Before we really dig into the delicious meat of this question (I tasted it already – it’s chicken), allow me to go ahead and drop a quick answer to its most literal interpretation: no, you should not ever pay for Spotify playlist placements. You know why not? Because it’s flat-out illegal, greenhorn.
Fortunately for you, though, there are other, less literal ways to interpret the question, and the further down that road you travel, the grayer the answer gets. Let’s get that pesky legality question out of the way first, though.
What is Payola?
If you’re new to the music game (welcome to Music in 2024! We’re glad to have you, even though it sucks here), the idea of dropping a few hundred dollars to put your catchy new banger at the top of a few popular, kingmaking playlists probably sounds like money well spent.
And you’d probably be right, were it legal to do so, but here’s the thing: the feds sniffed out this method a long time ago, and for all kinds of reasons based on fairness, they’ve outlawed the practice, which is lovingly referred to as “payola.”
The full legal history isn’t super relevant to the article, but suffice to say there’s a law called The Communications Act of 1934 that has been amended many times over the ensuing decades to apply to contemporary marketing practices.
In the 1950s, as modern concept of popular radio solidified, the judiciary used the act to determine that it was illegal to pay radio stations for airplay, and the same principle outlaws paying Spotify (or any other music company) for a position on one of its vaunted playlists.
You can call it a bribe or you can call it sponcon, but either way, it’s a line that you can’t cross. Hell, Spotify will tell you the same right here on its website, even as critics level accusations of that very same outlawed practice at Spotify’s new-ish “Discovery Mode.”
That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t companies of ill repute lurking in the darkest (or realistically, even the well-lit) corridors of the internet willing to take your stack of cash in exchange for “guaranteed placements.”
But if you do enough sleuthing, you’ll find that those companies are generally regarded as pariahs if not outright scam operations; and sure, it’s possible that those companies might dodge the law and technically secure a few placements for your song, but the playlists your song lands on won’t be reputable themselves, and you won’t have made any real progress in your quest for a real audience.
How to Pay for Playlisting Legal
Okay, so that’s all fairly unfortunate news to the independent musician without a stream to their name and a stack of cash burning a hole in their pocket.
Where can such a musician spend his money in exchange for glittering, transcendent streams?
I told you this was about get nuanced, so here we go: it may sound like splitting hairs, but all you have to do to plant your feet on much solid-er, legal-er ground is add a middle man to the equation and remove the word “guarantee” from the services on offer.
To distill it a little further, while you can’t pay, for instance, Spotify directly for a guaranteed placement on one of its playlists, you can pay a third party to pitch your song to the curators/owners of popular playlists on Spotify.
Sure, it feels a little circular, but the difference is in the promised outcome; the third party will (hopefully) a) only take your money if it believes in the potential success of your song, and b) do its very best to thoughtfully pitch your song to the most appropriate playlists, and it will also let you know ahead of time that results are not at all guaranteed.
A Risky Proposition
That last part might sound scary, and to put it even more bluntly: you might completely eat shit.
It’s a perfectly possible outcome that, in exchange for a few hundred dollars, you secure exactly zero placements and generate no streams whatsoever.
If you’re working with the right companies, that worst-case-scenario/burn-it-all-to-the-ground outcome should skew at least slightly towards “unlikely” (after all, if these companies never placed anybody, their customer base would dry up fast), but it could totally happen.
With those kinds of odds, why even play?
If you’re paying attention, we’ve now circled all the way back around to the real question beneath the question; we’re about to sink our collective teeth into that meat I promised you earlier on (it might be overcooked by now). Well, you play for the same reason any gambler facing long odds plays: if you do win, you can win big.
Now, I’m using the gambling analogy to illustrate a point, but it’s worth clearing something up in case you’re taking the analogy too seriously: you have more control over the odds than a gambler spinning a roulette wheel. If your music is good (recorded, produced and mixed at a professional level, performed like a boss, etc.), you’re way more likely to grab some legit placements than if it’s, uh, hot garbage.
Sorry if that last point made you uncomfortable.
There are a million reasons why the goodness or badness of music can’t and shouldn’t be objectively quantified, but it’s important that we all accept the truism that good music is better primed to make it in this cruel industry than bad music.
I’ll leave the touchy question “what makes a song good?” for someone else (or me in a future, ill-conceived article) to answer; for our purposes here, “good” just means “technically sound.” As in, “not a series of tempo-agnostic bleeps and bloops recorded through your iPhone mic.”
What Makes (Legal) Playlisting Worthwhile?
Assuming, then, that you’re showing up armed with a song identifiable to the layman as “music in a recognizable genre,” then my answer to you is “yes, you should consider paying a vetted, well-reviewed company for the non-illegal version of playlisting.”
I’ve done it repeatedly, and I’ve garnered some really solid results. I’ve also lost everything. (Again: exaggeration for effect. I have not, like, bet my mortgage on playlisting. I don’t think you can even do that.)
