Pop triple-threat Isaac Dunbar is currently mumbling into a microphone. His songwriting partner Leland is seated directly to his left, playing a maximalist pop melody on loop, as Dunbar searches for the words he wants to sing next. After a few seemingly incoherent passes, Leland suddenly tells Dunbar to stop: “What did you just sing there? ‘The camera doesn’t lie, boy?'” Dunbar’s eyes light up. “No, I was saying ‘the camera is a limelight,’ but ‘doesn’t lie, boy’ is way better.”
Within a matter of minutes and few more murmurs-turned-lyrics, the pair have crafted an instantly catchy pop chorus, with Prince-esque guitar melodies and an over-saturated pop beat. “I swear, that’s how it always goes,” Dunbar says with a laugh as Leland turns the track down. “You hear one thing in a bunch of mishmashed words, and it becomes your favorite lyric.”
Leland and Dunbar are just one of the four groups of songwriters camped out in the various studios lining the bottom floor of Spotify’s Los Angeles offices — singer-songwriters like Miki Ratsula, Morgxn, Arlissa, STORYBOARDS, Jesse Saint John, GOLDSPACE and more are scattered off in different groupings, working together to create some new music.
Of the limited few things uniting these songwriters, one more than any other stands out — each of them identifies as members of the LGBTQ community. They’re working together as an initiative courtesy of GLOW, the new global music program from Spotify aimed at increasing visibility for queer artists year-round.
Bel Aztiria, lead of global music programs, social and equity at Spotify, tells Billboard that she and her team were excited by the success of their EQUAL program, which was designed to elevate the profiles of female artists. In the time since the launch of EQUAL in March 2021, Aztiria has seen noticeable change for the artists featured on the platform.
“I had the hypothesis that if we had a brand that people recognized and that we put all of our resources toward, it would help elevate artists beyond the spaces we were featuring them in,” Aztiria explains of EQUAL. “That’s actually what we saw; We’ve supported more than 700 artists through the platform, and these artists have been added to more than 4,000 Spotify playlists outside of EQUAL.”
So, Aztiria decided to try and replicate that success for the queer community. Part of her approach was going out to Leland — who has worked with artists like Troye Sivan, Sabrina Carpenter and Selena Gomez — to help organize a songwriting camp for up-and-coming LGBTQ talent.
“We hit the ground running with the goal and the intention of keeping it diverse, keeping the spectrum wide of where people are in their career, and just connecting dots,” Leland explains of his approach to curating the talent for the GLOW songwriting sessions. “It became a team effort, where everyone was introducing each other to their favorite artists, saying, ‘Have you met this person, have you heard their music?’ I have been exposed to so much good new music that I wasn’t aware of before.”
Throughout the day at the songwriting sessions, Leland’s vision seems to be executing itself well — artists who’d never worked together before like Morgxn and Ratsula were suddenly in a studio together, creating a song called “We Built a Fire” that sounds unique to both of their respective artistic voices. Songwriter-producer STORYBOARDS is leading a session with Matias Mora and Rory Adams where they’re crafting a vocoder-infused indie-pop banger centered around the hook “I don’t wanna be hurt/ I just wanna be hot.”
Many LGBTQ artists have pointed to a lack of inclusion when it comes to the more behind-the-scenes processes of the music industry, especially in songwriting and producing. In a 2021 interview with Billboard, songwriter Justin Tranter put it plainly; “Queer people make great things together because we understand each other. Try to put us in a room together, because we’re gonna understand those narratives a lot better than a straight person.”
At the GLOW songwriting sessions, that instinct was proven correct, as studios filled with queer people creating incredible songs with a mutual sense of understanding. “These [sessions] just feel so much easier,” says Tyler Mead, who produces, writes and performs under the name STORYBOARDS. “Sessions sometimes feel like blind dates, where you really aren’t sure what you’re going to get — but all of these sessions have just been fun.”
Songwriting sessions are far from the only place where queer artists are getting the spotlight with GLOW — as part of the initiative, each month will see a new LGBTQ artist spotlighted in a featured position on the GLOW hub. That spotlight will include editorial support from Spotify’s For the Record editorial channel, top slots on GLOW playlists, and a billboard in Times Square to promote their music.
Aztiria explains that making sure different genres and global markets were represented in their selection process for featured artists is vital. The key, she says, is collaboration. “I think what these programs do differently from anything else that we do is that we do have representation from every market that participates within it,” she says. “We’re listening to music every day, and the experts from those markets have a seat at the table so all of us together can decide how to best distribute our resources.”
One such artist featured alongside stars like Sam Smith, Arlo Parks, Tove Lo and others at GLOW’s launch was Mexican singer-songwriter and three-time Latin Grammy nominee Bruses. For her, being included in such a major way from the outset of GLOW means the world.
“Something like this, and what it’s doing for the next generation for the kids, it’s so special,” she tells Billboard at GLOW’s launch event, getting emotional as she does. “Representation is everything, and the fact that Spotify of all places is doing this is a game-changer.”
While representation is certainly important, Leland is quick to point out that Spotify is also offering something even more vital for queer artistry: a budget. “Good music rises to the top, no matter where it comes from — but it is expensive to make music, and then support it, market it and pay for producers and songwriters,” he says. “To have a support system like this built in, where you know that once people hear your music it will have a runway… that’s vital.”
That monetary support is coming directly from Spotify’s Creator Equity Fund, and is not only going into supporting artists, but to music-based LGBTQ charities like QORDS, Black Trans Femmes in the Arts (The BTFA Collective), It Gets Better and many other organizations.
Offering that support year-round, not just during June, was Aztiria’s goal from the beginning with GLOW. “I get very angry about it and struggle to participate in Pride Month, because it can sometimes feel tone deaf, or like it’s objectifying artists,” she says. “These releases don’t come out just in June. So why would we just be supportive throughout that month? When you uplift these voices year-round, more people will see them, and it will help change how people think about this.”
The data backs up Aztiria’s point: since the launch of GLOW, Spotify reports that playlists in the main hub have garnered over 6.9 million streams, which has subsequently led to 3.8 million new artist discoveries (when a listener hears an artist for the first time) for community members.
With those kinds of numbers, Leland says he hopes other DSPs and major music industry players are paying attention to GLOW. “I hope they’re inspired to put queer artists in the budget at the top of the year,” he says. ” When companies put their money where their mouth is and say, ‘We’re going to give you visibility and a budget,’ it’s great, because you can’t do just the first part. You have to both, or it isn’t real.”