CMU Trends Marketing & PR The Great Escape 2015

Trends: Music’s new opinion formers – Driving sustained listening through playlists

By | Published on Friday 17 July 2015

Spotify Playlist

If there was one debate at this year’s CMU Insights @ The Great Escape that stood out, it was that focused on the power of online playlists in the streaming music domain.

Because as the record industry shifts from selling CDs and downloads to making money through subscriptions and advertising via streaming music platforms, the primary objective ceases to be first-week sales and becomes all about sustained listening. That is to say, how can artists and labels encourage more people to listen to more of their music more of the time?

All the evidence suggests that playlists are key here. Why? “Because listeners are overwhelmed with the choice”, explained Spintune’s Brittney Bean as she led the playlisting debate during [email protected] She called this ‘decision fatigue’. “People subscribe to other people’s playlists through their streaming platform of choice so they can more easily navigate the massive libraries of content; both to discover new music and to rediscover old favourites”.

By getting into playlists on the streaming platforms, artists and labels ensure that they appear on the radar of users, and that their new music is played repeatedly during the early weeks of any one track’s release. “It is so important”, Cooking Vinyl’s Head Of Digital Sammy Andrews confirmed at [email protected] “Curation is the new king. It can launch a track, if it gets dropped into the right playlist it can propel that track from nowhere, and there are lots of examples of that happening”.

The hope with online playlists, of course, is that users add a featured track to their own personal playlists, preferably one that gets fired up on a regular basis, such as the list of tracks a subscriber returns to each morning, or late at night, or while on a run, or in the car, or when trying to get the party started. This assures repeat listening long term, and therefore repeat revenue for artist and label, who can only profit from their releases if their tracks are regularly returned to by users.

Playlists are created by labels, artists, media, celebrities, the digital platforms themselves, and, of course, fans.

These lists may originate on a playlist owner’s own website, or on one of the ‘platform agnostic playlist platforms’ which are designed to enable curators to publish their tracklistings in one location, but for users to then stream music from a variety of sources depending on track availability, what subscriptions they have in place, and their preferred content providers. US-based Bop is perhaps the most high profile of this kind of service to date.

That said, most playlist making, sharing and consuming is currently happening within the streaming platforms themselves, including YouTube, SoundCloud and, most importantly in terms of revenue potential, the premium audio services, and most notably to date – simply because of its bigger user-base – Spotify. The owners of playlists within these platforms are becoming important new opinion formers in music. And the music PR machine is starting to notice.

Speaking at [email protected], Evil Genius Media CEO Mark Muggeridge said: “Pitching to playlists is becoming one of the top priorities in our campaigns. Almost to the point where the return on investment we’re seeing from what is traditionally thought of as ‘online media’ is dwindling, and we’re taking all of that budget out of online and putting it into agencies that pitch to playlists. And we are seeing the needle move from playlist pitching more than almost any other, particularly with new artists”.

Muggeridge is a big fan of the playlist pitching services provided by DigMark – especially for reaching bedroom playlisters – more on which later in this Trends Report as we speak to the company’s Aileen Crowley. But first we summarise some of the lessons learned at [email protected] when the spotlight was put on how labels, media and digital service providers themselves are approaching playlisting.

DSP-led playlists
On many streaming platforms – especially the subscription-based audio services – the most highly consumed playlists are created by the DSPs themselves. Which means the streaming services are not just a new kind of retail for the record industry, they are a new kind of media too, with an important editorial role to play.

Sam Lee, UK & Ireland Editor at Deezer, explains: “We are constantly on the look out for the best new music, and then we work with our label relations team to ensure it is on the service. Labels are really starting to understand the importance of playlisting on streaming platforms. Now more than ever they are approaching us and pitching tracks for inclusion in our weekly playlists, whereas previously it was more of an afterthought, with priority being given to other forms of editorial coverage”.

This is a welcome development for Lee. “Because of our editorial slant we have always been open to being approached in the same way as more traditional forms of media, and playlists just give us another opportunity to promote the music we love”.

As for the relationship between the playlists created by Lee’s team, and those put onto the Deezer platform by third parties, he says: “The two kinds of playlists are complementary, and we’re glad to see labels and brands using Deezer as a platform for their own content. That said, we will always lean towards our own original editorial content, but we’re certainly not going to refuse to promote any great playlists just because they have been put together by someone who isn’t a Deezer editor”.

Label-led playlists
Many labels, large and small, are now in the playlisting game too, putting together tracklists of their own music – and songs from elsewhere – and trying to build a direct audience on key streaming platforms.

Explaining his work in this domain, Hospital Records Digital Manager Romy Harber told [email protected]: “We use playlists as a way of driving people to songs that we want them to listen to. We have our own playlists on Spotify, we have different moods, we have our official playlists, we have the best of drum n bass. And then on YouTube, we use it as a way of grouping releases”.

