Music Discovery: Playlists, Engagements, and Getting Played

With a new album literally on the presses, one thing that’s been on my mind a lot is how to get The burden of Irrational Optimism to the ‘right’ ears.  And yes, the right ears – I’m well aware that the music I write has an intended audience, it’s that audience I’d like to connect with.  But, how does one do that, these days?

I mean, to an extent, times have changed, or perhaps I have (or both?).  A long long time ago, back before you could do anything you wanted on the internet, back when I was a bassist, we would simply produce CDs as cheaply as we could, and then play as many shows as possible to sell said cds.  Pretty straight forward model right?  I guess when you’re one and only goal is to get picked up by a major label, and have them worry about marketing – yea, that’s a great model.  I guess we’d also mail those CD’s to radio stations, hoping to get on their rotation.

But I’m no longer in a band, no longer interested in a major label.  I’m interested in being a completely independent musician and, to top it all off, I simply just can’t book hundreds of shows in an effort to hustle cds… at least not yet I can’t.

Given that my music has changed, my goals have changed, and the world around me has changed, it’s worth asking the question, “How is music getting to people these days?  And how does it get to them, when you don’t have the backing of a big label marketing machine?”

While I can’t promise you information that will cause your music to reach the stratosphere, I can provide some information that you might find interesting, or even useful.   These days, anyway, a lot seems to boil right down to this age old concept… the playlist.  However, even that operates very much by what you, the listener, is willing to do.

Playlists and engagements – making it in our streaming universe.  I guess that’s where we’ll start.

Oh, and in the spirit of the playlist, I’m stuck in an airport and made one for you to listen to while you enjoy this article:

Music Discovery

Now, maybe this will seem obvious to you (it wasn’t to me), but music discovery has been closely tied to the playlist since forever.  Remember that old mix tape your friend made you?  Remember discovering a song you loved on the radio?  Sure, these days you can make playlists anywhere and share them in any number of ways, but that’s nothing new, we’ve been doing it, I’d argue, since the invention of sheet music.

Wanna get discovered?  Get the king’s musician to play your latest minuet!

Times these days aren’t all that different, get your tunes to show up on the Spotify hip-hop list and thousands of people will know your music over night.  But how does one do that, exactly?  What types of playlists are even available?  Do different kinds of playlists have different effects?  What else can playlists do for you?

I’ll tell you what I know, the rest we’ll learn together.

Streamers and Dreamers

Much music in the modern era, including almost all of mine, is usually available via some kind of streaming service:  Soundcloud, Apple Music, Spotify – there are plenty of these services available.  Anyone can sign up for them, thumbs up their favorite artists, and have direct access to an artist’s entire discography.    It’s pretty fantastic actually, your fans can just sign up for your stuff and get it all right away.

However, let’s say you’re not Michael Jackson and no one’s ever heard of you.  You might look at your music on Spotify and notice that, eh… you’re not getting a lot of plays (and thus, not getting paid).  Not only that, your audience isn’t growing, not even a little bit.  Your music is good, your audience is out there, but you’re not connecting to them.  Where are they?  Who are they?  How will the two of you find each other?  Clearly making your music available for free and posting to your facebook page just isn’t enough.  So strange, I remember a time where we would have killed for free music…  I guess some things do change.

The absence of a community was the case for me and a big part of what prompted me to do a deeper dive, and you know, write this article.  Motivation enough?

I suppose, now that we’re motivated, the first question is, “how are people discovering their new music?”.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it happens a few ways:

  • Their friends
    • Social media shares
    • Mixtapes
    • (and insert any number of physical music sharing activities here)
  • Playlists:
    • Internet Radio, like Pandora (aka the ‘just in time’ playlist)
    • Curated playlists, these are hand edited by pro ‘music nerds’ and are available on services like Spotify and Apple Music
    • Algorithmically generated playlists, usually relating to some theme, like Spotify’s “lofi chill” playlist
  • Through artist association, i.e. “Similar artists to Bon Jovi”
  • Radio (remember that?)
  • Via paid marketing be it on the internet, or else where
  • via ‘the scene’ – should you be playing out enough

There are quite a number of ways actually.  Given most of us are broke, paid marketing is not an option, so we won’t talk about that here.  What I will talk about however, are how playlists and engagements drive the discovery machine as this doesn’t require (or shouldn’t require) any funding at all.

