“Various Artists” playlists explained

Little is know about “various artists” playlists on Spotify.

If you don’t work inside of a record label, it’s unlikely you’d notice them.

However, I’d like to shed some light on what they are, how they came to be, and why they exist.

Some say UMG pioneered this playlist strategy, however, others argue “various artists” playlist were invented when Warner Music acquired X5 Music Group located in Sweden in 2016. In reality, it was Johan Lagerlöf, Daniel Bäckström, Scott Ambrose Reilly, and Stefan Enberg of X5 Music Group that pioneered the concept of various artists playlists. X5 Music Group rose to prominence around their easily searchable playlists (and music) in the classical genre through tracks that they licensed or created.

Johan, in an interview with the NY Times, explained:

It’s not rocket science. But you have to start thinking about it. How can we get the concept so clear that people will click on it and not be disappointed? How can we make people click on that product, he added, squeezing his right index and forefinger to the size of an icon on a screen, “when it’s this big?”

It was the first time SEO was used to drive consumption around catalogue music, which was a major discovery for the music business at the time.

X5, on their website, describe their business as follows:

“From compiling mostly classical musical and to some extent jazz, the X5 Music compilers now can pick from a wide variety of genres and acts as diverse as Marilyn Manson, Jerry Lee Lewis and The Cranberries. The trademarks of X5 — easily-searchable title and an easily-readable thumbnail image, are all there also when working these genres.

Easily searchable titles (and clickable album art) was the key.

This innovation allowed them to build a $14M business, and labels like UMG decided to team up with them versus attempt to compete.

The “Country Summer Vibes” compilation above is a prime example.

“Various Artists” playlists were created largely to drive consumption and discovery around a label’s existing catalogue via searchable playlist titles. UMG, Sony, and Warner’s acquisitions of third party playlist companies like Digsin, playlists.net, and FILTR didn’t pan out as they hoped. Various artists playlists were an internal response to this failure.

(With the exception of Sony’s “FILTR” playlist brand, Digster and Topsify have become shells of their former selves.)

In fact, “various artist” playlists became so popular amongst the labels that Billboard had to implement a rule in 2017 to prevent them from dominating the album charts. You can read the article, here.

The current strategy around various artist playlists for the big three is simple.

Copy what’s working on the user generated playlist front, create your own compilation, and rinse and repeat.

Lazy, but smart.

That said, I question the wisdom around “various artists” playlists because Sony, Warner, and UMG only want to throw records they own in their compilations. It ultimately impacts the listening experience and limits the potential popularity of the playlist.

Regardless, now you understand the niche history behind various artist playlists and why they exist. Unsurprisingly, it’s all about marketshare.

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Austin Staubus

Austin Staubus

Contrarian perspectives on the streaming industrial complex.