On the label’s YouTube strategy, he went on: “It’s quite easy for people to get lost on YouTube. They’ll start watching a music video and then the next moment they’re watching a video of a cat on a skateboard. If we group our content all together, then hopefully people follow that path and listen to our music more”.

“We have a playlist for every album”, he continued. “We post every track from every album on YouTube, pretty much, eventually. Which I know is controversial. But we find that, unless you block it, someone else will upload your music anyway, to another channel, and then you get a worse rate. So I’d prefer people come to our channel, where we can give them the message that we want, with our buy links, rather than having them go elsewhere”.

“Lots of people don’t agree with putting it all up there, because the rates on YouTube are not great”, he admitted. “However, we’ve found that from the buy links and from tracking, that it is actually a good platform to drive sales”.

Interestingly on Spotify, where royalties are better of course, the focus is somewhat different. “On Spotify it’s much more about curation, in that we draw in lots of third party content into our playlists and mix it up, to create moods and different environments around the music, whereas on YouTube it’s almost entirely our own content”.

A big challenge in generating interest in Spotify playlists, he said, is updating them with the right music at the right time. “We’re a dance music label, so we have a massive spike Thursday, Friday and then it dips on Monday. We’re trying to combat that with a playlist called ‘Monday Morning Rollers’, which is a more chilled out, liquidy type of drum n bass, with other types of music on there too, and then we do separate Thursday, Friday and Saturday playlists”.

“The weekend’s what suits us best”, he continued. “We want people to get that updated playlist notification at the right time, so it pops up on their phone and they think, ‘right, I’m going to listen to that now’. Whereas, if I put in a really hardcore dance track on a Tuesday morning, maybe people really aren’t going to be that interested. We try to hit people with those notifications, which is a really important part of it, at the right time, so that hopefully they’ll play our playlist”.

Media-led playlists
An increasing number of media are now starting to build playlists on the streaming platforms as well, despite the fact doing so arguably takes listeners and readers away from each media’s own platform, leading some to suggest DSPs should be looking to monetise curation, so playlist owners can be rewarded if their work creates traffic for a streaming service. Though in the short term boosted profile and increased influence are the motivating factors for playlist makers within the traditional media sector.

The BBC has been particularly prolific in this domain via its Playlister project, which the Corporation’s Digital Editor For Music Andy Puleston discussed at [email protected]

“Projects like this are often a response to what’s going on outside and what our audiences are doing”, Puleston said of the origins of Playlister, which launched in 2013. “And also what we feel we can achieve technologically at the BBC. You have to remember the BBC is not a tech company, we’re a broadcaster that has a tech bit, but a tech bit which is growing in sophistication and ambition all the time”.

The Playlister idea grew out of an update that was made to the Radio 1 homepage in 2011, which added a ‘love’ button to the station’s realtime ‘now playing’ information, and which would then recommend to the user other content on the website based on the track they had just tagged.

“We had just launched a sign in service on the BBC site”, Puleston explained. “Prior to that we weren’t really able to give users a logged-in state, so we weren’t able to log any usage data and feed it back. But these things started to come on stream and we plugged them all together”.

The Playlister service basically allows users of BBC Radio websites to add tracks they hear on the Corporation’s radio stations to special playlists, which they can then export to Spotify, Deezer, iTunes and YouTube. On top of that, the BBC is now creating bespoke playlists itself based on its radio shows that people can access on their streaming platform of choice.

Given the evolving streaming platforms are arguably competition for traditional radio, the BBC engaging in this way may seem counterintuitive. “It does seem, oddly, like we’re cannibalising our own model”, Pulestone admitted, but he said there were a number of reasons why the BBC had created Playlister. “One, there’s a creative opportunity. Also, there are quite a lot of restrictions on us as a traditional broadcaster in how we evolve with the new digital platforms. But we need to evolve in a way, to futureproof our brands, to help keep the BBC and BBC Radio relevant as our audiences change”.

And while traditional radio might ultimately compete with the new streaming services, everyone says the new platforms need better curation, and radio people are the traditional curators. “There is this tyranny of choice”, Pulestone continued. “And radio has always been fantastic at filtering the best music there is and playing you only the best of it; our shows represent their take on what’s coming out. And so, being able to put the BBC into these streaming services will give you a completely unbiased guide to what we think is great”.

Which is perhaps a reminder that curation and playlists are not new, and have always had an important role to play in the music marketing mix. The innovation is that there are now more playlist makers than ever before in more places. And there is a more tangible link between playlists and revenue. Which means even if playlists have always been important, that has never been more true than today.

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