Not All Playlists Are Created Equal
Be careful what you list for.
As streaming landscape matures, the approaches of independent musicians have to develop with it. For many of us, things are changing so rapidly we end up expecting to achieve success by following the path of previously successful artists, even if the circumstances that allowed for their success are no longer applicable. In other words, if you’re expecting the music market to operate like it did in 2013, 2014, or even last year, you’re limiting yourself. Over the last few years Spotify and other major streaming giants have done much to consolidate their influence over playlist-driven streaming on their platform. While independent playlists are still a useful and essential part of driving streams for those who haven’t broken into Spotify Official playlists, its no longer as easy or as simple to find and determine what the best playlists are. Unless you’ve been ‘blessed’ enough to quickly shoot onto an Spotify Official list, it’s more important than ever for independent artists to make intelligent and informed moves to find the most effective and valuable playlists to devote our attention and time to. As the market continue to mature, data-driven decision-making will be an increasingly essential aspect of getting your music into the ears of fans.
Some Experience-Tested Observations
In the five months since I released my debut album, Electric Nocturnal, I’ve tried a wide variety of promotional approaches, and roughly followed a loose, three stage trajectory: pre-release upswing ➡ crescendo to release ➡ steady wind-down.
As I’ve approached the wind-down period I’ve transitioned from 3–5+ promotional actions per day to a more steady 3–5 actions per week (turns out its hard to sustain breakneck pace on top of other responsibilities). The benefit of such a format is that it offers a measurable, repeatable, and systematized approach to promoting. Do as much as you can sustain in each given time period, but make sure you are keeping track of your actions and their direct outcomes. This can be in as simple or as detailed a way as you wish (scrawls or spreadsheets), just make sure to track what works and what doesn’t. For instance, if finding 5 blogs to email is your daily action, overtime you’ll quickly be able to see the response rate and decide whether that’s successful and how you might need to diversify your methods. You’ll also find that actions that were appropriate at one stage may not be helpful at another. But you may not pick up on these things if you weren’t tracking your actions.
Whether you’re still at a release-period pace or winding down weeks or months later, its crucial to make use of informative data to determine whether an action is really worth your time. In this article, I’ll focus on playlists specifically, because of their value to independent artists and because there are some incredibly useful tools that can help us make informative decisions.
There are a variety of useful sites that aggregate playlists/curators that allow free (e.g. IndieMono, Soundplate), or mixed free/credit-based submissions (e.g. SubmitHub/SubmitHub, Jamlister [formerly spotlister], WorkHardPlaylistHard). There are even options like RadioAirplay that offer guaranteed placements on genre- or artist-themed internet radio ‘stations.’ Each of these platforms have particular strategies associated with them but all can benefit from integrating data observations in your playlist decision. Recently, Submithub has even made this simpler and easier because they started integrating playlist engagement data directly into their service. While these sites will give you access to lists, you need to develop an eye for evaluating lists to see if they’re worthwhile.
When In Doubt, Check the Stats
While it may feel good to see a 100k+ playlist follower reach for your songs, its far more worthwhile to have high engagement (i.e. actual interaction/listens) per playlist. This also means plays per song brings actual traffic to your artist pages, followers to your socials, and increased saves of your song that amplify streams overall even if you’re eventually removed from the playlist (these outcomes can be called conversion). Five playlists with <1k followers with high engagement/conversion is better than one playlist with large numbers with low or no true engagement. This is all the more essential given how more and more playlisters have gamed the system with fancy visuals, apparently legitimate backend (catchy website with grand claims/socials with high follower counts) and faked followers but no engagement/conversion to show for it. One tool I’ve found essential in this regard has been Chartmetric.io. They offer a huge range of useful features I won’t cover fully here, but most importantly their free version isn’t neutered and contains many full-fledged features (they also offer a paid subscription for more features).
Here’s a breakdown of some important elements Chartmetric can offer indie musicians:
1. A centralized place to keep track of your playlist reach, trends overtime in your streaming popularity, and what playlists you’re on (Spotify for instance only lists the playlists that get you over 25 streams, but you’ll want to know the name of playlists that you’re on that aren’t that active so you know to avoid them in the future).
2. Tools to analyze playlists for their engagement and legitimacy. For example, Chartmetric tracks follower count trends over time. Have you noticed lucrative playlist with 50k followers jumped up 40k followers over night? That’s probably not a good sign. Does the playlist you’re pitching to have a ton of songs from 8 months ago that haven’t changed? It may not be as impactful as you hope. This kind of info is especially useful if you’re paying or spending credits to gain access to curators. You want to make sure your resources are going as far as they can go, especially if you are on a fairly limited budget. In addition to finding direct info on playlists and curators, you can also track OTHER artists’ streams and data and see what crucial playlists broke their music.
3. Chartmetric (and other streaming trackers) feature historical (trends x time) data allows you to track what efforts resulted in what jumps in streaming numbers, followers etc. Did that last blog posting coincide with a big jump in streams? You should keep them in mind for your next release and definitely return the favor by driving followers to their site. Did that blog with a supposed 10k reach not drive any traffic? They may have many fake followers, so adjust your efforts accordingly.
