On This New “Indigo” Playlist on Spotify

Even greater than the buzz surrounding the inevitable cancelling of the massive CMA Fest set for early June in Nashville due to the Coronavirus, it seemed like most everyone on Tuesday (3-31) wanted to share an opinion on a newly-launched playlist from Spotify called “Indigo.”

With Tyler Childers as their poster boy, the “Indigo” playlist was described by Spotify as, “…anything from commercially successful superstars like Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton, to risk-takers defining success in the streaming era like Tyler Childers and Margo Price, or rising stars like Yola or Orville Peck or Hailey Whitters. You’ll also see names like Miranda Lambert and Tanya Tucker, mainstream legends whose songwriting harkens back to the genre’s roots.”  

Spotify reps had reached out to Saving Country Music and many other outlets with the information early, hoping to create some significant buzz around the unveiling, and they appeared to be successful in that effort, though reception for the idea itself has been pretty mixed.

Any effort to give more emphasis to artists who are deserving of a greater share of the spotlight in country music should be seen as a sum positive, and generally supported, including this Indigo playlist. And beyond the names Spotify is using to promote the playlist, you can see even more artists worthy of recognition in the inaugural lineup, including names like Jaime Wyatt, Jesse Daniel, Zach Bryan and Kelsey Waldon.

But there are some serious issues with Indigo, first and possibly foremost being that the name. Let’s face it, it’s pretty terrible, and immediately polarizing.

Spotify says, “The name Indigo takes inspiration from two county staples, the first being the color used to dye blue jeans, a classic American look you’ll often find country artists rocking. The second refers to the term indigo child, a way to describe someone with extraordinary talent who plays by their own rules, similar to the modern country songs on the playlist that push boundaries of the genre while still incorporating traditions of the past.”

But “Indigo” just sounds like a type of scented candle, and it’s kind of shocking that they thought a name like this would fly. There are people who will absolutely never interact with this playlist expressly due to the “Indigo” name, even though those same people may fit squarely within the demographic the playlist is looking to appeal to. And this is something that could have been rather easily vetted among the community that supports this music and these artists otherwise. And the thing is, the name doesn’t even really matter. You could have called it almost anything but “Indigo,” and people probably wouldn’t have cared. They just would have listened to the playlist see if it was something that appealed to them.

But asserting a name like “Indigo” for this playlist immediately stimulates discussions and arguments about what to call the alternative to country. It makes it appear like Spotify is attempting to start a new genre, even if that’s not the case. “It smells like a corporation is co-opting a sound and astroturfing a genre to try and control a narrative,” said long-time Americana blogger Baron Lane. “Didn’t we have enough confusion with the title of the Swift bio[pic]?”

People already find “Americana” polarizing and confusing, and that’s basically what the Indigo playlist feels like—Americana … whatever Americana is. Spotify already has Americana playlists as well. This appears to be an effort to integrate Americana into the country side of the Spotify ecosystem, which we shouldn’t be quick to put down. Putting Jesse Daniel right beside Eric Church and Chris Stapleton is probably a good thing.

But putting the mug of Tyler Childers at the top of this playlist to start emphasizes one of the fundamental problems with it. “As a man who identifies as a country music singer, I feel Americana ain’t no part of nothin’. It is a distraction from the issues that we are facing on a bigger level as country music singers,” Tyler Childers famously said from the stage of the 2018 Ameripolitan Awards while accepting the award as Best New Artist. He’s since doubled and tripled down on that sentiment. Now they think Tyler Childers is going to help sell “Indigo” by pairing him up with Little Big Town and Jason Isbell? It’s just not a good look.

And Tyler’s concerns are very real. Though it’s cool that Spotify wants to highlight important artists, relegating them to something other than a playlist that is decidedly country is an aberration of the country term. It’s the vast majority of the acts currently found on Spotify’s massive mainstream “country” playlists such as “Hot Country” that don’t fit under the “country” umbrella and should be forced to come up with a new name, not actual country artists like Tyler Childers, Jesse Daniel, and Cody Jinks.

As country music video commentator Grady Smith pointed out, you can almost make Indigo be similar to “Indie, go!” meaning telling independent artists to get out of the way of mainstream country.

Meanwhile, similar to another concern with the term “Americana,” putting big mainstream acts like Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton, Eric Church, and Brothers Osborne under the “Indigo” heading could be seen as putting them out to pasture, no different than when you see mainstream country stars past their prime all of a sudden at AmericanaFest. It’s great that there is a community to support these artists past their commercial peak, but it’s a slippery slope of labeling an artist “Americana” or “Indigo” when it will mean to many “out to pasture.” Miranda Lambert and Chris Stapleton should be competing for space on the big country playlists, not pushing indie country artists off alt-country playlists.

And even beyond these concerns, there’s some selections on this first Indigo playlist that just aren’t country. Sturgill Simpson’s “Mercury in Retrograde” isn’t a country song at all. It’s a rock song. It’s not even fair to call it country influenced or Americana, and Sturgill Simpson would be the first to tell you that. Neither is the new Jason Isbell song “Be Afraid,” or the Caitlyn Smith song “Long Time Coming.” All three of these artists have a history with country and Americana, but these selections are not rootsy at all. And while we’re on the subject, calling Tyler Childers a “risk-taker defining success in the streaming era,” also is a mislabeling of music. There’s nothing “risky” about Tyler Childers. He’s deep fried Kentucky country.

Indigo has a very Nashville-centric perspective to it, as does everything in country music these days since everything has moved to the city, including both Spotify and Apple’s country music apparatus to be a part of the narrowing echo chamber of that city affecting artists, labels, and the media especially. Bloodshot Records out of Chicago posted on Tuesday, “We’re blood red, not indigo,” emphasizing both the weak feeling the term “indigo” emits, and the lack of Bloodshot artists on it like Sarah Shook, Jason Hawk Harris, or Vandoliers, all of whom would have fit much better than some of the other artists and songs selected. But admittedly, that’s a judgement call, and no playlist is going to be perfect except the one you make for yourself.

Indigo is trying to be super hip to the east Nashville crowd, which makes it not very hip at all. It’s a playlist for people whose musical perspective begins with Rolling Stone Country and ends with Rolling Stone Country. Don’t mistake this as saying it’s not a good selection of music. There is some great stuff to be found on Indigo, and with some 200,000 people following it, clearly some people are listening.

But as some observational Spotify users have pointed out, Indigo is actually just a saavy rebranding a previously-existing playlist called “Back Porch” which specialized in alt-country as well. If you clicked on the old links for the Spotify Back Porch playlist, it took you to Indigo (they’ve fixed that now). In other words, this isn’t as much a new thing Spotify is doing as a fresh coat of paint, and the vast majority of those Indigo followers got transferred over in the move. Why not just keep the name “Back Porch,” and start promoting it better?

But ultimately Indigo is what it is, which is just a playlist on a single platform. If listeners enjoy Indigo, and it gains some exposure for some cool artists, excellent. But as Tyler Childers might say “Indigo ain’t no part of nothin’.”

It’s just a bad name for a pretty good playlist.

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P.S. – You can find Saving Country Music’s Top 25 Playlist on Spotify or any other platform.

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