Live: In Conversation – Jenny Kaufman: Part II

Jenny Kaufman

Head of Digital Strategy at Terrorbird Media.

Every month Byta’s founder, Marc Brown, sits down for an in-depth one-to-one Zoom conversation with someone who provides deep music industry insights and tips.  #HowWe ListenLive: In Conversation is designed to deliver the knowledge to enable tomorrow’s artists and industry leaders to better manoeuvre their way through the music ecosystem.  This episode’s guest was the Head of Digital Strategy at Terrorbird Media, Jenny Kaufman. Jenny’s role there centres around helping artists and their teams with digital release strategy and playlist pitching. Jenny offers up a bucket full of insights and tips.

#HowWeListen Live: In Conversation with Jenny Kaufman was held virtually on May 25th, 2021 and presented in partnership with Terrorbird Media, a tight-knit family of skilled music industry professionals with impeccable taste, unmatched authenticity, and a passion for marketing and promotion. Plus it is where Jenny works.  Our venue was Baby’s All Right, one of Jenny’s favourite spots in Brooklyn, with one of the most recognizable stages in North America. 

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Part II of III.
In part II Marc digs a little deeper and Jenny talks about Spotify, playlisting strategies, converting listeners to fans and positioning. Over the last couple of decades some things have changed but a lot has stayed the same, playlists are maybe the biggest new shift and opportunity. 

Miss Part I? Find it here.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Marc Brown: Can newer artists without teams still reach these playlist people? When I did radio, you could still reach the DJs yourself and they actually quite liked that. But I feel like the whole playlist thing on Spotify or Apple Music is a lot more opaque. Is that true? Or can you affect your chances of getting on a playlist if you’re an artist doing it yourself?

Jenny Kaufman: It is pretty opaque. So I guess to address your first point about reaching these individual editors, personally? It’s extremely difficult. And that’s by design, right? When you go to Spotify, it’ll show you all new indie by Spotify, right? It doesn’t tell you the name. And that’s actually something I find really interesting about Deezer. On some Deezer playlists, it will still list the name of the editor, which I love because I think it’s just super fun. In general, Spotify and Apple don’t. It’s deliberately faceless and nameless by design. They don’t want you reaching them, which is a bit frustrating. That was part of the reason why Spotify created the Spotify for Artists tool was to create some democratization of reaching these editors. 

I would recommend that every single artist use that tool. I would definitely recommend using it every single time, weeks in advance. That said, I wouldn’t say that it’s as direct of a line as the labels get because I still feel the best way to reach them and get a result is via email. The other thing I will say is if you do get access to a playlist editor’s email if they don’t know you, the likelihood that they open it is likely pretty low. You could spend a lot of your time, effort and energy investigating how to get the emails of these people. Ultimately, it behoves you to spend that time focusing your efforts on building out your project in other ways, right? Trying to DM collaborators, making touring efforts, creating a digital marketing plan. But also, obviously, using the Spotify for artists tool.

Marc Brown: Like that sort of brings me to this thing, like there’s this guy in the UK, I’ve used his quote a couple times about this idea of dry streams. So the idea is that you get on a playlist at Spotify or Apple Music or whatever and that’s going great, but you’ve got nothing else going on. 

Can we talk a bit about that? How important is it that you’ve got other stuff going on? Or can you just ride the playlist thing as long as you can? Or do they question why they are supporting this if no one else is?

Jenny Kaufman: I would argue that getting a bunch of playlists is great and seeing a really high influx of streams is awesome. But the goal is to convert those listeners into fans, right? Or in the case of Spotify’s verbiage is to translate those listeners into saves. That’s a big metric on Spotify. On Spotify for Artists, you can see how many people have saved your track. You want that same number to be high. That is the goal. So if they put it on a bunch of playlists but the save rate is low, it doesn’t benefit you in the long run. And that’s why I would say that playlisting is much more strategic than I think a lot of people understand. When I’m pitching an artist, especially developing artists, I would much rather be on a few key playlists where those listeners get converted into fans via the Save tool. 

I actually observe a lot of pop trends. And I kind of see how they trickle down to indie, because I think there’s a lot of relevancy there. One thing we’re obviously seeing a lot of is what I would call like, world building. Right? So Billy Eilish releases music with an extremely compelling visual. There’s a lot of teasing of those visuals and that goes into the marketing and promotion of the release. So there’s other reasons and other ways for fans to engage beyond pressing play on Spotify or Apple or pressing play on a playlist. I think that that’s extremely crucial. 

