How artists illegally pay their way onto Spotify’s playlists

Source: Cult of Mac

With over 150 million users, Spotify has the ability to launch the careers of previously-unknown music artists. It does this by featuring these artists on its playlists, which are maintained by a mixture of users, Spotify staff, and algorithms. Playlists count for half of all listening on Spotify, and getting your song listed on a few of the most influential lists, some of which boast millions of subscribers, has the ability to thrust you onto the Billboard 100 charts. Several rap artists featured on Rap Caviar, one of the app’s most powerful lists, have become overnight sensations.

But with individual users wielding that much power, it shouldn’t be surprising that some have succumbed to illicit backroom deals in which artists pay the playlist owners to include their songs, a practice that’s been illegal since the payola scandals in the 1950s that led to a Congressional investigation into radio DJs.

Daily Dot managing editor Austin Powell recently published his investigation into the black market for Spotify playlists. I interviewed Powell about how these markets operate and what Spotify is doing to stop it.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.

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Simon Owens: Hey Austin, thanks for joining us.

Austin Powell: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

You wrote about this very specific issue with Spotify playlists. How did you first get turned on to this story?

Interestingly, the main company that I report in the feature, a company called Spotlister, they actually reached out to The Daily Dot. They had been operating for four or five months successfully as Spotlister. Before that, as I learned after speaking to them, they were working independently doing private playlisting for hire PR work. They had been doing that for about two years.

They just sent an email to our tips line at The Daily Dot. I read it, it immediately caught my interest, and I realized there was a much bigger story here, and probably not the one they had in mind when they first contacted us.

They were looking for some positive press, but little did they know that you were about to expose, possibly, a dark underbelly that may have got them in trouble.

They specialized in something that involves Spotify playlists. Can you explain what Spotify playlists are and why they’re considered so influential?

Absolutely. Spotify playlist is the modern version of the mixtape. Any user can go onto the service and create a playlist. It could be favorite songs from a particular artist. They can be themed. They can be by genre. Really whatever you would like. It’s probably the definitive feature of Spotify. You can do it on Tidal, but it doesn’t have the same user base there, and it’s just very easy to create on Spotify and share those with friends. You can also follow other influential playlists that are on the service.

And it’s become a real focal point for the company. They’ve employed 250 full-time staff to create these playlists for their users. The CEO of Spotify said in 2016 that he wants to soundtrack every moment of your life. That’s a mission they’ve really tried to fulfill. They have 2,500 official playlists on Spotify. Increasingly, the vast majority of listening on the platform is happening on these playlists. This has been a feature for years now, but as they’ve grown in prominence, some of these playlists, official and unofficial, can get to the point where they have hundreds of thousands or millions of followers. That’s what’s created this really intriguing market, because getting added to those playlists all of a sudden creates a huge financial incentive, because you’re getting paid based on the streams being generated. So it’s created this entire market that’s similar to what we saw in radio from decades past. But it’s really this new frontier made possible by the internet.

Correct me if I’m wrong: there are three different kinds of playlists. There are the user-generated playlists. For those, i can go on Spotify and start creating my own playlists, and if I create a really good playlists, other people can start following it. There are the playlists that are curated through those 250 staffers you were talking about. And then there’s also algorithmically curated playlists. That’s what Discover Weekly is?

That’s right. There are the algorithmic playlists. There are two types of those. There are the ones that are generated by each viewer based on their own habits. Yes, you get Release Radar, that’s coming at you every Friday and it’s showing you new releases from artists in your network that you’ve been listening to. And then you have all those daily playlists that are available, usually four to six per user.

But then there are more SEO-oriented playlists. That’s where you’re taking these really generic terms, and they have playlists for EDM and all these different niche genres. And a lot of those are just algorithmically generated looking at the meta data that appears for each of these songs, and what appears to be gaining traction.

That’s really the second step these artists are hoping to get to with this Spotify scheming. They’re hoping that by getting added to these playlists, that’s going to generate enough streaming, enough interest, that it’s going to help them first land on those algorithmic playlists, and get into people’s weekly rotation. Or onto some of those bigger algorithmically generated playlists. And then from there, the big fish is to hope that sends a strong enough signal to Spotify where they’re added to these huge influential playlists.

And how much power do these playlists have in terms of turning an unknown artist into an actual star?

