It’s a Playlist World. Time to Break the Lock-in!

Playlists are moving to the front and centre of music discovery and consumption. They alter the balance of power in the industry in some obvious, and some less obvious ways. So who is winning in a playlist world, and how can we make sure the power of the playlist is used for the benefit of music fans and artists?

It helps to know which playlists are important, and for what reasons. For artists and record labels playlists can now make the difference between success and obscurity. Lorde was famously a beneficiary of Sean Parker’s Hipster International playlist, back in 2013. Since then the music services themselves have made sure they own the lists that matter. As though it needed underlining, here’s Will Page explaining how Spotify used its playlists to make Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” a hit:

Spotify can proudly claim over 90 percent of the credit for this historical achievement, and our curated Browse playlists were the biggest factor.

What artists are looking for is the chain reaction, where exposure on one playlist leads to additions to other playlists and so to positions in interactive charts. There’s some data showing that this now happens ahead of mass media coverage, for instance through broadcast radio.

Even if charts and pop success are not the main aim playlists can deliver a solid number of plays (and therefore revenue), or bring high engagement from a community. Spotify’s Paul Lamere generously gave us a lot of detail here, including a helpful breakdown of different categories of playlist – genre, context, mood… So for the platforms, playlists are a critical user experience feature, as well as a tool to manage their relationship with the music providers.

For users, playlists solve some of the paradox of choice problem, while ceding less personalisation than radio or non-interactive streaming. They are also, of course, a digital era reinvention of the mixtape, with all the personal and public status and communication amplified by global reach. For cheapskate families (sorry, hardpressed and hardworking families) playlists solve the dilemma of sharing an account between many people without getting too much in each others’ way. They are a scratchpad for research, and an amazing way to express one’s inner librarian.

All of the above is an investment in a service; you would expect much lower churn from users who had made more playlists. As such this is a form of lock-in. The cost of switching to a different supplier now includes reconstructing important playlists, or abandoning many hours of work, even where there might not be a significant repertoire risk. And as social and communication tools infiltrate ever more deeply it’s just going to get harder to leave an interwoven graph of music and connected people.

I suggested elsewhere that the music industry should be considering how we can achieve playlist portability between services, much as mobile network switching was really stalled before you could keep your number. There is a wholly understandable conservatism when users, and artists and labels, have invested heavily in an aspect of a service which is technically tied to that service. We end up working to preserve a service not because it innovates and offers great value, but because we don’t want to lose the work we put in.

So this is the playlist panorama. A small revolution in discovery and listening, but not a democratic one as the platform owned playlists have almost all the power. A new layer of sharing and self-expression for users. A new dynamic in value which pushes users and music providers to work unpaid to increase the value and stickiness of the platform. Oh, and new opportunities for payola, which frankly are just as bad value as they ever were, and just as uninteresting.

As so often, the music fan’s interests are wholly aligned with the artists’ and labels’ for a fair, open, and portable playlist format. So take this as a very gentle warning that the benefits of a playlisted world need to be a little more evenly distributed. We should not tempt the platforms to prefer rent seeking to innovation and competition, even if it’s working for us right now. Portability would make playlists perfect.

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