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Three nights following Spotify playlist editors around New York’s live music scene

Three nights following Spotify playlist editors around New York’s live music scene


‘Why are you here?’

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Photo by Kaitlyn Tiffany / The Verge

In an otherwise boring conversation about some press release or another, a Spotify PR person mentioned to me that an artist who had a big hit on the platform’s Fresh Finds playlist was discovered when one of the curators just happened to see them play a show in Bushwick. I was as surprised as anyone really can be by an email from corporate PR.

Fresh Finds is one of Spotify’s prized products, a weekly playlist crafted from a combination of two different data inputs: it identifies new, possibly interesting music with natural language processing algorithms that crawl hundreds of music blogs, then puts those songs up against the listening patterns of users their data designates “trendsetters.” What’s going to a show in Bushwick have to do with it? I had visions of a bunch of suits using their business cards to get into cool shows for no reason other than to feel like Vinyl-era record execs for a night. It seemed extremely redundant, and more than a little like posturing. Why bother?

“It's basically their job,” I was told. Okay but, excuse me, how is that a playlist curator’s job? To find out, I asked if I could tag along with on a few of them on their nights out. I did not expect the answer to be yes, mostly because I thought it should be obvious that my intention was to point out how weird the whole thing was.

But the answer was yes. So, for three weeks, I went with Spotify playlist curators to live performances in Chinatown, Bushwick, and an infamous club on the Lower East Side. I got dozens of half-answers to the question: Why are you here?

Rayana Jay at a SoFar Sounds show in Chinatown
Rayana Jay at a SoFar Sounds show in Chinatown

Athena Koumis: Fresh Finds

I met Athena Koumis on a Saturday night outside an office building in Chinatown, for a SoFar Sounds show happening on the fourth floor. Tickets to SoFar shows are often sold based on the value of the company’s brand name, with the individual acts as total surprises. Attendees bring wine and bread and jars of olives, and toast each new act they’d never heard of. They seem to be enjoying the music, but they also seem drunk, so it’s hard to say.

My first question for Koumis is, “Why are you here?” Why would someone whose job relies on data, and whose product doesn’t have any relevance in a live space, need to see the acts they “program” on their playlists in person? She seems a little confused by the question.

“Algorithms are tapping into the ears of real people. It’s not just some math equation.”

“All the curators are involved in actually seeing the music too,” she tells me, furrowing her brow. Sure. But why would Spotify care how people interact with music when they’re not on Spotify? This sounds ridiculous, like if Instagram suddenly sent people out in the field to see how many IRL verbal compliments I was getting on a new shade of lipstick. Just to see, just because it was important to them to know.

“Hearing the music on a computer is one-dimensional. We need to see how real people interact with it,” she sort-of explains, without quite getting at the question of why Spotify cares. I ask her if she’s ever wandered into smaller live music spaces and made discoveries, and she tells me a story about seeing Princess Nokia making a surprise appearance at Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg. Princess Nokia is already famous, but I get what she means. “Those moments still happen,” she says.

Koumis started her career at The Echo Nest, a startup acquired by Spotify in 2014 to build its recommendation system. She became an editor when her team’s pet project, which combined Spotify’s massive bank of data on users considered “tastemakers” with a human editorial check, got shared around internally. With the incorporation of a new element — the blog-crawling algorithm — it became what’s now the Fresh Finds playlist.

Every week, she considers 1,000 new tracks for Fresh Finds. Unlike Spotify’s other curated playlists, this one isn’t open to pitches. “What I want is an artist who didn’t know anyone at Spotify,” she says. This is how she found Rayana Jay, who we are at this show to see, about a year ago. Her song “Sleepy Brown” was one of Koumis’ weekly 1,000 tracks, and she started it off on two smaller low-fi hip-hop and “jazz vibes” playlists. It took off, and Spotify’s internal tools showed that it was getting buzz on social media too, so Koumis let Rayana know that she wanted to meet her in person and listen to new music.

“I’m interested to hear if she can sing the way she does on the record,” she says. “Is there a lively interpretation? Does she leave an impression? Hearing it on Spotify is one thing, but can she inspire people to start talking about her?”

I ask her what she thinks of the way hit-making seems to work now. Does sifting through data ever feel like removing the element of chance? Turning alchemy into algorithms? She says no. She says the age of streaming and the tradition of live music and serendipitous discovery aren’t separate: “If anything, streaming means new artists get the opportunity to play live faster. And algorithms are tapping into the ears of real people. It’s not just some math equation, it’s studying and listening to what real people are listening to.”

