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‘We Focus on Breaking Artists and Not Just Records’: Spotify Top Brass on How Musicians Can Succeed

Jeremy Erlich and Marian Dicus share pro tips and bust myths about the roadmap to super stardom

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Nirmika Singh Feb 17, 2020

Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X performing at Spotify's Best New Artist 2020 party in Los Angeles. Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Spotify; Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Spotify; Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Spotify

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“We are all special in our own new ways, changing and breaking grounds in this industry,” said an impassioned Lizzo on stage at Spotify’s Best New Artist 2020 party held at The Lot Studios in Los Angeles last month.  The pop/R&B singer continued, “We’re really changing the fucking paradigm – standing up for art, standing up for making music for what it is supposed to do and that is to make people move. To move you, bitch!” Besides Lizzo, the pre-Grammy bash featured performances by all eight acts nominated in the Best New Artist category – new-age teen super star Billie Eilish, Spanish pop/flamenco singer Rosalia, breakout rapper Lil Nas X, English singer-songwriter Yola, viral star and singer-songwriter Maggie Roberts, the boisterous New Orleans band Tank and the Bangas, and the Texas-based soul outfit Black Pumas, with each artist playing an under-30 minute set comprising their recent hits. 

Jeremy Erlich (Head of Music Strategy, Spotify) and Marian Dicus (VP, Global Head of Artist & Label Services, Spotify) with one of the nominees, the English singer-songwriter Yola. Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Spotify

The Best New Artist or BNA party has been an annual affair since 2017 – an impeccably curated and highly coveted pre-Grammy invite where Spotify puts the spotlight on the young nominees even as it humbly shows off the power of streaming. As far as the latter is concerned, the endorsements almost always come from the artists themselves – mid-way through her set, Lizzo expressed her gratitude to the streaming giant for helping her grow from 50,000 fans to a multi-million following. Eilish, who earned four billion streams alone on her debut album in 2019, performed what appeared to be a very special set (which we preferred to her Grammy gig the coming weekend). A couple of acts who performed at the BNA 2020 were new discoveries for a lot of attendees and became excellent conversation starters – weren’t Black Pumas just awesome and gosh where were Tank and the Bangas all this while! 

Spanish singer/songwriter Rosalia played a short yet intense set at the BNA 2020. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Spotify

As the evening progressed and each new artist presented their chops, one couldn’t help but acknowledge the unmissable contributions of streaming in the early parts of their career – well before mainstream media wrote about them and influencers started sharing their music online. There’s no denying it is this developmental part of an artist career that can make or break them. 

The next day, we caught up with Spotify honchos Jeremy Erlich (Head of Music Strategy) and Marian Dicus (VP, Global Head of Artist & Label Services) to discuss how artists and streaming can leverage each other to build a sustainable creative ecosystem. Excerpts:

What makes a breakout artist today – given that Spotify leads the streaming ecosystem, what is needed from a curatorial or tech perspective?

Jeremy: I think there’s only so much credit we can take. It all really comes down to the artist. And I think great artists have a way to cut through noise. It’s ultimately just their vision and we’re just helping connect it with fans. I think you can do all the great work in the world but it has to go down to great artistry. But today, where I think the most successful artists are – they kind of define their own genre. I mean, if you take Billie [Eilish] or Post [Malone] or Rosalia, you can’t really define [their music]. Is it alternative? Is it Latin? Is it rock? Because it’s truly kind of genre-bending. They all have an amazing audio identity — the songs are fantastic — and they’ve got an amazing visual identity. They’re all kind of instantly recognizable. And then it’s really just a unique way of connecting with fans. And I think just creating that, that emotional connection, that once you’re a fan of artists, you’re a fan for [life]. 

And I think that’s where we, at Spotify, have been really good. The power of the platform is being able to reach everyone. And I think what we really try to do from the editorial standpoint is both give people what we know they want from what they’ve listened to, but also help them discover new things. And it’s that balance between discovery and familiarity. And when you really sequence that the right way, you just manage to make that connection with the fan more.

Is the job harder now that it’s sort of like a borderless world when it comes to genres? Back in the day, you could just box artists into categories, which also made marketing their music easier. What are the challenges today?

