Playlists: How Listeners Take Ownership

Do you own Adele? Are you sure?

Music industry observers are holding up Adele's recent sales success as evidence that consumers still want to buy and own music in an increasingly on-demand digital age. For slightly more than the cost of one month on a premium streaming service - providing access to millions of tracks - consumers paid for access to just eleven songs. Unbelievable, right?

What does this say about the value of the long tail of music, or discovery mechanisms, or any individual artist? Unfortunately not much. For one thing, record sales are definitely not mutually exclusive with streaming service subscriptions. I am but one example of a consumer who maintains a premium music subscription and still purchases full albums. Secondly, Adele is an industry anomaly - you can't extrapolate from her success and draw any defensible conclusions about emerging artists, or even other megastars.

What it does say for certain is that listeners still enjoy feeling ownership of music. No, we didn't write Adele's songs, nor did we perform them (unless you're Adele reading this, in which case, thanks for your work!). But in addition to holding a recording, giving us control over how and when we play music, purchasing an album gives the consumer a feeling of access and partnership with the artist.

On-demand digital services, on the other hand, struggle to induce feelings of ownership. As long as you pay for your Netflix subscription, you have access to Netflix content, and that can feel like ownership (especially in hour eight of a binge-watch). But try viewing it offline, or after you cancel, or in non-covered countries, and suddenly any feeling of ownership of or access to House of Cards disappears. Ownership is an illusion that Netflix hardly tries to maintain.

So consumers clearly lack ownership in subscription models, but the reality is that we don't really even own downloaded digital purchases. Companies can take back our access to our "own files." Lose your hard drive, and you could lose your content. It is needlessly difficult to transfer some digital purchases between devices (especially if you used the iTunes store). Physical purchases are still okay as long as you physically hold them - but like any physical good, they are at risk of loss, theft, or destruction. You pay for the increased ownership, but maintain all the risk. You also need access to a physical player. My Macbook Pro is an incredibly powerful device, but it no longer has a CD drive.

So what really is "ownership" in music for the consumer? And how can subscription streaming companies give ownership to consumers?

The Playlist As User Generated Content

User generated content (UGC) is the key to the explosive success of many new-gen media platforms, including YouTube and Snapchat. Anyone can upload material to YouTube and immediately have it be searchable and potentially monetizable. Snapchat Live Stories are made entirely up of user-filmed videos and still photos, and are often much more engaging than professionally produced media.

User generated content provokes feelings of authenticity and builds a sense of community. For example, YouTube Gaming is entirely supported by tournament footage, Let's Play videos and game reviews uploaded by users. While this builds vast fortunes for a lucky few, for the most part players aren't uploading content for any explicit material gain. UGC is mainly created so that users can feel a sense of ownership and partnership with the community.

On platforms like Spotify, UGC manifests in the form of playlists. There are over 2 billion playlists on Spotify alone. While most listeners are not artists and do not have their own recorded music uploaded on Spotify, almost all of them use playlists to organize and curate their song collections - a necessity when you have access to millions of tracks. In this case, the UGC is being created for the direct benefit of the user who makes it. But it can also be used for the benefit of others.

Just like individual tracks, playlists are discoverable. Discovering a single track can be rewarding, especially for obsessives who can listen to one track for hours (Hello, that's me). But discovering a great playlist is even better. A well-maintained playlist changes and evolves over time, attracting great tunes to it like a magnet, paying musical dividends over weeks and months. 

Some playlist creators are major influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers, like Sean Parker. Some are brands or organizations, like the White House (above). But the playlists we value most are created by the radio stations we enjoy, or the artists we know and love, or our closest friends. These last playlists are the most authentic, made by our peers - but similar playlists are also made by the artists and curators we wish to feel closer to, building a sense of community around music. Importantly, playlists made by peers, artists, and Spotify themselves all look and feel identical in the product.

The vast success of Discover Weekly shows how an evolving, personalized playlist may be the best way of finding new music and inducing a feeling of ownership of music in users. In testing, personalizing the photo on Discover Weekly led to even more user uptake. That's Spotify's greatest trick: while users don't directly create the playlist, it still feels like theirs

Artists Embracing Playlisting

Of course the playlist is not a new concept. What is an album but an artist-created playlist of their own content? Isn't Discover Weekly like getting your favorite new 30-track album every Monday?

In fact, some artists are beginning to take the new possibilities of the playlist format even further than a static album. Matoma recently released a full-length LP on Spotify in the form of a playlist. The goal, he says, is to "update the playlist with a new single at least every three to four weeks for the next six months." And there's more possibilities too:

Say he wants to hold a special concert and within that set, he's going to launch his next single? Fans go nuts and want to hear the song again, and they can on their ride home when their excitement is at its peak, because it was just added to the playlist.

It's a fascinating move that feels more like the future of music than Adele's return to the past. While her success reminds us of the importance of quality musical content, Spotify's success reminds us of the importance of user-generated content in creating a sense of community, authenticity, and ownership around music.

Maybe instead of hiding playlisting functionality, other platforms can take a lesson. Let users take some ownership too.


My Discover Weekly:

Ford's Finds (one of my favorite playlists):