Analysis by Julie Knibbe - Research and findings led by Parth Sinha and Pavel Telica

With the streaming economy at its peak, playlists — and, especially, editorial playlists, have become a critical promotion channel for most artists in the business. Over the years, a New Music Friday addition on release day has been a must-have token of any Triple-A campaign, while emerging artists went all out to get their music in front of the editorial teams and secure any editorial support. And, with the editorial deck seemingly stacked in favor of major-backed artists, the indies questioned the fairness of the editorial system, wondering what the editorial game is really about: music or partnerships, scale, and power? 

Spotify's curators are perhaps the most approachable out of all the major streaming platforms — since 2018, every artist has had direct access to Spotify editorial through the Spotify for Artists pitch form. The results? In its Made to be Found report released earlier this year, Spotify claimed that between 2020 and 2021, more than 150,000 artists were added to a Spotify editorial playlist for the first time — which is nothing to sneeze at. 

Yet, the space on editorial playlists is still very much finite — and extremely valuable. As of 2022, Spotify curated about 5,000 frontline official playlists (frontline meaning that at least 75% of tracks in these playlists are recent additions released in the past 18 months). We assess that these ~5000 frontline playlists have a total capacity of about 350,000 tracks, with most tracks staying on the playlist for months on end. Which means that the Spotify editorial can accommodate only a tiny fraction of the ever-growing volume of "70,000 tracks uploaded on Spotify every day". Of course, not all of these tracks are frontline commercial priorities: a healthy chunk of that 70k figure can be attributed to DIY micro-releases and "deep cuts" catalog uploads. However, the fact still stands. There's not enough space on that premium editorial shelf to go around.

We recently addressed the matter of fairness in algorithmic recommendations, questioning how fair and balanced the algorithmic landscape is. Today, we will dive into the second facet of the playlist ecosystem — editorial placements — and try to answer some of the most fundamental questions on fairness. Do major labels really hold the keys to these digital premium shelves? Are major-backed artists over-represented on Spotify's biggest playlists? What is the relative power of the largest record labels within the Spotify editorial landscape? And, finally, how fair is Spotify's editorial when it comes to showcasing emerging artists?

A word on methodology

To answer these questions, we analyzed historical data on some of the most prominent global playlists on the platform — New Music Friday (NMF) Global, Rap Caviar, Get Turnt, Today's Top Hits, Pop Rising, Channel X, and Are & B — and assessed the share of major-backed artists within these playlists. To that end, we used Chartmetric to retrieve all the tracks featured on these playlists dating back to 2017 or 2018 (depending on when Chartmetric started tracking a particular playlist). Then, we cleaned the data by removing duplicate ISRCs and counted how many tracks represented by a given label were playlisted throughout the years, allowing us to assess the "playlist shares" by label and track how they changed throughout the years.

Obviously, this method is far from perfect, as it doesn't consider how much time a given track spent on the playlist nor the track's position within the playlist. However, the sheer wealth of historical data at our disposal should help compensate for these biases.

New Music Friday 

Tracks % by Record Labels in the New Music Friday Global playlist (2017 - 2021)

 

Given that the NMF brand is closely related to the notion of "biggest stars and top hits", it wasn't a surprise that the majors accounted for close to 70% of the songs featured on the playlist. In more detail, Universal took the lead with ~30% playlist share, while Warner and Sony each accounted for 19% of the playlist. 

Then, we've studied how these shares evolved over time:

Interestingly enough, the trend remained pretty consistent over time — stay tuned, though, since 2022 seems to be a lot more favorable to the indie acts. At the time of the analysis, in April 2022, the NMF global playlist featured 63% of non-major tracks, which is a pretty extreme outlier given the historical share of the indie catalog rarely broke 30%.

