With the wealth of music at our fingertips, curation in music is more vital than ever. On Spotify alone, 551 million global users are given access to over 100 million tracks (growing by a factor of 120k new songs per day) — quite literally an inconsumable quantity of music when considering the lifetime listening average of 1.3 million songs.
In the face of the endless choices that music streaming offers, is it possible that listeners are losing out on some of the perks offered by formerly popular listening mediums? Murmurs of a “post-streaming era” and the continued rise of internet radio are just some of the signs that people may be interested in a reprieve from the self-selector experience.
Independent curators (also called tastemakers or music content creators), who are non-affiliated and have some degree of online following, have emerged as streaming’s answer to keeping the personality in music discovery. Their knowledge and skill set — a notable aspect being their propensity for unearthing lesser-known music — has positive implications for listeners, platforms, and artists alike.
They minimize choice abundance
One of these curators, the New Orleans-born, Brooklyn-based music content creator Margeaux Labat (aka margeaux), described herself to Chartmetric as a “very active music listener,” “obsessed with lists,” and a “child of the internet.”
After a teenage debut making movie-inspired playlists on 8tracks, margeaux switched over to Spotify in 2012, where she began creating mood- and time-based playlists for fun. Since starting to create music recommendation content in 2019, her childhood playlists have grown in listenership.
She has since come into a creative development position on the video team at Pitchfork, as well as a monthly hosting residency for the NTS Radio show Dust Bunnies. Her most regularly updated Spotify playlist, currently entitled in the middle of the night, in a dark house, somewhere in the world, is archived, renamed, and refreshed on a rotating basis to reflect her listening habits to its 15.6k followers, often inspired by the seasons.
To margeaux, listening to music is a weekly regimen. On Mondays and Tuesdays, she listens to her Spotify Discover Weekly (her only source of algorithmically-generated music), from Wednesdays to as late as Saturday, she listens to full albums, and on Sundays, she listens to playlists, either her own or from online radio stations. When it comes to music, she describes her brain as “never-ending file cabinets,” and writes down every album she listens to in the Notes application of her phone.
@marg.mp3 link in bio for my new music friday playlist :) #newmusic #sufjanstevens #ambient #indierock ♬ Napoleon Dynamite Pick Up Line - Napoleon Dynamite
Prolific music digging and playlist creation comes naturally to margeaux, but even she expressed the vastness of modern streaming can prove to be exhausting. According to Prof. Nils Wlömert and Prof. Dr. Dominik Papies, two co-authors of a 2021 study of how music curation on streaming services shapes demand, the impact of choice abundance on the listener is not an isolated experience.
“Such a huge assortment poses significant challenges for consumers because it makes the choice of which song to listen to very difficult, and may cause feelings of unhappiness,” Wlömert said to Chartmetric. “Playlists may help to alleviate this issue by preselecting songs.”
The study, which analyzed over 61k playlists and 60k songs over the span of three years, indicated key ways that music curation helps to alleviate choice abundance for listeners. One such finding demonstrated that playlists on streaming services are particularly effective for “relatively unknown songs, i.e., older songs from less famous artists in niche genres.”
“This may partly explain the increasing relevance of catalog content and decreasing market concentration in the streaming economy,” added Papies.
Curators like margeaux who spend time digging for lesser-known music are offering potential relief to listeners by giving them the ability to start from halfway up the mountain in their music discovery, rather than from the very bottom.
They inspire larger playlists
It is no wonder that the playlist, essentially an organizational method, has become such a powerful tool for music discovery on streaming services. On Spotify (the primary platform used by all curators discussed in this piece)there are three main kinds of playlists: editorial playlists, which are run by Spotify editors, algorithmic playlists, such as Discover Weekly (introduced in 2014 after Spotify acquired the machine-learning startup The Echo Nest), and user-generated playlists.
User-generated playlists cover a huge range in themselves, as they include everything from personal playlists made by casual music listeners, to highly researched playlists with large follower counts — the latter of which are frequently run by independent curators like margeaux.
“We know from our analyses of tens of thousands of playlists that there are some small, yet very influential playlists that seem to be able to systematically pick songs that will become popular in the future,” said Papies. “At the same time, the largest playlists are run by the platforms, e.g., Spotify, and getting on the largest playlists will lead to a significant increase in streams.”
The relative influence of smaller playlists on larger ones can be observed based on sourcing patterns. Take POLLEN, a popular Spotify-curated playlist with 1.3 million followers, featuring top genres of Electronic, R&B/Soul, and Alternative. On Chartmetric’s Playlist Journeys “Look Back” feature, a glance at curator ohrenweide’s self-described “unofficial, not affiliated” BBC Radio 6-inspired playlist (1.8k followers) shows that it is one of POLLEN’s oldest sources of track collection for their 110-track playlist. At 16 shared tracks and 14% overlap, it is also the largest source of songs outside of other Spotify playlists.
