Curious to know if that playlist company you're thinking about spending $50 on is full of shit?
Look, we get it. Music promotion is hard. Even the biggest artists with sizable budgets and huge partnerships screw it up from time to time. Anybody remember U2 automatically adding their album to your iPhone? That Drake Spotify takeover? Yikes.
Unfortunately, a lot of opportunistic jackasses prey on your hopes and frustrations. And in the music world, there's no more feral a landscape than playlists, and no more carnivorous a jackass than the playlist company. Spotify playlists, to be more exact. And for good reason.
A Brief History of Spotify Playlists
Spotify became the number one target for opportunistic jackasses mostly of its own volition. The whole playlist ecosystem started somewhat innocently. The idea was to recreate the old-school concept of mixtapes and burnt CDs within your Spotify library — by creating playlists of whatever songs you want.
Early on, Spotify also let its users share these lists with their friends (and complete strangers) publicly. Because back in the day, Spotify leaned much more heavily on the social aspect.
You might not remember this, but at one point artists were actually able to message the people who followed them. Yep, in the early beta days Spotify angled itself as a social music platform. Now Spotify's bigger selling point is delivering personalized music experiences via machine learning.
So anyways, these publicly available playlists naturally started gaining new followers outside of the user's immediate friend list. If they got popular enough, they would even show up in the search results for certain artists and songs, which really helped them gain traction.
Then Came The Entrepreneurs
Around this time, savvy artists and entrepreneurs recognized, "Hey wait a second — this is just like having thousands of tiny radio stations." Coupled with the fact that Spotify still made it easy to reach out to people, artists et al realized they had an opportunity to get in front of new fans if they could convince regular folks to put a certain song on their playlists.
A small cottage industry developed around this notion. People created their own databases of reliable playlist contacts. Others created their own backend software to create a monetized submission and "review" process for songs. (Note: this practice, while still in play, is being *heavily* monitored by Spotify and is likely on its last leg because it constantly flirts with payola). And thus, the playlist company was born.
At this point, it was still possible for headstrong artists to research playlists, find contact info for the curator (either directly on Spotify or through other social media), and get their song in front of new listeners. A lot of people saw small, independently ran playlists as a gateway to larger editorial support.
Then Came The Vultures
Then, around 2018, things started changing. More and more "curators" started asking for money in exchange for putting a song on a list. They started sending bot traffic to their lists to inflate their value and impact. And then others started going out and actually purchasing these lists from curators entirely for hundreds to thousands of dollars. Their goal was to build a "network" of lists that they actually owned in order to sell their "pitching" services to artists.
Spotify finally got serious about addressing the fake traffic on their site (well, at least *some* of it, but that's a story for another article). They introduced more tools to track success and submit directly to editorial. Many of the original players got out of the game entirely when they saw where the businesses was headed. Some drastically changed their business model and strategies, shifting away from the notion of "playlist promotion" entirely in order to stay legit.
If you know anything about what happened to American radio in the late 90s and early 2000s, you're probably saying, "Hey, this sounds familiar."
So with the innovators out of the picture, we're mostly left with the opportunists and scam artists.
And so now we're here: a user playlist landscape bloated with playlist company bullshit. And seemingly every day, a new playlist company emerges with a slick website offering to make you the next [insert desired celebrity here].
The Two Main Kinds of Playlist Companies
There are two main kinds of playlists companies. The first kind still maintains some of that "old school" feel. These are usually marketing companies ran by humans who will tell you their name. They usually include playlist pitching as part of a larger service that will include blog pitching and maybe even social media marketing or management.
They are usually pricier (in the hundreds to thousands of dollars per single) and want to work with you personally over several weeks. They usually try a handful of tactics. At the end of the day, however, they still normally rely on some degree of taking some of the money you gave them and giving it to somebody else to put your song on a playlist. Because they have to be able to promise you *some* sort of quantifiable results if they want your repeat business.
And remember — those playlists are usually at least partially infected with bloat and bot traffic.
