Millions of Followers? Yes, But Some Top Spotify Playlists Fall Short on Engagement

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The logo of the music streaming service Spotify is displayed on a smartphone on April 20, 2017.

Spotify is arguably the reason why music-industry analysts and execs alike have deemed playlists “the new album” and “more powerful than radio.” With access to over 157 million monthly active users, the streaming service regularly catapults artists into the international spotlight simply by placing their tracks on owned-and-operated playlists like Today’s Top Hits, RapCaviar and ¡Viva Latino!.

A recent study by the European Commission pegged the monetary value of placement on Today’s Top Hits at up to $163,000 in additional revenue per track. Latin-focused playlists like Baila Reggaeton and ¡Viva Latino! were found to have even more significant financial impact, with the potential to generate up to $230,000 and $424,000 in added revenue per track, respectively.

But not all of Spotify’s biggest playlists guarantee success for those who land songs on them. Two playlists can both have millions of followers each, but have drastically different impacts on an artist’s streams. 

For instance, multiple sources tell Billboard that mint -- Spotify’s flagship electronic-dance-music playlist, which boasted over 5 million followers as of press time -- fails to drive as many streams as other playlists with a fraction of the followers do. Pop Rising and Young, Wild & Free, which have 1.1 million and 1.4 million followers, respectively, generate three to four times as many streams for the average track as mint, according to sources. Even smaller, territory-specific playlists like Sommerhits 2018, which has fewer than 700,000 followers as of press time, are often just as effective as mint at moving the needle for an artist, these sources say.

There are several possible factors behind mint’s under-performance in the playlist ecosystem. Some sources say that the umbrella term "EDM" is so wide -- encompassing everything from ambient and dubstep to house and techno -- that an all-inclusive "EDM playlist" might not flow as well and ultimately reduce user retention. (Spotify is testing an auto-mixing feature that may solve this problem around flow.)

Other sources claim that mint as a listening experience is more about discovery, a mindset that might be prone to higher skip rates compared to more lean-back playlists. Still others point to how sales and views on other EDM-focused platforms like Boiler Room and even Beatport continue to see double-digit growth year-over-year, suggesting that community specificity begets better engagement.

Spotify doesn’t disclose data about any of its playlists beyond surface-level follower count -- and it’s becoming increasingly clear to artists and labels that that metric alone fails to tell the whole story around audience development.

“Generally speaking, not a lot of people unfollow playlists once they follow them,” Kieron Donoghue, founder of Humble Angel Records and former vp of global playlists strategy at Warner Music Group, tells Billboard. “They could follow a playlist, listen now and again and then forget about it, or their tastes change and they just leave it followed in their accounts. If that playlist isn’t promoted regularly or updated regularly, then it falls to the back of mind.” (Spotify declined to comment for this story.)

The Spotify for Artists dashboard does provide information on the artist level about which songs are featured on which algorithmic, editorial and user-generated playlists on the service, as well as the number of streams and listeners that an artist or track receives by being included on these playlists. The latter data is publicly available under the “Discovered On” column on artists’ Spotify profiles, which allegedly breaks down an artist’s Monthly Listener count by playlist. For most indie acts, Spotify’s playlist ecosystem has become an essential marketing and promotional toolkit, with the platform’s editorial and personalized playlists accounting for anywhere from 50 percent to 90 percent of an artist’s streams, sources tell Billboard.

But as for engagement data around the playlists themselves, Spotify doesn't share it -- forcing artists and labels to resort to back-of-the-napkin guesswork or to third-party analytics companies like Chartmetric for insights.

In April 2018, Chartmetric announced that it would be tracking a new playlist-level metric called Estimated Listeners, which pulls from the “Discovered On” artist data to estimate how many actual listens a given playlist generates over a moving 28-day period. Atop Estimated Listeners, Chartmetric also began tracking Follower-to-Estimated-Listener (FEL) ratios, which gauge “how many [users] say they’ll listen vs. how many actually listen” to a given playlist, as Jason Joven, data analyst at Chartmetric, explained in a recent blog post.

