How Spotify Is Focused on Playlisting More Emerging Acts During the Pandemic

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Spotify logo is displayed on the screen of a smart phone on Jan. 1, 2020.

Editors are consciously programming more up-and-coming acts onto playlists like Chill Vibes, which is seeing a swell in listeners.

As of writing, the top half of Spotify’s Chill Vibes playlist includes “Sola,” a pillowy, bilingual song about attachment by Nina Cobham. Keep listening and you’ll come across the crooning, guitar-backed “moonlight” by dhruv and meditative, airy “peas” by boylife.

All three artists are relatively unknown, with only two or three total songs in each of their Spotify catalogs. But they have one thing in common: They have been consciously programmed onto Chill Vibes by Spotify editors hoping to give emerging acts a boost as the playlist sees a swell in listeners amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Once quarantine hit and everyone was in their homes, we saw spikes across our chill, laid-back, meditative playlists,” says Spotify editor Lizzy Szabo, who has overseen Chill Vibes for a little over a year. “Since I’ve been working on this playlist, it’s the most traffic I’ve ever seen.”

In the three months between Dec. 1 and March 1, Chill Vibes’ follower count grew by 3.75%, according to Spotify. But in the two months between March 1 and May 1, the follower count grew by more than 7%, while monthly average users increased fivefold. “As a result, emerging artists on these playlists have seen their streams increase twofold,” compared to pre-quarantine, a company spokesperson said over email. (Meanwhile, in Spotify’s most recent earnings report, CEO Daniel Ek said that the pandemic has only had a slight negative impact on music streaming overall.)

What struck Szabo about the Chill Vibes growth was not just the uptick in followers, but the increase in listeners engaging with the playlist through song likes and saves, since by definition on Chill Vibes, “a lot of listening tends to be more laid-back,” she says. “To see engagement spike as well, it’s amazing.”

Szabo says that while Spotify has always focused on music discovery, the pandemic added a new sense of urgency to that mission -- which is why she and other editors are now programming developing artists onto Chill Vibes alongside more established names like Glass Animals and Imogen Heap.

“We all know that artists -- a lot of their revenue streams have just been demolished this year,” she says. “So I think feeling a hyper-responsibility to program more artists into this space, and seeing them perform well, is really cool.”

The process is a bit more art than science. Szabo, who also works on Spotify’s emerging artist-focused Fresh Finds playlist, often places artists that perform well on Fresh Finds onto Chill Vibes -- provided that the song sounds, well, “chill” enough. She also considers recommendations from fellow Spotify editors and songs that come in through Spotify’s music submission tool for artists.

For some small acts, she’s “taking a bigger chance and putting them more toward the top of the list” on Chill Vibes, as was the case with Cobham, a Manchester singer-songwriter who was initially picked up by the Fresh Finds algorithm, and dhruv, the moniker of 20-year-old artist Dhruv Sharma. Cobham’s “Sola,” which was recently the lead song on Chill Vibes, has now garnered more than 1.2 million Spotify streams; while dhruv’s “moonlight” has crossed 1.9 million. “Looking back in February, they had between 800 to 1,300 listeners a day,” Szabo says. “And now, each of them has risen to around 27,000 to 33,000 listeners per day, steadily, which is amazing.”

A shift in playlist strategy isn’t the only way Spotify is lending a hand to the music community in light of the pandemic -- although many artists have argued that the company could better help by paying artists more for their streams in the first place, a conversation that Ek is paying attention to. The streaming giant also launched its own COVID-19 Music Relief fundraising site, through which it will match donations to organizations helping musicians in need dollar-for-dollar for up to a total Spotify contribution of $10 million; and last month introduced a new tool that allows artists to collect money from fans on the platform, whether for a charity or for their own pockets.

Meanwhile, Szabo describes an overall initiative within Spotify’s editorial department to promote emerging artists on any playlists that see growth, beyond Chill Vibes alone. “Every month, we’re putting together a mix of established and emerging artists that we want to have at the forefront, that we see are doing something different or listeners are gravitating toward,” she says.

Those efforts come as streams of music by independent artists and labels grew faster than their major counterparts in 2019, as MIdiA research firm co-founder Mark Mulligan recently pointed out. While Spotify’s strategy helps shine a light on many unsigned artists, it could also have the effect of helping the streaming service strengthen relationships with labels keen to promote their developing acts on the platform.

And the Chill Vibes plugs are leading to other playlist placements. Szabo says that Spotify’s Latin team is now a fan of Cobham, and that she has been added to the May edition of Spotify’s On Our Radar playlist. Meanwhile, boylife’s “peas” -- the side project of Ryan Yoo, who is part of the band mmmonika -- has since been added to the popular genre-less playlists Lorem and Pollen, and has raked in more than 950,000 Spotify streams.

“As editors, we’re not A&Rs, but we are trying to find out what our listeners want to hear based on how they’re spending their time,” Szabo says. “If the behavior changes; if other moods or genres rise to the surface, we’ll try and surface whichever emerging artists fit in those spaces, too.”

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