On “Look Ahead,” it is also possible to see other playlists that have sourced the playlist retroactively. Independent creator ambers albums’s Japanese Hip Hop playlist (308 followers) was used as a source by a J-Pop Spotify playlist (4.8k followers) run by Goto Masafumi, the vocalist and guitarist for ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION. The two shared 48 tracks in common, as of late October.
In addition to her popular Japanese Hip Hop playlist, London-based curator ambers albums brings her own twist to music discovery in her content, which often highlights artists she finds on Spotify that are completely unknown.
Her Instagram posts feature the results of a deep dive with certain creative parameters, such as finding musicians through the locations generated by the game Geoguessr, or using the website Forgotify, which features every unlistened track on Spotify, to find artists with zero plays.
Once such Forgotify find was the 2004 easy-listening rock album Wastin’My Time [sic] by The Mike Korzak Band, which is, in Amber’s words, “an eccentric old dude making goofy ah midi music with his guitar plugged straight into the PC.”
After Amber’s post came out on June 23rd of this year, the artist received a notable bump in listenership, going from a single listener to peaking at 278, and his monthly listeners have stayed in the double digits.
Curators who do deep dives on unknown artists are filling a void left in the absence of traditional record labels and the former prominence of radio listening. Elements of the old industry presented their own challenges in terms of over-exclusivity and control. Now, in the streaming age, artists face equal challenges, namely regarding promotion and getting paid. With the pay lower than ever in the music streaming industry, opportunities for exposure have become even more essential for artists.
They consider a song’s true fit
Trying to get “playlisted,” or seeking spots on well-followed playlists, has become a major strategy for many artists vying for visibility. Margeaux shared that she often hears from small artists hoping to get a song placement on one of her playlists. In terms of prospects for making it big, she also emphasized how relative popularity can be.
“The internet thrives off of these niche communities. You could have a million followers, and people don't really know who you are, but you're really big in a certain niche.”
Finding the right niche is key in the playlist game, especially considering the countless other elements out of the artist’s control. Even after being added to a playlist, there are many things that can influence how well the song does, and depending on the playlist, there may be risk of deletion or a lower position on the track order if it receives a high skip rate (songs are less likely to be listened to the lower they are on the playlist, as listeners see the top songs first).
Take the comparison of streams of these three songs by developing artists, all of which were released on Spotify and added to the editorial playlist undercurrents on the same date, September 29th.
Seventeen days after playlist addition, their position on the updated track list (1-100) comes to reflect their amount of streams. While "Hang Up The Lights" by White China, the song with the highest streaming count, stayed in essentially the same position, "Pitbull" by Hana Eid and "With Me" by Varsity were both pushed down in the ranks since they weren't as popular.
When it comes to her approach for playlist updates, margeaux described a “quality check” based on a combination of personal preference (as in if she herself likes the song) and consideration of listener experience (such as if a 20-minute song might be too long for a given playlist).
In regards to artists seeking out playlist placement, Wlömert shared that:
“Many large playlists do not make a song famous, but rather reflect fame, i.e., list already successful songs. Hence, in many cases, it is probably more worthwhile to seek listings on smaller influential playlists.”
They add a personal touch
When the role of the mainstream radio DJ shifted away from tastemaking, it also meant that listeners lost out on radio content that reflected the maker’s unique personality. Now that possibilities for content have expanded, independent curators have enhanced opportunities for showcasing their interests.
In addition to his playlists on Spotify, Music content creator Earfeeder takes a genre history-based approach with his Instagram content. His “Starter Guide” posts feature detailed diagrams, documenting innovations in genres like alt-country and hyperpop, or highlighting the influences of major artists like Aphex Twin or Chet Baker.
The audience popularity of these guides is apparent from his Spotify curator following, which made gains in periods of frequent Instagram posting.
The personal touch of context-driven content offers listeners a story behind what they are listening to, and the reason for its selection by the curator.
They encourage intentionality in listening
When asked about playlists as a medium, margeaux emphasized that she enjoys “intentional creation” the most, such as making something for a partner or friend, and she enjoys listening to playlists to learn more about the maker’s “personality and inner world.”
She also expressed dislike for when curation is taken too seriously, the “exclusive and lucrative” nature of features on streaming editorial playlists, and when people forget about “the beauty of a full album listening experience.”
“Anything that I’ve ever liked is not considered bad to me,” she also noted, citing her unapologetic nostalgia for old songs from Demi Lovato and One Direction. “I’ll be listening, never really even on private. I’m thinking if they’re interested, they can look, but I don’t care. I’m listening to old Ed Sheeran because I loved that stuff when I was 14 years old.”
In a world with no shortage of new content to scroll through, perhaps what is shepherding listeners into the post-streaming age comes from a desire of a similar origin — a taste for something familiar, purposeful, and unapologetic in the enjoyment of it. With intentional music curation, independent tastemakers are painting a part of this picture, one that mirrors listeners’ personhood back to them, rather than letting it fade away into the background.
Graphics by Nicki Camberg and cover image by Crasianne Tirado; data as of Dec. 13, 2023.