And why, you ask, do I think this is a worthwhile endeavor and a good place to spend at least a percentage of your marketing budget?
It’s not because of those streams your song racks up while it’s parked on some playlist, although those are nice; rather, it’s because something very important will be happening behind the scenes: listeners will save your song to their personal libraries and add it to their own playlists.
You’ll create repeat customers. Even long after your song has inevitably dropped off of whatever big playlists it landed on (like humans, all placements shall one day die), if all goes well, those listeners will return to their private libraries and playlists to continue basking in your musical glow ad infinitum. You’re a rolling stone and you’re gathering moss, baby!
Find Your Lane
A word of caution that I’ve mysteriously alluded to already: there are certain characteristics of your music that can make paying for playlisting a wiser or more foolish use of your money. I noted earlier that your submission needs to be in a “recognizable genre,” and that’s not just because I’m a geriatric millennial shaking my stick at the sky and grumbling about the “kids these days” with their “cross-genre” songs; I love the kids these days and their cross-genre songs.
In fact, a solid percentage of my own output exists somewhere in that murky, liminal space between concrete genres, and I’ve found that those songs – the ones that you identify within fifteen second as belonging to, say, pop or country or rap – tend to struggle in the cruel world of playlisting.
To paint a picture, I’ll draw you an easy point of comparison from my own experiences. Last year, I released a song called “Bad Ideas;” I loved (and still love!) “Bad Ideas,” and I was (and am!) immensely proud of it.
I’m a big fan of Lil Dicky and his TV show, “Dave,” and I felt particularly inspired by the Lil Dicky song “Molly,” so I used “Molly” as a guiding light, took a deep breath, and wrote and tracked my first ever rap verses.
(To be clear, I am not and have never been a rapper, and there was every likelihood that anyone who heard the news “Lewis just released a rap song” would immediately double over and vomit from sheer vicarious embarrassment.)
I thought it came out pretty well, and I even started to let myself get excited that “Bad Ideas” could be some kind of weird big break for me. I submitted it to my usual playlisting outlet, Playlist Push, and
sprinted out of the room to avoid seeing whatever ridicule might spawn in my mailbox. What actually happened, fortunately or unfortunately, was way less dramatic: the playlisters were mostly complimentary of the song (score!) but confused by what to do with it.
The verses are clearly rap, but the chorus is massive and anthemic and definitively not rap, and the instrumentation includes both synths and guitars. What felt straightforward to me confounded the playlisters, and they mostly passed on it. (Folks, it’s pop-rap! Come on…forget “Molly,” even Nelly’s song “Ride Wit Me” contains all those same elements. But I digress.)
When I’m not dabbling in dangerous new genres, I’m mostly churning out folk-adjacent stuff on piano and/or acoustic guitar, and by this point in the article it should come as no surprise: playlisters eat it up. My most recent release, “Fulcrum,” obliterated “Bad Ideas” right out of the gate.
See, there are countless versions of “Snowy Coffee Shop Afternoon” playlists, and each one of them is absolutely starving for sappy folk songs. But that goes for other major genres, and even smaller sub-genres, too: electronica, R&B, country, bedroom lo-fi, shoegaze, whatever…as long as you can slap a definitive label on your song and have it be accurate, you’re a good candidate for playlisting.
Life After Playlisting
Once you’re in, god willing, you’ll drum up a whole mess of streams for however long you’re featured on the big lists, and when that wave eventually rolls back, you’ll linger on some of the smaller ones and collect ongoing streams from those and from the users who saved your song during that first push.
I released a song called “Works of Art” last March that enjoyed a successful (by my standards) playlisting campaign, and it continues to consistently generate between forty and seventy streams daily as of January 2024. I haven’t quit my day job, but it feels great to know that people are enjoying my song long after I’ve stopped putting any money behind it.
Words to Take With You
Before we call it quits on this article, some parting words for you to write down on a little piece of paper that you can fold up and carry around in your wallet (or you could, I don’t know, eat it or make a paper airplane): everything works better if in combination.
Playlisting alone ain’t gonna do it. Facebook ads alone (probably) ain’t gonna do it either. Together, though, those two tools become significantly more powerful; if you’re not picturing the Powers Rangers turning into Megazord yet, that’s – well, that’s a “you” problem, and I won’t waste any more breath describing the power of teamwork and cooperation.
I’m no Andrew Southworth, but one of the main tenets of his instruction is that driving streams to your song from as many sources as you have available is the way to get it noticed, whether that’s by human beings organically or by the almighty algorithm that rules over us all.
That makes a lot of sense to me, and so, to wrap this up nicely with a big fat bow: by all means, shell out for some playlisting (I recommend Playlist Push, but there are other companies that do the same thing just as well), at least once anyway, just to see whether it suits you and your music, but keep in mind the various caveats and guidelines I so kindly imparted to you on these digital pages.
See you at the top of the charts.