Features | From Pivot Magazine

Against the stream

Who holds the power in today’s music industry? The people who pick your playlist. 

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Illustration by Leeandra Cianci of hand, coming out of a smart phone, holding a muisc noteIn 2016, streaming accounted for more than half of all revenue in recorded music. (Illustration by Leeandra Cianci)

Streaming may or may not have saved the music business, but this much is true: streaming has become the music industry. Never mind the niche vinyl market or minor bumps in radio listenership—in 2016, streaming accounted for more than half of all revenue in recorded music. Market leader Spotify boasts 160 million users (70 million paid; the rest on its free, ad-supported tier), and the rapidly growing Apple Music is not far behind. Whereas radio stations once decided what listeners heard, the mighty gatekeepers of the streaming era are the people who curate your playlists.

It’s no wonder listeners rely on these curators: there are 40 million songs across all streaming services, and play­lists may well be the only way to navigate the infinite content. The same applies to movies and TV (Netflix estimates more than 75 per cent of views are driven by its recommendations) and books (at Indigo, almost all of Heather’s Picks “end up selling quite well,” the Toronto Star reported in 2016). By giving consumers access to everything they could ever read, watch or listen to, these businesses like to say they’re democratizing their industries. But more and more, they’re deciding which pieces of content are equal, and which pieces of content are more equal than others.

According to a recent report from the European Commission, landing a song on Spotify’s most popular play­list, “Today’s Top Hits,” can garner an artist 20 million streams and about US$100,000—Spotify reportedly pays $4 to $6 per 1,000 streams—not to mention the publicity, tours and sponsorships that might follow. So how do you get on one of those all-powerful playlists? Joel Waldfogel—a University of Minnesota professor and author of the EC report as well as an upcoming book, Digital Renaissance—says that only one of Spotify’s top 25 playlists is designed by algorithm; the rest are hand-picked. So while Big Data may factor in, it’s still plain old humans picking the song of the summer.