Marian: I think that it sort of dovetails to what Jeremy’s saying about like, our job is to help users and fans connect with new music and discover music. So I think the sequencing is really important. Like, familiar music…sequence it with new music, and it’s less about genres, you know, so I think if there’s a way to stretch — like I really love classic rock, but maybe the next thing that it serves you is like a little bit of a stretch into another genre or sort of like a genre-bending song. And I think there’s so many playlists now that all the editors are curating that aren’t so siloed. It’s really just about who the artist is and the sound, and how it plays sonically with other songs. I think music itself has just evolved into something that is a little bit genre-less.

“The savviest artists just find the right ways to connect with their fans.” — Jeremy Erlich

Jeremy: It’s never been easier and never been harder because it’s so much! [Whether it is] Tones and I or Arizona Zervas — in a week they go from being unknown to being the biggest artist on the planet and without the support of heavy infrastructure, without radio airplay, without all the things that you needed to be successful before. But then, you also have great songs that just never get discovered because the volume of not only music — every human distraction and entertainment out there just really needs to cut through the noise but it’s good. The savviest artists just find the right ways to connect with their fans. And that’s really exciting. I think one of the things we spend a lot of time focusing on is how to help break artists rather than just records. Yeah, it’s just really important that we help people connect with the artist’s persona.

India is often described as a tricky market for streaming platforms – it is crowded, fragmented and the listening behaviors are unlike those in other countries, making it difficult to replicate the successes and learnings from other places. How has the India experience been for you?

Jeremy: I think every country is unique and we have a local-first strategy in terms of curation. So, it’s definitely not that our editorial team in the US is trying to tell our Indian subscribers and users what to do. I definitely don’t want to speak for Daniel [Ek] because it’s his work but our commitment to India is for the long term. So, I think we win in India by having the best product, which I think we already do by having amazing relationships with the community and the artists locally. [Also] by having great editorial, which should be locally sourced first.  We always talk about the balance of local and global… With Spotify, what’s so unique is that we can give artists the opportunities to be the biggest in their country and the biggest around the world. 

And for a lot of the countries where we’re not the biggest, where we’re not the incumbent — there’s a couple around the world – there’s that power of the global platform because everyone sees what’s happened to Latin music, what’s happened to K-pop. There are no borders anymore. And so I think, you know, for an Indian artist, for an Indian label, to think that they have a partner that’s going to support them around the globe — I think this is exciting, and something that’s really unique to Spotify, but, you know, [it’s about] having great teams on the ground working with great artists.

Marian: We spend a lot of time researching before we enter a market. And I think we knew that India, you know, was unlike any market that we’ve been in before. It’s basically so many countries within one country and Bollywood being so huge, you know. If you looked at any of the charts, it was just made up of all Bollywood music. And so before we enter markets, so many of our consumer teams are going and we’re looking at it, as Jeremy said, we’re hiring like the best people on the ground there. But we really do that for like all of our new market launches because it’s so nuanced and we try not to be that typical, you know, company that comes in and says, ‘This strategy that worked in the US is going to work in India’ because that’s like, the surest way to failure. 

So we really try to have a local lens on anything and then really, again, our differentiator I think, is a global platform and helping Indian artists break out and, and move across borders. And it’s such a still a nascent market for us that we’re developing so it will take a few years for us sure. And similarly when we launched in Japan as well, you know, a lot of research [went into it], every year iterating on a strategy… And as you know, as the music landscape also matures, your strategy also has to keep changing. And so it’s a little bit of a fluid evolution until we get to a place where it’s like, okay, we’ve like we’ve really made it.

Jeremy:  We welcome the competition. I’m personally a big believer that competition breeds champions, and the more streaming becomes something everyone knows about or has, I think we have the best product. 

What a cool thing to say — competition breeds champions. But it wasn’t a cakewalk in India, right, especially with navigating the whole label landscape? By the way, congrats on the resolution with Warner Chappell. Also, how is the process of negotiating the whole licensing space with labels? Does it tend to be that tricky in, you know, new markets?

