Warner Music Group announced last week that streaming has become its primary revenue source, making them the first major record label to do so. In a digital music world where it’s easier than ever for artists to release music on their own, CEO Stephen Cooper said that playlists on streaming services are a major reason why labels are still relevant: “In the past it was about radio play, weekly charts and sales — now it’s a minute-by-minute battle for people’s time and attention. So playlisting is one of the big reasons why artists need record labels today.”
However, according to a piece written by Glenn Peoples a few months ago for Billboard, a big part of “playlisting” is a modern form of an unethical promotional practice from the days of radio: payola, or paying people with influence to promote a song.
“Spots on many of the largest Spotify playlists are already controlled by the three major music companies, which each own a branded property that curates playlists of many styles and genres,” Peoples wrote. “Pay for play ‘is definitely happening,’ claims a major label marketing executive, one of several who say that popular playlists can and have been bought.”
Peoples also claims he was told by a source that inclusion for a song on a playlist with “tens of thousands of fans” can cost $2,000, while a spot on “more well-followed playlists” can be in the neighborhood of $10,000.
In August 2015, Spotify updated their terms and conditions to “explicitly prohibit” users from accepting compensation for including a song on a playlist, and said, “We are absolutely against any kind of ‘pay to playlist,’ or sale of playlists. It’s bad for artists and it’s bad for fans.”