The Journey to 1000 Plays
For an artist just developing their following, getting your music heard is an uphill battle. Recently, however, I achieved a bit of milestone — one of my recent releases, “The Octopus Song,” achieved 1000 plays (or spins) on Spotify. This is significant in that until you have at least 1000 spins, no play count is displayed, or worse you see "<1000" plays. Is it 1? Or 999? Doesn’t matter — your song is just a loser like all the other 60,000 pieces of detritus that get uploaded daily to Spotify.
Getting onto playlists on Spotify is an important way to get your music exposure to a broader population outside your own fanbase, which, as with all good Catch-22s, can be difficult to grow without getting more exposure. The dominance of Spotify within the streaming landscape makes it hard to ignore as a platform, regardless of the low payout per stream. Getting on a playlist with a decent sized following is equivalent to getting on the radio in past eras of mass media. Additionally, being on a playlist has an impact on Spotify’s own metrics that they use to determine how you appear on their algorithmic playlists, which means additional exposure.
A playlist, as I’m sure you’re aware, is simply a list of songs created by either Spotify or an individual user of Spotify. Consider it akin to the mix tap of old, for those of you who remember such mediums — but the concept will no doubt be familiar to anyone who grew up in the digital media age. The main difference with Spotify is just the size of the audience you can reach through them because such playlists can be shared. Other platforms are trying to replicate this feature, but not nearly to the level of success Spotify has had user experience-wise. Of the playlists Spotify manages, there are those that are manually curated by Spotify and there are the “algorithmic” playlists.
Spotify Curated Playlists
There are in fact, many, many Spotify curated playlists targeted at different demographics and they dominate the playlists in Spotify in terms of the number of listeners who have given them “likes.” The only way to submit to these playlists is prior to the release of a song through your Spotify for artist's page. The process for actually being selected is a bit of a black box, but there are a couple of things we can discern from the input selections they offer to categorize a song — notably they have a limited number of moods and styles they have defined in addition to genres and music “cultures.” They also have a motley selection of instruments to chose from, which makes one wonder if you have a better chance of curated placement if you start to incorporate some more exotic instruments into your sound like a Buzuq, Mbira, or Oud. There are also some interesting omissions — for instance, there is no “Upright Bass” option (only electric) and of the eclectic mix of ethnic instruments, I don’t see any that are typical of Brazilian Samba music — where this the berimbau, the cavaquinho, or the pandeiro?
Spotify Algorithmic Playlists
The algorithmic Spotify playlists target individual listeners based on their listening habits — the important ones are the “Weekly Discovery” and “Release Radar” playlists. In theory these target people who follow you or people similar to those that like your music, but the details of how you appear on these playlists aren't entirely clear. However it’s fairly easy to discern what could potentially affect them based on the metrics that Spotify has available (song spins per user, song saves, playlist adds for a song — to name the most obvious ones). It’s also clear that there is a limited period after the release of a new song for which these metrics have an impact. Spotify says that pitching to them a week in advance of its release means the song will appear on the Release Radar of your followers, but it seems that that is not the only factor as I have seen many Release Radar plays after a song has been out in the wild for a couple of weeks— more than I have listeners.
The user playlists are those that fall into basically two camps — playlists created by end users primarily for their own personal use and those that are more “professionally” curated. The personal playlists may be shared by their creators with some friends and have a small following, but their ability to impact your play count directly is fairly limited and they are not playlists you can generally target for submissions. However, that individual users are putting you on a playlist is clearly a useful datapoint for Spotify and they even report to you the number of playlist adds you’ve received, even if the numbers don’t jive with the playlists they report spins on.
Then there are the more professionally curated playlists. These are playlists that have a large following (roughly measurable in their “likes”), are actively managed (some playlists you will discover are no longer a going concern, despite a large following), and are the playlists to which you can submit. Unlike Spotify playlists, you can submit to them even after your release. These playlists vary dramatically in their popularity and ability to generate you spins.
There are basically three ways to get on these curated playlists:
You can pitch to to playlists directly if you can find their contact information. This may be as simple as an email or social media account they expose in their playlist description (or you can hunt down with some detective work with Google and social media searches). Alternatively they have a more elaborate mechanism such as website form, or even using Kofi — though to me these often seem sketchy. There was one where it was basically saying, if you bribe me (with an amount unspecified) you can jump ahead in my 4 month long queue (the submission form seemed to be broken, so c’est le vie). And there are of course a fair number “upsells” going on for additional levels of coverage. I do have misgivings about the direct route when fees get involved just because at least when you go through a service as described below there’s a bit of accountability with ratings as well as some tracking of the curators acceptance rate and performance.
