The life of Paul Johnson was like any other struggling musician – having multiple jobs, taking gigs, hustling. Then his warm acoustic folk-pop track “Firework” was included in one of Spotify’s Fresh Finds playlists, designed to bring out brand new artists. Spotify and other streaming platforms invest heavily in playlists, from the algorithmically generated Discover Weekly (which predicts new music subscribers might like) to the RapCaviar editorial (the most sought-after real estate in the world). hip hop). Playlist slots are highly coveted, both for the way they rack up streams — more than 7 billion in five years, in RapCaviar’s case — and the way they expose music to new listeners. The latter paid for Johnson.
His first playlist took him from a few thousand streams a day to 20,000, and later, as his music landed more and more spots, to hundreds of thousands. Thanks to that exposure, he now earns around $200,000 a year, mostly in royalties from streaming. It’s great for Paul. But, like almost all successes in music, it’s a story of Horatio Alger. Spotify wants you to believe that turning poverty into wealth is due to hard work and talent when it actually requires a huge dose of luck. Ignoring this element of luck illustrates how difficult it is for musicians to support themselves through streaming revenue – and how many talented, hard-working people will never be able to do so.
Just before the start of the streaming era, we experienced one of the few times in the history of recorded music where the power went to the artists. Although it was an economically disastrous time for many of them, the democratization brought about by digital technologies and the Internet finally forced record labels to reform the abuses they had perpetrated for decades.
Today, however, the recorded music market is returning to its old hourglass shape, this time with streaming platforms at the center. Just as the music industry is organizing to let labels and publishers recoup much of the value of music, streaming platforms, as they become more powerful, are positioning themselves to do the same.
The most dominant, Spotify, has told investors it plans to leverage its listeners in a massive digital advertising game that will make it a market leader behind Google and Facebook. It pushes playlists with names like Mood Booster, Happy Hits, Life Sucks and Coping with Loss to extract what the company claims is subscribers’ real-time mood and activity data, then flogs it to sell ads. But that’s almost certainly a counterfeit claim: Like the rest of Big Tech, Spotify is better at selling advertisers on the idea that it has a ray of mind control to trick people into buying things than it is to persuade people to buy things. The real money will come from Spotify inserting itself as a gatekeeper between musicians and listeners. And those same playlists that gave Paul Johnson and other artists their resounding success will be central to his ability to do so.
Streaming is sold as a way for listeners to access almost any music on command. Increasingly, however, at the nudges of streaming platforms, subscribers are listening to playlists curated by algorithms or human curators instead of making their own selections. As the International Federation of Musicians points out, playlists are increasingly ubiquitous: “There is a playlist for every moment of the day: wake up, breakfast, training, relaxation, meditation, running, party etc. button and the music is on for the next 30 minutes or the whole evening or night.