Indie Industry Sets Its Sights on Playlists

Playlists are king in the streaming world. Independent labels have some catching up to do.

Independent labels are starting to make a push into the fast-growing business of streaming playlists. The Association for Independent Music has released a request for proposals for the creation of a playlist brand for independent music.

The Independent Playlist Brand initiative, started in April, was created "to benefit the independent record label community worldwide," AIM president Alison Wenham said in a statement. It's a sensible move for AIM. Playlists help drive music discovery -- and all-important repeat listens -- by offering consumers curated lists of music and a lean-back listening experience. And because they drive streaming activity, playlists also help determine a label's market share. 

Independents have a gap to close. The three major label groups are already well ahead of the independent community in their playlist strategies. Each has its own playlist brand -- Universal Music Group has Digster, Sony Music has Filtr and Warner Music Group owns Topsify -- that have millions of followers and are frequently promoted at Spotify.

UMG took a further step recently, hiring industry veteran Jay Frank to be its head of global playlist strategy and investing in his digital marketing company, DigMark. The company promotes its clients' songs to independent Spotify playlist owners -- its marketing material says it has relationships with "the 3,500 most influential and active playlists" -- and, as Billboard reported last month, in some cases pays playlist owners consultancy fees. 

Streaming services have their own playlists. Spotify's most popular playlist, "Today's Top Hits" currently has 6 million followers. These playlists play a critical in the discovery of new music. "New Music Friday" playlist, a collection of new music that typically carries numerous independent titles, currently has 855,000 followers.

The trick will be in how the playlists get made. Jon Webster of the U.K.-based Music Manager Forum tells Billboard AIM's playlist brand will have to balance the competing interest of labels that are aligned in spirit while also being competitors. A major label-run playlist brand has a clearer structure for deciding which songs to promote in a given week. Independents currently lack that central decision-making. "It’s not impossible but will need a confluence of wills and the ability to act altruistically at times," says Webster.