You can also pitch to playlists through third party websites. For this, there are basically two models — one where you select the curators you want to target directly (what I will call “client directed”) and one where the submission service does the targeting for you (or “service directed”). Not surprisingly both involve fees to the submission service, some portion of which goes to the curator.
Client Directed Playlist Pitch Services
There are two main players in the space of client directed targeting, SubmitHub and Groover. SubmitHub is perhaps the most well known of these service. For each submission to a curator (and this includes blogs, YouTube channels, and labels as well as playlists) you pay a fee based on a credit system. You are allotted some free credits, but honestly, don’t bother unless you really don’t have funds. There are also premium credits you pay for where 1 credit equals roughly 1 dollar, minus whatever discount you get for purchasing in bulk. The curator is under no obligation to place you, but they are required to listen for some duration and may be required to give you feedback. You search for curators by attributes like the genre they accept and you can listen to submissions they recently accepted to get a sense if you might be a match (it can also be disheartening when you hear what they’re willing to accept when they won’t accept your work).
The feedback is often of questionable value as these are not necessarily people who are even that educated about music, just opinionated. It may give you some insight as to whether it is worth trying to submit to them in the future — you may get some clarity in what they are actually looking for or just come to the conclusion that they are unlikely to ever place you because they don’t like your voice or some such issue. They do get a small portion of the fee for the submission so there are some perverse incentives built in to take as many submissions as possible even if it means doing a lot of arbitrary rejections (depending on the preferences you select for feedback they don’t get their cut of the fee and the fee is refunded to you if no feedback is provided).
Groover is a sort of SubmitHub clone based out Europe. It’s newer and less mature — I actually participated in a session to give them feedback on rolling out a new feature for rating your reviewers feedback, a feature SubmitHub has had for a while. The fact it’s based in Europe means the credits are automatically more expensive because of the exchange rate and foreign transaction fee — also there are no submissions that cost less than two credits (or Grooveritz as they call them). There are a couple notable differences. First, there is a wider universe of foreign curators — I found a lot of Brazilian playlist curators that I’ve not seen on SubmitHub which tuned out to be rather handy for one of my tunes. Second, while SubmitHub requires curators to turn around their feedback within 48 hours, which to me seems aggressive, Groover gives their curators a full week to give feedback, which shouldn’t much of a hardship for submitters as they already have to plan to submit to Spotify itself well in advance (they say a week, most people who give advice on such stuff recommend a month or more lead time). There are some other differences, such as the ability to submit to “mentors” for advice and “synch” companies — the latter of which I did try to no particular avail.
There’s also Artist Republik as an option for client directed targeting, but I’ve had much less experience with that platform. I’m put off by the fact the genre labeling on the playlists is absolutely ludicrous. There is no way all these playlists accept both Country and EDM tracks (every playlist seems to be labeled with every genre under the sun for some reason). I tried it because they gave me a coupon through PayPal — otherwise it would have been five dollars, which is on the higher end for playlist submission. Eventually my track was accepted by the curator… twenty some days later. And the track still is not actually on the playlist.
Service Directed Playlist Pitch Services
The second model for playlist submission is one where you leave the targeting up to the service doing the submission. The two service directed playlist submission services I’ve tried are PlaylistPush and SoundCampaign. In both cases you provide a list of genres derived from artists you select and they select playlists for you in a way that is frankly, opaque. You do have some options with PlaylistPush to limit or target particular playlists, but unless you already have significant experience with their platform, figuring out who those playlists are is basically impossible as a significant portion of their IP seems to be knowing the curator landscape and they don’t expose that info readily.
How many of the universe of possible playlists you submit to depends upon how much you are willing to pay up to some maximum — but once again, the targeting is opaque. You don’t know what slice of that set of possible playlists you’ll wind up submitting to unless you pay the full cost. The problem is that the criteria they use for selecting playlists doesn’t take some obvious things into account, such as whether or not the playlists wants vocal tracks ( a big issue if your music could be loosely classified as jazz) and there’s nothing that describes the mood or vibe the playlist is going for. So there are a lot of misses for at least your initial campaign — PlaylistPush does allow you to mark curators as ones you don’t want to submit to in the future if you give them a low rating. That said, I got onto a playlist I wouldn’t have expected to precisely because the criteria is so broad — a curator I know from SubmitHub who only takes instrumental jazz tracks ended up taking one of my vocal tracks simply because he liked it and that’s been my greatest sources of plays to date.
