Spotify AU/NZ’s Head of Music, Alicia Sbrugnera, talks about the future of Spotify and takes artists behind the scenes of the company's editorial and playlisting decisions.
Streaming has helped catapult the Australian music industry to new heights in recent years; in 2022, revenues generated by local artists from Spotify alone reached nearly $250 million.
But taking a step back and zooming in, how does a song find its way to success on Spotify? There’s no simple answer, and it usually requires a lot of work from an artist and those behind the scenes at the streamer, as we discovered when sitting down with Spotify AU/NZ’s Head of Music, Alicia Sbrugnera.
Alicia Sbrugnera: “Artists can pitch through Spotify For Artists. That's how all of the new music coming in actually gets to our editorial team; it’s essentially the only way to get through to our team of editors. So, whether you're on a major label, you're indie, doing it yourself, it's that one kind of platform that's really democratised things. Editors are listening to tons of music weekly.
“Everything that comes through via Australia and New Zealand is picked up by our team of editors, and it's from that point there that the team are making informed decisions on where a track may potentially go.
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“There's a significant amount of new music coming in each week, and the local team is actually listening to all of the local music. So, all artists from Australia and New Zealand are getting listened to by the team.”
“Things that we're looking for from an artist perspective: Is this an artist that may be performing well in a playlist environment? That could be something that is an indicator that audiences are engaged and interacting. And that's an indicator of, ‘Hey, maybe we can elevate this to international editors around the world.’ So that's one way we look at things.
“We also look at what is actually going on organically for that artist as well, so taking the playlist environment out of the equation for the moment, how is the song performing just organically within fanbases, so to speak, so that we can see performance indicators in that respect.
“We also look at off-platform things as well - what's going on in the local scene? Is this artist touring? There are many off-platform elements that can help inform on-platform elements, so that's something we certainly take into consideration.”
“Those editorial decisions are based on who from an audience point of view is likely to be into this music, and then making decisions based off of that. We also have our partnerships team, on the other hand, as well, which is our external facing part of the function. So, they're out there talking with our partners, talking to artists, they're listening to a ton of music as well.
“We've basically got a team of eight to nine people strong who are listening to the music coming through and making those calls on the artists that we partner with and where those playlist placements go week to week.
“What we've done over the years is spend time really crafting how we work, so coming up with listening strategies across the markets; we can break things down by genre and audience to ensure that the right music is getting to the right editor and right sets of [fans] as well.”
“There are so many data touch points that we have access to… I think you really have to contextualise and know how to read the data when you're talking about something like a skip rate. It's really not one of the key things that we're looking at, to be perfectly honest with you.
“Having the data and putting that data into context and knowing how to contextualise that data is something that's really important as opposed to just talking to a skip rate, so to speak.
“There are so many types of playlists on the platform… we have top lists, moods and moments playlists, we have cultural leaning lists, activity playlists; it's a real spread of use cases there. And so, not all of those data metrics apply to those different use cases.
“For a mood playlist, for example, which may be a more lean-back experience where you just say it's a chill list and you throw it on, go about your business. There are very low skip rates on those kinds of playlists, so it's just not a metric that the team takes seriously on the mood lists.
“Whereas if you're in a very active, lean-in playlist environment and it's taken a bit of time for a track to bed in, and it's still got a super high skip rate, that could be an indicator that, ‘Hey, maybe this song is not working in this particular environment. Let's try it in a different environment.’”
“Moving music across borders, the way that we tackle this from an editorial perspective, is we've essentially set up what we call our ‘global curation groups’. We have about, let's say, 200 editors around the world. Our team locally is a team of four. And so, what these editors do is they get together every week and talk about all of the music that's coming out of their particular markets.
“In our case, we're getting on these calls and talking about the [Australian] music that's working. When I say ‘working’, I mean showing signs of growth or popping off in our market – something we feel is worthy of noting to other editors to check out in other regions.