Case Study | Three Playlists, Three Dynamics
1. This playlist is a perfect example of lists to watch out for. Its 85k+ follower count is impressive at first glance, and it features under 200 songs which is desirable. However, looking at its follower history shows suspicious trends including sudden jumps in followers by the thousands, followed by flatlines. All in all, putting a song on this list resulted in a whopping 3 streams. Did it cost much time and effort? Thankfully no, but if you were to judge whether to invest the effort beforehand this would be a wise playlist avoid, especially since other seemingly impressive lists may cost your more. The only impact (increasing your apparent playlist follower reach) was simply unimpactful.
2. This was a strongly themed list, with an attractive 5k+ follower count and was easily accessible and did not cost much time or resources. It does however have 1k+ songs on the list, usually meaning there will be less streams because of the song competition. In this case however, the level of engagement was high and resulted in several hundred listeners and even more streams. This is likely because the strong theme of the list gave it a particularly active fanbase, which is something to look out for.
3. This list featured one track, was easily accessible, repeatable, and affordable and had <200 songs. This is generally an ideal list to look out for, but in the end had low-moderate impact with <100 streams per song. Worthwhile? If the cost is low certainly, but it goes to show that we shouldn’t pin all our hopes and plans on one list placement.
The Power of Value-Based Connections
Its easy to think of the music industry in a fragmented manner, seeing artists/creators on one side, and industry interests (labels, distributors, streaming platforms) on the other. In reality, the music ecosystem is made up of diverse elements and you’ll do yourself a huge favor if you try to understand the values and motivations of each of these actors. You wouldn’t speak the same ways to a music blogger as you would to a venue promoter, or an official Spotify curator, so why would you expect an independent playlist curator to respond in the same way either? Each of these actors will respond to different ways of building a connection. In the case of independent playlisters, it’s important to ask yourself: are they an artist themselves? are they passionate about a particular genre, style or mood? are they most interested in drawing in the most number of followers or are they motivated to create excellent, quality playlists regardless of big numbers? I’ve found that if I treat other actors in the music ecosystem in a way that respects the value they bring and centers on building a relationship of mutual benefit the results will be more forthcoming than lifeless, numbers-focused spam campaigns that so many of us have tried. To close things off I’ll offer a number of core points to round out this value-driven approach to promotion.
- One (successful) personal and genuine connection with a playlist owner is better than 10 ‘cold-call’ requests for additions.
- Really consider how you can bring value to each playlister/blogger/youtube channel owner. In some cases the joy of your newly discovered music may be enough and they’ll want to feature you, but in others you’ll most need a genuine conversation about your and their goals; for some, stories will do the trick, for others offering a simple, combined-effort mutual posting of each other’s projects will connect your audiences and drive traffic in both directions. Whatever the value you’re bringing, always lead with creating/adding value to another person’s project (playlist, album, blog, events, etc) and value will be more likely to return to you.
- Find the right medium to reach out. So far, Instagram has been the most useful tool for forming actual connections. Email on the other hand, not so much (think of the last time an email interaction really brought you joy… yeah). For other listers/bloggers Twitter, Facebook, Medium, etc. might be the most effective way to reach them as opposed to the email on their site that probably gets spammed/100s of requests daily. Be thoughtful with how you reach out. Generally the more popular the person, the harder it may be to reach out to them. You probably won’t have much luck emailing a major blog but that doesn’t mean they won’t catch your DM on Instagram or your tweet at them. Some influential people have less activity on a platform like Medium or some other service than they do on their main platform so a thoughtful comment on their blog or a DM to their Instagram might be a good way to get their attention and open up a conversation. Again, be genuine, not self-serving.
- Reaching out to other artists near or somewhat above your level who have seen good progress in promoting their music can be a great way to get pointed in the right direction; this could be an intro to one of their contacts with a valuable playlist, a placement on their personal public playlists, or a shoutout on their social. Make sure you return the favor by sharing their music to your friends and followers. Don’t leave your collaborative mindset in the studio; we’re all trying to get our music out their, lets collaborate on reaching ears too and build something bigger.
- It can be hard to reach out effectively on the Internet, and while the web is certainly essential for success in the new music business, don’t forget about the local. Every area is or can become a hotspot of creative activity. Either start something with your friends/fellow artists and join the wave of an existing community so you can all amplify your voices together. Always make sure to rep your local scene/artist collective or niche-genre! Host/join local events and join together to make waves online.
I hope these tips will serve you all well. Comment below if you’ve have successes/failures/more tips to offer!
Note 1: I am not affiliated directly with/have not received compensation for mentions from any of the services, persons or channels mentioned here; these services/individuals are mentioned are for educational purposes and because I enjoy the value these persons and groups contribute.
Note 2: There is, of course, the behemoth that is YouTube, which is filled with immensely popular content (genre) and context (mood/season, etc.) based channels with huge follower counts who drive considerable plays to independent artists (for example, the numerous channels devoted genre/study mixes: ‘chill-hop,’ mood music, simpson-wave etc.). As far as their relevance to playlist strategies, they certainly are impactful but require their own strategy with different data sources informing your approach, something I’m hoping to gain more experience with and may write about in a future article.
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 Noise Complaints Group | Playlists are the Future
 Secret Shores |Guide to Playlist Pitching
SpotOnTrack |Another Streaming Data Tracker to Check Out