There’s a lot of overlap with curators in these systems, they are not exclusive to one or the other and Groover has noticeably increasing its list of available curators, many of which I recognize from SubmitHub. Ultimately this actually quite a small universe of independent curators that are actively managing playlists of any significant size. And those that are typically only have one playlist that will give you much exposure. Even if the service reports a large following, when you start looking closely at the playlists they manage, the story is often far less rosy than the top line number being reported to you. More often than not, even if your song is accepted, you end up getting thrown onto a playlist with an order of magnitude fewer followers than their main playlist — which is the difference between getting 100s of spins a day vs a few dozen overall (if you even break out of single digits). This is not a venture that often pays for itself, at least not directly.
Other Playlist Pitching Services
There is a third model that is an interesting hybrid between client directed and service directed. MusoSoup allows you to submit your track such that is available for curators to discover and then offer a bid for the track and additional coverage on top of either playlist placement or a social media shoutout, which is the “free” option available to you (not counting the initial MusoSoup fee). While it’s distasteful to pay for coverage and you are generally told not to do it, the rates are not exorbitant. The main problem is that the quality of the writes up can be fairly low so do some vetting before you commit to doing anything. Even the shoutouts can be pretty lame. You are paying in British pounds, so be aware the exchange rates and conversion fees.
Note that a lot of these curators will want a “shout out” on social media for placement in return, which has led to me doing a lot of posting to IG with screenshots of playlists I’m on. I don’t see a lot of other artists doing this, so maybe it’s not obligatory as they make it sound… I don’t know. It does seem like a useful reminder to your audience that your release is out there and getting some traction.
I’ve seen ads for other services on Facebook that I haven’t tried yet and I’m far from any expert on how you get placement. You will get a lot of rejections and a lot of them are lame. Even an outlet that is friendly towards you one release will become weirdly nit-picky they next. The rationales you are given sometimes seem utterly trite, arbitrary, or just plain indecipherable. You are dealing with people’s tastes and whims of the moment. The fact I got on a bunch of Brazilian playlists didn’t help a whit with the German who said he was “unconvinced” by the Bossa Nova. And whether they are really accepting more submissions or they’ve actually reached some quota already, who knows. It’s hard to trust that the rationale they gave for rejecting the track has anything to do with what’s going on beneath the surface.
The Current Playlist Landscape
The fact of the matter is, after looking through the automated crawling that PlaylistSupply offers, there are just so few of these playlist curators out there that can have an impact and they are utterly dwarfed by the Spotify curated playlists. If there was ever a possibility of playlist curation being “democratized” to the masses, it’s clear that Spotify has decided they will push their own playlists to manage the experience of their users. I mean I came across a Spotify playlist called “Dark Academia Jazz” — so they are obviously aware of even relatively obscure cultural trends and doing their best to target the “micro genres” that are out there. That’s a playlist, by the way, that has 50K+ likes. It’s rare that user created playlists cracks 10K.
I’m not terribly enamored with any one service in particular. I get the impression that the service directed push platforms have curators on them that simply aren’t available on SubmitHub and Groover, but they are expensive and are not doing an especially good job at curating the list of curators they send to — so the time you are saving by not investigating playlists yourself is a bit wasted because it’s very much a blunderbuss approach on their part.
Many curators seem to suffer from a lack of understanding as to how music produced and distributed so they tend to act as armchair quarterbacks when it comes to production — they suggest changes that simply aren’t realistic given the other factors involved. Certain suggestions may be helpful, but making placement contingent on what are sometimes minor issues of taste often feels more like searching for an excuse to reject the track. Some curators seem just to want to kibitz. I have summarized SubmitHub as “I will pay you a dollar to hear ten mean words about myself.” There’s not a lot of opportunities to have a dialogue with these curators or really build relationships with them and though there are metrics in place to ensure they listen, there are still obviously some who do not really listen and some that just copy and paste their responses.
