Label-owned playlists, are they the new payola?

An image of a spotify playlist with the words "label-owned playlists, the new payola?" written in front

Label-owned playlists are a trend that I’m starting notice over the past year or so, something which at first may not seem like an issue at all, but if you think about it, could become a massive problem for independent artists.

First I want to preface this by saying that this is just my opinion and I’m not trying to come across as entitled. Curators, labels, and tastemakers can do what they want with their playlists, however, I believe that if this trend continues, it could be a dismal future for new and independent artists.

As you’re probably well aware, one of the simplest ways of gaining traction on Spotify (other platforms, too, but Spotify is the most curator-friendly) requires reaching out and pitching your songs to curators to try and get placements on their playlists. Whether it’s an email, a DM on social media, or a submission form. For the most part, you’ll find a good handful of curators who’ll happily take a listen to your music and consider it for their playlists.

Then of course you have those asking for money to be placed, which is it’s own can of worms. But there’s something else I’ve started to notice, and that’s big playlists owned by curators who either own/run or have ties to labels in specific scenes.

Of course that doesn’t throw up any red flags immediately, right? Pretty much every label that exists (both indie and major) has some sort of playlist, or network of playlists they use to promote their releases, that’s normal – I’d actually be more concerned if a label didn’t have something like this. However, what I’m starting to see is a number of curators utilising these playlists as bargaining chips for their labels – a carrot on a stick as it were.

“Want to be on this playlist? Well, release with us and it’s yours!”

– some label owner

I wish I was joking, but the above quote was what a curator responded to me when I pitched a track to their playlist. Okay, admittedly it’s slightly paraphrased and dramaticised, but the sentiment is still there… Release with us, and you’ll get on it. No questions asked.

This is where I’m starting to hear alarm bells.

It’s worth prefacing here that I’m speaking largely from an artist (and label owner) within the bedroom space, specifically the chillhop and lo-fi hip-hop scene. Though there’s absolutely nothing stopping similar activities taking place in other genres, too.

So as playlist curation on digital streaming platforms (DSPs) grows and as more artists and curators begin to avoid using ko-fi to submit to playlists, label playlists are starting to feel like the new payola. But how?

Well, here’s the most worrying part: As many of us are aware, when we release via a label we usually enter into a deal that has us handing over a portion of our royalties, in some cases it could be 30%, in others it could be as high as 60%. This percentage should (if the label is worth their salt) be used pay for marketing and promotion of the release using label resources that artists may not have access to – or recoup any advances offered to artists for releasing with the label.

Now imagine this. Rather than artists paying $10, $20, $50 to be placed on a popular playlist for a month – which could be considered paid marketing spend – you’re essentially forking over a percentage of your entire royalty earnings in perpetuity for placement on this label-owned playlist which, let’s be real for a second, won’t last forever.

This is the trend I’m seeing at the moment, and it’s frankly terrifying as an independent artist.

A screenshot of a series of label-owned playlists on Spotify within the lofi hip-hop space.

Now from a business perspective, I get it, a label is essentially using that percentage it’s taking from your music to “market” your release, and rather it being through traditional methods of marketing (ad campaign, social media marketing, PR campaign) it’s using it to have your release basically dragged and dropped onto a playlist on Spotify (or equivalent). At the end of the day this is their “label resource” that artists might not have access too. Chances are they’ve also spent some time (and money) marketing their playlist to gain the followers and listeners that it has, so rightly so they should be able to utilise this investment.

From an artist perspective on the other hand, I see no longevity here. Essentially this is the musical equivalent of putting all of your eggs in one basket, and that basket is full of holes. Again, speaking from experience in the instrumental beats scene this does absolutely nothing for artist development, instead I’m seeing artists become almost reliant on these labels to retain that growth they saw from the placement, churning out music and essentially becoming suppliers to these labels rather than working on themselves as artists, producers, or musicians.

Now, I wouldn’t be as worried if these labels also put effort into pushing these artists further than just a label-owned playlist placement, but for most – in my experience – it’s as a famous singer once wrote: “Then I’m done, done, on to the next one”.

As more big playlist curators are encouraged to get into the label game, we’re definitely going to see an increase of these types of deals until the playlist ecosystem itself is rife with playlists that only offer placements if you release music with them. It’s already a minefield of playlist curators who’ll seemingly accept submissions only to throw a smorgasboard of payment options at you for various lengths and placement spots on their lists.

It’s no secret that playlists across music streaming platforms are becoming more and more valuable for independent artists and honestly this is a really bleak look at the future of music promotion via the platforms themselves. Do I see DSPs ever clamping down on this type of activity? Not really, not unless it begins to have an impact on its investors and major labels (who are one in the same), but even then, these label’s aren’t technically doing anything wrong.

Of course we could just avoid deals like this and continue to release independently, that’s something we should always be looking toward. But as mentioned above, if the practice of playlist marketing becomes hindered by curators becoming labels, or labels buying up popular playlists for their own gain, independent artists begin to lose an avenue of promotion specific to music streaming.

Just for perspective, the music streaming industry industry, as of 2021, saw revenues reach 16.9 billion U.S. dollars worldwide – the highest figure ever recorded. This is an industry that’s showing growth year on year, so putting time and effort into marketing and promotion via these platforms should be among the top of our marketing lists, and that’s another reason why practicies such as this should put a sour taste in our mouths.

I’d definitely be interested in hearing your perspective on this, so drop a reply below, or reach out on Twitter or Instagram!