The promise of technology and its interfacing with music is a great equalization of the playing field, both opening up the creative possibilities for artists, and the ability to discover new music for fans. For too long the stuffy and outmoded system of radio feeding us what they wanted us to hear reigned over music like an iron fist, while artists had to sign their life away to major labels just to be heard.
Now all of this has been shattered by the advent of the digital age, and the streaming model specifically. Anyone can now distribute their music directly to the public, and the public can decide what is best and deserves to be heard as opposed to the big power brokers in charge of mainstream media calling the shots.
But not so fast.
Yes, streaming has opened up some incredible possibilities for independent artists, and has seen an equalization of the playing field to some extent. But seeing the growing importance of how streaming and curated playlists can be used to drive the consumption habits of listeners, Spotify and other companies have begun to prioritize certain artists and songs into mega playlists in an attempt to persuade the market in a certain direction in a similar behavioral pattern to radio. But unlike radio, there is no FCC policing the industry for payola and other manipulations that may give certain artists, songs, or labels an unfair advantage over the rest of the field.
Spotify, for example, has four major country music playlists which are curated by the company itself, and which land at the very top of searches when users go to look for something country to stream that isn’t a specific album, song, or artist. These four playlists are:
- Hot Country (4.375 million followers)
- New Boots (469,000 followers)
- Wild Country (670,000 followers
- Country Gold (991,000 followers)
Despite the names of these mega playlists seeming to denote dramatically different varieties in country music (and that they represent something that actually sounds like country music), all four of these playlists are basically the same. In fact the same exact issues that plague country radio, which are a complete lack of older artists or music, and extremely disproportionate representation of women, and little or no representation of independent artists or regional stars, all plague these major Spotify playlists, and in most circumstances are even worse than the representation on radio.
At the moment, two out of the four playlists feature Thomas Rhett as the cover artist, including “Country Gold,” which despite the name, doesn’t include any music from country’s golden era, it’s just a slightly different mix of the same artists on the other three major playlists, only with a few slightly older tracks.
When it comes to the “Hot Country” and “New Boots” playlists, these are strictly newer songs. But that’s somewhat understandable since they’re supposed to be playlists of new, current material. On “Wild Country,” there are couple of older tracks, like Casey Donahew’s “Country Song” from 2016. But there’s nothing even close to resembling a classic country song, or even a backlist title from 8 to 10 years ago.
The percentage of tracks that are over six-years-old on Spotify’s four major playlists is:
- Hot Country 0%
- New Boots 0%
- Wild Country 0%
- Country Gold 1.9%
One song—Eric Church’s “Springsteen”—which was released as a single in 2012, is the sole outlier that would be considered an “older” song. And for most listeners, “Springsteen” would still be considered very contemporary. The song is still heard on mainstream country radio, for example. You would think since these are simply playlists that are easy to make that maybe you could mix in a classic song or two, right? Or even just a song or two from the early 00’s? But there’s nothing.
Maybe you could mix in an independent artist that has a large following, someone like Cody Jinks, Sturgill Simpson, The Turnpike Troubadours, or Margo Price, just to give listeners a little taste of something different. But no, there’s nothing from established independent country artists on any of these major country music Spotify playlists either. It’s almost uncanny how the playlists avoid anything that wouldn’t be considered part of a very strict interpretation of the current mainstream sound, more so than even radio. With so many slots on these playlists (50+ each), and the general appetite for certain independent artists that has been proven in the marketplace (and on Spotify specifically), why not at least include one or two of them on at least one of the four major playlists?
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any artists that couldn’t be considered up-and-coming on these playlists, or that are not signed to a Nashville major label. There are actually a few such artists. But many of the up-and-coming names on Spotify’s playlists are part of some publishing house on Music Row in Nashville, have a developmental deal on a smaller label with subsidiary partnership to a major, or some other direct tie to the mainstream country music industry specifically based in Nashville.
Take for example the artist Josh Mirenda, whose song “I Got You” leads Spotify’s “New Boots” playlist, which is supposed to highlight up-and-coming artists. Unfortunately, there aren’t many boots in “I Got You,” or much that resembles actual country music at all. Like so many of mainstream country’s up-and-comers, Josh Mirenda sounds like a Sam Hunt knockoff with a very electronic sound. And though he’s not signed to a major label, he’s a songwriter for Music Row’s Warner Chappell, which is the major publishing company for the Warner Music Group. You might have recognized Mirenda’s name from the liner notes of Dierks Bentley’s “Somewhere On A Beach” and other super hits. So even though Spotify may try to pass off Mirenda as up-and-coming or independent, he’s very much a part of the Music Row machine.
“We broke 4.5 MILLION streams on ‘I Got You’ and I can’t thank you enough for the support!” Josh Mirenda posted on his Facebook page on December 19th. “If you haven’t already be sure to follow me on Spotify and lets keep this going!”
It turns out Spotify’s “New Boots” playlist is not the only one of it’s four major playlists where Josh Mirenda and “I Got You” appear. The song also shows up on the “Wild Country” playlist about halfway down. It also appears in the biggest of the Spotify country playlists, “Hot Country,” with it’s 4.375 million subscribers, even though it couldn’t be considered a current hot “hit” beyond Spotify. So with only 50 or so slots in each of these four playlists, the same guy—who many of you have probably never heard of until right now—gets bestowed three of these critical spots.