I think the current model for getting playlist promotion is inherently corruptible and the reward system is out of whack. Curators are not rewarded based on the success of the engagement with their playlist by Spotify as platform (say the way a radio station would have been rewarded with advertising dollars in days of yore), but rather they are paid by artists regardless of whether they offer anything valuable in exchange. Some may be well intentioned, but others seem to be on a bit of an ego trip and have ideas above their station. There’s also obviously room for grift and palm greasing — some of it quite blatantly out in the open.
In fairness, these curators may well be inundated with requests, but it is the rare curator who simply admits that they are currently at some target metric for new songs and simply aren’t accepting any more submissions. Sometimes they do go on break, but it’s rare that you see someone who takes advantage of the submission limit feature SubmitHub offers them. But once again, the incentive is to take as many submissions as possible, which means there are going to be a lot of rejections. And in a land of plenty, it is probably easy to reject anyone in particular for whatever arbitrary reason because you know there are more where that came from.
Often it doesn’t seem like curators are operating in a way that is to the benefit of the artist given Spotify’s emphasis on early numbers. I’m especially skeptical of playlist curators who only want released tracks, While I can understand wanting only tracks that are definitely going to be released on a date certain and have been mixed and mastered, if you’re not willing to help out an artist with getting traction on the date their song releases (which obviously requires advanced screening before its on Spotify) then you are either not aware of how the Spotify ecosystem really works for artists or you don’t care. There may even be certain level of “we’ll hang back and wait for other people’s reactions” — whether this is born out of skepticism of their own abilities to evaluate a track or pure opportunism, who knows. I have noticed at least one playlister that operates this way tends to favor mostly well established artists on their most popular playlists and then throw others on a much less frequented “new finds” playlist. Then there are the enormously long playlists where all the tracks from newer artists are tacked on at the end, so the utility of your placement there is dependent on someone using shuffle play and randomly hitting the track.
Another issue I have is that so many playlists are designed for ambiance and mood to simply be played as some sort of amorphous background wallpaper, instead of based on engaging with the listener. So the system rewards targeting a limited number of moods and emotional states — instead of taking users on a journey, music is expected to be static and non-disruptive, without contrast or development. Maybe it’s always been this way, but like everything in our social media universe, it feels like Spotify amplifies the worst aspects of social interactions as opposed to promoting meaningful and rewarding engagement. And the path to developing your audience is really quite limited. The playlists that Spotify curates are really geared towards artists that are already in some way established. They have a such a tight grip even on playlist curation that despite that fact it as a platform wants artists to be constantly supplying them with new content on a regular basis, its mostly artists with a significant and predictable following that end up on the big playlists.
It’s hard to ignore Spotify given its dominance in the word on streaming services. But I’m skeptical of it being a place where you build a following. Certainly some people may hear your song on a playlist, save it (an important metric), and become fans — but the platform itself doesn’t seem they are terribly invested in developing talent. Playlist pitching isn’t the worst way to gain traction on the platform — pre-saves, being the terrible hack that they are, get that distinction — but the ecosystem of playlists is not a friendly one. You can certainly do better by putting some effort into it yourself than you can through paying some PR agency — I got onto a grand total of one playlist through a PR agency and I don’t think I got any plays. But even placement on a playlist is no guarantee you get any traction — it takes a lot of small playlists to make a dent and it’s a race against time for Spotify’s metrics to care.
Anyway, in conclusion, my journey to getting a 1000 plays is really just dumb luck of getting onto one of the few independent playlists that will generate you a substantial number of spins. In reality you have to get on many playlists, and even then I don’t think there are enough out there to really give you that significant a boost in the amount of time you’re likely to remain on that playlist before getting shuffled out.
It is a weird thing, trying to get people to pay attention to you and your music. After decades of feeling self conscious and shy about what I was doing, getting the gumption to put it out there by going to open mics and performing was one thing, but it’s a whole other conceit to actually try and get people to listen in the wide wide world. The reasons people listen to music are many and varied — and who they listen to and why is as much about social behavior and relationships as it is about what the music itself communicates. The whole pantomime of submitting to these various gatekeepers to get their approval so it will reach more people can be dispiriting and feel farcical, if not corrupt and dehumanizing. And it does at times make you even question why you're doing it or if it’s all the important in the end. For all the clout chasing and hyping you need to do to cut through the noise of this oversaturated and attention deprived world, ultimately, for me, it’s about having created something and wanting to share it with people who will appreciate it and find meaning or comfort or joy. Hopefully those are things that still exist.
The extended musings of a songwriter.