Playlist Malfeasance Will Create a Streaming Crisis

Streaming economics are facing a potential crisis. The problem does not lie in the market itself; after all, in Q1 2019 streaming revenue became more than half of the recorded music business and Spotify hit 100 million subscribers. Nor does it even lie in the perennial challenge of elusive operating margins. No, this particular looming crisis is both subtler and more insidious. Rather than being an inherent failing of the market, this crisis, if it transpires, will be the unintended consequence of short-sighted attempts to game the system. The root of it all is playlists.

Streaming makes casual listeners ‘more valuable’ than aficionados

Streaming took the most valuable music buyers and turned them into radio listeners. Now, as the market matures, it is taking more casual music consumers and also turning them into radio listeners. Although curated playlist penetration is still low (just 15% of streaming consumers listen regularly to curated playlists, fewer than listen to podcasts), the impact on listening over indexes.

While a lean-forward, engaged music listener may select an album or a handful of tracks to listen to and then move on, casual listeners might put on a 60-track peaceful piano playlist in the background while studying, doing housework etc. The paradox here is that casual fans have the potential to generate more streams than engaged listeners.

With casuals being the next wave of streaming adopters, their impact will increase. But despite being ‘more valuable’ they will also reduce royalties, because more streams per user means revenue gets shared between more tracks, which means lower per-stream rates. The music industry thus has an apparently oxymoronic challenge: it is not in its interest to significantly increase the amount of media consumption time it gets per user, but instead it will be better served by getting a larger number of people listening less! 

Current market trajectory points to more streams per user, which – for subscriptions, where royalties are paid as a share of revenue – means lower per-stream rates.

Playing the game

Against this growing background consumption trend, streaming services, labels, songwriters and artists are all making matters worse by gaming the system whether that be by structuring songs to work on streaming, creating Spotify friendly soundsor simply gaming playlists.

With playlists being so important for both marketing and revenue, it was inevitable that people would seek out ways to attain any possible advantage. Consequently, playlists are becoming gamed, whether that be major labels getting more than their fair share of access to the biggest playlistsor ‘fake artists’filling them out.Most recently, Humble Angel’s Kieron Donoghue identified a cynically constructed playlist called ‘Sleep & Mindfulness Thunderstorms’(all terms optimised for user searches) that contained 330 one-minute songs of “ambient noise of rain and a few thunder storms thrown in for good measure”. The one-minute track length ensures they are long enough to qualify for a royalty share, but short enough to ensure that a typical listening session will generate a vast quantity of streams, thus generating more royalties.

The twist to this story is that this playlist was created by Sony Music and the artist behind all these tracks appears to be a Sony Music artist. Crucially Sony isn’t the only one doing this, with UMG getting in on the actand Warner Music signing an algorithm.

Playlist deforestation

This sort of activity may make absolute commercial sense but is creatively bankrupt. It certainly makes record complaints about ‘fake artists’ ring less true. Just because you can do something does not mean that you should. This model works until it doesn’t. In fact, there are parallels with deforestation. A logger in the Amazon will likely not be thinking about the destructive impact on the environment he is directly contributing to. In similar manner, it is unlikely that the people creating these playlists realise that they are contributing to a market-level crisis. This is because, the more of these types of playlists that are created, the lower per-stream rates they will generate for everyone.

Well, not ‘everyone’. If overall streaming revenue rises but stream rates decline, then the companies with large catalogues of music, especially those that are also creating arsenals of playlist-filler ammunition, will still feel revenue growth. For individual artists and songwriters, however, royalty payments could actually fall.

Fixing the problem

The casual listening problem will not fix itself. In fact, despite labels worrying about declining ARPUthe only way they can keep ahead of declining streaming rates is by increasing their share of streams. That means more of this sort of playlist gaming activity, which further accentuates the problem.

There is however a simple solution: reduce per-stream rates for lean-back playlist plays.This would ensure the songs people actively seek out get better pay-outs. The demarcations between lean back and lean forward used to be elegantly simple (e.g. Pandora versus Spotify), but now curated playlists and other forms of streaming curation are supporting radio-like behaviour on the same platforms as on-demand. It is time for royalty models to catch up with this new reality.

Spotify, the Decline of Playlists and the Rise of Podcasts

The following is a small excerpt from MIDiA’s forthcoming third edition of its ‘landmark State of the Streaming Nation’ report. For more information about this report email stephen@midiaresearch.com

Most things that Spotify does are scrutinised and cross-examined within an inch of their lives, with vested interests trying to second guess what may be the intended or unintended consequences for them. Most actions are viewed through the disruption lens i.e. how will this hurt or compete with Spotify’s rightsholder partners? The streaming market is of course so much more than just Spotify, but the company acts as a lightning rod for the wider market and most often sets the strategic agenda.