The results of this placement can be astronomical for an artist. Remember how Kane Brown shot up in the ranks of country up-and-comers by all of a sudden putting up incredible streaming numbers due to prime placement in playlists facilitated by cozy relationships between his manager and labels? Well the same can be said for a song like “I Got You,” and an artists like Josh Mirenda. Managers and publicists can tout the incredible appeal for his song, and use it to convince a label there is an organic appetite for him, or convince radio they should be playing “I Got You” if it can put together such incredible streaming numbers. But in reality, there is little or no groundswell behind the track. “I Got You” may have 4.5 million streams, but Josh Mirenda only has 2,500 likes on Facebook. He’s simply benefiting from preferential placement on Spotify’s top country playlists.
But lets not just pick on Josh Mirenda. There are plenty of other examples, like an artist named Tyler Braden, who is completely independent. Just like Josh Mirenda, you’ve probably never heard of Tyler Braden before. He’s a firefighter from Alabama, but he’s also landed his lead single “Little Red Wine” near the top of Spotify’s “New Boots” playlist. But just like Mirenda, that’s not all. “Little Red Wine” is also the very first track on the “Wild Country” playlist, giving him double the exposure.
In fact one of the remarkable things about Spotify’s playlists is how despite the scarcity of spots, certain songs and artists show up multiple times. That’s because to really sell that a certain song as creating a groundswell among fans, it can’t just be receiving hundreds of thousands of streams. It needs millions, making it necessary to place a song on multiple playlists, since placing it multiple times in the same playlist would be a little too obvious. That’s the reason Spotify has four major country music playlists, but the style of music, and often the names of the artists and the tracks specifically are virtually the same between them.
Remember the song “Meant To Be” by pop star Bebe Rexha with Florida Georgia Line that caused such a stir a couple of months ago because it was released initially to the pop market, and now all of a sudden is being called country? It’s a song that very well may shatter records since it’s gaining traction on both pop and country radio, yet has already been ensconced at the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for 7 weeks now, and Billboard’s Country Streaming Charts for 7 weeks as well.
The impetus for adding the song to country was this huge organic groundswell we were told about based significantly on streaming numbers. We already talked about how placement of “Meant To Be” on massive and redundant YouTube playlists run by a shadowy company called Red Music out of Europe allowed for a skewing of the streaming numbers behind the song. Well of course “Meant To Be” is also benefiting from redundant placement via the Spotify playlist system as well, filling slots on Spotify’s “Hot Country,” “New Boots,” and “Wild Country” playlists, giving it triple the plays compared to most other country tracks, just like Josh Mirenda’s “I Got You.”
There is nothing “organic” about the supposed groundswell behind these tracks. There’s nothing democratic about giving the same song three slots in three separate playlists when you only have 200-something slots total, and four total playlists to distribute them to. These songs are benefiting from preferential placement on multiple Spotify playlists that are compiled to give the illusion of choice, but ultimately are just tools to help manipulate the numbers. Just like radio and much of popular country media, these top Spotify country playlists are nothing more than a promotional arm for the industry.
Meanwhile artists with a proven following and appeal—like the Turnpike Troubadours, Aaron Watson, and Cody Jinks—even major label artists like Ashley McBryde, or Caitlyn Smith who just released a brand new record, get completely ignored in lieu of male artists with no touring history, touting miniscule social media footprints, and who frankly have horrible, derivative tracks. These artist’s only claim to fame is their spectacular Spotify numbers. And this isn’t to specifically pick on Josh Mirenda, Tyler Braden, or anyone else benefiting from the system. If they can get these placements, good for them and their careers. The question is, how did they get on multiple playlists when so many other proven voices and tracksin country music are getting ignored?
This brings us to the next issue with Spotify’s major playlists, which is the lack of representation for women. The issue of too few female-led tracks on country radio has been covered ad nauseam across the internet, but somehow Spotify’s playlists even do country radio one worse. Currently in the Top 50 of mainstream country radio airplay, there are five solo performing women for a total of 10% representation. That’s a terrible percentage in itself. But wait until you see the numbers for women on these Spotify playlists.
The percentages of solo women on Spotify’s four major playlists are:
- Hot Country – 3.77%
- New Boots – 3.63%
- Wild Country – 16.66%
- Country Gold – 1.9%
That’s right, Spotify’s “Country Gold” playlist only has one song out of 51 total by a female solo artist. That’s Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic.” But get this: that same playlist has a total of 7 songs from Florida Georgia Line alone. That’s right, Florida Georgia Line itself makes up over 13% of Spotify’s “Country Gold” playlist, and all the solo women combined make up only 1.9%.
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The promise of the streaming model is that it should better help the market decide who the best artists are, and what the most appealing songs are for a given genre or generation. Services and platforms like Spotify should aid in making that promise a reality by opening up the music, and aiding the discovery process instead of implementing the same autocratic system that plagues radio from on high and is riddled with quiet corruption due to cozy relationships with the industry. Of course Spotify also has playlists for more classic country and Americana, and one of the great things about the Spotify format is the fact that anyone can make a playlist and have it compete for listener’s attention.
But as the host of the medium, Spotify should either attempt to be significantly more even handed and representative of all the that goes into comprising “country” music, or step aside and let the market do its job. The audience Spotify is able to draw for it’s top four country music playlists is helping to redefine the sound of the genre, doubling down on the same dilemmas country radio is posing, and is doing the marketplace a disservice by delivering a facade a choice when its playlists are arguable even more homogenized than the old system of music curation Spotify and streaming is attempting to replace.
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The percentages used in this article were taken from a snapshot of Spotify’s “Hot Country,” “New Boots,” “Wild Country,” and “Country Gold” playlists taken on 1-22-2018.