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future party r kelly

Spotify’s Mixed Bag of Censorship

Last year the #metoo campaign swept the film industry. Finally, after decades of terror, predator after predator was held accountable. Last week Spotify brought the fight to the music industry with its new “Hate Content and Hateful Conduct Policy.” Banning hateful content is nothing new, but what’s new is punishing creators for ‘Hateful Conduct.’ To christen this precarious decision, Spotify removed R Kelly and XXXTentacion from it’s playlists with a few strokes of their corporate keys.  

So, what exactly does that mean for both Spotify and the artists? On Spotify’s end it means they’ve entered into risky territory. They’ve thrown their two cents into the age old debate about separating the art from the artist, and have done so in a particularly subjective manner. They’re teetering on the brink of censorship. R Kelly has never been convicted of a crime. While he has been party to a growing number of scandals, no court of law has found him guilty. This is a position shared by many musicians in both the urban and the pop space.  

It’s going to be interesting to see where Spotify draws the line.  XXXTentacion’s manager fired back with a high profile list of other musicians and their alleged crimes and asked for comment on how their cases would be addressed in the court of Spotify. Do XXXTentacion’s face tattoos make him more of a threat than fellow alleged abuser and former Backstreet Boy Nick Carter? Is R Kelly more of a danger to us than Tekashi69 who has been convicted of having sex with a minor?

Regardless, reality is that eventually someone has to address the widespread gross misuse of power and Spotify is up for the task. What they’re doing is certainly uncharted territory but it’s no different than the film industry pushing out Harvey Weinstein without a legal judgement. Our legal system has often failed us and the fact that R Kelly and many others remain legally innocent does not mean that they are truly innocent of their alleged crimes.

Spotify is operational because of its subscribers and in this day and age people have more of a voice than ever before because of social media. When Laura Ingraham from Fox made bullying comments toward one of the Parkland survivors, many corporations pulled their ads from Fox because people with buying power called them out on social media. Spotify is basically saying, our subscribers own us and we have to respect them.

While the first amendment is something we all hold dear, Spotify isn’t wholly censoring anyone. They’re removing the songs from their editorial playlists, not their platform. Spotify is simply choosing not to support these artists with their resources, not telling them what they can and can’t say or do. Censorship is scary, but so are men in power who wield it to abuse women and escape the law. Our actions have consequences, even if they aren’t always legal. In this situation Spotify is taking the role of the parent telling the children “you have free will, but if you choose to do A then we’re going to do B.”

While the move can be seen as commendable, is this how mass censorship starts? Maybe, but if this type of censorship bleeds into politics, that’s a different story, but right now, it seems like Spotify, among other corporations, is doing what they can do spread goodness through their platform.

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The Yodeling Kid Is Famous

You’ve probably heard of Mason Ramsey. In March he let loose the yodel heard ‘round the world from the humble stage of a Walmart convenience store, dubbing himself “The Yodeling Kid.” Fast forward to May and Mason is still yodeling away, but on much larger stages. Having recently performed at Coachella, Stagecoach, and the famous Grand Ole Opry, Mason is in the midst of a meteoric rise to fame. And while the kid himself is a new face, the situation can’t help but feel familiar.  

Virality like this is nothing new. From Marquese Scott aka the “dubstep dancer” to Danielle Bregoli aka Bhad Bhabie, digital video virality has been spawning legitimate careers in entertainment since its inception. What’s new is the sheer speed of Mason’s rise. Scott’s famous video was his 53rd. He’d been posting for years and eventually one stuck. Even Bregoli had more than a year for her memedom to simmer after her initial outburst on TV with the infamous “cash me ousside, how bout dat?”

Mason is a different story, he yodeled some Hank Williams in a Walmart and then played Coachella 3 weeks later. This is what virality 3.0 looks like. When these internet sensations first hit the industry, they didn’t know how to properly leverage their digital stardom. Now, 15 years in there’s a blueprint. Both Bregoli and Mason are actually signed to Atlantic Records. Mason’s launch to the big time was a perfect storm. While we have seen this phenomenon in pop and urban genres, this country catapult to fame is a first.

One advantage Mason holds is the increasing number of internet connected devices. With the increasing number of digital platforms this allows artists to instantly intertwine their digital presence with their fans. Whatever the nexus of circumstance, Mason Ramsey is crushing it. His new single ‘Famous’ is written by the Florida Georgia Line team and it’s already done more than 10 million Spotify streams and charted on the Billboard hot 100. With so much adulation it begs the question, what makes it different with Mason than the others? How did he do it in 3 weeks? Even Bieber took longer than that. Speaking of Bieber, their chance encounter at Coachella was very fitting. There’s a new kid on the block and Justin is passing on the torch of youtube video, turned superstar.

Maybe people just like to see a kid make it. Perhaps it’s the convergence of the growing digital population and the need for hope of upward mobility to fight the despair of the widening income gap. The bottom line is that although internet virality has been around since the 1990s each individual case has its own je ne sais quoi. Shoveling marketing dollars across platforms can make a snowball but only the consumer can create an avalanche. Today, Mason Ramsey may be the Walmart crooning avalanche du jour, but lord knows what Taco Bell beatbox genius will claim the throne next.

