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A Thorough Look At The Playlist Eco-System With Justin Barker [Slice Music, PIAS]

Linus Lassus

justin barker

Justin Barker runs Slice Music, a UK-based music consultancy agency focusing on playlists, streaming and content curation. He’s also the Director of Streaming Strategy for PIAS Group globally. Among Justin’s biggest achievements to date was setting up and building the Digster brand for Universal in the UK, one of the first – and most successful – label owned playlists. In order to get a thorough understanding of the playlist eco-system, MXD spoke to Justin about streaming, playlists and his thoughts on the future of digital music.

Justin Barker is hardly mentioned anywhere without referencing Universal’s Digster playlist brand. Digster was one of the first playlist brands to be run by a label, and Justin was the man behind its UK launch.

‘Digster UK was really successful and we managed to build a following of 100 000 users organically, just by curating great and coherent playlists. In the early days, I got to work on it very independently, which was really great, that gave me a lot free reign to test different things, learn and build on what worked.’

It was a turbulent time for music when Justin joined Universal. The Long Tail theory by Chris Andersen had just been published and labels started to see the potential in digital media, after many years of struggling against music piracy. Universal recruited Justin for a back catalogue digitalization project, one thing led to another, and a temporary position suddenly became full time.

‘Back in 2006, no one knew what was going to happen next and in the department I worked in at the time, we saw a lot of exciting new digital products and services come through the doors at Universal but, with piracy so rife, it was hard to predict which ones would be around for the long term and audio streaming services were a way off; those didn’t start to really blow up in the UK until 2013.’

The playlist eco-system

Justin says the playlist culture went through a fundamental change in 2013, when Spotify acquired Tunigo, a Swedish playlist and app company.

‘Up until then, Spotify’s playlist policy had basically consisted of not doing any in-house editorial and empowering independent curators (including labels) to grow followings on the platform. That changed when they bought Tunigo. The integration of Tunigo lead to what is now the Browse section within Spotify and ever since then, the focus became almost entirely on in-house playlist curation. I’d say the listener ratio now is very roughly about 90% Spotify curated playlists, 9% label playlists and 1% user made playlists.’

As a professional music and content curator, Justin has music in his ears almost constantly. It’s a habit he picked up already during the golden years of the iPod, and he describes himself as a huge music consumer.

‘As a curator I’m a bit annoyed by the fact that you don’t get notifications from everything you subscribe to on Spotify. I really want the updates!’

Where do you find all the new music?

‘Blogs, labels… And their playlists, if they’ve got them. I subscribe to a lot of things to stay on track. I use Soundcloud a lot and it’s great since everything you subscribe to shows up in your feed. I’m a huge fan of Wonder.fm, which is a great tool for finding new exciting music.’

Although he works with a lot of different types of music, Justin pays special attention to certain things when he hears a new song.

‘I studied music production, so that’s always the first thing I pay attention to when I hear a song. Also, I’ve been through many phases of music listening to music from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, etc. so these days  I really want the music to sound like it could only have been made today. So in a way I’m looking at trends in sound design and structure a lot, those really fascinate me.’

Sounds and production are also key words when Justin puts together a playlist.

‘I usually build playlist based on the sound of the music. I like to try and create quite specific worlds, so if you like the sound of one song on the playlist, you’ll also like the rest of the tracks on it. But that’s just how I do it of course. There are many ways of putting together playlists.’

What do you think will happen to playlist culture in the future? How will it develop?

‘Spotify has managed to do something quite extraordinary with their platform: for the first time, they’ve gathered the more casual, migrated radio listeners as well as the hardcore music fans on the same service. My guess is Spotify will cater to the casual users more in the future, which makes sense since they are in majority.’

If Spotify continue to serve only its bigger user segments, it might create niches and opportunities for smaller players on the platform:

‘At the moment, Spotify is doing a lot of in-house editorial playlists that are broadcasted to the audience in a quite old-fashioned way. To my mind, it’s a very ‘un-internet-y’ way of doing things, which is quite bizarre for a tech company. Most activity on the internet comes down to segmenting your audience and finding your target groups, and broad strokes like that don’t always do the trick.

I think the independent users and curators on the platform will want a louder voice and a tool-set to be able to build communities around the music they like. For me, that makes sense to Spotify too as they can’t easily scale what they do to every user type all by themselves, even if smart initiatives to automate this like Discover Weekly & Fresh Finds work really well for many users.’

How playlists benefit artists

The fundamental role of playlists is to be facilitators for discovery. According to Justin, the Holy Grail of, at least professional, playlist curators is to build a playlist where people come to discover new music and then add those songs to their own Spotify collections, where they receive the most repeated streams and making the streams snowball. Therefore, it’s important to both artists and curators to get the most exciting new music onto the right playlists.

‘I don’t take pitches, but then again I don’t really get many. The best way for me to get interested in new music is to find it on a blog, my Soundcloud feed or a smaller playlist, like a trusted label playlist.’

‘As someone looking at a lot of streaming figures, I can usually tell straight away if a track was featured on a playlist or not. Millions of streams usually mean it was added to the more popular playlists. Given that playlists form such a huge percentage of consumption, at least on Spotify, without that sort of support it’s very hard for artists or tracks to get discovered in the first place’

So what should artists do if they get featured on a playlist? Justin says it depends a lot on to what type of playlist the song was added.

‘It depends really, for example mood playlist are very popular on Spotify, and even though they may attract users and indeed streams, they’re basically designed not to interrupt the listener. People may have listened to a track many times on one of those without being aware of what it actually was, like on a ‘Go to sleep’-playlist or something similar. So they’re not exactly going to be the most likely to buy tickets to a show…’

With the notable exceptions of YouTube & Soundcloud, neither Spotify nor any of the other big streaming services really offer a functional way for artists to speak to their fans and develop fan bases on the platform, making it hard to directly turn streamers into active fans.

‘Spotify has experimented with ways of rewarding real fans by offering things like ticket pre-sales to the heaviest users but that’s still not a direct form of communication, probably because they are worried that if it were, there would be a risk of it becoming very spammy very quickly.’

‘Personally, I think there’s space for them and others to offer something like a Twitter for music specifically. I know that sometimes when I’m in the mood, I want to only see Tweets about music, and the other social platforms don’t allow you to filter it like that, so why not Spotify themselves? No-one has rally done that very well yet but I think it makes sense, given that people are already on the platform plus it would really help artists with organic reach.’

The best way to capitalize on streams, says Justin, is to incorporate it into a broader online strategy, so that artists can connect emotionally through social channels e.g.

‘We live in a very metric driven world. Playlist managers are looking at session time, skip rates and other engagement data and artists can use their streaming data to motivate partners like promoters and labels.’

Working closely with the Nordic Playlist, Justin is much aware of the music coming from the Nordics and how streaming has been heavily championed in the region.

‘I think Lukas Graham is a great example of an artist who has managed to spread his/their music through streaming and playlists, that’s been a big part of their success internationally.’

And who’s your favorite Danish artist?

‘At the moment? Definitely Kill J, I really love what she’s been doing this year!’