Skip to main content

How Labels Are Using ‘Playlist Albums’ to Break New Artists in the Streaming Era

Streaming-only label compilations from Epic, RCA and Def Jam are opening up a new avenue for breaking artists and establishing hits. Will the rest of the business follow suit?

This July, Epic Records crafted a top 10 album on the Billboard 200 chart nearly out of thin air. Epic AF, a streaming album made up of some of the label’s top-performing singles, such as DJ Khaled‘s “For Free” feat. Drake and French Montana‘s “Lockjaw” feat. Kodak Black, paired with tracks from its lesser-known signings that hadn’t yet been attached to an artist’s album. The compilation’s success — it spent four weeks in the top 10 without being available for sale — sparked a change in Billboard‘s chart rules that stipulated only streams of songs from the album, and not individual paid downloads, would count towards its chart position.

It also inspired imitators, with RCA (The RCA-List on Sept. 30, The RCA-List Vol. 2 on Nov. 4) and now Def Jam (Direct Deposit Vol. 1, released Dec. 2) sensing an opportunity to leverage the growing influence of streaming playlists to squeeze some extra chart juice out of successful singles and shine a light on new artists — as well as the label’s brand — in the process.

“This is like if a playlist jumped out of a streaming environment and is living in the wild, because it’s been made into a product,” says John Fleckenstein, evp at RCA Records. “If one more person listens to another song on that compilation that they wouldn’t normally have done, that’s a plus for us, and that’s driving revenue.”

These playlist albums, then, are becoming another way to break artists and songs. Def Jam’s Direct Deposit, for instance, places new releases from 2 Chainz, YG and Pusha T next to new signings Lajan Slim, Dave East and Amir Obe, encouraging casual fans to sample bubbling cuts from the rest of the label’s roster. The RCA-List Vol. 2 includes established hits from Enrique Iglesias, Kings of Leon and G-Eazy interspersed with singles from Rob $tone, Bryson Tiller and Daniel Skye.

While the revenue from streaming may be incremental, the cost to the label — essentially zero — makes any success a net positive. And so far, the concept has been working: both of RCA’s releases reached the top 25 of the Billboard 200, while Epic’s second compilation, September’s Epic Lit, reached No. 27. From a marketing perspective, too, associating a label with its most successful and promising artists has its upsides.

“When we curate something like Direct Deposit, it’s attractive because you can see the depth and breadth of our roster and hear the quality,” says Rob Caiaffa, svp, marketing at Def Jam. “And it helps us create a springboard for our young and developing artists by allowing us capitalize on the footprint of more established artists and their respective fan bases.”

Fleckenstein sees an added benefit as well. “It helps us on the talent acquisition side of our business — people can see the success we’re having on certain projects and the people we’re working with,” he notes. “There’s really no downside for us to try to establish the RCA-List brand. So in the long term, why not do it?”

Def Jam expects to continue its Direct Deposit series on a monthly basis, while RCA and Epic are both planning future editions. And as streaming continues to grow in importance, new opportunities for similar marketing plans are already emerging.

“The streaming space is not quite the Wild West, but it’s such an open playing field of experimentation right now,” Fleckenstein says. “The main focus for us is getting very smart about how consumers are listening to music, making sure we understand what the analytics actually mean. And our ability to read those numbers and know what they mean is going to be a pivotal difference between us being successful and not being successful.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Billboard.