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Our new "post-playlist" reality.

Happy Friday! As a celebratory aside, I turn 23 years old today. I will mainly spend the day freaking
Our new "post-playlist" reality.
By Cherie Hu • Issue #41 • View online
Happy Friday!
As a celebratory aside, I turn 23 years old today. I will mainly spend the day freaking out about the fact that I share a birthday with the Walmart yodeling kid.
Another celebratory aside: Water & Music has officially passed 2,000 subscribers!! Whether this is your very first issue or you’ve been here since the beginning, thank you so, so much for following my work, for dealing with my rambles and for providing really useful feedback on my ideas and reporting along the way. In all seriousness, I would not be here with your help and support!
If you’re a new subscriber, feel free to reach out to me anytime simply by replying to this email—I’d love to hear about what you’re up to, how you came to subscribe to Water & Music and what stories or trends you’d like to read more about in the future.
And now for today’s essay…

Our new "post-playlist" reality
When I tweeted the above earlier this month, I received a few replies asking me to explain what I meant by “post-playlist.”
That phrase likely strikes a nerve with anyone who feels their lives have been transformed by the playlist ecosystem—from artists who lean on playlist placement for market validation, revenue and social currency, to streaming services that promote their own playlists in an attempt to preserve their reputation as influential tastemakers, to brick-and-mortar businesses that rely on playlists to create the ideal emotional ambiance for their customers, to diehard fans who follow playlists that their favorite artists and DJs curate (I do this with Tom Misch), to lean-back listeners who rely on pre-categorized playlists to provide unobtrusive “emotional wallpaper” for activities like cooking, sleeping and running.
When I say “post-playlist,” I’m thinking primarily about two topics:
  1. The technological and aesthetic format of the streaming playlist—a collection of tracks that can be streamed online via a platform like Spotify, Apple Music or YouTube, and whose content can be updated on a regular basis, either algorithmically or manually by human curators.
  2. The attitude that stakeholders like artists, labels, managers, streaming services and fans have towards playlists, in terms of their efficacy as vehicles for discovering music, furthering artists’ careers and/or improving the overall music industry.
Both, in my eyes, are in danger.
So far in 2018, I have read several headlines in major publications and have heard countless people at music conferences claim something along the lines of “playlists are the new radio.” The streaming companies are also probably muttering that statement under their breath: execs from both Spotify and Pandora have positioned their ad-supported products as direct competitors to terrestrial radio, and some of their biggest playlists can generate an additional six figures in revenue for each featured track, suggesting significant influence on mainstream listening habits on a global scale. If you really wanted to stretch the nomenclature, certain algorithmic playlists like Spotify’s Discover Weekly could even be designated as “post-radio,” in how they are trying to automate curation in a way that bypasses traditional gatekeepers, accounts for edge tastes and molds to each individual user, while delivering better marketing and financial return for rights holders.
But “playlists are the new radio” also has a double meaning that no one’s talking about. Playlists aren’t just “the new radio” because they have wider reach or influence; they might be the new radio because their format is becoming similarly stale.
First, there are oft-overinflated expectations around listener engagement. For instance, I recently wrote about how some flagship Spotify playlists like EDM-focused mint were getting disproportionately lower engagement, whereas other playlists with only ¼ of the following were generating 4x the streams for a given track over the same time period. Certain playlists like Today’s Top Hits and RapCaviar do outperform on engagement and impact, but I would argue they are the exception rather than the rule for streaming playlists.
There also may be less listener interest in seeking out playlists overall. I cobbled together some Google Trends graphs last night to visualize the popularity of the word “playlist” in worldwide web and YouTube searches since 2004. Both have steadily declined in search activity over the last several years, to just 50% and 25% of their peak, respectively:
Worldwide web searches for "playlist" peaked in December 2008, around MySpace's heyday.
Worldwide web searches for "playlist" peaked in December 2008, around MySpace's heyday.
Worldwide Youtube searches for "playlist" peaked in December 2014, a month after YouTube tried to launch its first paid music service (YouTube Music Key).
Worldwide Youtube searches for "playlist" peaked in December 2014, a month after YouTube tried to launch its first paid music service (YouTube Music Key).
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.
My writing
Music & Esports in 2018: A Comprehensive Timeline
Good reads
Why Your Messenger Bots Don't Work
Obligatory potato
From the archives: back in 2014, researchers from MIT, Microsoft and Adobe developed software that could turn everyday objects into “visual microphones.” Objects emit small vibrations when sound waves hit their surface, and it is now possible to extract sound recordings from silent, high-speed video footage of these objects, thanks to new computer software. One specific example the researchers put forth: if you place a bag of potato chips in a hallway where two people are having a conversation, you can record a video of the bag of chips without audio, and still be able to “record” that conversation by analyzing and translating the chip bag’s physical vibrations into sound waves. Potatoes as investigative journalism, anyone?
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Cherie Hu


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