth and listener engagement, and playlists can often become detrimental rather than helpful for cultivating fans if you’re not careful. And I bet there are hundreds of artists and bands out there who have successfully toured the world and built up extremely devoted fan bases without thinking twice about getting on any streaming playlist at all (e.g. Vulfpeck
, a favorite of mine).
So if there is waning interest and heated disillusionment with the current playlist ecosystem, what thrives in a “post-playlist” world?
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this question—but one phenomenon that I’ve seen gain more momentum over the past few years is deeper integration with other entertainment formats and industries.
Consider how Live Nation has quietly blossomed into a film production company
, and will likely be Oscar-nominated for A Star Is Born
and other upcoming documentaries; or how rapper Tierra Whack may have over 370,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, but the only way you can truly understand the vision behind Whack World
is by going to YouTube and watching her 15-minute visual album
; or how Sigur Rós is collaborating with world-class engineers to reimagine music listening in mixed reality
; or how musicians are increasingly investing in esports leagues (see my articles on the topic in the next section).
There is growing excitement in the music industry around redefining and liberating musical IP beyond just a channel like a playlist or an album, and into realms like film, fashion and gaming that create more memorable, shared moments and extend an artist’s storytelling capability, rather than relinquishing context to a singular, bare-bones channel whose dominant function is to lay in the background. As long as streaming services provide little infrastructure to support a Whack World-esque type of independent, cohesive world-building for an artist (or as long as streaming users aren’t looking for that type of content), the influence of traditional playlists on those platforms will continue to decline.
To Spotify’s credit, they are conducting ongoing experiments
with putting audiovisual content inside playlists (although I have yet to speak with someone who has actually watched any of those videos). Deezer NEXT
is another example of a program trying to help emerging artists through means other than playlist placement, providing deeper creative marketing support for an artist’s entire brand over the span of 12 months. I moderated a fireside chat with Deezer’s Global VP of Artist Marketing Sulinna Ong at the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, and if I recall correctly, her first piece advice to aspiring artists looking to rise above the noise was precisely to “think beyond the playlist
As the music industry becomes hungrier for new formats, playlists will become “the new radio” because the traditional, flat playlist as we know it will need streaming to survive—not the other way around.