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Playlists Don’t Hit Like They Used To

The rise of personalization and short-form video platforms means that the streaming services' marquee editorial collections don't drive as much listening.

Not long ago, a placement on Spotify’s RapCaviar or Apple Music’s Today’s Hits playlists could ignite a single’s streaming numbers overnight. “Today’s Top Hits [32 million followers on Spotify] used to be the holy grail,” says one manager of several major-label acts. “Or even Pop Rising [2.7 million] — it was like, ‘If a song got on Pop Rising, it’s going to get to Today’s Top Hits and do 5 million streams a week.’ ”

But in 2022, the manager continues, “it doesn’t feel like that’s the case.” This realization is growing around the music industry. “The Spotify and Apple editorial playlists don’t have as much punch” as they did, agrees Kieron Donoghue, founder of Humble Angel Records and former vp of global playlists strategy at Warner Music Group. “The major streaming platforms are reacting to culture now rather than driving it,” adds Tatiana Cirisano, music industry analyst and consultant for MIDiA Research.

In a statement to Billboard, Sulinna Ong, global head of editorial at Spotify, countered that the platform’s “top five editorial playlists are followed by more than 80 million listeners — they’re wildly popular.” She added that the overall audience for playlists is larger than ever, “these listeners have increasingly diverse tastes, Spotify is meeting that consumer demand, and, as a result, more artists are being discovered.” A representative for Apple Music declined to comment for this story.

But managers sound nearly misty-eyed when they reminisce about the streams that some editorial playlists once generated. “There used to be a world where an unknown artist would get the cover of the Fresh Finds playlist [on Spotify] and they would get between 60,000 and 100,000 streams a week,” says one manager who works primarily with developing acts. “Now you’re looking at more like 15,000 to 20,000 streams a week.”

“Does Today’s Top Hits move the needle as much now as it did four years ago?” one senior label executive asks. “No.” The difference is especially stark, he adds, if you’re not near the top of the playlist.

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Label executives say the change in firepower of marquee editorial playlists is caused in part by the increased emphasis on personalization, especially at Spotify, which encourages users to play music similar to what they’ve streamed — in essence, burrow deeper into their own tastes — rather than pushing all listeners to play the same tracks. The shift is also a reflection of the growing power of apps like TikTok in music discovery: “The pie of ‘discovery market share’ has become more fragmented,” according to Daniel Sander, chief commercial officer of music marketing technology company Feature.FM. The gatekeepers who program editorial playlists are ceding ground to user-generated content on short-form-video platforms.

There are exceptions: Managers say some of Spotify’s editorial playlists in Southeast Asia, for example, still have oomph, as does the phonk playlist, which launched earlier this year and caters to a rising subgenre of dance music popular in Eastern Europe. (Beneficiaries include dhruv, who has 7.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify, and Kordhell, with 12.7 million.) But executives maintain that many of the big-name editorial collections are not magnifying songs the way they once did.

Some of that decline is due to changes at the streaming services. In 2019, Spotify took playlists like Beast Mode and Chill Hits, which previously had been the same for all listeners, and personalized them “for each listener based on their particular taste,” according to a company press release. (This change did not affect playlists like RapCaviar, Baila Reggaeton, and Today’s Top Hits.)

Spotify found that this had two effects: Listeners tuned in to personalized collections for longer, and the streaming wealth was spread across more acts — raising “the number of artists featured on playlists by 30% and the number of songs listeners are discovering by 35%,” according to one 2021 announcement.

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In her statement, Spotify’s Ong noted that “listener habits have become increasingly diverse, so our playlist strategy has expanded to accommodate that.” She says personalized editorial playlists are responsible for “a third of all new artist discoveries on Spotify.”

TikTok, which now spurs a lot of music discovery, embraced personalization from the beginning. Users marvel at how well the app seems to anticipate their tastes: “Everything on TikTok feels like it was meant especially for you,” says one music executive.

Short-form-video platforms like TikTok have also fundamentally altered the timeline of a hit. “With the rise of TikTok, YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels, artists can play song snippets or behind-the-scenes content and drive fans to take action — discovery is happening before your song would even be able to be put on an editorial playlist,” says Sander.

In addition, TikTok rejuvenates catalog tracks — ranging from Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” (released in 1977) to Thundercat’s “Them Changes” (2017) — and pushes them back on to the charts, defying many marquee editorial playlists’ emphasis on front-line releases. “The path of a hit has changed,” says one major-label executive. The major streaming platforms “haven’t built anything to adjust to that.”

As a result, the power of streaming-service gatekeepers has eroded. “You’re going to find the next curator on TikTok,” says one A&R consultant at a major label. The mantle of the editorial playlisters has been taken up partly by remix-focused accounts on TikTok, which release sped-up or slowed-down versions of sounds that millions of users incorporate into their own videos.

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User-generated content is “what’s driving TikTok and driving the charts,” says Meng Ru Kuok, CEO of music technology company BandLab. “People feeling involved gets them more excited.”

And there’s no way to be involved with editorial playlists other than hitting the “like” button. “We’re seeing in consumer surveys how much Gen Z really does want to actively participate in music — not just listen and consume passively, but make their own videos, remix the song, create their own content on top of it,” Cirisano adds. “The major streaming services don’t offer that.”