Playlists:  Where you want to be

Clearly there are many ways to discover music.  Given it’s likely that everyone understands how mixtape sharing works, the real depth to explore has to do with how the modern internet forum gets your music to people, and gets people to your music.

For a tremendously large number of people, playlists are how they will discover new music.  This means that this is where our music needs to go.  Not any playlist will do too, you want to get your music onto the ‘right’ playlists.  Do that and a whole lot of people will discover you.  Boom; done; winning.  How do I know this?  It’s not exactly a secret, even wired gets it.

Okay, so, how do the playlists work, exactly?

Recently, Spotify pushed their Spotify for Artists program out of beta.  With this program, they’ve been publishing a number of articles and videos aimed at informing the modern independent musician, people like me and maybe you, telling us how the system works.  While I’ll sum things up quite briefly, you can go deeper here.

There are two types of playlists, as Spotify puts it, that will get you discovered:

  • Algorithmic playlists:  You know, the playlists the great artificial intelligence makes up.  In Spotify’s case, many of these are tailored to your specific interests.  This, of course, is based on your data.
  • Curated Playlists:  Spotify and their team of experts know what it means to ‘mojito and chill’ and play tracks on these lists they know you’ll enjoy while drinking fresh minty goodness.  Of course, they’re backed up by a very large data acquisition device (aka Spotify).

In both of these cases you’ll noticed I mentioned data.  Data drives all of this – Spotify knows every song you’ve ever heard.  They know what you skip, what you partially listen to, what kind of music you enjoy on Tuesday’s.  They know a lot and they take advantage of this information in various ways to determine how to give you, the listener, the best audio experience.  The better they do, the more you use their service and the richer everybody gets.  Makes sense right?

This data I’m talking about is generated through what we call engagement.  That is, when a listener directly manipulates the application relating to a piece of music, they are engaging with that music.  Engagements drive the data that ultimately feeds both the algorithmic and the curated playlists.  I guess, if you want to be discovered, you need to get people to engage with your music.

Association Discovery

When you go to a rock concert, usually it will be the case that the bands opening the show will have something, musically, in common with the main performer.  Similarly, you might find both band’s records in the same section at the local record shop (you would have back in the 90’s anyway). Generally, when it comes to music, there are usually scene’s and through those scenes artists are associated.

Spotify, Soundcloud, and most audio content streamers know that if a listener likes music of a certain type, they’ll likely like other artists who produce similar styles of music.  Therefore, if we remember the content-streaming m.o. it’s easy to see that it’s in the interest of the platforms to suggests other artists to you, based on their understanding of your taste.  Discover new artists you love, use the service more, everyone gets rich.

This the ever common nowadays, “similar artists” tab.  “Find more artists who sound a lot like Booka Shade” – sound familiar?  Even I find this feature useful.  That said, until recently, vt100 didn’t have a single associated artist.  No one sounded like me… but was I truly so unique that even a hundred thousand computers couldn’t find me a musical friend?

Not quite, as it would turn out, the association algorithms also leverage, well, your data.  Yep, your clicks and skips when listening to an internet radio station fuel the association machine too.

Well, with one big difference.  Associations are also seeded through user created playlists (this was the third playlist type from the Spotify article btw).  That is, Spotify knows who sounds like Booka Shade, because of the music their users, are putting into playlists with Booka Shade songs.

This means that if no one’s ever put your music in a playlist, you’ll be associated with no one!  Once again, an example of how listener engagement directly fuels the music discovery machine.

That said, this was a solvable problem – make a playlist or get your friends to make a playlist.  Doing so, and checking back in over the course of a month, yielded artist associations in spotify, and even some new internet radio plays.

Engagement:  The thing we want you to do

You know how everyone on the internet is out there trying to get ‘likes’?  Yes, it’s incredibly validating.  In the case of the independent musician, those ‘likes’ or well, more broadly engagements, are how various sites makes your content available to the listeners looking for… well, you.  That’s all fine and good, but different engagements have different effects on business as an artist.

