Jvanz is a 20 year-old aspiring artist from St. Catherines, Ontario with a flexible voice and a lancing falsetto. He released his first EP in 2019, but like thousands of artists who upload their music to Spotify daily, no one cared. “There’s a lot of competition,” Jvanz says. “You can’t just put out a song and hope you’ll be the lucky guy who goes viral.”
So he started to ask around about marketing companies that could help increase his music’s exposure. Jvanz found one that agreed to aid him — for a $2,000 fee, the company promised to reach out to a network of independent playlisters with dedicated followings on Spotify and make sure they added Jvanz’s songs to their collection. “They said that I would get 100,000 streams on two of my songs,” the singer recalls.
The company did even better than it predicted, earning Jvanz thousands more streams than expected on one track. “I would recommend it for artists who are independent like myself,” Jvanz says. “We need to get our music seen and heard by as many people as possible.”
This simple task, the basis for any sort of music career, seems like it should be easy today. 13-year-olds around the world can pirate a copy of a production program, learn how to use it through YouTube tutorials, and start uploading singles from their kitchens. But the resulting flood of music threatens to drown its creators. Over a year ago, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek estimated that roughly 40,000 new songs were hitting the platform every day. By now, that number has likely risen.
Most of the music uploaded to streaming services every day sinks without a trace. “You’re fighting for a lot of ear time,” says Austin Chase, an A&R at the independent label Commission Records (MadeinTYO, Lil Dicky). If you don’t have the muscle of a major label behind you, or friends in high places at Spotify or another streaming platform, you’re showing up to a tank battle on a rusty bicycle.
“You’re just gonna get drowned out, no matter what,” laments Jason Grishkoff, who runs SubmitHub, a platform that aims to put new music in front of bloggers and playlisters. “I don’t envy most of the artists out there.”
Marketers, managers and artists say that an entire music industry ecosystem has emerged to help aspiring artists in the struggle for exposure: Little-known marketing and distribution companies, platforms like SubmitHub and Playlist Push, and even Twitter con artists promising access to playlisting networks. New artists without a following go to them, hoping to gain listeners and, ideally, get noticed higher up the food chain — for a price.
Control of playlists is “now being pushed as an asset by newer labels and distribution companies,” according to one indie artist who says he sold a track to a distribution company that claimed to own playlists. In addition, the artist continues, “ad hoc digital marketing companies are acquiring independent playlists with high engagement, and then selling positions on them for a fee.”
“If you get on the indie playlists, you can still get streaming numbers and fans without Spotify’s official support.”
If you envision popularity on a scale from 0 (completely unknown) to 100 (someone like Drake), the majority of stories about music concern the tiny percentage of artists at the top end of the ranking — even a small indie rock band is far better known than nearly every unsigned artist on Spotify. But the majority of aspiring acts struggle to move from 0 to just 1 on the popularity scale, according to Grishkoff. “Getting even to 10 is actually very difficult,” he adds.
That’s where third-party playlists, many run by random Spotify users, start to become valuable. Some of these rankings have built up healthy followings — right now, for example, there are a pair of user-generated playlists devoted to TikTok songs with over 700,000 followers each, and several more with over 100,000 followers. “If you get on the indie playlists, you can still get streaming numbers and fans without Spotify’s official support,” says the founder of the marketing company Jvanz worked with, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
The company offers a few levels of exposure. The cheapest campaign, which costs $250, will put an artist on playlists with a total of 50,000 followers, while the most expensive option, which costs $4,000, promises a playlist reach of one million, which the company says should generate around half a million streams.
Managers and marketers say that some Spotify users who run playlists, aware of the intense competition on the platform, demand payment from artists or promoters before adding music. While paying for prominent placement is common on TikTok, this practice violates Spotify’s terms of service. (It does not violate FCC laws about undisclosed payola, because they only apply to the airwaves.) Spotify declined to comment on paying for playlisting, other than to reference a recent blog post noting that the company “routinely remove[s] user-generated playlists that claim to offer [placement on a playlist in exchange for money], so it won’t benefit [artists] in the long run.”
Michael Sloane, who worked in digital marketing at Big Machine Label Group before leaving to start Streaming Promotions, believes that it is counterproductive for artists to pay playlisters. “What we’ve seen from playlists that demand money is they might have a valuable playlist when they start that process, but within two months, it’s all garbage,” he explains.
“You have to generate enough traction on your own… You’re constantly trying to go to the gatekeepers like, ‘look, this is moving.’”
He has three employees who spend their days doing nothing but hunting for growing playlists, stalking their owners on the internet, and reaching out to see if they are interested in considering new music submissions free of charge. If the curators ask for money, Sloane’s team puts them in a “do not contact” tab in their playlist spreadsheet; that tab now has “a couple thousand entries.” Grishkoff is also against paying for playlist — “it surfaces the wrong music” — so he occasionally runs “little sting operations” to check that playlisters he works with aren’t demanding money on the side.
If artists can’t afford to pay a marketing company, SubmitHub is built around a cheaper model Grishkoff describes as “pay for consideration.” Artists buy credits — earlier this year, 100 credits cost $64 — and curators in the SubmitHub network charge one to three credits to listen to an artist’s song and give it feedback. If a curator approves of a song, he or she can choose to add it to a playlist, granting an artist access to a new group of potential fans. “It’s way cheaper than a publicist,” Grishkoff says. (Playlist Push has a similar model.)
Third-party playlisting campaigns are not limited to unknown acts. The same marketing company that Jvanz uses also works regularly with a major label and a prominent distribution outlet. Sloane’s clients include several management companies, Judah the Lion, and Lee Brice. And the major-label groups also all own playlist services — Filtr (Sony), Topsify (Warner), Digster (Universal) — that they use to push their own artists every day.
“If your hope is editorial and you’re indie or DIY or from a small label, you might be out of luck.”
Although third-party playlisting campaigns are supposed to generate streams initially through adds, ideally a song eventually starts to create its own momentum. Marketers believe that happens when a track starts to exhibit characteristics that Spotify’s algorithm deems desirable — maybe a low skip rate or a high percentage of listeners saving the track to their personal library. Then marketers say that Spotify’s algorithm begins to serve up your song automatically to people who like similar styles of music through recommendation features like Discover Weekly and Daily Mix.
The white whale that all the artists and marketers are hunting is a chance to eventually get slotted into one of Spotify’s official “editorial” playlists. “As a brand new artist, you’re not gonna get that out of the gate,” says Commission Records founder and CEO Anthony Martini. “You have to generate enough traction on your own to prove worthy to be added into that. You’re constantly trying to go to the gatekeepers like, ‘look, this is moving.’” Commission has relied on user-generated playlist campaigns to help secure eventual editorial placements for Derez De’Shon and Big Havi.
“But,” as Sloane puts it, “there’s a whole lot of music that’s not ever gonna get editorial [support]. If your hope is editorial and you’re DIY or from a small label, you might be out of luck.”
But not out of options. “We use [third-party playlisting campaigns] all the time as a label,” Martini says. “It’s necessary to get the ball rolling.”