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Marian: I don’t think it’s a new market situation, I think, label negotiations — I’ve been at Spotify for six and a half years — this is just normal course of business for us. We’re used to it now. It’s a cycle. We always make it out. Sometimes, it takes a little bit longer. We’re so pleased about the Warner Chappell resolution, we’re so happy that we came to a positive resolution on both sides. I think label negotiations, for me, it’s just like another daily part of our job. 

Jeremy: And we have more in common than we have in difference with our label partners. At the end of the day, we want a huge market that’s highly valuable and healthy for everyone. 

Where do you guys find yourselves in what I call the catalog versus curation discourse? Is acquiring a wider catalog a priority or curating what you already have? 

Jeremy: Ultimately, we curate for users, right? And I think users want the ability to access all the content in the world. So you know, it’s always our ambition to have all the content that’s out there, at least one that’s digitized… What we do really well is give users a choice at all times. Do you want to be curated to or do you actually want to go deep into what you want to listen to at the moment? They’re both incredibly important, just at different times and different uses.

Spotify India’s one year anniversary is coming soon too!

Marian: When we look at all the markets across the global, you can see, like India will be at the one year mark,  just based on all the work we’ve done in other markets, we were able to just sort of see the trajectory that every new market goes through. You know, you’re building in that first year and continue to build in the second year… I think we really focus on building relationships with our partners in India. That’s all we can do for the first couple of years, right? 

Jeremy: New market launches are like having a small child… Feels like the days are long but the years are short. You kind of looked back and… I remember when in my previous life at the record label —  it was in 2012 — Spotify had 5 million subs and 90% of them were in Scandinavia and you’re like, ‘Okay, this is Scandinavia, it’s different.’ If you look now, we’re at 248 million users and 113 million Premium subscribers! It feels nascent. It feels early. We’re coming on our one year birthday, but I think before we know it, it’ll be 2025 when we’re looking back and it’ll be a huge mark. You know?

Compared to other countries around the world, India lags behind in the monthly active time spent by a user on listening to music via streaming. A vast population of Indians probably don’t even know anything about streaming – we also have a pattern in India where songs break on TikTok, then YouTube and after that, streaming platforms. How do you plan for a market like this?

Jeremy: The priority in India for now is just making sure that streaming and Spotify become the number one way to consume music. We always create tools for artists because we want to help them as much as possible in their journey and make it easier for them so they can break out of some of the older gatekeepers and boundaries that are there, especially if you’re independent or remote or outside from a major city. You know, kind of go back to the initial point of it. India’s very unique, but Japan’s also very unique…

Marian: Just in different way. There, the physical is so huge.

Jeremy: France and Germany until I think two years ago, were still majority physical markets… But it all kind of arcs towards the same place in the end, it’s just different stages of the market maturity and the evolution, and now Germany’s majorly digital.

So I think it happens and you know, we saw the same problem or problems on problem. So it’s an opportunity in the US and kind of every country in the world where once you leave, the music fan coasts, and the more you go into the heartland, the penetration trends probably look even more daunting—like in India right now. But I’m truly optimistic that we’ll see an inflection point at some point in the work because it is just a better experience for you listen to music. And I think fans eventually go to the better experience.

TikTok, YouTube, you know, to me, are different use cases for fans. TikTok is amazing and kind of the social element of it — fantastic product and they’ve done a great job. YouTube, obviously, very video-focused, probably less kind of music-listening focus. We recognize the importance of the visual element and we keep on iterating on what the right feature for our product is. And we’ll keep on working on it until we crack that code. But if everyone is part of the fan ecosystem in some way, shape or form, we’re probably pretty okay.

And speaking of Spotify for stuff beyond music, is 2020 the mainstream year of the podcast — in India and around the world? 

