Carlos López Casany's plan was to become a Barcelona doctor. But in 2012, while in medical school, he posted a Spotify playlist full of Blur, Vampire Weekend, the Beach Boys and Outkast and called it "Just smile, Happy Songs." The next thing he knew, he had 30,000 followers and a new career path. "It really changed my life," says Casany, 24, who has posted dozens of playlists, including the 400,000-follower "Just cry, Sad Songs." "I'm taking a sabbatical year because all of this is so big. I always said I would be a doctor, but now I'm trying to have a place in the modern music business."
In the highly competitive, multibillion-dollar music-streaming business, Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and the rest are trying to distinguish themselves by emphasizing not just their extensive catalogs, but the songs you want to hear next. "Curation's a big thing for us," Apple Music's Jimmy Iovine said earlier this year. Most services employ large teams of editorial staffers, both fulltime and freelance, to create in-house playlists, but Casany and the rest of Playlist Nation have become important "tastemakers" for breaking artists, generating streaming revenue and boosting download and CD sales.
"In the old economy, you're in Philadelphia, listening to your local radio station. Now you're dealing with a playlister in Germany influencing an audience in Spain that's sharing music to friends in Sweden and driving conversation around music in multiple markets," Steve Savoca, Spotify's vice president of content and distribution, tells Rolling Stone. "This guy who's good at curation and social media has suddenly built a meaningful audience."
Influential playlists can turn unknown artists into superstars: Celebrity tech investor Sean Parker's Spotify playlist Hipster International helped break Lorde; more recently, Robert DeLong, Major Lazer and newer artists such as Flo Morrissey and Keeley Valentino have used playlist prominence to advance their stardom. "This is now equivalent to what might in the past have been a big feature on the front page of a site or a store," says Elsa Vivero, a digital executive for major label Warner Music's distribution company WEA. "It continues to grow, in terms of how much consumption is coming from playlists."
Now that playlisters such as Casany have become so important as tastemakers, artists, managers and record labels of all sizes are attempting to lobby them. Some, Casany says, have offered money — a legal but shady practice known as playola," although executives at every streaming service insist they know nothing about it. (Most claim outside sources have no influence whatsoever on editorial playlist decisions.) "Not at all," says Scott Plagenhoef, the former Pitchfork editor who runs Apple Music's editorial and programming. "There's no money exchanged."
Still, Casany says people approach him with payment offers all the time, and he consistently turns them down: "Selling my integrity is not an option for me."
The art of influencing playlisters has turned into its own small business. Charles Alexander and Michael Sloane co-founded Streaming Promotions in Nashville earlier this year, signing up independent record labels to pitch their songs to user-generated playlists. Although playola happens in general, Alexander says, his company never does it. Instead, he says, "A lot of it is going through the playlists and figuring out if it's influential. It's a lot of reaching out: 'Could you get on board with this? Could you listen to this and see if it would fit?'" Adds Sloane: "It's more like the Wild West. It's about having your finger on the pulse of a community and knowing who's on the up-and-up and who's on the take."
Following the lead of Apple Music, many streaming services are beginning to de-emphasize user-generated playlists in order to focus on curation by their own experts. Apple creates dozens of playlists, from "Elvis Presley: Gospel" to "That's So Fetch: Songs for Mean Girls," according to in-house rules and staffers' instincts. "We didn't want to be elitist," Plagenhoef says. "Our goal is to craft and tailor Apple Music to the needs of everyone, individually, in the world, and talking down to listeners wasn't desired." Some of the playlists add great new songs according to the curators' tastes, and others are what he calls "breadcrumbs and signposts to help navigate popular music"— introductions to Frank Sinatra or Joy Division that will lead to deeper context and study.
"We think of playlists as a tool that someone is going to employ to make their moments better. We're about giving you the perfect soundtrack," adds Peter Asbill, a co-founder of Songza, the customized-playlist company that Google bought last year and installed in its Play Music service. "Obviously, the labels want to make sure they're getting their best new stuff in the hands of people that are going to be curating. But that's not how we operate at all. Google is a data-driven company. We care about what works."