The lower the FEL ratio, the better the engagement; “a high ratio suggests that the list may seem a great idea at first to listeners, but they tend to forget about it later,” wrote Joven.

Third-party estimates like Chartmetric's FEL ratio demonstrate how looking beyond follower count alone can illuminate the true dark horses on Spotify in the race for engagement. According to Chartmetric, Today’s Top Hits and RapCaviar have relatively high FEL ratios of 8.9 and 6.5, respectively. Peaceful Piano -- a popular instrumental mood playlist that came under fire last summer with the “fake artist” allegations against Spotify -- has even less engagement, with an FEL ratio of 11.0.

Still, mood and hybrid mood/genre playlists remain competitive real estate for artists and labels because tracks stay in those playlists for longer -- sometimes as long as half a year, racking up tens of millions of streams in the process, sources tell Billboard. Labels have struggled to figure out how to promote their tracks to mood-based playlists, though: “Sometimes I’ll ask someone in sales at a label who controls a certain mood playlist, and they don’t even know,” one source tells Billboard. “It would be like someone not knowing who to talk to at Tower Records 20 years ago.”

By contrast, several playlists with much fewer followers exhibit much higher engagement via lower FEL ratios -- particularly throwback and decade-centric playlists (FEL ratio of 5.1 for Hit Rewind, 4.4 for Easy 00s and 3.4 for I Love My 90s Hip-Hop), artist-centric playlists (3.5 for This is Bad Bunny, 2.0 for This is Taylor Swift and 1.3 for This is Beyoncé) and certain hybrid mood/genre playlists (5.8 for Country Kind of Love and 2.2 for Jazz Vibes).

Many other factors beyond higher-level engagement metrics can also impact a track’s performance on a playlist, including but not limited to where exactly in the playlist the track is placed. For instance, the European Commission’s study found that while placement at the top of New Music Friday was worth up to $117,000 in additional revenue, the impact of placement was almost negligible if a track wasn’t in the top 15 slots on the playlist.

“While getting on New Music Friday is a really great stamp of approval and a nice talking point for PR and press, it doesn’t really drive streams after the first day or two,” says Donoghue. “People aren’t listening to New Music Friday on a Sunday or Monday. It’s more about giving an artist a really good starting point for their single, rather than about driving streams.”

Spotify curators also often "audition" tracks by continually removing and/or re-adding them to playlists to experiment with flow -- or, more likely, to accommodate political pressures from certain labels and managers. For example, according to Chartmetric, the MOTI Remix of "Shed a Light" by Robin Schulz & Cheat Codes was added to and removed from the mint playlist three times over the course of just two weeks. The first time, it was added to mint at position 22 for a total of four days; the second time, it was added back at a higher position of 18, but for only two days; the third and final time, it plummeted to position 52, and survived there for four days before being removed for good.

In a recent blog post, Amelie Bonvalot (senior director, digital sales & account management, U.K./Rest of World at AWAL) revealed that playlist performance also depends heavily on an artist's long-term marketing plan and what traffic artists themselves can bring back into the Spotify platform -- much like traditional radio promo. "The way artists message their fans about their playlist adds has a major impact on performance and encouraging fans to stream the track," reads the blog post. "Beyond fans, calling out the DSP that added the track to a playlist is a great way to show appreciation for the support and demonstrate that you’re driving your fans back to those platforms.”

Enduring industry politics inevitably underlie these promotional mechanics: “Spotify keeps trying to tell labels that you have to ‘perform’ to move up the food chain to bigger playlists there, but everyone knows that’s not the case,” a source tells Billboard. “Some artists get preferential treatment. They don’t wait to see how Drake is going to perform."

An indie artist tells Billboard: “A lot of my friends are putting a lot of energy into trying to get on these playlists and work the system, but the result seems awfully passive compared to something like a great YouTube video. Playlists are just a buoy for the organic fandom you can nurture better on platforms like YouTube and Twitter.”