Are Spotify playlists biased and costing artists money?

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Spotify playlists can help a musician rise to superstardom, but are they simply ranking these artists by their talent or something else? A new study finds certain Spotify playlists show bias towards select performers, raising their status higher than other metrics say they should be.

Specifically, a team from the University of Minnesota says independent-label music and female artists benefit the most from an appearance on Spotify’s New Music Friday playlists. They discovered that the curated ranked list did not base a musician’s ranking according to their stream counts.

In a review of over 5,700 songs appearing on more than 14,500 top 20 lists on the weekly New Music Friday playlist in 2017, the team compared artist rankings and the eventual streaming performances of their songs. Results show that only about half of the relationship between a Spotify curator ranking and streaming success had a link to the song’s rank on the playlist.

Researchers say independent labels ranked higher than they performed streaming-wise. These songs received an average boost of two ranks on the Spotify playlist. Female artists also received a higher ranking than their song’s streaming success would predict — appearing 1.4 ranks higher on average.

“Despite challenges that independent-label artists and women face in the music industry, Spotify’s New Music curation appears to favor them,” says Carlson School Professor and co-author Joel Waldfogel in a university release. “After accounting for the curators’ playlist ranks, songs by independent label artists stream less, indicating bias against major-label music.”

Spotify rankings can be worth a lot of money

Study authors note that their findings specifically apply to the New Music Friday list, not to other Spotify playlists. However, they add this bias towards independent labels and women does not cancel out the other challenges these artists may face in the music industry.

The team notes that women account for about one-fourth of the total streams out there, which is a much lower figure in comparison to the number of women listening, the percentage of female artists, and the female population as a whole.

So how important is making it onto a Spotify playlist like New Music Friday? An upcoming study by Waldfogel and fellow researcher Luis Aguiar finds the financial impact can be astounding.

“Given the time that songs spend on these lists and the payments artists and their labels receive per stream, the impact of making these lists can be worth $100,000 in payments from Spotify alone,” Waldfogel explains. “About a quarter of the total streams of songs making the biggest playlists is driven directly by having made the lists.”

The Minnesota team finds the most popular playlists generally promote already-established artists in their rankings.

Waldfogel and Aguiar discovered that “about half of the relationship between curator ranking and eventual streaming is caused by the ranking.”

They add that making it all the way to “number one” on the U.S. New Music Friday list adds streams worth $77,000.

The findings appear in the International Journal of Industrial Organization.