The same dynamics were actual for NMF UK — the most prominent local installment of New Music Friday. UMG accounted for 29% of the tracks on the playlist, while Sony and WMG each represented 18%. With the playlist shares practically identical to the global NMF, major-backed catalog made up around 65% of the playlist — leading us to believe that we would find similar proportions across most local iterations of New Music Friday. 

Yet, even though the big-3 out-powered the indie catalog, it didn't really come as a breakthrough. After all, the NMF playlists are built to showcase the hottest, loudest fresh releases across popular genres — so it's only natural that major-backed artists dominated the landscape. But what about more niche and genre-specific editorial playlists? To answer that question, we broadened our analysis to some of the largest genre playlists — to see if we would find similar proportions across the board. 

Rap Caviar and Get Turnt

Tracks % by Record Labels in top Hip-Hop playlists (2017 - 2021)

First, we've focused on hip-hop, where our dataset counted around 2k tracks featured over the years on the two biggest playlists in the genre: Rap Caviar and Get Turnt. Together, these playlists account for an astonishing 20 million followers, making them some of the most influential platforms in the genre. We were a bit surprised to see that the share of the big-3 has increased for hip-hop playlists compared to New Music Friday. Once again, UMG led the charge with a 41% share, followed by Warner (24,70%), and Sony (21%). Supporting the notion that hip-hop is the new pop, the Big 3 represent 86% of the tracks within the two top playlists for the genre. 

To add some nuance, it's worth mentioning that Rap Caviar and Get Turnt are not actually discovery playlists. While New Music Friday's purpose is to showcase the latest, hottest new tracks of the week, Rap Caviar is meant to represent the most influential tracks and voices in hip-hop. Therefore, the average track popularity on Rap Caviar is much higher than on most "discovery" playlists like New Music Friday.

Today's Top Hits and Pop Rising

Tracks % by Record Labels in top Pop playlists (2017 - 2021)

So, if hip-hop is the new pop, what about pop itself? We analyzed over 2,5k unique tracks on "Today's Top Hits" and "Pop Rising" playlists — counting 32 million combined followers. Similar to what we've observed on hip-hop playlists, the majors have dominated the space: 39% of all tracks were represented by UMG, 25% — by Sony, and 23% — by WMG.

In total, the Big-3 accounted for 87% of the featured tracks, almost identical to top hip-hop playlists — with the only notable difference being that Sony surpassed WMG when it came to pop genres.

Channel X and Are & B

Tracks % by Record Labels in top R&B playlists (2017 - 2021)

As a final step in our little investigation, we've decided to take a closer look at the world of R&B and analyzed "Channel X" and "Are & B" playlists — the leading platforms on Spotify or all things R&B. As a genre, R&B is undoubtedly less popular than hip-hop or pop — and so we were curious to see if the composition of the editorial support would exhibit any substantial changes. However, the picture stayed relatively the same: UMG at the front with 32%, Sony in close second with 30%, and WMG with 23 % — giving us an 85% playlist share reserved by major labels.

Why editorial playlists are dominated by major-backed catalog?

So, what's the outtake of our impromptu study? Well, even though making and releasing music has become easier than ever, the support of a major label — and its marketing powerhouse — is one of the top determinants (if not prerequisites) for getting access to some of the most valuable streaming "real estate". Admittedly, our research leaves a lot of smaller mood and genre playlists out of scope. The label share distribution will likely be more favorable to independent catalogs when it comes to these less prominent editorial playlists. Yet, it is still clear that the Big-3 holds vast amounts of bargaining power and authority within the Spotify editorial landscape. But why? Aren't the doors of the Spotify editorial open to the entire industry, from DIY bedroom producers to indies, to triple-A acts?

Well, yes — and no. The doors are indeed open, and even a tiny "1000 monthly listeners" DIY project has a chance to make it onto the biggest editorial playlist. The real question is, how big is that chance? Imagine the editorial department at Spotify as a physical office: in that case, that "Spotify for Artists pitch form" would be something of a public PO box, overflowing with letters from artists from all over the world looking to secure an editorial placement.

