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Meet the playlist curators who mint new music stars, one pick at a time

Spotify Rap Caviar playlist displayed on an iPhone.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Playlists are the lifeblood of most music streaming services. Since every major streaming service offers more or less the same millions of songs, gaining subscribers is about packaging, not inventory. From chill-out sessions to workouts while you twerk, streaming services aim to soundtrack every nuance of your life so you never stop streaming. Spotify alone has more than 2,500 playlists created by its 150 curators, and Apple Music launched on the promise of having expert human curators instead of faceless algorithms.

With more than 100 million people using streaming services, streams now count toward sales figures, and since 60 percent of people in the U.S. who stream music listen to playlists, these curated collections of songs do more than just fit the mood you’re in, they make or break stars by creating a new kind of hit.

“The people’s time is the real currency here.”

Spotify’s 50-song RapCaviar playlist boasts more than 8 million followers, often spins the newest songs before they hit radio, and has turned Spotify’s global head of hip-hop programming, Tuma Basa, into one of the two most sought-after people in hip-hop. The other is Carl Chery, the head of curation at Apple Music, and the curator of one of Apple Music’s biggest playlists, A-List: Hip Hop. The two curators have helped launch careers and propel songs to Recording Industry Association of America certifications, all by basically doing something your little sister does all day: manage playlists.

How is that possible? Digital Trends spoke with Basa and Chery, as well as Interscope Records’ Chief Revenue Officer Gary Kelly and those in the music industry who have experienced career changes thanks to playlists, to help explain how music is entering the age of the playlist.

From playlists to Billboard

Ricardo Valentine, who goes by the name 6Lack (pronounced black), entered 2016 as a 24-year old aspiring R&B singer. Prior to signing with the Love Renaissance label, had spent years wallowing in obscurity, essentially homeless at a different indie label. Outside of a niche fan base developed through disparate releases on Soundcloud, 6Lack was a nobody.


Then something big happened — something that 6Lack’s manager Tunde Balogun tells Digital Trends “pretty much changed our lives from that point.” Chery started spreading 6Lack’s song Prblms throughout Apple Music’s playlist ecosystem.

“One of the artists that I championed before anybody was 6Lack. He sent me Prblms [in May 2016]. At that point, I remember looking on Twitter, — 6Lack had 5 or 6,000 followers,” Chery said. “So I put Prblms on a few playlists, and by the end of that week, he had a million streams, and based on placement on iTunes of that song in Hot Tracks, he sold 10,000 units, independently, before he got signed.”

In 2016, 6Lack hardly performed live, and by Balogun’s admission, the Atlanta-bred crooner’s fan base wasn’t, and still isn’t, listening to radio. For many, 6Lack existed only in the streams. In the 18 months after Chery helped him ascend the playlist hierarchy, 6Lack released his debut album Free 6Lack through Interscope Records, toured with multi-platinum phenom The Weeknd, received two Grammy nominations, and watched the song that started it all be certified platinum. All for an artist who, just a few short years before making Apple Music playlists, was living out of a ripped backpack.

Playlists aren’t only birthing stars, they’re the fusion reactors making stars shine brighter. Kendrick Lamar is a multi-platinum, Grammy award-winning international star who paradoxically built his immense popularity on eschewing pop formalities in favor of conceptually dense projects, such as his first few albums: good kid, mAAd city and To Pimp A Butterfly. Yet, until 2017, he still didn’t have that ubiquitous smash single that catapults an artist to new heights. That is, until his parent label Interscope Records decided to make sure Humble, the first single from the 2017 album Damn, was inescapable on playlists.

“When [Humble] came out, we were in every single big playlist. We went immediately into RapCaviar. We went immediately into A-List: Hip Hop,” Interscope’s Kelly said. The results were anything but humbling. A week after the song’s release, it debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it Lamar’s highest charting song ever. It’s hard to argue Humble‘s playlist placements weren’t integral to the song’s immediate success, with Billboard attributing 66 percent of the points Humble accumulated to propel it to No. 2 to the 49.8 million U.S. streams it received in that first week. The song would eventually become Lamar’s first ever No. 1 record, and the second-most-streamed single of 2017.