“We're having these conversations around the music, the sounds, the trends, what's working out of Australia, what's working out in New Zealand, and this is how we get international playlist adds going in other markets. And it's really powerful; it's actually a really successful way of giving local artists those opportunities to be tested out in playlists around the world.
“It's not just the US and the UK that we're looking at. We're speaking to editors in Southeast Asia and Latin America, and these [Australian] artists are being tried in playlists. It's enabling them to grow their audiences in these markets via these groups.”
“This is where our team would come in and start working on this music. It may be via our global curation groups; it may be upping the local support that we're showing; we really stay close with artists and have these conversations as well. We work collaboratively. So, I would say this is where the expert muscle comes into play, and we really work as a team to start elevating that music to our international markets and get that kind of expert momentum going. RADAR is a good [program].
“We've actually got a slew of what we call global programs, and RADAR is one of those global programs that we invest really heavily in out here. It's our emerging artists program, focusing on those established artists ready to take it to the next level.
“The objectives of RADAR are international artist discovery, audience growth and export. An artist like Teen Jesus & The Jean Teasers; we work with them, it's a partnership with the artists, so they really get that extra level of support, a really bespoke kind of treatment. It's a long-term commitment as well, so we go into partnership for an extended period of time. It's really that long game with an artist.
“That's another thing that I haven't mentioned - the promotion and marketing tools that we have at our disposal as well, that our partnerships team are out day-to-day, week-to-week at all the conferences, educating artists and their teams, how to actually maximise our tools on the platform.
“We've got things like Marquee, Discovery Mode, there's a suite of tools. It's just knowing how to use them, so a big part of the partnership function of the music team is educating artists on this stuff and helping them make those educated decisions. Marketing your stuff and getting that right is really, really important as well, particularly in this day and age.”
“I think people are realising the power of APAC as a super region, particularly the Philippines and Indonesia. We've been watching those markets super, super closely, particularly when it comes to indie music. A lot of these countries have really highly engaged youth audiences that are really open to music actually coming out of Australia, so we get a lot of support from those markets.
“Sub-Sahara Africa is another market, particularly when you look at hip hop and Afrobeats; those communities want to cut into those markets and vice versa. We're importing a lot more out of the Sub-Sahara African continent. The sounds that are emerging there are really, really exciting.”
“We ran [Royel Otis] through the program… they started out in Fresh Finds. It's another global program, but it's the program centred completely around independent artists. It's a program we're really super excited about as a local team; the team's really passionate about this program because a lot of young, new, emerging talent is coming through this program. It's artists at that very early stage of career, a very tastemaker kind of proposition, and we've found a lot of success coming out of the program.
“The editorial team worked [Royel Otis] internationally, got a whole bunch of pickup, we worked it through the International Fresh Finds program, out into the broader international indie ecosystem, then we partnered with them at a RADAR level.
“So, they went through our RADAR program, and now they're just absolutely crushing it. I think they’re one to spotlight for the Fresh Finds program and how we work independent music from the ground up.”
Spotify revealed that, in the past month alone, Royel Otis had 1.4m listeners, generating close to 4m streams, and were added to almost 108k user playlists.
“We're actually going to look at how we can elevate [Fresh Finds] in 2024, given the level of success and just artists' success stories that have come out it for us, particularly within the indie sector this year.
“The Fresh Finds Program, the RADAR program, our Dreaming Loud program, all of our programs, that is absolutely fundamental to how we work. Our EQUAL program is all about fostering equity for women, so it's where we elevate women creators and the diversification of women. We have a program called GLOW, another global program centred around LGBTQIA+ creators.
“These programs are really powerful platforms that allow us to elevate really underrepresented creators. [These programs are] super collaborative from an international point of view as well. That's where I think these programs carry a lot of weight. We're working them globally, so there's a lot of global collaboration that happens there, and we're finding a lot of success out of it.”
To start your Spotify journey or learn more about what the platform offers, check out Spotify For Artists.