The Power of Playlisting

Before the era of streaming services, Internet radio, and digital downloads, it was essential for artists to utilize a label’s resources in order to mass distribute music. Because major labels exclusively possessed the funds to administer physical copies of music on a global scale, they held the power to control what music was heard in brick-in-mortar stores across the country and furthermore, controlled what music the average consumer listened to on a daily basis. Now in the digital age, this function is no longer essential. With today’s technology artists can upload their own music to multiple platforms to reach millions of consumers at once and record original music in a home studio. Both events qualify a labels’ raison d’être. In fact, the revelation of the new digital age is, arguably, the DIY musician — an artist who both owns his or her publishing and sound recording rights and controls when and where the music will be heard around the world.

Digital media libraries and streaming services such as iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora enabled this transformation. Uploading music at little cost never seemed so feasible, and for the first time indie artists could be heard around the globe without the financial backing of major labels.

Alas, the prospective downfalls were not anticipated. While we have moved far from the dark ages of the industry’s Napster era and have ventured at last into positive revenue with music streams, non-major label affiliated artists don’t seem to be exactly standouts.


In part this is because the industry’s leading platform, Spotify, has been allowing major labels to “pay-to-playlist,” a practice that showcases major label artists on Spotify’s biggest playlists and advertisements.1 “Pay-to-playlist” is an exercise that is unique to Spotify. While in the past Tidal and Apple Music have paid brand-name artists large advances in exchange for exclusive releases, playlists are one of Spotify’s leading competitive assets. They allow listeners to navigate through the platform’s 30+ million tracks, to be introduced to new artists, and to have a custom made selection for any occasion.2

Though the idea of playlists is nothing new, the concept of branding playlists has been on the rise since the dawn of streaming. The top non-Spotify curated playlists are made by companies that have expertise in building a lifestyle brand around each playlist. This includes formatting fonts, colors, cover art, analyzing skip rates, etc. to create the perfect brand of music.

For Spotify, the world’s top major labels coincidentally own the three companies that construct the some of platform’s most streamed non-Spotify made playlists. Topsify, Filtr, and Digster are owned by Warner, Sony, and Universal, and curate playlists such as “Topsify UK Top 50,” “Top of the Charts,” and “Country Hits.”3

Though these ownerships are disguised by pen names, the music selections in each playlist belong exclusively to the catalogs of the major labels, thus creating a roadblock for any indie or DIY artist seeking to land a spot on a popular playlist. These branded playlists also have more visibility on the Spotify Browse page than playlists made by non-affiliated labels, individuals, or playlist brands, enabling the majors to now dominate the thoroughfare of new music discovery on the world’s biggest streaming platform. While consumers often believe playlists are custom made via new artist discovery and personal taste, the music Spotify debuts is fundamentally influenced by fruitful marketing campaigns and commercial power.

The majors were predisposed to access early on due to licensing. When Spotify was first founded, it was essential for it to license the catalogs of all three majors in order to acquire as much popular music and subscribers as possible. Knowing this, the majors used their leverage to gain exclusive admission to advertising space.4

Accompanying controlled playlists, Spotify had a previous advertising requirement of $25,000 per artist ad, a campaign out of budget for most indie labels and DIY artists. These ads are promoted to consumers that use Spotify Free, broadcasting major-affiliated artist album and song campaigns between streams. 5

Sponsored songs also appear on Spotify Free. These selections are generated to match a consumer’s music tastes and are instantly playable without an ad requirement.6 Such dictated advertisements and playlists contradict the idea of free rein for indie and DIY artists. While it is widely believed that streaming permits any artist to have their music heard around the globe, the chief gateway of music discovery is still coordinated by the companies that have monopolized the music industry since it’s beginning. This is proven by the four million plus songs on Spotify that have never even been played once.7


So why do indie artists put their songs on Spotify if there is little chance of discovery through playlist placements? They can’t afford not to.8 The platform has the leading number of clients, accumulating approximately 140 million active users to date compared to Apple Music’s 20 million paying subscribers, and Tidal’s 1.2 million. Because most consumers only pay for the services of a single platform, the probability of fans using Spotify is much greater than the probability that fans use the alternatives, and even though substantial playlist placements for indie or DIY artists can be slim-to-none, smaller artists cannot afford to miss out on fan-to-artist relation of any kind.

Broadening their power, playlists are also breaking into the live music scene. Spotify-curated playlist “RapCaviar” is headed out on tour.9 While still experimental, if popular playlists start touring mega festival style, it will likely push DIY artists to the backburner once again.

Live music, accounting for 53% of the music industry’s total income, is the leading revenue stream for the global music market. It has grown 10% since 2000, making up for the drastic 15% decline in recorded music sales.10 While this appears to be a lucrative business for all musicians, the distribution is skewed to the top 1% of live artists who account for 68% of all live revenue. Additionally, only 29% of live music revenue makes it back to the artist on average.

With modern music festivals on the rise, concertgoers are more likely to attend a mega festival with multiple artists rather than a singular concert for a smaller artist. Now that major-affiliated playlists dictate what artists are on the front of the live scene as well, it makes it increasingly difficult for DIY artists to land a gig as an opener or indie act, furthering the struggle for discovery.

On the bright side, there are a few DIY artists that have risen above the restrictions of the monopolized industry. Chance the Rapper, Snarky Puppy, and KING are all non-label affiliated Grammy award winning/nominee artists.11 They each own the full rights to their sound recordings and publishing, and have popular artist pages on all online platforms. So while it may seem impossible for new artists to get their material out in the world, the power of music still overcomes the boundaries of the marketplace, and makes way for freedom of ingenuity.


The domination the major labels have on the industry is seeping into the modern music consumption model, originally designed to service those who are unfinanced by corporate backing. The unethical nature of “pay-to-playlisting” is harming to both indie labels and DIY artists on all fronts, and turning the retro, heartfelt tradition of a mix tape into a computed formula. By creating a model that services only the top 1% of musicians, the potential of the new digital economy for open access is being thwarted as the majority of artists on Spotify are not being heard. The more things change, it appears, the more they stay the same.


By Ashley Cook



  1. Pelly, Liz; “The Secret Lives of Playlists ” CASH Music; CASH Music, 21 June 2017. Web. 3 July 2017.
  2. Williams, Rhiannon; “Apple Music vs Spotify: How Do the Two Streaming Services Compare?”; The Telegraph. The Telegraph, 1 July 2015. Web. 3 June 2017.
  3. Pelly, L.; op. cit.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Deahl, Dan; “Spotify is testing ‘Sponsored Songs’ in playlists”; The Verge, 18 July 2017. Web. 3 July 2017.
  7. Rochell., Abonalla; “There Are 4 Million Songs on Spotify That Have Never Been Played Once….” Digital Music News.; Oct. 2013. Web. 3 July 2017.
  8. Maddux, Tracy; “Why Indie Artists Can’t Afford to Skip Streaming: Guest Post”; Billboard. 27 February 2017. Web. 3 June 2017.
  9. Wall Street Journal; Tech Investment Article (RapCaviar).
  10. Mulligan, Mark.; “Do Not Assume We Have Arrived at Our Destination” Artist Income | Music Industry Blog; Music Industry Blog, 15 June 2017. Web. 3 June 2017.
  11. Ross, Danny; “An Inside Look At How 3 DIY Artists Became 2017 Grammy Nominees” Forbes, 31 January 2017. Web. 3 June 2017.





One Reply to “The Power of Playlisting”

  1. Your music business articles are excellent and are so necessary as well all try to navigate the waters of the new music business. Thank you.


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