I’ll start with this: Despite what you may hear from different corners of the internet, playlisting can potentially be hugely helpful for getting your music in front of more people. The right playlist placement can literally rocket your career to the next level.
That benefit (getting a bunch of people to listen to and like your music) is pretty much the dream outcome for most musicians. Artists want that. And, as with other dream outcomes (i.e., “make a million bucks online” or “get a six pack” or whatever), the fact that it’s so appealing has led to the rise of a whole swath of services promising to deliver the result – some legitimately, and some through snake oil salesmanship.
All of this is to say that playlisting is the source of both deserved hype and confusion.
In this guide, I’m going to try to clear things up.
I’ve run a music marketing agency for the past five years. In that time, I’ve run dozens of playlisting campaigns myself, and I’ve spent thousands of dollars testing other playlisting services to see what works and what doesn’t.
Here’s the good news: Playlisting, done right, really does work. It certainly can drive huge spikes of streams, and even better, it can also lead to steady, long-term growth. That’s the dream outcome – but you’ve got to know what you’re doing to make it happen.
With that said, welcome to the complete guide to playlisting in 2023. Let’s get into the details.
What is playlisting?
Let’s start with a definition:
Playlisting is any activity that results in a piece of content being added to a list of content. Usually, playlisting is done to group related content together, with the intent being that the content on the playlist will be consumed (listened to or watched) in a specific setting or at a specific time.
And in case it wasn’t clear from that: A playlist is a list of content (usually videos or songs) that is meant to be played together, either sequentially or in a shuffled order.
A bit of backstory here: Playlisting started with radio; rather than scrambling to play random song after random song, radio DJs create a list of songs to be played during certain segments. It became popularized with consumers with the rise of .mp3 players (like the iPod, RIP).
And when music moved to streaming, playlisting became even more important; it’s probably the dominant mode of media consumption today.
Certainly, far more people listen to playlists than albums. An old study found that 31% of listening time is accorded to playlists versus 22% for albums. While I can’t find more recent data, it seems pretty likely that that disparity has only increased over the past few years.
It’s worth mentioning that when people talk or write about playlisting, they’re typically referring to song playlisting – and even more specifically, they’re most often referring to Spotify playlisting.
I’ll get into why this is the case shortly, but for now, I want to note that over the rest of this guide, when I use the term “playlisting,” I’ll be referring to song playlisting on a music streaming service (rather than, for example, video playlisting or radio playlisting). I’ll also clarify when I’m referring to Spotify playlisting in particular.
With that said…
What are the benefits of playlisting?
It’s a little obvious, but here’s why playlisting gets so much hype:
1. Playlisting is an effective way to get more people hear your music.
Playlists are the foundation that modern streaming platforms are built on. Scroll through Spotify’s home screen and you’ll see the proof.
As I just referenced above, at least a third of music today is listened to via playlists (and again, I think at this point, it’s probably higher than that). So it makes sense that if you want your music to be heard by more people, you’ll probably want your music to be added to more playlists.
2. Playlisting can help streaming platforms categorize your music.
Artists are typically resistant to the boxes of genre categorization – but algorithms sure aren’t. Getting your song added to high-fit playlists can help to teach streaming platforms what your music is like and what kind of people like your music.
For instance, if you get added to a playlist called “Chill Acoustic Folk” that features a bunch of other artists making acoustic folk music, then streaming services will start to suspect that you make acoustic folk music, too. Generally, the more data streaming platforms have on this stuff, the better able they are to show your music to more people who will probably like it.
On the flip side, though, if you get added to a playlist that isn’t a good fit, it can hurt algorithmic perceptions of your music. So an algorithmic boost is only a benefit if you do playlisting effectively.
Here’s Jason Grishkoff making this point in more detail.
Again, the ideal outcome is that streaming services properly categorize your music and show it to more people.
3. Playlisting can lead to more fans and more income.
And of course the reason that you want to get your music heard by more people is that it leads to more fans and more income. People have to hear your music to become a fan of it, after all.
On the revenue front, things are a little bit more convoluted. The reality is that streaming doesn’t pay very much directly (Spotify, for example, pays between $.003 – $.005 per stream). Still, though, more streams do lead to more money. And when ancillary revenue streams outside of streaming royalties are considered (i.e., fans buying your merch or paying for tickets to a show), it’s clear that growing your fanbase can lead to more money in your pocket.
Okay, so those are the benefits. Now, if you’re tracking with me so far, you’re probably wondering…
How do I get onto playlists?
The answer to this question depends on the type of playlists you’re targeting, and things vary widely across different streaming platforms.
How to get onto Apple Music playlists
Bad news on this one: You don’t have much ability to get impact your inclusion on any Apple Music playlists (outside of your own private creations). That’s because Apple Music, unlike YouTube and Spotify, doesn’t really facilitate user-created content. People can’t follow playlists created by other random users.
It’s true that Apple Music does curate editorial playlists, like Today’s Hits and Rap Life and Today’s Christian, and there are some agencies that claim to be able to impact your inclusion on these. As Hypebot notes, it also helps if you…
- Verify your artist profile with Apple Connect
- Build a following on Apple Music (more followers and streams make you more likely to catch the eye of an editor)
- Work with a distributor that has relationships with Apple’s editorial team (pretty much all distributors claim to do this ha).
But the reality is that, unless you know a playlist editor at Apple Music personally, you probably don’t have a means of direct influence. (While you can find contact info for editors online, I’ve literally never had any luck soliciting placements with cold outreach… and I’ve tried.)
The harsh truth is that, typically, big label artists get added and small indies don’t.
The lesson is that, if you’re considering playlisting, your time is probably best spent on other platforms.
How to get onto YouTube playlists
While Apple Music is a pretty closed-door system, YouTube is built on user-generated content. That means that you have many more chances to get your music onto YouTube playlists.
It’s worth noting that, in YouTube parlance, a “playlist” is technically a list of videos – but, most often, playlisting on Youtube is done via a single video that incorporates, in itself, an entire list of like-sounding songs.
For example, here’s a playlist of “Chillhop Essentials” from YouTube channel Chillhop music: