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Decoded: The Evolution of 3rd-Party Playlisting


Decoded dismantles big topics into manageable insights for artists & teams.  

Not much is said of the independent music obsessives, off-platform networks, and, yes, brands providing tasteful aggregation amidst endless choice. This week’s Decoded tackles third-party playlists (3PLs)—the deep underbelly of DSP curation. Scroll onward for our breakdown of a complex space that impacts how artists new and old gain and sustain traction.  


The abundance of 3PLs means there really is something for everyone. Austin Sherman, Manager of Digital Sales and Account Management at AWAL, has spent 100s of hours studying 3PLs, and their diversity still impresses him.

“So many third-party playlists have such a clear musical perspective,” he explains. “It’s not enough to just say ‘R&B.’ You can find a niche channel for anything. As an artist, it’s really important to know your sound and seek channels that cater to that, because that’s when you’ll get high conversion: People are going to these playlists in search of something very particular, and if you fit in there, they will appreciate what they hear from you.”

(If you refuse to categorize your music, we salute your resolve. If you do want to dig into the nitty gritty of how folks perceive your music, we recommend asking people with taste you trust. If you want to do this while thinking like a robot, we suggest breaking down your music according to Echo Nest’s parameters. As we’ve discussed in past articles, Spotify purchased Echo Nest to help develop algorithmic features like Discover Weekly.)

In 2018, 3PLs range from hobbyist passion projects (country dark) to artist radio capsules (Blonded) to digital behemoths that generate serious advert income (The Nations) to media brand accessories (triple j’s Unearthed) to youth-friendly marketing efforts from Fortune 500 corporations (Nike’s Nike Running Tempo Mix). They operate on (and, sometimes, beyond) most streaming services.

“Some of the most compelling third-party playlist opportunities on DSPs are with big consumer brands— Nike, H&M, Warby Parker,” Sherman says. “Some are used for in-store music curation at brick & mortar locations around the world, and are marketed through companies’ external consumer communications (email and otherwise), which is a massive awareness-driving vehicle for artists.”


3PLs offer a valuable lesson in audience targeting. Anyone can set their sights on New Music Friday, Best of the Week, or Hip-Hop Hot List. Solid goals? 110 percent. There’s also something to be said for the less obvious—the artist playlists, TikTok accounts, Reddit threads, producer forums, and rabbit holes where the most dedicated, lean-in fans tend to spend their time. Plus, when you score one 3PL win, the love tends to spread.

“Your song is not just living on a YouTube channel,” Sherman says. “it’s also likely getting shared on the channel’s associated social accounts, added to their DSP playlists, etc. A majority of artists and teams aren’t thinking about these opportunities, but they can make a serious impact.”


Support from some third-party platforms is equal parts victory and stepping stone—a COLORS performance, for instance. Support from smaller 3PLs, alternatively, might result in enough extra streams to trigger another playlist add. It’s crucial to closely monitor all analytics tools available to you—AWAL, Spotify, Apple, etc.—so you don’t miss any 3PL adds. Each one provides just cause to reach out and nurture a new relationship.  

Decoded: The Evolution of 3rd-Party Playlisting

For the data obsessives, it’s also possible to approximate average uplift that different 3PLs provide. Trap Nation, for instance, boasts just under two million followers on Spotify, and brings between 40,000 and 80,000 listeners for its current crop of features. Triple J’s Hitlist, meanwhile, brings between 8,000 and 14,000. Swagy Tracks, a YouTube-based 3PL channel, featured the same hip-hop artist twice in 2014 and twice in 2016. Holding the artist’s growth constant, the corresponding average view counts (112,000 in 2014 and 219,000 in 2016) suggest overall channel growth. It’s crucial to routinely monitor this landscape, as the health of 3PL curators can fluctuate over time. The more you know.


The question you likely have right now: How do I take advantage of any of this? The answer you might not want to hear: Research, outreach, and more research. If you want to engage with 3PLs, it’ll take direct relationships, cold outreach, smart marketing, and, occasionally, them discovering you. Don’t fret.

“Be scrappy,” Sherman says. “You can find those emails. How you structure what you send is crucial. I’d never send more than three songs—always your best. Keep the email short and personal—it’s easy to forget there’s another person on the other end of your message. Have a clever subject line. If you don’t hear back, try again in a month and end your message with a question to encourage an answer.”


A number of platforms provide some variation of a common practice, both within and beyond the industry: artificially boosted plays. More than a few third-party platforms promise lots of streams and views on the DSP of your choice, but those who test them should proceed with caution—Spotify even shut down a few of them early this year.

Whether you toss your dollars for a shortcut or hit the ground running, teams of all sizes can benefit from 3PL R&D: Proactive, early adoption of rising 3PL accounts across DSPs and socials. Even the most successful curators will have fresh company in two years’ time, and there’s an A&R art to the constant search for different platforms across different niches. Happy hunting.


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