They’re huge. The Spotify official playlists, they really can manufacture hits. The biggest of them, Rap Caviar for example, I believe it has 8 million followers. So if you were added anywhere on that playlists, and specifically on the top 10 — with any playlists, people do fall off at a certain point. It doesn’t matter how many followers a playlist has, the hundredth track is not going to have as big of an impact.

But Rap Caviar has been credited with turning a lot of artists into household names. The example I use in the article is Smokepurpp’s “Audi,” which went gold, which has 68 million streams and counting. And a lot of that came from being on that one specific playlist. And it’s been just a real windfall that happens from there. They’re added to that, and then dozens, if not hundreds of users, add it to their own playlists after that. And it generates a trickle effect.

But it’s not even just those official playlists. One of my favorites, a great HBO show called Insecure, and there’s a Spotify playlister, unofficial, who has collected every single song that appears on the show. There are two seasons now, and it’s kind of shocking how much material he has on that playlist. It’s over 100 songs now. And that playlist probably has 500,000 followers, something close to it. He also did the one for Big Little Lies.

So obviously it’s always been a big deal for an artist to get licensed into a hit TV show or movie, but with these types of Spotify playlists that are being done unofficially, those songs in the past may not have necessarily ended up on the official soundtrack. The official soundtrack for Insecure probably only had 12 to 15 songs on it. This one on Spotify has close to 100. And hundreds of thousands of people listening. That creates a lot of value for those artists that are being featured.

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Let’s talk about the pay-for-play scheme that you expose in your piece. How does it actually work? If I’m an aspiring rapper, do I go to one of the moderators for one of these playlists and say here’s a couple thousand dollars, put me on your playlist? Or is there something more sophisticated going on?

I think you’re seeing both of those happening right now. That’s why I think this is going to be a really difficult issue for Spotify to address. Even if you shut down the third party services, you’re going to have a very difficult time stopping that one on one conversation from happening. That is the tried and true way of making this happen on Spotify. You’ll notice that a particular playlist has a ton of followers, you think your music will be a good fit for it. Then you somehow track down the contact information for that user. Maybe they make it easy for you. They have a website. They have Twitter. Then your each out. See if they do accept bribes to get your song featured. And that has been happening for some time. The first big expose Billboard published in 2016, and in that article, they were quoting executives offering price points from anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 for an playlist add.

The sources I spoke with are operating on a smaller scale, but they did confirm that this is very much one of the ways this is still happening. And if anything, it’s only become more sophisticated, because you’re paying not only based on how big that playlist is, but two, where you’re placed on that playlist. Because again, being at the top is going to make a huge difference. And three, how long you’re on the playlist. A lot of these playlists, they try to keep them fresh. They rotate with some regularity. It can make a big difference if you’re paying to be added for a week, or if you’re paying to be added on a monthly basis. That time span makes a huge difference.

But you also write about these platforms, and they would argue that they do something more legitimate than the one-on-one stuff. What are these platforms and how do they work exactly?

What I just described is the old way. The new way, they have created this network of influencers and playlisters who are open for business, willing to listen to songs and potentially add them to their playlists. So they’ve created apps, and my article focuses on two in particular, Spotlister and SubmitHub. SubmitHub has been around for several years and offers this kind of service not just for Spotify, but also for YouTube and SoundCloud, and MP3 blogs. But there are a dozen others. There’s Playlist Push, and a handful that are really trying to corner this market.

The way that they work is a user will submit a song, and they will try to, using these platforms, submit it to the right blogs for consideration. Those playlisters are basically being paid to listen and consider the song, not necessarily to add it. With all these services, that’s how they’re trying to skirt these rules, that they’re not paying for the add specifically, just to consider it.

Both Spotlister and SubmitHub take pride in that their acceptance rate is somewhere in the 10 to 15 percent range, if not lower. What you’re paying for with these services is a guaranteed listen and some feedback.

So they would argue that this isn’t a pay-for-play business. One, we’re a middleman, and two, you’re not paying the playlister to add your song, you’re just paying them to listen to it and give them feedback. It’s basically a filtering service. And yeah, this will guarantee that they’ll at least listen to it, and then they’ll be slightly more likely to put it on their playlist, compared to if you were just cold emailing them. But because this isn’t a paid placement, you can’t say it’s a pay-for-play scheme.