Engagements are literally any way that a listener can interact with your music.  Specifically:

  • Plays
    • Partial plays
      • Skips right away when a song starts
      • Skips after you have listened to most of the song
  • Adding a song to a playlist
  • Sharing a song
    • Some sites have internal sharing mechanisms (like soundcloud)
    • Bandcamp and Soundcloud also offer ways to embed your music, these are tracked differently
  • Favoriting or ‘liking’ a song

I’d like to point out, particularly if you look at ‘plays’, there’s some subtle stuff going on here.  I hardly know all the ins and outs there, but thanks to Bandcamp I can tell you at least that much about plays.

‘Like’ the music

Each platform implements the results of these engagements differently.  For example, likes on posts on Facebook will show the post to more followers, the likes will also show new content to the ‘liker’ more regularly.  On Soundcloud favorites feed a variety of discovery features (i.e. everything they like to show you on the front page).

‘Share’ the music

While ‘liking/favoriting’ features are all well and good, it’s usually the share that makes a larger impact.  Favorite favoring algorithms tend to require substantial overhead before your song gets picked (aka you need a lot of likes), meaning a ‘favorite’ is likely better for your ego than for getting new listeners.  Shares, on the other hand, provide new communities direct access to your music.  Despite this being what musicians really want, shares are quite a big more difficult to come by.

In the case of Soundcloud, not only do shares get counted differently than the favorites, they re-post a song to someone else’s stream.  Each person’s stream is updated whenever someone they follow posts a new track, or shares someone else’s tune.  Soundcloud users that participate in stream listening, are then exposed to new music.  Kind of like when everyone in highschool shared their cds, except now no one knows anything about the people sharing the music… except for their tastes.

Playlists for the win

With any luck, someone shares your track and even better, they playlist it.  This is like being ‘super-favorited’.  Playlists, as we know, have some benefits:

  • They seed artist association algorithms
    • Enables ‘this artist sounds like that artist’ features
    • Makes you more likely to get played on an internet radio station (like spotify radio)
  • They make your music more likely to get played
    • Lots of people prefer listened to mixed artists over listening to albums
    • Playlists are shareable too, just like those old mix tapes
    • Playlists allowed your music to exist in different contexts, for example your song could end up in both ‘chill’ and ‘sexy time’ playlists giving it twice the opportunity to be played.
    • Playlists often represent people’s most liked tracks, so they’ll listen to them frequently.

Playlists are, in many ways, the holy grail of engagement though I’d be hard pressed to say those shares aren’t super valuable in getting your name out there.

Plays pay

And finally, everything boils down to plays, sooner or later; it’s worth calling them out specifically.  Plays, unlike any of the other engagement, are what get artists paid.  Every other engagement, is in service of getting music to more fans, or more contexts where people will, indeed, listen to that track all the way.  And, when it comes to streams, you have to stream a lot… even to make one penny.

Sure, we could talk about selling the music, but that’s a whole different article.

Say you love it, and you’ll get more of it

It all seems so straight forward – if people interact with the music they enjoy, the artists that make it will thrive and, more of that music will become available.  There are so many ways to engage with music in the modern internet, and a little goes a long way.  Each play, share, or the inclusion of an independent artist on a playlist, hugely impacts the artist’s ability to get their music out, get heard, and, with any luck, connect with the music’s intended audience.

Yea, we know, there’s a whole lot of validation going on out there.  There are certainly plenty of folks who want to be seen; they desperately want you to help them.  However, there are a lot of musicians out there pouring their heart and soul into their recordings.  They are giving it everything because their creative voice won’t let them stop.   You love their music, so support it, and it won’t even cost you a thing (we do so love it when y’all buy the albums though, we most certainly do).

Since you now know how those little buttons and links affect the creatives, think about how you could help the independent musician by using them.  I hope, if nothing else, you let this new information empower you to support those artists out there who make a difference in your life.  If you’re an artist, perhaps this info can help you rally your community to make your next move or perhaps, enables you to support your artist friends better.

Like I said, I don’t know how to make you famous, but it’s clear to me – when there are communities willing to engage with art – art thrives.  Hopefully we can help it thrive together.