Musical playlists should be a combined focus on the bigger artist, the smaller (paying/deserving) artists and the much smaller (also deserving) artists. Instead, it is an odd mix of the first two.
My earliest memories of organising music from multiple artists came from ripping CDs onto my desktop’s hard drive and then using the now archaic Windows Media Player to organise all my new (pirated) music into these things called playlists. Over time, though, I realized I could create these playlists (or mixtapes as they were popularly called at the time) several ways if I didn’t have access to a CD and computer, and for a fair portion of my life, I was engrossed with making them. Perhaps partly due to my partiality for ritualistic processes along with my devotion to music, my pastime quickly became a defining aspect of my existence.
I would pick themes and specific genres, dub records based on either of those criteria and burn them to a disc for my Walkman.
Technology quickly democratized and antiquated my processes as cyberpiracy and my discovery of Apple and its offshoot, iTunes, changed my access and methodology forever. My new ritual became (illegally) downloading music, organising them in folders and changing generic web page cover art to match the actual records. Then individuals began to actually pay for music on marketplaces like iTunes and Bandcamp and upload their files to random Google Drives and Dropboxes. Never having to fix metadata again allowed me to focus on the intricacies of curating music I loved to listen to but didn’t quite hear as frequently as I would have liked. Coupling the software with internet access in the mid-2010s gave my listening experience a new lease on life, pirating entire catalogues and, possibly the best part, new music. No longer having to wait to catch glimpses of Lil Wayne and Kanye West on after-school afternoon MTV Base broadcasts, I had achieved a sort of autonomy over the music industry.
Genres and artists that generally got limited traction in this market were constantly queued up for my specific and occasional public listening pleasure. Obviously, being from Nigeria, my access to Nigerian music was unfettered and effortless. By simply existing in this nation, it is impossible to get away from what’s considered hot; the music is played on the radio and in public. While my bias towards Western music became more defined as a result, playlisting assisted me in finding common denominators between Nigerian and Western music that I liked.
Music discovery existed in an almost exclusionary space, dictated purely by the listener and less by the audience or gatekeepers who controlled general tastes and perceptions. Chances are, if you didn’t care for an artist or their music, you wouldn’t include it in one of your coveted mixes.
Recognizing my firm bias towards underserved acts, the delineation of most of my curation efforts excluded the mainstream in their favour. Case in point: very few Nigerians care who Rod Stewart is. Despite his Western success, he did not possess enough mainstream popularity to break through globally (the way acts like Michael Jackson could). Yet, sifting through my father’s old records in need of new material introduced me to the “Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?” singer alongside Sting AND Bryan Adams. I did not care for mainstream Nigerian music at the time. My eight-year-old brain could not conceive placing Zule Zoo’s Kerewa alongside Eminem’s Cleaning out my Closet.
Stalwarts in their own regard, the aforementioned legends were my introduction to music. They stuck around for many years to come. Still, the older one gets, the more they develop their own relationships with art outside the assortments they were limited to early on.
Enter adolescence and with it a long list of artists to familiarize myself with. Illegal downloads ruled the day and all the music you ever imagined, heard in a TV show or movie, read about in an article or heard in passing floated around the world waiting for anyone in need to cast a search net and recover them for unlicensed use and free (pirated) listening.
Recommendations did not require ten people to vouch for them; chances are anyone with data (and access, of course) handy could find a source and most debates could be put to rest. Being first became a corollary effect of this, the newer and bigger the release, the more people jostled to be the earliest listeners.
As with most trend shifts, this new listening culture coincided with the global shift for new music releases to fall on Fridays, creating the New Music Friday phenomenon and unifying the global release timing across multiple markets. And with the advent of this race came the death of the playlist; companies dedicated to collating all the coolest new music released each Friday as a form of promotion for artists became a key service that costs anywhere from 20 to 500 USD to achieve. Playlists went from primarily being a discovery format to becoming a monetization machine for the music industry. Companies are uninterested in spotlighting less popular music; warping the format to accommodate the needs of the quickly shifting industry (profit at all levels) over those of the creator.
Quick football analogy.
If you’re Beskitas and you get into the Champions League every season, it doesn't count that you get slapped to the back every season by Bayern Munich, who have more fans, more money and share the same platform. You start to wonder if your presence is even achieving anything in this competition and if it wouldn't be better to stay at home respectfully. Obviously, football in Europe isn’t balanced and this is why there are coefficients that come into play to even the playing field for smaller clubs and allow them appear on the same stages as giants.
Now, this is what playlists SHOULD be: a combined focus on the bigger artist, the smaller (paying/deserving) artists and the much smaller (also deserving) artists. Instead, it is an odd mix of the first two. Why do artists with no semblance of a certain style that a playlist is themed on appear on said playlists? (cough, Apple). Why do artists with way bigger platforms and labels get significantly better placement and visibility on a format that should invariably belong to the listener? (ahem, Spotify).
Taking a perfectly unbiased format and creating this capitalist monster from its corpse is the highest form of violation Big Music is capable of, the perversion of a pre-existing format to serve their own ends. The playlist no longer works for the smaller artist nor does it work particularly well for the bigger acts, now they’re just the cool thing to do when you have a new release coming. “Get that playlisted.” A phrase as empty as the gesture it represents, many younger and less experienced acts have lost sleep and funds to people commonly known as curators, the purveyors of these services, yet another perversion the industry is responsible for.
Being a curator on a less transactional level isn’t an altruistic role by any measure of the imagination, as aforementioned biases constantly emerge and sometimes hijack the focus of the work. While that might affect the thematic integrity of a playlist, it does not put any artists out of a dollar that could be better spent nor attempt to pass certain sounds off as inclusions to a genre or theme they do not belong to or identify with.
At a level, this essay serves as a call for a shift from the current popular variant of this medium towards a more audience influenced or led approach. Music enthusiasts who exist outside the music business possibly have more insight to offer DSPs than tunnel-visioned curators who operate on a KPI. Largely a matter of opinion, but in my experience, user-curated playlists offer more clear-cut and concise examples of how themes should be followed.
Perhaps the most egregious examples are when people from Europe attempt to organise music outside their direct purview or palette by a set definition. Yet these are the most common examples of modern-day playlisting and while we require better-grounded representations of what these formats should be, we are saddled with a mix of capitalist-encouraged and artist-supported mixes that neither put the best interests of artists or listeners first.