Exactly. From their perspective, they’re really trying to level the playing field. They feel that the cards are stacked against the indie artists who aren’t on one of the three major labels, all of which have invested heavily in Spotify and are featured very prominently on those official playlists. They really see themselves as David in this narrative, just trying to help artists get this exposure and hopefully it can be a shortcut, or at least the right step in their careers.

Can you put this in historical context? Historically, radio DJs have been hitmakers. And they do top 40, it’s not like there’s a super diverse list of songs played by these radio DJs. How does this compare to what’s been going on in the radio industry for decades? Has there been pay-for-play there? What are the official and unofficial rules that govern that, versus to what’s going on here?

Payolla started with radio, back in the the 40s and 50s. It came from noting the DJs had a huge amount of sway in the industry in determining what was played, and therefore what became a success. If you bribed the right radio DJ, got your song on the radio, which was everything in that era, extremely coveted, then you could really corner and market and establish yourself overnight.

The problem, of course, is that that influence, that consideration that was being paid for was not being disclosed to listeners. They had no idea that what they were hearing was the work of a DJ making an editorial or curational judgement decision, but that was it being paid for by a larger music corporation.

It’s not like the listener really knew.

Exactly. The government stepped in. It was a massive scandal. And they worked really hard to crack down on that in the decades since. I’m sure it’s still happening in various ways. There are all sorts of incentives and trips and sponsored opportunities. And advertising. There are all sorts of ways, I’m sure, that the music industry courts favor with specific artists and DJs and things of that sort.

And we’re really just starting to see this on the digital side of things. So much of the value has shifted toward streaming. In fact, it was in 2017, two thirds of all revenue generated from recorded music was based on streaming royalties. So all of that effort is moving online. And the thing that’s tricky about Spotify and platforms like it, is that it’s really difficult, if not impossible, to note when editorial consideration has been paid for. You can’t add hashtag sponsored to a Spotify playlist, the way you might be able to disclose it on Facebook or Twitter.

Now that there’s this been this unofficial market that’s risen up. The same thing is happening with influencer marketing and Instagram. I just interviewed someone who specializes in finding fraudulent bot accounts for influencers. But it seems like the same thing is happening with Spotify playlists. You write that there are some creators of Spotify playlists that are artificially inflating their number of followers, I’m guessing so they can start charging for plays. People are paying for playlists that look like they have a million followers but don’t really. What are they doing, exactly?

That’s it, exactly. It’s about appearances. With most of these networks, the bigger the playlist, the more they’re able to charge for that editorial consideration. So the fastest way to make more money is not by judging more and more songs, but by increasing that follower count so you can charge more for each song considered.

This has been a huge issue. A lot of people I’ve spoken to have said it’s a real trial and error service. You might pay for one thing expecting a certain number of streams, maybe enough streams to get your money back. But then they see the engagement isn’t really there. That’s one of the problems right now for these services, trying to figure out how to create that transparency, and how to shift the model toward engagement versus just sheer number of followers.

So they create not only just fake followers, but they create fake streams as well?

You can do both. I think, in terms of these playlister services, you’re seeing more fake followers to just increase the appearances of how many streams they might be able to provide. But on Spotify, you can buy streams. You can buy followers. Just like you can with Twitter followers.

These services are blatant in what they’re doing. I list one in the article called Streamify, and this website really cracks me up, because it has all these stock photos of cheesy bands and blues singers, but they have these fake quotes. No names, super generic quotes. This site will give you 1,000 free streams just for signing up for the service. And it works. There were two Vice reporters last year who were able to use the service and get 10,000 streams for just $40. There was another artist from a smaller music blog who successfully used this as well to promote one of his singles. These things are happening, and they’re just a couple clicks away.

How are music marketers finding this out? I interviewed the guy behind a company that detects Instagram bot fraud. His platform is trained to look for certain patterns. Is there anything like that? Or is it basically just a Wild West where they don’t know what they’re buying?

More of a Wild West right now. One of the managers I spoke with, he tried 12 of these services, and he’s kept notes on which ones work and which ones don’t. And they’re trying to work this down to a science. You’re going to pay for it once, but if they don’t get results, they’re not going to go to that same playlister to try to get the results they’re looking for.

I guess one way of detecting fraud is if there’s a sharp fall-off. You see a rush of streams, and then no ripple effect. It doesn’t make it onto other playlists. It’s a sign that these aren’t real humans interacting with it and then continuing to listen to it.