In general, these individuals and companies are at least on the surface more trustworthy. But they're still selling a product, and if the primary service they offer is third party playlist pitching, you're likely overpaying for something that might hurt you in the long run. Because bot traffic is bad for your profile. Even if the intentions are good.
The second kind of playlist company is the "self-serve" variety. And this is where we'll focus most of the rest of the article. So let's get to it: how to tell if that playlist company is full of shit.
You Can't Find A Name On The Playlist Company Website
To be clear: knowing the name of the person "promoting your song" doesn't mean they're any less full of shit. And if you're asking yourself, "Hmm, I wonder if they included this note because of that one company I keep seeing ads for?" The answer is yes.
But if you can't find a name for anybody on the playlist company website, that's a major red flag. If their "about us" section just contains a bunch of non-committal information or says it's ran by "marketing experts," you can rest assured that "company" is probably one guy who is — you guessed it, full of shit.
Always check the contact location and email. Some people can't even be bothered to create an email that uses their site domain. Not that you *have* to in order to be legit, but most people who take themselves seriously have a [pronoun or noun]@[domainname.com] email address because they're perceived as more professional.
It's also worth checking the contact location and the WhoIs location (meaning where their domain name is registered). It might sound paranoid, but the truth is a lot of companies go to great lengths to seem legit while others make glaring errors. And if they're lying to you about where and who they are, why believe what their services are?
The Playlist Company Says They "Work With Everybody"
Unless they're a marketing company that knows how to run legitimate ads and is helping guide you through that process in order to test and find your audience, nobody "works with everybody." Legit companies have niches they stick to.
If they're one of those companies that says they have playlists for "every genre," it means they either went out and bought other peoples' lists or started building their own. Either way, those lists are definitely supported with questionable traffic. It's not impossible to build lists with ads. In fact, it's commonplace.
But it is certainly not cost-effective to do this for every genre. You're talking about spending tens of thousands of dollars a month so you can have competitive lists for death metal, instrumental lullabies, hip hop, polka, and everything in between. You only "work with everybody" if you deliver the exact same product to everybody. And in this case, that product (bot traffic) will hurt you.
The Playlist Company Spends A LOT Of Time Convincing You They're Legit
This feels counterintuitive. We're not out to punish people with extensive resumes. Plenty of people work hard to sell what they've built, and they deserve it. But you can start to sniff out patterns when it comes to bullshit — especially when coupled with some of these other red flags.
Using the word "organic" more than a Whole Foods. Including testimonials from people with huge, enviable numbers. (Remember kids, history shows us big artists and companies are as likely to fake the numbers as anybody). Having the first question of the FAQ be "How safe is this?" We all know that when you're asking, "How safe is this?" your gut is telling you something might be up.
This goes for super crisp websites, too. It now costs like, $20 a month to build a website that looks like you spent thousands of dollars on it. Nice websites used to be a sign of quality. They still can be. But it's also incredibly easy to mask a bullshit product with a pretty website. So don't let that cool parallax and moving gradient fool you.
The Playlist Company's Testimonial Clients Have Obvious Issues
If a company has testimonials (i.e. artists who have used their services), go check out those artists' Spotify profiles. Here are a few obvious red flags you can still publicly note on Spotify:
1) They have songs with hundreds of thousands to millions of streams but like, fewer than 5,000 monthly listeners. Unless they have an incredibly passionate yet small fan base or the songs have been up since 2010, you don't get to millions of streams with 5,000 monthly listeners. If you spend a bunch of time promoting something and none of those people stick around after you're done promoting, you either have a very bad product or a very bad audience. In this case, it's usually the latter.
2) Their top 5 playlists they've been discovered on are nearly identical to other testimonials or are all from the same curator. There are very few curators who are legit enough to appear more than once in a top five. AlexRainbird is one. IndieMono is another. But in general, if the top 5 "discovered on" playlists include a handful of lists from the same curator (who isn't Spotify), those placements were likely purchased. And if a lot of the testimonial artists all have those same curators in the top 5, you know some wankery is afoot.
