The playlistification of music

By Dylan Robinson

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I am sure you use playlists to set the mood, bond with friends, showcase your musical palate or maybe even to try and impress a romantic endeavour, but would you want artists to create music specifically for your playlists? I guess it depends on what music you listen to, but generally speaking probably not. Despite this, there is a growing sense that new music, from both independent and established artists, is now so ‘playlist-ified’ that you can no longer discover new music as a listener, or create original music as an artist.

If, like me, you lack the playlist creating passion and rely on self-generated playlists like Discover Daily or Weekly Mix then you will maybe understand more what I’m getting at. Spotify’s algorithms will pool music together depending on BPM, track length, genre and other factors into something easy to digest and succinctly familiar for the listener. Take pop music (god help us): there are certain formulas adhered to that enable a pop song to be both radio-worthy and annoyingly catchy; usually between 3 minutes and 3 and a half minutes (although this is decreasing), leads with a chorus and has two verses with a hook and has the 4 simple chords- voilour you have yourself a chart-topping hit. *cough* Glass Animal’s ‘Heatwave’ *cough*.

Now why does this work? Mainly because people are lazy, but also because it is familiar and therefore comforting; knowing what is coming in the next line after hearing the song only once is the exact desired effect of that mind-numbingly, childlike attempt of rhyming that I’m sure Heart or Radio 1 will have you listen to all day. There are probably even songs you can guess the end of the next line to because realistically it is only going to be one of three similar sounding, basic, words.

The motivation for bands to ditch this formula isn’t really there. The best way of increasing exposure, especially to new audiences, is to have your song either played on a radio station, or placed into an opinion-leaders, or outlets, playlist and in order to do that you kind of have to choose the tried and tested formula. This could in part explain both the lack of new bands and the diminishing quality from let’s say the 80’s, when band music was rife, popular and original.

You might be reading as you nod in affirmation to a tune of unavoidable doom, as I was when first introduced to the term, but as ever with my half-filled-glass take on life I will attempt to convey how although this may destroy creativity in some scenes, in others it only fuels the fire to create original art…not fucking content.

Enter the underground rap scene *dramatic music plays*. Although an underground scene does not often get airtime on mainstream radio, or inclusion in popular playlists, it does favour the creation of art for the love of art, rather than the sale, distribution and resulting royalties. Of course Spotify has tried to tap into these scenes as well and can do a fairly good job of suggesting music similar to Clbrks, for example, but often these artists will already be established which defeats the purpose of discovering emerging talent. When you look at the rap scenes in the US and UK they have both birthed numerous successful artists from within the scenes who did not ‘sell out’ or conform to what mainstream media and streaming services want from their music. This is because the audiences in those scenes prefer originality over convenience and are willing to seek this out across different streaming sites, personal Youtube accounts or even artist and label websites- there are other tools besides playlists and streaming sites, if the communities are there.

Take Roc Marciano, a massive name in the US rap scene. Once he was a little established through collaborations and features, he released his solo albums firstly on his own website so there was no way of them being on streaming sites until he put them there. ‘Reloaded’ dropped in 2012, but wasn’t on Spotify free to stream until 2020. This means fans would have to seek out his music and pay for the pleasure of listening to it, but it also means that those listeners would remember him, they would own the vinyl or have the download and he would receive all of the revenue. This is what we are seeing more of now with the re-rising of vinyl and merchandise; Blah Records release their music on their website and in physical form first, then once the hype is over put them on streaming sites. Their label-head Lee Scott even mentions numerous times in his songs that he isn’t making music people want to hear, he’s making the music he wants to, and if you like it and buy it, well that’s a bonus. Authenticity is so important in the rap scene, especially underground, that the idea of making a song for a playlist, as accurate at describing your music the playlist may be, is still selling out and proves you are not doing it for the love of the art. If you want to create content, become a Tik-Tok influencer or some shit.

As a great man once said “I really couldn’t give a fuck about Spotify playlists”- Clbrks

On this point, I don’t think it is really something that crosses a good artists mind. Now that may be rather a controversial statement, especially with the ambiguous use of good, but if as an artist all you are caring about, and therefore catering your music towards, is plays or listens then your music will be playlist-ified, unoriginal and ultimately for me, bad. The best artists often do not care how their music is received because they are not making the music for anyone other than themselves. There are all these spaces to put your music on, people to share it with and scenes to find; I am of the persuasion that if your music is good, it will reach the right ears and the snowball will roll. I mean easy for me to say, I’m not an artist.