The second act, a Seattle-based singer-songwriter named Ings, plays cutesy Frankie Cosmos-style songs about boys and puppies and time travel. She has circular yellow glasses and a teal nurse dress and encourages people to buy her t-shirts, which have kittens on them. While we’re milling around in the hall waiting for Rayana Jay’s set to start, Koumis leans into french doors at the back of the conference room to listen for a second.  “You know how you were asking if there are still surprises?” she says, bouncing back into the hall.  “She has a really beautiful voice. I’m gonna go home and listen to her stuff. I can pass it to another editor who curates a playlist it would work for.”

John Stein: Indie, Focus, Chill

On my birthday, I take two buses to Elsewhere, a Bushwick warehouse venue that opened four days prior. Kllo, an Australian electro-pop duo with a sizable Brooklyn following, are playing in a 250-capacity bar space called “Zone One,” at the front of the building. It’s packed, so I stand outside to talk to John Stein, an editor focused on indie, alternative, and electronic music for some of Spotify’s biggest mood playlists. It is freezing.

My first question for him is, “Why are you here?”

He laughs. “I’m a fan, that’s a big reason I’ll make it out on a Saturday night... Listeners respond really well [to Kllo] on platform, but live is a different experience. Can they sell out the room? What’s the audience like? I try to understand why. You need to feel like you’re a part of the music, and making sure you’re involved in the scene.”

Okay, John, but why? My nose is really running, as we are standing outside and it is November and I have a cold, but I try hard to make John understand that he is not answering the question. I ask him: if this act is good and the live show is good and other people seem to think it’s good, what will change for them when you sit down at your desk on Monday?

He explains that there’s a difference between a live hit and a Spotify hit. He likes to find out what songs people are singing along to in the real world. “That’s something we don’t see in the data,” he says. “They’re not always the catchy ones. They’re surprises. And over time, people come back to those more.” He says he likes music that has substance, which you “can’t fake,” not just perfectly crafted pop songs with the chorus at the front. “You can’t build real fans by following such a formula in that way.”

He started his career at WFUV, Fordham University’s radio station and an affiliate of NPR. His whole job was playlists, and “unwrapping CDs for six hours a day.” He says the biggest difference between his job at Spotify and a radio station gig is all of the data, which he “never could have imagined” before he saw it. (Spotify can track social media buzz around songs, how they perform relative to other tracks in a playlist, how the song performs on the artist’s own page, relative to how it performs in the playlist, and scads of other metrics.) He says he wants to figure out what a “single” means in the age of Spotify, where listeners have access to a whole album at once, and how to contend with “the new version of a one-hit wonder” — a song people love that goes viral from playlists and algorithms, but doesn’t help the performer take off in the same way. “People save [the song], but they don’t even know who the artist is,” he says. “It’s hard to connect the dots between selling tickets and a song trending on social media.”

“It’s hard to connect the dots between selling tickets and a song trending on social media.”

I ask him if he’s seen a recent report by Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan, about how Spotify has altered the formula for a pop hit. The report quotes music industry experts who talk about how the first 20 seconds of a song has to serve as “an executive summary,” or thesis statement, of the rest of it, to avoid the skip. The chorus has to enter fast. “Catchy bits come early and at a quick clip,” Hogan wrote, “There’s often an enormous introduction followed by a suspense-ratcheting succession of repeated hooks.” He’s seen it. “It makes me a little nervous,” he says. “I don’t like that aspect.” The publicist at his elbow barely winces.

Later, while I hover near the bar with my friend and coworker Lizzie Plaugic, who did not want me to spend my birthday with just some guy who works at Spotify, John finds us. He says he’s leaving because it’s too crowded. “That seems like a good thing!” I scream. “People are cheering and stuff!” He says “Haha, yeah.”

AJ Ramos: US Latin

The first Manhattan performance for Dominican-born, New York-raised, LA-based artist Jenn Morel is at midnight in the music venue SOB’s on the Lower East Side. There are approximately 30 people in the audience— a steep drop from the earlier show with an 18-year-old Massachusetts rapper named Token, who brought his mother and grandmother to the club.

AJ Ramos, an editor on the US Latin team, is also the MC for the show. He takes the stage before Morel, while I am falling asleep at a table behind one of half-a-dozen 8-foot-wide pillars in the middle of the dance floor, and informs the crowd, “There’s going to be over 1,000 people the next time you see Jenn Morel.” I’m grumpy, because it’s Wednesday and it’s midnight, but I’m doubting it.

My first question for Ramos is “Why are you here?”

