This image perfectly illustrates how Spotify are getting it wrong

by Darren Hemmings

I love Spotify, and love the team there. In terms of being reachable, responsive and generally proactive, they certainly top all other streaming services right now. That point made, it has still reached a point where I feel the company is making some terrible mistakes with regards to its editorial policy and the way in which it monopolises that space.

Consider the image below, taken from my phone. I’ve played the Trojan Dub playlist to death of late*, so Spotify’s response is to offer me more reggae playlists — but only ones they own and control, instead of (for example) offering me more playlists from Trojan Records. So, if Trojan is working hard to build its own followers, the reward due is ostensibly Spotify using that insight to funnel people onto their own playlists. Sorry, but that’s just not right.

To me this perfectly illustrates everything wrong with Spotify’s current approach. They are on a relentless drive to own the editorial space, and with actions like the above they are also abusing that position to further build their (already wholly dominant) playlisting presence. By doing this they become the bottleneck to all exposure on the platform, such that in the future (if not already) it is likely that Spotify’s backing across its playlist network will make it a power greater than iTunes ever was, relative to making or breaking artists.

Democratising playlists only works if said democracy is applied across all aspects of the system. Allowing people (and yes, labels and brands) to create and share public playlists, but never allowing them into the main discovery space — which drives the bulk of discovery and plays now — is akin to a government saying “we have free speech, but all media channels are state-owned and will only say what the government agrees with”. There is nothing free or open about this at all. At every point where a third-party playlist succeeds in gaining plays, it will be met with Spotify using that insight to further fortify its own playlist dominance.

Consider for a moment known curators — someone like Gilles Peterson for example. Let’s imagine Gilles spends a load of time building up a playlist focused around his own selections. Someone listening to that will soon be getting recommended Spotify’s own playlists, which — with no disrespect to the Spotify playlist team — are not curated by known individuals whose tastes people trust and follow. This may come at the cost of other playlists Gilles might be maintaining (in my fictional example), making the work he has to do all the greater to build a following. The same applies to my Trojan example above; I know they have amazing Ska, Rocksteady, Roots and other playlists, all of which are fantastic and right up my street (as a huge reggae fan). I’d want to know about those because thanks to the Dub playlist I’ve already concluded that this label is awesome at selecting reggae. However, I would never be recommended them, because Spotify will prefer to recommend its own (oftentimes inferior) playlists. The reward for curation on Spotify is ostensibly having Spotify then attempt to poach your followers into following their playlists.

Equally though, isn’t a world in which Spotify are sole curators just fundamentally dull? Yes their curation is led by a team, but even so, it is still painfully limited by comparison to a more open platform where individuals can establish and demonstrate their own curating skills.

These have all been a factors informing a recent decision to advise a client to focus their efforts into building an audience on YouTube first. Why? Because we already know that there is a halo effect from YouTube, in which plays on content turn into plays on Spotify once connections between artist/label/channel have been made. Additionally on YouTube there is at least a flat structure and plenty of means to market oneself on the platform; you have subscriptions, remarketing lists, annotations, merch links, sponsored search results, prerolls, suggested videos, algorithmically-generated playlists… all means by which someone could theoretically build a greater presence, one which can translate into not just plays on Spotify but all manner of other revenue streams. Just look at UKF for proof of that. Additionally though, this flat structure ensures that anyone could start trending on YouTube, giving everybody (in theory at least) a fair shot at establishing themselves on the platform.

We have reached a point where Spotify is overstepping its mark in controlling access to market, and is shooting itself in the foot in the process. By opening this platform up and taking some pointers from YouTube (among others), Spotify could become THE platform for artists, empowering them to build audiences and connections through which they can make a living. It could be the very thing to give it the winning edge over its competitors. Right now, as long as Spotify remains the sole gatekeeper and bottleneck through which everything must happen, that is simply never going to happen.

PS if you would like to hear more around this topic, check out the latest Motive Unknown Podcast hosted by myself and David Emery where this was all discussed at some length.

  • Full disclosure: Trojan is a Motive Unknown client, though the reason for the plays is purely passion for dub!