Spotify’s Two Phases of Growth

Two of Spotify’s most significant moves have been playlist curation and podcasts. Spotify is moving into the second major phase of its existence. Phase 1 was about establishing itself as a streaming music powerhouse, Phase 2 is about what it becomes next, extending beyond the streaming music beachhead. This is the typical trajectory of tech companies, establishing themselves in their core competencies and then expanding. This can either be a dramatic expansion – e.g. Amazon moving from eCommerce into video and music – or a more focused value-chain extension – e.g. Netflix moving from simply streaming other’s shows to making its own. For Spotify, playlists were a Phase 1strategy and podcasts are very much part of Phase 2.

midia playlists and podcasts

Podcasts may just have come in the nick of time for Spotify because curated playlists remain much more about potential than they do reality. Just 15% of streaming consumers listen to curated playlists. In fact, of all the key streaming feature activities, curated playlists come lowest. Curated playlists are clearly not to streaming music what binge watching is to streaming video. Instead streaming activity is fragmented across multiple features and just 10% of streaming consumers regularly do all four of the activities listed in the chart above.

‘But wait’ I hear you ask, ‘that doesn’t make sense, look at all these streams we’re getting from playlists’. The key factor here is the difference between the number of playlist users and the number of playlist streams. Playlists over index in terms of contribution to streams. With dozens of tracks per list, lean-back playlist listening can easily generate more streams per user than lean-forward listening. Thus, we have one of the great emerging paradoxes of streaming: passive audiences can generate more streams, and thus rightsholder pay outs, than engaged, aficionados. However, a word of caution, should casual playlist listening become large enough, then the net result will be a dilution of the royalty pool and thus diminishing per stream rates.

Perhaps not the holy grail of promotion

A few years ago, playlists looked like the future of artist marketing, now they are looking a bit like a busted flush. They may be great at generating streams but are not so great at building an artist’s story. The near-obsession with Spotify playlists in label marketing strategy reflects the fact that most record label executives use Spotify and thus often have a Spotify-centric (and therefore playlist-centric) worldview. But labels are now beginning to question the artist ROI of playlists. The growing adoption among casual listeners only compounds matters and means that a playlist ‘hit’ does not necessarily do much to help long-term artist brand building. To put it simply: a playlist is not a shortcut to cultural relevance.

Podcasts could be bigger than streaming

Enter stage left podcasts. With its acquisitions of Gimlet, Anchor and Parcast, Spotify is betting big on podcasts. Already, more streaming users (18%) listen to podcasts than curated playlists while overall consumer podcast penetration is 11%. In Sweden – the early adopter market that gives us a view of where other markets are heading – podcast penetration is 19%, rising to 28% among streamers. Podcasts are a Netflix moment for radio and may even have the potential to be bigger than streaming music (US radio ad revenues alone are $16 billion). Right now, the growth in overall podcast audiences is fairly slow, but engagement is accelerating as are content creation, monetisation and distribution. It is not entirely inconceivable to think that five years from now, podcasts could be a bigger business for Spotify than music. Certainly, creators could be making much more money, even now.

While it remains more likely that music will be the core of Spotify’s business half a decade from now, all the early indications are that Phase 2 will mean a degree of diversification of user experience, business model and revenue stream, with podcasts at the vanguard. Playlists are not dead, but nor are they the golden child anymore.

What’s Next For Playlist Innovation?

This is a guest post from MIDiA Research’s Keith Jopling.

In this era of access to all music and everything about it, I do enjoy reading artist interviews, and pay attention to artists’ views on the modern music industry. What caught me recently were Mark Ronson’s remarks on songwriting in the age of the playlist in The Guardian:

“Everything has to be produced so it sounds competitively as loud as possible coming out of an iPhone or as loud as possible when it comes out of a Spotify hits playlist; you have to make sure the kick drum and the guitar have the same loudness and presence all the way through the whole fucking song or you don’t stand a chance. It’s kind of crazy how you have to think about music now.”

I have heard similar views from artists in recent years and they do have grounds, though you’ll be hard pressed to prove that streaming and playlists have truly altered music per se. After all how would that equate with the huge success of ‘slow music’ playlists, from Peaceful Piano to Esquenta Sertanejo to Your Favourite Coffeehouse?

There has certainly been an industry skew towards ‘streaming hits’ though. More artists are making “Spotify-core” (i.e. music that will do anything to avoid being skipped) and that’s a genre perhaps lacking in subtlety, But can it be accused of crowding out other, subtler types of music?

I would argue that playlists have changed the way we listen more than they have changed music itself. If the first port-of-call for music consumers is to hear songs on playlists, a lot of context around the music is lost. Already, research has shown that listeners are hard pushed to recall song titles, let alone the albums those songs are taken from. Speaking of albums, it strikes me as high time the industry now evaluate just what a ‘post-album’ world will look and sound like. So perhaps somewhere to start is to think about more innovation with the format that in essence, has replaced the album – playlists.  