He is ready for this question. “SOB’s is such a trademark and stamp as to what’s happening,” he said, flipping imaginary pancakes in the air in front of him. “Chance the Rapper, Big Sean did their first New York shows here. This is Jenn’s first time back in New York. I want to see if she has a following; if people are singing her songs... And it’s our job to be culturally supportive of the artist.” (Here is a good time to point out that AJ has worked in the music industry — on radio and TV — for much longer than Athena or John, and his answers, while ostensibly sincere, also sound a lot more like catch-phrases.)

He says his job as a playlist curator is to “capture cultural moments and even the playing field.” He says “even the playing field” at least seven times during our conversation. Earlier that day, he says, Morel played him her new music, which bounced from a sample of a new tropical artist to bachata to trap. “Cultural gaps are being bridged. Right now, more than ever, different genres and cultures are learning how to work together.”

Photo by Kaitlyn Tiffany / The Verge

He refers to himself and Angie Romero, the first two curators hired for Spotify’s US Latin team, as “arroz con pollo” and says he talks more to the people on his team than he does his own family. Their job, he says, barely breathing between sentences, is to “educate and excite the artists as to what Spotify is.” And even the playing field.

He’s taken 500 meetings in the last two years, he claims, from Daddy Yankee to Bad Bunny, with a focus on urban and tropical music, but a little salsa, a little inspirational Spanish Christian, a little trap. He sends and receives 500 Instagram direct messages a week, goes to five listening sessions on a slow week, listens to music non-stop, gets up at four o’clock in the morning every day, just got back from the Presidente Festival in the Dominican Republic, “living the culture, going to the clubs.”

I believe him, like I believed Athena and John, when he says that he loves music and would be doing this anyway, and cares about understanding the live cultures that his digital work draws on. But I wonder how someone this committed to a democratic approach comes across to major record labels, which definitely expect special treatment. “Everyone’s just excited,” he says, waving the question away.

“Blogs, data, viral charts, we can learn from everyone.”

He restarts the conversation. “I’m a person of the streets,” he explains, as slowly as a middle-school teacher. “I want to know what somebody’s vibing to in their car. Blogs, data, viral charts, we can learn from everyone. We’re here to even the playing field.”

But does it ever stress him out, I ask, being an arbiter of taste on a platform that is increasingly becoming the arbiter of taste in music? He shrugs. All the playlists in the US Latin tab are made by committee, and “You can put a song on a playlist, but if the users aren’t feeling it…” He shrugs. “It’s the people who are listening to Spotify who decide what the next hit is.” He shrugs again.

“It’s a mix of gut and data.”

At the end of the three weeks, I still feel as though I have only a blurry idea of why Spotify is sending its playlist curators out to live shows. When I follow up with Athena, she mentions that she was charmed by Rayana Jay’s sense of humor — on the merits of a lively performance that had tipsy audience members laughing and cheering, she sent Jay’s new song “Everything” to the editor of the Mellow Bars playlist, which has 500,000 followers. “Everything” is now the 12th track on that playlist, which is something, I suppose.

She sends me a longer answer to my original question, saying she feels “a strong sense of accountability” to Spotify users and to the artists who are hoping to find their big break in a Spotify playlist: “Accountability to make programming decisions that best serve listeners, accountability to give artists equal consideration, accountability to seek out new sounds and new artists and connect them with the right audience[.]” She calls it a huge responsibility.

“Sometimes I feel pressure that we're missing stuff”

John tells me something similar, when I follow up about Kllo. (I’d already noticed that “Predicament,” the fourth song on their new EP, was added to the Indie Mixtape playlist the Monday after the show.) “With so much music coming in and so many shows for us music editors to get to, sometimes I feel pressure that we're missing stuff,” he says. “There's so much great music coming out, and audiences are more open than ever to hearing new music from new artists.”

I believe that these people care deeply about their jobs and understand that what they do is a significant driving force in the culture around music. I understand why someone committed to giving every artist a fair shake and giving other people music they’ll love would want to be as thorough as possible. That doesn’t mean I can shake the feeling that Spotify is milking a ton of client relations work and positive PR out of this sincere passion. The company has spent the last few years dodging rumors that it would ever experiment with signing artists directly to an in-house label, but it’s also spent the last 12 months launching initiative after initiative designed to turn “emerging” artists into commercial megastars. It’s also sending playlist curators out to take meetings with musicians, attend their listening sessions, and watch their early shows in Brooklyn bars.

The record label rumor is even less than a rumor, more like a conspiracy theory, but its clear that Spotify does want to wield cultural, taste-making power — to the point where it’s not even asking its young editors to pretend otherwise. On the contrary, it’s asking them to go out and advertise it.

Photography by Kaitlyn Tiffany