Without Tuma Basa, What Role Will Spotify's Flagship Playlists Play In Its Public Future?

Tim Warner/Getty Images for Spotify
A view from the crowd during Spotify's RapCaviar Live in Houston at Revention Music Center on Dec. 14, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  

Just one day after filing official paperwork to go public, Spotify announced yesterday (Mar. 1) that one of its most influential and public-facing curators, global programming head of hip-hop Tuma Basa, was no longer at the company. The news came as a shock to many in the industry, who saw flagship hip-hop playlists like RapCaviar as instrumental to Spotify's brand -- but the shakeup perhaps points to the service's shifting product priorities, as it tries to lay a foundation for a positive, investor-friendly debut on the New York Stock Exchange.

Spotify hired Basa in 2015 in part because of his cultural clout, with a career spanning nearly two decades in the trenches of hip-hop and urban media. Prior to Spotify, he spent four years at BET, ten years at MTV and three years at Revolt TV, overseeing music programming and creating thousands of hours of mixtapes and playlists.

That reputation only grew upon moving to Spotify: with profiles in major publications and speaking engagements at high-profile conferences like Advertising Week, Basa -- who oversaw programming for RapCaviar and 25 other owned-and-operated hip-hop playlists -- quickly became one of the most public faces of the streaming service, which is now valued at more than $23 billion. Basa's exit will test the momentum these playlists have amassed as brands in their own right, and whether they need a star curator to keep buzzing.

Not only can placement on Spotify's most popular owned-and-operated playlists (e.g. ¡Viva Latino!, mint and Acoustic Covers, in addition to RapCaviar) significantly increase an artist's streams and follower counts, but flagship playlists also serve as an important guinea pig for many of the service's marketing experiments beyond audio. RapCaviar was one of the first playlists to embrace massive billboard campaigns in Times Square, interstitial video within playlists, live cross-country tours and even an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum titled the “RapCaviar Pantheon.” Such projects will likely be important both for expanding Spotify’s reach and for tweaking its business model moving forward, as it searches for more sustainable revenue streams beyond subscriptions alone.

Yet, from a bird's-eye view, flagship playlists still struggle to match the growing pace of user-generated curation on the service. According to the SEC filing, all of Spotify’s hand-curated playlists accounted for only 15 percent of monthly content hours on the service in 2017, versus 17 percent for personalized and algorithmic playlists (Discover Weekly, Release Radar, etc.) and 36 percent for user-generated playlists.

Moreover, Spotify's growth plan as outlined in the SEC filing seems to prioritize personalized, technology-driven solutions over a mass-market, content-driven one. “We believe that personalization, not exclusivity, is key to our continued success,” reads the section in the filing titled “Our Content Strategy.” While not referencing any services by name, this statement is likely a nod to rival companies like Apple Music and Tidal that have focused their differentiated offering on exclusive content, from Apple’s Beats 1 radio stations to Tidal’s content deals with the likes of Beyonc√© and Kanye West.

Elsewhere in the filing, Spotify claims that it is in the “discovery business” even more so than it is in the music business. "Our brand reflects culture -- and occasionally creates it -- by turning vast and intriguing listening data into compelling stories that remind people of the role music plays in their lives," reads the filing.

"Listening data” alludes to the service’s vast trove of user data (200 petabytes, to be exact, versus Netflix’s 60-odd petabytes) from which artists, labels, data scientists and advertisers alike can glean in-depth insights; “the role music plays in their lives” signals a shift not just toward more algorithmic music delivery, but also toward defining trends more by mood and context than by genre (through playlists like Peaceful Piano and Have a Great Day!).

To date, RapCaviar has not fit this business model neatly. While the playlist certainly influences artists’ popularity, it may not be as democratic or as influenced by data as Basa and others have suggested. As TrackRecord reported last December, not only did major-label acts account for 87 percent of songs added to RapCaviar in 2017: 43 percent of songs on the playlist that year were added the very same day they were uploaded to Spotify -- implying that major labels were already pitching to Basa and the hip-hop programming team before reaching consumers or generating any data to inform subsequent curation.

This balance of power may change as RapCaviar expands globally this year, leveraging "local curators on the ground [to] highlight the power of different genres within the hip hop landscape" in addition to continuing its U.S. tour with 13 new shows this year, which the company announced on the same day as Basa's departure.

But for a service like Spotify that has unrivaled data and algorithmic sophistication, leaning heavily on flagship, top-down properties and quasi-celebrity figures like Basa might be sending a mixed message about the service's growth narrative, and perhaps even treading too far into Apple Music's turf. Touting exclusive, elite brands doesn't track with Spotify's vision of non-exclusivity and its necessity to turn a profit for investors. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently told Fast Company that Apple Music is "not in it for the money" -- but as a soon-to-be-public company, Spotify must be.