Do we need a local music quota for streaming playlists?

The music quota debate has finally arrived on Spotify

There’s been a decades-long campaign to get a quota of New Zealand music on radio, but radio is no longer where a lot of us hear new music. Gareth Shute investigates whether the same pressure should be applied to streaming playlists.

In 1989, the music played by New Zealand radio stations included less than 2% that was made by local artists. The years since saw a concerted effort to raise this number, eventually leading to the launch in 2002 of a voluntary quota, with the aim of 20% NZ music by 2006. As I discovered last year, this effort was only partly successful – these days stations differ widely in how much they play. But one question remains: given that streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music are equally important in breaking new artists through their popular playlists, why aren’t we putting equal pressure on them to represent local music?

This issue was raised in March last year by APRA AMCOS, the organisation that represents local songwriters and publishers across Australia and New Zealand. Its Australian-based CEO Dean Ormston told the ABC he was calling for “a minimum of 25% Australian content on their own locally curated playlists” to match the quota of local music that has applied to Australian radio stations since 1942.

Since then, APRA AMCOS’s head of NZ operations, Anthony Healey, has been pushing for the introduction of similar measures on this side of the Tasman, proposing a quota – he prefers to call it a “benchmark” – for all locally curated streaming playlists of not less than 20% of AU/NZ content.

“The curation teams at both Spotify and Apple are hugely committed to great new music from this part of the world and NZ music in that context figures prominently,” he says. “Our view is that Australia and New Zealand are in the same boat and we can work together to get our music heard.”

APRA AMCOS is currently conducted a study of how much Australasian music appears on playlists, and looking at the breakdown between AU and NZ music within those numbers.

Healey’s reference to “local curation teams” reflects the fact that some playlists on Spotify and Apple Music are made by their staff in Australasia, while others are created by worldwide teams. For example, Spotify’s playlist Today’s Top Hits with its 22 million followers is not adjusted for different regions – which makes it all the more remarkable that ‘Woke Up Late’ by New Zealand’s Drax Project currently features on it (the two versions of the song are now at 27 million streams on Spotify alone). Apple Music, meanwhile, has its own radio station, Beats 1, which includes a show by Kiwi expat Zane Lowe; this would also fall outside the benchmark requirements.

DRAX PROJECT, WHO EXTENDED THE LIFE OF THEIR NOV 2017 TRACK ‘WOKE UP LATE’ BY RELEASING A NEW VERSION WITH US SINGER, HAILEE STEINFELD, THAT ENDED UP DIPPING INTO BILLBOARD’S POP SONGS CHART THIS MONTH (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

The benchmark discussion was given further weight when APRA AMCOS reported in October 2018 that their digital revenue had eclipsed broadcast revenue for the first time. While the idea of taking the quota/benchmark framework across from radio might seem like a no-brainer, the situation is a bit more complicated than it might seem on first glance.

Firstly, Australian radio stations have been skirting the rules of the quota by holding local tracks back until late at night (an approach I also noticed in my own research within New Zealand – one station I listened to for ten hours played one local track per two hours during the day, but then played three within an hour once it got past 7pm). There is a similar potential on streaming playlists – curators could reduce the impact by pushing the local acts to the end of each playlist, where they are likely to receive fewer streams.

There are also important differences between radio and streaming playlists. The obvious one is that listeners can skip past anything they don’t like on a playlist. Still, a quota would mean that a listener might at least have the opportunity to hear a local track, even if they ultimately decide they don’t like it.

NZ on Air is another local organisation that has been watching the benchmark discussion with interest. Their head of music, David Ridler, says it’s a worldwide issue.

“In a lot of western countries US music dominates, along with the UK to a lesser extent – and then there’s all the Swedish pop writers! You look at the Spotify top plays and they’re often quite uniform [whatever the country], partly because those big playlists drive traffic to a small handful of songs.

“My concern about a [AU/NZ] benchmark would be, how much would actually be New Zealand content ultimately? The fact remains that the main services are based in Sydney.”

