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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.

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