Sure, there's an internal process for dealing with that PO box — but given the sheer volume of the letters received, each pitch is likely to get about 10 seconds of the editor's attention before they move on to the next one. So, is there a chance that your pitch would make it past the initial screening, get in front of the right editor and lend on an editorial playlist? Sure. But is there a chance your pitch gets lost in the mail, didn't make it through the screening, or drowns in the noise of 50k pitches Spotify has to process that week? Also, yes — and you could argue that the latter is music more likely.

The editorial pitches for the major-backed catalog are very different. They would look more like a trusted partner coming down to the office every week to do an hour-long presentation on the set of this week's priority releases in front of the entire team. And it's not only about that they have the undivided attention of the curators for a whole hour — they will also come back the next week and the week after. Relationships between editorial teams and trade marketers at majors are long-term by nature. We have to acknowledge that independent artists (or even the biggest independent labels) can't have the same exclusive one-on-one access to the editorial team as majors do. The scope of any DSP operation simply wouldn't allow for it — there are not enough hours in the week to have a 1-hour meeting with everyone — and so, on average, the major-backed catalog keeps a clear advantage.

Besides, we can see that the playlist shares we found correspond to the market share that respective majors hold on the recorded market. In a way, that's an age-old chicken-and-egg dilemma. Do majors have a favorable position because they hold a sizable share of the market and, by extension, account for a big chunk of any DSP revenue? Or do they hold that market share precisely because they maintain that favorable position when pitching to editorial teams (and other industry gatekeepers)?

Yet, there's no need to get too pessimistic about the editorial ecosystem. In today's post-pandemic world, streaming services are on the spot to remain fair and support independent and emerging catalogs. More data tools than ever can help the industry monitor the diversity, and streaming services are under enormous pressure from the likes of #BrokenRecord to move to a more sustainable and fair business model for creators. And while it might be early to tell for sure, we can already see the first signs of the shift happening this year. For example, when running our analysis, we noticed that the current distribution of the tracks (as of April 2022) on the reviewed playlists was much more independent-heavy.

By design, conventional editorial playlists can't scale as fast as catalogs grow. To solve that scaling issue, Spotify launched personalized editorials a few years ago — and just recently announced a plan to start showcasing influential user playlists on par with editorial ones. By doing so, they would be able to cover a much larger set of local genres and styles. Besides, don't forget that editorial playlists are just a subset of the overall discovery landscape on DSPs: the fairness debate should also take into account algorithmic recommendations & other personalized discovery channels.

Besides, there's a point to be made that indie label's revenue is steadily growing — and so does their relative power in the industry, especially if you look at the revenue distribution on the ownership basis rather than distribution basis (since a healthy chunk of the independent catalog is actually distributed by majors or major-owned structures). To quote Mark Mulligan of MiDIA Research, "The independent share was up from 41.3% in 2018, and in 2020, independent revenue (on an 'ownership' basis) grew by 12% compared to a total recorded music market growth of 12%. All of which means that independents (labels and artists) are a) bigger than standard industry measures suggest, and b) growing faster than the total market and are thus increasing market share". So, are we nearing the independent-first era of the music business? It might be too early to tell for sure — but DSP discovery features, whether algorithmic or editorial, will play a critical role in that shift. 

About the researchers

Parth Sinha is part of the Product Team at Bytedance. You can observe his love for music and data in his data-driven blog IMA. He is a curious discoverer of Music Data and Digital Strategies while being a keen observer of streaming and recommendation systems. 

Pavel Telica is a music artist, writer and a music data strategist, being a co founder of the Doctor Gosso Collective( with now over 2 million streams on their catalogue) and IMA music data startup that specialises in identifying and analysing trends within the music industry. Aside from this Pavel also writes about music tech and music & web3 for a number of outlets, with an aim of bringing education and accessibility within the world of music technology and decentralisation.