If you have access to the analytics, it’ll be a lot easier to see what happens. Spotify offers really tremendous analytics for the artists on the service. Anytime an artist has a song added to a playlist with more than 20 subscribers, they’re notified. And they’re able to track exactly how many streams that particular playlist generates for them. There’s not a ton they can do with that, except maybe if you’re using one of these services, you can see what’s driving value and what’s not.

SubmitHub has actually reached out to a lot of the artists in its network and asked them to upload some of the statistics they have on these playlists so they can get a better sense of what’s real and what’s not. They can provide that information to those using the service. If you look at some of the stuff on their website, they give you information on a particular playlister, what their approval rating is, how many fans they have, and importantly, how many plays that playlist averages. So you can better account for those bots and fake followers.

Spotify has mostly turned a blind eye to this issue. There are a couple reasons for that. One, engagement is engagement. People are using the service and discovering music. And some of this is healthy and positive. There’s an electronic duo called … they are one Spotlister’s greatest successes. They used the service to get added to 19 playlists, generated something along the lines of 800,000 plays, and all that momentum go them onto the algorithmic playlists, and then it caught Spotify’s editorial team, and they ended up on three of the biggest electronic music playlists.

At that point, when you’re getting minted by the Spotify editorial team, that’s a real person, that’s someone who’s looking at the data, but is really choosing to add that to their network. There is a benefit to this. I think that’s part of the reason that Spotify hasn’t gone after this more aggressively. I think the other thing is that it’s just going to be very hard to do. You can’t fully shut off that one to one communication, especially if it’s not happening on the platform, and there’s no real way to tell, from Spotify’s perspective, why a given song was added to a playlist.

The one-to-one pay-for-play, that’s really expensive. How much does it cost to get onto one of these platforms where it’s not guaranteed, they’ll just give you feedback.

On Spotlister, they had a sliding scale. The cheapest it could be is $2. It went up to maybe $18, $20 per listen. Then on other services, SubmitHub for example, you could actually submit to as many as you wanted for free, but in order to get that guaranteed listen, you’d have to pay for some of those premium credits. We’re talking just dollars, not hundreds or thousands.

But that adds up a lot. If they’re charging $10 per, they only include 100 songs, but they get 1,000 submissions, they’re making $10,000.

Yeah, they’re going to split that with the service. There will be some fees associated with that. A lot of them are only required to listen for 20 or 30 seconds. The feedback is not like you’re getting a Pitchfork review. It can be very short and very crude. There’s absolutely for an ability for these playlisters to churn through these and make a good amount of money on the side.

You’ve said that Spotify has allowed this to go on. But you also have an update at the end of the article saying they actually shut off the API for one of them.

That’s right. They did take down Spotlister. I think that might have been because of how they were using Spotify’s API. A lot of these places aren’t tied directly to your Spotify system. You send a link to your Spotify track. This service was much more closely integrated. It looked like Spotify. It felt like Spotify. And they were using the API to help with their matching. So if you just uploaded your song, it would help you identify the playlists it was a good fit for. If it’s an indie rock song, trying to narrow it down to other indie rock songs that have that same meta data. Whereas a lot of these other services don’t have that, and it’s a much more manual process of trying to identify the playlist that would be a good fit.

Is this an issue that’s unique problem to Spotify? I can create a playlist on YouTube. You mentioned you could do it on Tidal. There are lots of music bloggers out there and other influencers that recommend music. Is this just a Spotify problem, or do you see indication that this is not unique to Spotify.

This is not unique to Spotify. In fact, this entire scene came from SoundCloud. The guys I spoke to at Spotlister and others, that is really, when you think about hip hop and where artists have broken from in the past couple years, a lot started with Spotify mixtapes. That’s a huge scene that’s happening right now. Getting songs mentioned or featured on a particular channel, there was a lot of money there, there probably still is. This problem is certainly happening there. I can only imagine that it’s happening on YouTube and Tidal, but what I’m hearing is that it’s the mass usership of Spotify that’s really made this such a point of focus. There are 71 million paid subscribers, 159 million active users. That just dwarfs the competition. So that’s why so much attention’s on Spotify right now. Apple Music doesn’t have an independent playlist feature. Apple Music has invested really heavily in radio. And that certainly has its own abilities to mint new stars. Because that’s all official, it’s a lot harder for people to break into it.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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