The playlist is the most powerful medium in music. Streaming music companies spend millions developing algorithms and hiring teams of curators to create them, millions of people tap play on them each day, and some — like Spotify’s Discover Weekly — give you a reason check your phone every Monday morning for a new collection of songs exclusively tailored to your tastes. Even Drake tried to get in on the hype by dubbing his last album a playlist.
At the top of the playlist game is Spotify, which has become a kingmaker with hand-curated playlists such as RapCaviar and Rock This, helping it build out what it deems is the clearest representation of the sonic landscape. Sometimes these playlists shape pop culture, helping to determine what ends up at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and sometimes they simply reflect it, but with multiple playlists each boasting over 6 million subscribers — a bigger audience than every paid on-demand music service except for Deezer and Apple Music — there’s no disputing that the world’s most popular paid music streaming service has an outsized influence on popular music in 2017.
Now Spotify is in the midsts of redefining the playlist. After months of public testing, Spotify re-launched RapCaviar in August with a new artwork-heavy design, and for the first time it brought videos to the playlist. It’s also given the playlist its own production staff and distinct branding, essentially treating it as its own sub-brand. With editorial content, vertical music videos, a six-city concert tour, and over eight million subscribers, RapCaviar has proven that the playlist can be far more than just a collection of songs updated once a week.
So what’s the next step when you can shape the sounds of a genre? Do it for an entire continent. The next playlist to receive the makeover treatment is Viva Latino, Spotify’s biggest Latin music playlist and the third biggest playlist on the service. Viva Latino will be the first Spotify playlist to incorporate videos in Latin America — one of the company’s biggest markets. (RapCaviar’s videos are currently limited to the US.)
Viva Latino will launch this week with a new design and new exclusive vertical music videos each day this week from some of the biggest Latin music stars in the world, including, J Balvin, Annita, Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Bad Bunny. With a new video production and programming team, new branding, and plans to highlight a different artist with video on a weekly basis, Spotify is attempting to grow Viva Latino into the premier spot not only for Latin music but for video content as well.
“We had a big strategy around building a big Latin team, and trying to understand the diasporas of the world,” Nick Holmsten, Spotify’s global head of shows and editorial told me in Spotify’s New York office. “And we're scaling that even more right now, but we started with Latin, because when we looked at what it would take to win the US, it was hip-hop, it was country, and it was Latin. That was the three pillars that we started from.”
That exceptional performance has been led by Spotify’s former Latin culture boss and current head of global culture, Rocio Guerrero, who is spearheading Viva Latino’s transformation. While RapCaviar has the undeniable effect of helping to discover and propel new hip-hop songs and artists to the top of the charts, as Guerrero told me, Viva Latino is tasked with a slightly different and arguably even bigger job: help propel Latin music, and all the different genres that encompasses, to the next level across the globe.
“The difference is that Viva Latino is a multi-genre playlist,” Guerrero said. “Latin is a culture, not a genre. We're looking to expand the audience that we have in place because we still don't have all the Latinos around the world. And non-Latinos because we want both. We're not doing this only for Latin people. So hopefully this is just a platform for everyone who likes Latin music. It's for Latin music lovers.”
If you’ve followed popular music at all this year, you know that there are two Spanish songs that have broken through in a major way in the US. J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” which got an assist from Beyoncé, pulled in over 1 billion views on YouTube and reached the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. And then there was Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” featuring Daddy Yankee, which gained a verse from Justin Bieber after he heard it in a club in Colombia and ultimately reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart — the first Spanish song to top the chart in 21 years — and stayed there for 16 consecutive weeks.
“We looked at what it would take to win the US, it was hip-hop, it was country, and it was Latin.”
The music video for “Despacito” became the most watched video of all time on YouTube, and the original and remix with Bieber together racked up over 1.4 billion streams on Spotify, becoming the most dominant hit of 2017. So how much influence did Spotify’s Latin playlists have on the success of “Despacito?” Quite a bit, according to Guerrero. “Everything that happened [with “Despacito”] had a lot to do with the playlists that we have. The Latin playlists. A lot,” Guerrero said. Both “Despacito” and “Mi Gente” were placed on Baila Reggaeton, Spotify’s fourth biggest playlist — also curated by Guerrero — on the day they were released.
“I hate that people now think because of “Despacito,” these [Latin] artists are bubbling up suddenly out of the blue. Again it's a consequence — we already had seven songs in Spanish in [Spotify’s] global chart,” Guerrero said. “You know that Justin Bieber happened to hear that song in Colombia, but it could have been another song, and we would be talking about another song today, because all the songs were already in the chart and still are. “Despacito” is the one that everyone talks about because it’s the first one that broke in the US, but globally it already broke records before Justin Bieber.”
It’s unquestionable that the success of “Despacito” has propelled Latin music in the consciousness of US music listeners more than any song in recent memory, making this the perfect time for Spotify to put additional funding behind its Latin music push. While Viva Latino may soon have the same influence as RapCaviar over the Billboard charts — one could argue it already does — Guerrero says the team doesn’t feel any extra pressure when building out the playlist every week, because it’s less of a discovery playlist and more of a collection of the biggest Latin songs in the world.
“At the end of day, it's the users who are deciding what goes in the playlist, it's not me or my editors,” Guerrero said. “Viva Latino is the result of 500 playlists that we have for Latin music. So it's like a pyramid, Viva Latino is at the top, but we have a lot of playlists underneath that are showing us what tracks work and don't work, and only the tracks that work in those other playlist end up in Viva Latino. We're testing a lot of things, and if people like it, good, if people don't like it, it's not going to end up in the chart. People have to like it.”
“I think there's a risk if you don't create an experience that is outside the actual music. In a world moving forward, when everything is available everywhere, you are going to run into problems,” Holmsten said. ”It's been a fascinating journey with RapCaviar because it's been — I don't I don't think anyone really understood. It was like, let's try it, let's find out where it takes us. Now when you see the results in the whole world of RapCaviar, the touring and RapCaviar Live, everything comes down to the fact that [we were] able to scale it out of just being a playlist. So I think the video element has a huge impact on that.”
The outcome of Viva Latino’s transition to video will be a huge test for Spotify. The company hasn’t exactly had success with its video strategy outside of RapCaviar, but while this rollout is similar to Spotify's biggest rap playlist, this is a different culture and will be rolled out on a global scale. It could help determine whether Spotify will bring video permanently to its largest playlist, Today’s Top Hits, which has over 18 million subscribers. (Spotify has had video premieres from Selena Gomez and Sam Smith in Today’s Top Hits, but not a permanent selection of videos.)
Latin music’s increasing influence in pop culture is largely because of streaming — two of the five biggest playlists on Spotify are Latin playlists — and it’s surprising it’s taken this long for it to get the financial support and recognition it deserves, at least in the US. But with newly minted global superstars, an increased focus on the culture from streaming services and from mainstream artists, and willing ears in the US to hear something different on a grander scale than ever before, it seems the perfect storm is brewing for the popularity of Latin music and the playlists built around it to reach new heights. “We've been under-served and now to be some of the first ones [innovating], it's pretty pretty nice,” Guerrero said. “It's a nice feeling.”