3) Their follower-to-stream ratio is way out of wack. This could go both ways — way more followers than monthly listeners or way more monthly listeners than followers. The latter is less of a red flag. It's not uncommon to see somebody who was added to a bunch of editorial playlists lag behind in followers compared to monthly listeners. But when an artist has 15,000 followers and 10,000 monthly listeners? Yeah, that's not a good sign.
4) The playlists they're on have obvious genre or factual discrepancies. One of the most obvious ones is "soundtrack" playlists. You know, playlists that are allegedly made out of music that appeared in a certain show. And yet they have a whole bunch of songs that *definitely* didn't appear in the show. Those are garbage streams and all they'll do is hurt your chances of Spotify putting you in front of the right fans.
5) Their graphs in Spotify for artists are obviously all over the place. You can actually compare artists in Spotify for Artists. You can look at their listeners and streams over a period of time. If their graphs feature several huge spikes followed by a lot of nothin' — that could point to a problem.
The Playlist Company Sells "Campaigns" For Set Fees And Fan Exposure Numbers
You know what we're talking about. People sell these "campaigns" for sometimes as little as $10. They're not "campaigns," they just put you on a bullshit list with bullshit traffic.
Some of the "campaigns" get quite expensive, too. Some companies will guarantee you "placements" on lists with cumulatively over 10 million "fans." Again, because we can't say it enough: do not purchase these services. They will affect your ability to actually end up in Spotify's algorithm and get your music in front of real fans.
Here is how the economics of this works: you give them $50. They put your song on a list. They are constantly either serving fake traffic to this list from "click farms" or purchasing incredibly cheap advertising traffic to inflate the list's impact on your song.
A portion of the money you pay them goes to funneling in traffic. A portion goes to them running the ads you see all over Instagram. They keep most of it. They sell dozens to hundreds of these "campaigns" per week. Your profile now has to deal with some extra garbage data. You leave *thinking* it worked because the numbers go up. But eventually you go right back to where you were and scratch your head.
To be clear, running ads to playlists is not bad. It's a very good thing that you should do for your own music and playlists. Spotify advertises its own playlists all the time (you can even see examples of these ads when you check Spotify's "Page Transparency" on Facebook; it's wild). But if these companies are running ads to your music, it's not to your benefit — it's to theirs. And they don't care if the traffic on their list is garbage because their business model is about selling you on a campaign, not selling music.
Wait A Minute
If you're saying to yourself, "Hold up, this list pretty much covers every playlist company I've ever seen" — well, we gave you a spoiler alert at the beginning.
Can we say with absolute, unequivocal certainty that every playlist company is full of shit? No. Are we confident in saying 99% of them are? Yes.
That goes for "YouTube promotion," "Soundcloud promotion," "Apple Music promotion." All of it. Most of them are hot garbage. We've seen it before in the form of buying Facebook likes and Instagram followers. We know you want to believe these companies are offering a legitimate solution. But in most cases, they just aren't.
And truthfully, spending time figuring out who is trustworthy distracts from the real goal here, which is learning how to do it the right way.
So Who Can I Trust
There are legitimate ways to market your music with repeatable processes. If you want to start running ads but aren't confident enough to do it on your own, look for marketing companies who request access to your ad accounts. As a rule, do not immediately trust companies that take your money to run ads on their Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, Snapchat etc. accounts.
Some of these companies are legit and do it for legit reasons, but in most cases you want to run ads on your own account because you can see exactly what is happening and you're seasoning your own pixel etc. (more on that in a future post).
There are companies that will run ads for you to less traditional places. Like banner ads in emails or on popular music websites. In most cases, you need to go through them in order to overcome a barrier. For instance, some companies will only allow agencies to have ad accounts and not individuals. Sometimes platforms have minimum ad spends that are prohibitive for individuals. Companies can make campaigns more affordable by looping in multiple clients to meet that minimum spend.
We'll cover all that at a later date.
But for now, just know this: you can grow your streaming presence safely and effectively online. Buying a $50 campaign from MoaRsTrEAmZ4U is not a way to do it.