The Playlist Is The Most Important Thing In Music

Spotify is the new radio. As iHeart Radio inches towards bankruptcy, Spotify is filing for its IPO at a $20B+ evaluation. There are other music discovery platforms services, like Apple, Deezer, Shazam and even Pandora. Yet, Spotify’s robust playlist offerings and adept curation have set their playlists and their company ahead of the pack. After years of being exposed to playlists curated by the radio, people have come to expect their music discovery to be curated for them. Spotify is riding this truth all the way to the bank.

Playlists have captured a generation’s attention because they have tapped into a passive discovery experience. It used to be that you would know your favorite albums, then search allowed you to browse your favorite types of music, now people tap into lists of all sorts based on a mood and different topics that they don’t have to work for. Not only can they put their trust in a person or brand to tell them what to listen to when they want to go on a run or when they’re headed to Coachella, but the list is refreshed at least once a week. In this way, playlists also service our ADD nature and how we constantly need the latest fix. Those who curate playlists have their finger on the pulse of their cultural niches and they know how to make fans, peers and colleagues feel something.

On the Spotify platform there are two classes of playlists. There are ‘editorial’ playlists like Rap Caviar that Spotify curates internally and there are user generated playlists. The editorials are the most powerful in terms of exposure because Spotify gives their own playlists preferential treatment within their search algorithm and as such, their lists are the largest on the platform. Spotify’s curators use a proprietary software called PUMA to break down the analytics and data acquired from each playlist. Songs win points for having a low skip rate, a high completion rate and a high number of saves. With all of this data the curators are able to fine tune their playlists to perfection.

Record labels realized the power of user generated playlists early on and began building their own networks. Universal scooped up the Digster brand, Sony acquired Filtr and Warner snagged up Topsify. The 3 majors bought into existing user generated networks to keep a veil of secrecy and to preserve the feeling that people are discovering music from their labels organically. Much the way large corporations operate behind a web of subsidiaries. The bottom line is that playlists, be it radio in the past or Spotify lists now, are both the heart and the future of music discovery. And the curators of those lists are the DJs of the future.

One of the more notable curators is Tuma Basa, the ear behind Rap Caviar. Basa broke Lil Uzi Vert’s career wide open, more than doubling his stream totals from 450,000 to over 1,000,000 simply by adding him to the playlist. Rap Caviar is the second largest playlist on Spotify with just shy of 9M followers. A&Rs, managers and artists alike were courting Tuma as if he was royalty prior to his recent departure. With a few strokes of his keyboard Tuma was able to make or break an artist’s career. Often times these placements on the playlist are arranged weeks or months prior to a release. For the business end of the industry, strong playlisting has become synonymous with success.

In a world filled with increasing amounts of automation, playlists are poised to remain a human-driven niche. Not everything can be broken down into code. There are intangibles, intuitions and emotions that govern how we interact with music. Discovering new music can inspire us to write novels, paint great works, move our bodies in ways we never have and more importantly, nurture our souls. As long as we have the complex and passionate relationship with music, these curators will continue to craft the soundtracks to our lives, and the music industry will continue to do everything in their power to get their artists in prime positions on notable playlists.

State Of The Music Industry

But the music biz is in control…

As we wrap up the end of 2016 and all the “best of lists”  are being showcased and reviewed with the hit songs and albums that dominated the year, we’re starting to think about the state of the music industry.

Just last week the Grammys revealed their list of nominees. We saw some familiar faces and some newcomers. One of those is Chance The Rapper who is up for seven awards, and he, unlike his other nominated brethren, has no record label to call home.

With the democratization of the internet, we’ve seen artists of all kinds become more empowered than ever to take control of their work, and Chance’s success this year as well as the success of other nominees from “Drake” to “Beyonce” represents a new vitality for the industry. This outlook is a stark contrast from the past rocky decade, where the inception of Napster created a catalyst that opened Pandora’s box and led to to the cannibalization of music revenues. CD’s became obsolete as did purchasing digital albums and singles. Now the music industry seems to have a handle on the business.

Apple Music just hit 20M paying subscribers after only 18 months of existence and Spotify has double that. Tidal is somewhere in the mix and alternative platforms like Soundcloud and Musical.ly are helping the music ecosystem. More confounding is the return of the vinyl record. Nostalgia and the experience of holding something tangible is becoming more valuable in an age where everything is “hands free” even though all this music is at our fingertips.

People should play close attention to the music industry, it often signifies where consumer behavior is heading. Live music, musical experiences and subscription platforms have brought the industry bottom line slowly back up. Their struggles and successes have been prophetic to what film, fashion and other industries will face quite soon. Streaming platforms are the new record labels, and the current issues with windowing and exclusives prove that content is king, and film + TV distribution platforms, even social networks like Snapchat, Facebook and the newly defunct Vine, are all facing similar conundrums.

Talent is still everything, the song is still everything, and as the music industry continues to figure itself out, the winners are the artists, platforms and businesses that have an authentic voice, provide a unique experience, and make their music most accessible to their fans. Chance gets people to the polls. Spotify is meeting fans wherever they are, and Apple is creating IP around all of its marquee artists. Music isn’t going away, it’s like oxygen, and those that succeed won’t just make people groove, but get them to take action, keeping fans coming back for more.