A playlist too far? The Economist jumps onto the bandwagon
As we gear up for Music 4.5 Smart Radio: Playlists 2 TOMORROW (14 April) we’ve been looking at how playlists are curated, created, distributed and monetized, as well as their role in music promotion and in enhancing brands.
In praise of a good playlist
Here at 2Pears HQ, we love a good playlist. In my working life, I personally live by them. I am not adventurous, and the streaming service I use seems to know this. They know the genre I prefer (folk) and daily present me with a ream of playlists around this theme: Indie Acoustic, Folk Rock, Autumn Folk, Essential Folk, The Pulse of Americana – you get the gist.
While the above list of playlists does have some variations, there is a lot of content crossover between them. The general mood of the playlists stays consistent, which is how I like it. While playlist consumers have varied needs and preferences, playlists around a theme dominate– new music, electronica, 80s, et al. Even Spotify Discover Weekly, which at face value appears to be a cross-genre list, uses an algorithm to take the user’s listening habits into account when generating its playlist. (Mine, unsurprisingly, is folk heavy.)
Enter an unlikely playlist curator: The Economist.
“Every week The Economist puts together a playlist loosely inspired by the stories we covered,” says its website. My initial reaction was, I admit, of somewhat haughty derision: “Really? How tenuous can you get? As if news stories can inspire any kind of coherent theme to a playlist… How desperate a marketing ploy is this?”
In defense of genre
Reading the actual listing only reinforced my initial incredulity. The playlist adheres to no genre, paying undetectable attention to the order in which the songs might best flow. In last week’s playlist, Panama by Van Halen came first (no prizes for figuring out the link there), followed by Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood by Nina Simone, referring to an Economist article that suggests that those who are bi- and multi-lingual are more mentally fit (“loosely based,” indeed).
While some of the links were assuredly weak, there were some definite jewels in the crown. London, Bye, Ta Ta by David Bowie was pure genius. Happy Days in response to Trump losing the Wisconsin primary? Truly inspired.
For the sake of research, I hit play. I was prepared to be unnerved by the variety, by the randomness, by what I saw as a huge contrivance on behalf of The Economist. I wanted to hate the playlist, because it felt to me a playlist too far.
But here’s the thing:
I loved it.
Why? Because here’s the wonderful thing about music: good music is good music; however it is curated, however it is packaged.
Random, yes. But its greatness lies in that it is actually not as random as it first appears. It’s a mix of well-known and not-so-well known artists and tracks, thereby creating a listening experience that comforts you with nostalgia and familiarity before jostling you with something unexpected. It is both soothing background ambience and a gateway to news items that are both mainstream and abstract. (Confession: I wouldn’t have come across the bi-lingual article otherwise, and I found it fascinating.)
Here at 2Pears, our research into playlists has shown that the music industry has accepted and is responding to the idea that consumers don’t tend to use streaming services for music discovery; streaming services (and playlists) serve an awareness purpose instead of feeding direct sales. In tandem, companies are looking to playlists to help promote and enhance their brands. Playlist value is still there, but the landscape has changed. It begs the question: if The Economist can successfully use playlists to promote its brand, who else should do the same?
In the meantime, three guesses who just signed up for a subscription to The Economist…
Well played, The Economist. Well played.