Lamar was a star years before he made any Apple Music playlist, but it’s telling that playlists could help such a revered artist become even more popular. Humble‘s success is one of numerous examples Chery says shows “we’re in a place where streaming and playlisting in black music is more powerful than radio.”

The Science of the Playlist

There’s a deceptively simple science that curators like Basa and Chery employ to determine which songs get added to playlists: guts plus data. Basa believes good music moves you emotionally, but knows RapCaviar is serving a lot more than just what he likes to bump in his headphones, and that’s when the data comes into play. “We let the culture determine that, and we can see within our analytics if something is for real. That’s the beauty of our technology. It’s all right there. All facts. No guesswork,” Basa said in an email to Digital Trends.

Chery and Apple Music are a bit more guts than data. “We don’t let analytics dictate what we’re doing. If we listen to it, and we like it, we’ll take a chance on you. We’re not going to wait for our user base to tell us, through data, this is a thing. We’re going to try and create the groundswell,” Chery said on Complex’s Everyday Struggle podcast.

We don’t let analytics dictate what we’re doing. If we listen and like it, we’ll take a chance on you.

At press time, 32 of the 50 songs on A-List: Hip Hop are not featured on RapCaviar. That’s quite different from radio, where you will probably hear the same Drake, Taylor Swift, and Ed Sheeran songs every hour on the hour until you’re convinced all music come from the mouths of a handful of artists.

The increased importance placed on data means musicians need to think more like athletes. The playlist system resembles sports leagues where if you perform well in its developmental leagues, i.e., the minor leagues, you may be called up to the majors. Playlists with significantly less followers are sometimes used as testing grounds where Basa, Chery and other curators see if a song is attracting listeners before promoting those songs to a streaming service’s most popular playlists.

That’s exactly how 20-year old Swedish singer Le Sinner’s debut, gold-certified single Paris became a hit. “His record, Paris, when it was on no playlists, it didn’t have much streams at all,” Rebin “Rebstar” Shah, Le Sinner’s boss at record label Today is Vintage, told Digital Trends. “It got picked up on one smaller playlist and off of that list, we did 20,000 followers on Spotify, and it became a viral sensation in Sweden. Eventually, once it reached the general masses, it became a No. 1 viral record in the U.S. That’s when, after the fact, we get added to [Spotify playlists] Most Necessary and, eventually, Get Turnt.”

Even with proven success from playlists, Rebstar warns against artists making playlists their exclusive goal when releasing music. “If you do that, what’s going to happen that day when you release a single and it’s not on a playlist?” Rebstar asked. “You can’t sustain a career by exclusively focusing on playlists. Paris isn’t on any playlist at the moment, but it’s still getting thousands of streams. It’s not living on any Spotify-curated playlist at this moment, but it can do between 5,000 to 20,000 streams a day.”

Let’s say you are an aspiring artist with a song you want to get exposure for, and you get your hands on Chery’s email address. Don’t feel special, Chery gets an “overwhelming” number of emails every day, which makes music discovery cumbersome, even if it is still fun for him. According to people who have gotten their songs featured on playlists Chery curates, your best bet of getting noticed is doing the work yourself.

“Don’t bother Carl [Chery] all the time when you have something new. Work it yourself. Make sure people in your own city are on it. Make sure people are streaming it, so when you do get a chance to talk to Carl like, ‘hey, this one is really dope,’ he can go back and look and see, ‘oh shit, people are playing this song. Let me try it out,’” Balogun said.

People keep coming back to playlists like RapCaviar and A-List: Hip Hop because they are updated so frequently. “We try to update it at the speed of streaming, which is pretty fast,” Chery said.

Carl Chery
Carl Chery/Facebook
Carl Chery/Facebook

With tens of thousands of songs being released every day, a song can be on the biggest playlist in the world one week, and gone the next. It’s an immutable fact of the streaming era that forces you to rethink what popularity really is in today’s music industry.

What is a hit?

If you’ve never heard rapper Smokepurpp’s trippy-sounding song Audi, you’re not necessarily out of touch with what’s current — it just didn’t hit the Hot 100. But it was on Spotify’s Most Necessary and RapCaviar playlists for months. As a result, seven months after it was released, the song was the 20-year old artist’s first gold record.

So, was it a hit? Yes, but a slightly new kind of hit.