Ridler’s concern is a valid one, given that at the time of writing Spotify’s Unwind 80s playlist has three Australian acts among the first ten entries, but NZ acts like OMC and Crowded House don’t make an appearance until further down. It is worth noting that these retro playlists provide an interesting comparison to radio, because easy listening stations have tended to play the least local music.

CHURCH & AP AT BFM’S 50TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION (PHOTO: GARETH SHUTE)

Yet there is an upside to Spotify playlists like New Music Friday AU & NZ and A1 Hip Hop being created for the whole of Australasia: any playlisted Kiwi songs have far more reach. Last year local tracks by rapper Rei (‘Good Mood’), singer/rapper Mikey Dam (‘Sonder’), and Church & AP (‘Ready Or Not’) all pushed past 1 million streams through strong placement on Australasia-wide playlists.

Unlike radio, Spotify also provides the opportunity for new tracks to be picked up by editorial teams across the world. This happened for the Rei track mentioned above and for indie pop band Alae, who had its song ‘All Strung Up’ placed on the US New Music Friday playlist. Similarly, country singer Kaylee Bell had her 2018 song ‘One More Shot’ cross over from Australasian country playlists to ones in the US.

That said, there are some acts that manage to bypass the official playlists and still find success. ‘Philophobia’ by Wellington rapper Lil Rae was probably too raw for official Spotify editorial support, but nonetheless has ended up being added to 33k playlists across the world and listeners in the US and Germany have pushed it to 1.5 million streams worldwide.

LIL RAE (PHOTO: SUPPLIED)

Unlike Spotify, Apple Music has a separate homepage for listeners on either side of the Tasman, meaning that local acts have more opportunity to be listed among the new releases at the top of the page. Moreover, as the same editorial team covers both countries, there’s still an opportunity for NZ acts to cross over to a large Australian audience.

Local artists have taken advantage of the worldwide reach of streaming platforms by using collaborations to gain new fans. The most recent example is Tom Francis hooking up with Snoop Dogg: the resulting track, ‘Lifestyle’ gained half a million streams in its first week alone, setting it up to become Francis’s second track to break a million streams. In the days before streaming, he might have got the song on local radio but would have had little chance of reaching Snoop’s fans in the US without a physical release stateside.

Of course, music-focused streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music aren’t the only place people are listening to music online. YouTube is also where fans find the latest music, so much so that they’ve launched their own music service, YouTube Music. Some local artists have done very well out of it: Jonathan Bree’s 2017 music video ‘You’re So Cool’ is now at 10 million views (and despite no playlist support, the song is now at 2 million streams on Spotify).

Once a person has used YouTube for a while, their algorithms will begin to present them with music they may like on their homepage. Here’s where the quota question becomes sticky: is it even possible to apply one to this kind of automated musical curation? Similarly, Facebook’s algorithm selects which of your friends’ music posts are given priority on your feed, and a streaming benchmark would do nothing to affect this.

Still, none of these complexities are a reason not to push for a benchmark. It would give streaming platforms something to push for, and by meeting these targets they’d demonstrate their willingness to integrate into the local music industry, rather than standing apart from it.

In the meantime, APRA AMCOS and NZ on Air are adapting their work to the streaming era in other ways. NZ on Air is continuing its traditional approach of funding the recording of local music, and sending pluggers to radio stations to support local releases – but now they approach streaming services as well and create their own playlists to present these releases to the world. Their curated content currently includes a Fresh Cuts playlist of new tracks; event-driven playlists like one for the Homegrown festival; and musician-created playlists like Barnaby Weir’s NZ Roots + Reggae.

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NZ on Air also arrange for staff from Spotify and YouTube to attend the Homegrown Festival, including panels where reps help upskill locals acts on how best to promote their work in the streaming era.

NZ on Air’s David Ridler believes that whether it is getting New Zealand music to radio or streaming platforms, the key thing is having a strong repertoire of local music available.

“[We’ve had] a great patch where radio play of New Zealand music has been increasing really steadily. The last few weeks it’s been over the 19% mark which is as close to 20% as we’ve been for a while.

“There’s a real feeling that everyone has to step up to global level because that’s the playing field now. It’s not just ‘I’m doing well in New Zealand.’ If you release, you release worldwide.”


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