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Marian: I know we made a couple of bigger splashes more recently, but I think we have always been looking at podcasts. Podcasts are huge in Germany and in our home markets in the Nordics. We have a lot of really popular podcasts exclusive to us. And we’ve just sort of been working on that strategy and expanding upon it. I think 2020 is just a year where we solidify that our ambition is to be truly an audio first network, and that is both music and podcast. And really, it’s about just listening. And so you’ll see commitments from us both across the music space and the podcast space, and there’s a little bit of a shared [space] in the middle, you know, a lot of musicians feel like podcast is a great medium for them to tell their stories. And so we’re doing a lot of those connections with our team that works on podcasts. I think it’s a great medium for those kinds of narratives and for news and education and learning, and if you see just an evolution towards people wanting to have that at their fingertips… I would say that we’re committed to podcasts alongside music. It’s an exciting time for us as a business.

The concept of the music gatekeeper in the traditional sense is crashing and now you have curators instead of A&R people. How do you situate yourself in that sort of space where the process of gatekeeping is constantly being redefined?

Jeremy: Every time I talk to the editorial staff, I remind them that we’re not gatekeepers. I refer to the editorial staff as farmers which is odd because I’ve never farmed in my life and have no idea how farming actually works. But what we have from an editorial perspective is… We get so many songs every week, right? And there’s thousands of which are great. And the job for our editorial staff — and we’re helped a lot by machine learning, by algorithms that support the human element of it — is to put the right songs in the right parcels of land. Every song, you have to put it in the right place. So the right people are there and you have to water them all at a different amount. 

And if you have the new Kendrick Lamar song, you know, it should go into today’s top hits from the very beginning because everyone knows who he is, everyone knows it’s going be great and everyone wants to hear it. If you have a song by an indie Indian artist, he should have a spot on a playlist somewhere where there is an audience that can help him grow into that position at the top of today’s top hits. What I always challenge my staff to do is make sure that every song on the playlist has a path to the top. 

We need to judge what’s good enough to program but we’re not here to say this song is great or this song is not great — that’s the fan’s job. So as long as we put it in front of the right people and we’re matching, we’re doing our job really well. I want my staff to take risks and think like ‘this is a great song, but it might not be the right audience, but I’m just going to show it to everyone because it’s just fantastic’… And then we look at the data. And we see a song climbing the charts and the skip rate is much lower. Everyone’s leading into this – [if] it’s very little editorial, we bring up the editorial to see where it works and, and that’s really how Tones and I and went from Australia, through the Nordics, to here.

What would you advise budding artists, musicians who are waiting to break out – what are the dos and don’ts?

Jeremy: One, focus on music. Make great music, keep on refining your craft. That’s always the source of everything that goes in, then engage with your fans. Then tour, you know, [it’s] the importance of still being out there and not being just a track, but being an artist, and a kind of a creative force. 

“We always say that playlisting is not your strategy.” – Marian Dicus

Marian:  You have to have a strategy… We always say that playlisting is not your strategy — you and your team need to be developing what and who you are as an artist, and the first thing is your craft, the music, and then after that, it is those connections and fans.  You can’t just be like, ‘If I make it onto this playlist, I’ve made it.’ Because if the music’s not very good, the fans will react and you won’t be on that playlist for very long. So if you really put the time in to have a strategy of how you’re going to develop yourself, Spotify is going to help accelerate that. The music’s got to be great, you have to find your fans and you’ve got to tour and keep building that base up and whatever method or channel that you’re connecting with your fans on. Be authentic to yourself, but you have to engage with them. That’s what fans demand now, right? 

Jeremy: I get a lot of artists that go like, ‘What should be my release strategy?’ But there is no right answer.

Marian: There’s not like a prescriptive — people aren’t following the same thing. But I think it just really depends…

And artists today understand that, right? That there can’t be a one cookie cutter method?

Jeremy: I think they do. But everyone also wants to hear the easy answer. And they know it’s not that easy. Being an artist is the hardest job in the world. I have all the time, patience and admiration for those who choose that path.

Marian: Yeah, they work so hard on their craft, and so we really are in it with them. But again, we can only help them… and even like artists you saw last night — something like a Grammy nomination for them really spikes their stream. So like Maggie Roberts, you know, has this trajectory of being discovered when she was in college at NYU, and then she’s still not necessarily mainstream, right? So she gets a Grammy nod, then you see a spike in streams. 

Jeremy: It’s so fun to watch what happens.

Marian: We know that there are audiences for everyone. We’re just here to help connect the dots.

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