Are playlists now set in stone as 30-50 tracks that are forever subject to optimisation tools and analytics? I very much doubt it. Despite playlists becoming valuable commercial music real estate in their current form (at least on Spotify) it seems to me that there is plenty of scope for further creative development of the format. We are far from ‘peak playlist’. A glance at the latest MIDiA global consumer data for Q4 2018 would back this up, with just 17% of music streamers claiming to listen to playlists regularly. though that number nearly doubles for Spotify subscribers to 31%. Critical mass for Spotify but hardly mass behaviour for the market overall.

That said, playlists do greatly reflect the way consumers interact with music: compiling or selecting, listening and sharing, sometimes adding context along the way. The opportunities these behaviours offer as a vehicle for promoting and monetizing artists are immense and perhaps still largely untapped, especially with regard to contextualization of new talent, as well as the creative resurfacing of songs from within music catalogues too.

A slowdown in playlist innovation

Spotify came to be the platform that really owns the playlist format, and it achieved this through a breakneck period of innovation between July 2015 and September 2016, with curated playlists brands like Rap Caviar and Today’s Top Hits augmented with the personalised “made for you” power triangle of Discovery Weekly, Release Radar and Daily Mix.

But since then, in over two years there has been little of that same calibre, other than somewhat lighter initiatives such as “Your Time Capsule”. More recently, Spotify has begun to fuse some curated playlists together with algorithmic suggestions (‘algotorial’). The strategy to personalise more playlists not only makes it harder for its competitors to copy, but introduces many more song slots for direct or independent artists to fill. The strategy is smart but perhaps lacks imagination.

Playlist Innovation Timeline: There has been a slowdown following 18 months of blistering innovation led by Spotify between July ‘15 and September ‘16.

Playlist-Timeline

Despite this, remarkably none of the major streaming competitors have made moves to innovate in the playlist space either, which seems a shame when streaming services are desperate for differentiation strategies. Instead, Amazon, Apple and Deezer seem to have largely played a game of follow the leader, with similar playlists themes, visual presentation and even ever blander names. In recent days Pandora has launched something called Stories, a mesh of podcast + playlist, which seems not only to lack imagination but to be muddled. Isn’t that just a tweak on radio?

Many artists and labels are concerned about the power that services have with regard to playlisting. While getting tracks on to the current raft of major playlist properties represents a challenge for A&R and marketers the music industry, the more accessible platform-hosted independent curated playlist have been around since Napster.

There are few, if any, limits to the potential reach of these playlists, and their value is determined in part by how creative they are, and in part how shareable they are. The recording industry’s earlier efforts to build playlists or influence playlists have fallen short though lack of imagination, global thinking, context and shareability, but that just means that the industry is free to work more creatively with the wider playlist community. It surprises me that Spotify, which plays host to independent curators still (and hopefully will continue to) doesn’t do more to tend to the community. But this perhaps creates room for others to do so.

Personally, I can see new exciting playlist platform tools like Soundsgood helping global playlist curators reach audiences more easily, providing many more opportunities for artists, labels and creators in the process. Other platforms like Stationhead and Lost are doing interesting things too with curators and tracks, but perhaps could get more traction if they switched focus to playlists?

Bringing back context

I like playlists as much as the next music fan, but like Mark Ronson and many other artists and music fans, I also feel they have commodified music somewhat. One thing I would like to see much more of for playlists is context. Why can’t we have sleeve notes for playlists about how they were put together (let alone by whom and why?). It looks to me like there is an opportunity to bring some context and personality back into playlisting. Mixtapes from the cassette age were lovingly compiled, often with handwritten notes and homemade cover art.

I’ve played with some of these ideas with my own playlist site the Song Sommelier. The Song Sommelier was created as a passion project to bring mixtape and vinyl values back to playlisting. Each playlist is accompanied by bespoke artwork by ‘resident’ artist Mick Clarke, and a reader or ‘digital sleeve notes’ by the playlist curator. For this project we chose to use the Soundsgood player to allow users of any streaming service access the playlists, doing away with those widgets that direct the music fan to either Spotify or Apple. It’s still more than a two horse race after all.

My hope is that with the artwork, sleeve notes and more original themes for the playlists, will make fans and listeners listen to playlists more like they used to with albums – paying more attention and hopefully connecting with the song collection on a deeper level. At least that might make Mark Ronson cheer up a bit (though his new “Club Heartbreak” playlist on Apple Music suggests it might be a while).

Perhaps a key question is how important is context to the music itself? It depends on your point of view, but context may be the thing that divides the passionate music fan from the casual one. Really, who wants to listen to a collection called “Get Home Happy” or “Prime Chill”, whether it’s curated or personalised? Except I guess some people do. Mostly, I would welcome some more creative thinking and innovation that can take playlists to another level.