People within the music industry have alleged for years that major record labels pay for playlist placement

“You will see artists who have more playlist streams than just collection plays, and that’s when you realize this is just a ‘playlist hit’ as opposed to a real hit. Just like you would say, back in the day, with a ‘turntable hit’ that never sold,” Kelly said. Turntable hits were songs that garnered a lot of radio spins by DJ’s, but didn’t sell well with consumers.

To Kelly, a “playlist hit” is a song that is only popular on curated playlists, but never gets added to a listener’s personal collection or playlist on a streaming service. A song being added to someone’s personal collection is “analogous to someone buying a song,” according to Kelly, because it improves the likelihood of a listener continually streaming a song long after the song is off the playlist.

It is interesting, though, that a 20-year music executive such as Kelly would compare playlist hits to turntable hits since the latter is closely associated with payola, the illegal act of paying someone to play a song on the radio. For decades, Dick Clark was the host and producer of American Bandstand, a music performance show that could turn a singer into a star overnight. Once Congress began cracking down on payola in the 1950s and 60s, Clark testified in court that he had a financial stake in numerous record labels of artists he promoted on his show. Payola was so rampant in the music industry that during his testimony, Clark matter-of-factly asserted the only crime he committed was making “a great deal of money in a short time on little investment. But that is the record business.”

Smokepurpp "Audi" (WSHH Exclusive - Official Music Video)

Payola never stopped, and it could be argued that it would be easier — and cheaper — to pay playlist editors to manufacture hits. People within the music industry have alleged for years that major record labels pay for playlist placement, and that playlist editors favor artists backed by major labels. At the time of press, 80 percent of the songs on RapCaviar come from Sony Records, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group, with 70 percent of the songs on A-List: Hip-Hop coming from the same three labels.

Chery isn’t worried about manufacturing hits, because he says he makes his decisions “for the culture,” and a song lives and dies based on how people engage with it. “If I put a song in the same place as 6Lack, and replicated the same thing I did with 6Lack’s Prblms, and it’s not the right song, it wouldn’t have worked. They would’ve skipped the song, It wouldn’t have got any streams,” Chery said before conceding, “of course, it’s going to get a certain number of streams, because it’s getting playlisted.”

The Next Wave

People aren’t owning music any more — they’re streaming. Album sales have decreased every year for more than a decade while streaming music is responsible for more than half of all of the music industry’s revenue. That means the time you spend streaming will be more valuable to the music industry than the dollars you spend buying music. So, prepare for 2018 to be the year of the playlist hits.

The time you spend streaming will be more valuable to the music industry than the dollars you spend buying music.

“Now we’re in the attention economy. How much time in the day does a user have? For the next three minutes, them listening to a song is a big choice. The people’s time is the real currency here,” Kelly said. “You’ll see more playlist hits that’ll never make it to radio for a variety of reasons.”

In 2017, Spotify and Live Nation launched RapCaviar Live, a six-city concert series primarily featuring artists with songs on the playlist the series is based upon. RapCaviar Live will be hitting more cities in 2018, with Kelly confirming he’s already spoken to Basa about the concert series’ upcoming Los Angeles show. If this catches on and more playlists turn into concert series, those playlist hits could help relatively unknown acts perform at huge concert venues they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

Chery says Apple Music has had success with hip-hop/R&B artists blowing up thanks to playlists to the point where they want to replicate it with other genres. “I’ve been playing with the idea of making urban A/C (adult contemporary) playlists,” Chery said. “Those artists don’t typically want to be in that box, because it makes it feel like it’s older and more dated. But they would be supported in that space in addition to other spaces. My philosophy on that playlist is it needs to encompass what R&B is in 2018, not what it was in the 2000s or in the ’90s.”

Even with the growth in popularity of playlists, don’t expect radio to be extinct anytime soon. According to Nielsen Music’s 360 Report, 49 percent of people discover music through radio, compared to 27 percent finding it from online music services. “There’s still a huge audience that will never be on a subscription service. In order to get real mass popularity, you really need radio and the other avenues,” Kelly said. “I think to reach the masses and become a huge star, you have to have radio in the mix.”

As long as you keep streaming, stars and hits will keep being made.

Keith Nelson Jr.
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Keith Nelson Jr is a music/tech journalist making big pictures by connecting dots. Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY he…
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