How to Avoid Playlist Promo Scams

There’s a great scene from an Office episode where Michael Scott tries to buy marijuana.

He wants to frame Toby, so he goes down to the Vance Refrigeration warehouse and asks the guys if they know where he can get weed. They look at each other knowingly and offer to sell him a bag of green stuff for $500. Michael buys it, then plants it in Toby’s desk.

The cops are called. They find the bag.

It turns out that Michael paid $500 for the remains of a Caprese salad.

(The Office is so great.)

Here’s where I’m going with this: It’s way easier to get ripped off when you’re not really sure what you’re actually buying.

I.e. if you don’t know what weed is, you might end up buying Caprese salad. If you don’t know how good promo works, you might end up buying bot plays and getting your song taken down from Spotify.

Unfortunately, it’s often kind of hard to figure out how promo works.

Most companies advertise their playlist promotion like it’s some kind of a black box. They talk about their deep, trusted partnerships with playlist curators, and you assume / hope they’ll pitch your song to real people who will listen to it on vintage speakers with their eyes closed while sipping Sauvignon Red and contemplating the depth of your art.

But that stuff all happens backstage, behind the curtain. Who really knows how the process works, right?

I don’t claim to know how every playlist promo company is set up. But I have run a bunch of campaigns and talked / emailed with at least a dozen founders of these companies, and I briefly worked on setting up my own playlist-specific offering before deciding it wasn’t where I wanted to spend my time (because managing playlist curators is like herding invisible cats).

Let’s talk about how the playlist-pitching process actually works so you can avoid buying the promo equivalent of Caprese salad.

Here’s what’s going on behind the curtain. 

There are three playlist promotion models that are the most common.

As a “playlist promotion company,” you usually do one of three things:

1. Build your own playlists and charge artists for inclusion.

Yes, this is basically payola (a topic I think I’ll cover in more detail soon). It’s also the easiest way, as a promo company, to be able to guarantee results.

You have full control over your own playlists. You can explicitly promise an artist exactly what they’ll get – how many weeks they’ll be on a playlist for, how many playlists they’ll be on, how many users they’ll get in front of, etc – because you hold all the strings.

As an artist, you should probably avoid these companies. Their playlists usually kind of suck, because they’re incentivized to cover anyone who will pay them. That means that their followers tend to be pretty disengaged.

2. Build a network of playlist curators that you pay each time they place a song for you.

Example: The company digs through the internet to get a list of 100 playlist curators. They send the curators all of their artist submissions, and pay curators whenever they add a track to a playlist.

As a playlist promo company, the benefit of this model is that curators are incentivized to add the tracks you send them, so you generally have an easier time getting results for artists.

But, as an artist, you should definitely avoid these companies. The playlists you get on tend to be bad, because like the previous model, it’s basically payola. The company is just a middle man jacking up the price.

3. Build a network of playlist curators that you pay to review songs.

There are a couple of different ways this approach works.

Playlist Push, for example, pays curators per song review – so it’s not technically payola and curators aren’t incentivized to add bad songs.

Other companies might pay curators a fixed amount that’s not connected to a specific track. For example, maybe each month they pay 100 curators $50 with the understanding that curators will review all the songs they’re sent and feature the ones they like.

The problem with this model, from a company perspective, is that it’s expensive and it doesn’t guarantee results. You’ve got to charge artists more to offset the costs of your curator network, and you’ll have a hard time promising specific numbers.

As an artist, though, these are usually the companies you want to work with. They’re incentivized to develop a strong curator network and to be more selective in taking artist submissions (because those things are the only way they can get consistent results).

They’re more expensive, but they’re more worth it.

Finally, there are two other models:

Build a network of playlist curators without paying them anything. This can work, too (it’s what I do at Two Story Media), but most often the companies that aren’t paying curators don’t advertise themselves primarily as “playlist promo” because it’s it’s really hard to guarantee results this way.

Cheat and use SubmitHub.
Companies take your money and then run a campaign you could have set up yourself in two minutes. This can sometimes be a legitimate part of a larger PR campaign, but if this is all a company does – avoid.​

Okay, let’s close with a question:

What makes a good playlist promotion company?

Answer: a good curator network.

When you buy playlist promotion, you’re paying for access to curators who have built playlists with engaged followings in your genre.

To test whether a company’s curator network is good for your track, ask for a sample of the playlists you’ll get pitched to. Check to see that a) they fit your genre, and b) they’re not populated with bots (article from Omari on how to do that here).

Some companies won’t share much about their curator lists for fear that you’ll go right to the curators themselves. This is usually a bad sign – but if all other vibes are good, you can also ask them to show you a few recent placements they’ve gotten for artists. Almost everyone will do this, and it’ll give you a chance to evaluate a small sample.

Then, if the company hasn’t clarified it up front, ask how pitching works. Are curators being paid? When / how are they paid, if so?
If they’re being paid per placement, avoid. If they’re being paid per review or a fixed amount, that’s a decent sign. If they aren’t being paid at all, ask what the placement percentage is – if it’s ridiculously low (below ~3%), you probably should go somewhere else.

The bottom line: The more you know about what you’re buying, the less likely you’ll get ripped off.

Contrary to what I’ve read in a few other places, I do think that buying playlist promotion can make sense – today’s music consumption basically is playlist consumption.

Playlists get plays. The right service used in pursuit of the right goal can work.

Just make sure you know what you’re getting so that you can avoid the Caprese.

Want to build a meaningful community around your music?

The Bundle

I’ve packaged years of experience running Two Story Melody (a top-ranked music blog) and Two Story Media (a music PR firm) into a book called How to Promote Indie Music.

It lays out a roadmap to better indie music promotion – promotion that doesn’t suck. You can check out the first chapter for free.