You want to be really well positioned. So that if your music does happen to get everywhere. When people go to look at your social media when they go to learn more about you, there’s something to learn. So while playlisting is great, and it’s a vehicle to reach more listeners, the goal is how do I convert them? How do I make them fans? How do I make them excited about what I’m doing? How do I make them into someone who buys a show ticket or buys merch? Or signs up for my email list? That’s kind of the way I would put it.

Marc Brown: I get the impression that these platforms think that they have all the data we need. We don’t need to look around at what’s going on in the world. But do you think they’re looking around to see what’s happening? What the story is in the wider context?

Jenny Kaufman: I think that’s an interesting kind of position that Spotify takes a lot. Specifically that they’re tastemakers and they’re curators, and they’re thought leaders in the space, and they are in many ways, right? They have created really advanced algorithms that can tailor to your taste, they’ve created advanced algorithms to track when a song is going viral or gaining traction. But I think that those other things that happen, what I would call off platform, I would say are extremely important to them. To your point, when I’m pitching, I’m just trying to give them a reason to engage, a reason to care. And the reason can’t just be like, because you’re Spotify, because you’re Apple. It’s our job to spin a story and create a narrative. 

That ties into that comment about talking about why this matters to you, why you’re special. You wouldn’t be making art if you didn’t feel that it was important. Talk about why. Talk about your background, talk about where you recorded the music, where you travelled to do it, what the songs are about. You’re just trying to get people to care. That’s really the goal.

Marc Brown: When we talked last week, we were also talking about how this is different from how it used to be. Is Spotify, the new radio, and then this whole data thing? Do you think things are a lot different than they used to be? Or do you think it’s the same but different? You know you focus on different things? Is the strategy the same? Or has the strategy completely changed?

Jenny Kaufman: It’s not too dissimilar from before. There’s a lot of rhetoric online about Spotify, how the major labels have really close relationships and really close ties with them, about how it’s not really as democratized as they present it to be. Even though there is a Spotify for artists tool, you still can’t reach these editors. You still can’t reach these gatekeepers. But the reality is, I do feel at least in America, there’s always been a system of gatekeeping. 

As far as radio, there are radio DJs. And you have to want to reach them. And obviously, if you’re a label with big budgets, it’s easier to try to push people on stuff. Or, we were talking about retail and traditional record stores and there were promo reps that would go to the Virgin Megastore to try to get them to put their CDs at the front. 

I remember, as a child, going to the Virgin Megastore in Times Square and running through the aisles, thinking I was like in heaven. That was like the place to be. Or even at that time, MTV was a large tastemaker, gate kept organization that could break your music, right? And now, Spotify is obviously a newer form of that same. I don’t know if I’d call it a problem but a sort of system that has been put in place to not only break music but that there is this barrier to entry and barrier to knowledge. 

I think the tools we use to convince these people are the same. Obviously now there’s more data. There’s things like Shazam or the information that Spotify for Artists can give you. But it’s still us all trying to tell the story of why you should care about music, what makes this artist exciting, and here’s what they’ve been up to. In terms of the uniqueness of this particular time, what is different is that there are 60,000 tracks being uploaded a day to Spotify. What’s interesting about that is there is an interesting middle tier of artists cropping up that don’t need a label to be able to self sustain. There is sort of this ability with playlisting to reach a whole new audience to convert those people to fans and to not be so reliant on the label system. Which is, frankly, one of the reasons that I came to Terrorbird. How do I work with artists that don’t want to sign to a label? We’ve been able to create a service that accommodates that. 

I think it’s largely the same, but what is unique is that because there’s so many more playlists. They create new ones every week. So there’s more potential homes for your music to live in. That’s really special and unique to this time.

Marc Brown: So it’s interesting what you’re saying about this group in the middle that you feel can exist without a proper label. There are certain corners out there that say that all these things are bad. Spotify is bad and Apple Music is bad. But then, there are these other artists that you meet that are making tons of money and they can sustain themselves. What’s your take on that? 

Jenny Kaufman: At least with the artists I work with, there’s definitely a genuine positivity. I think they’re excited about streaming, they feel that it’s a great opportunity to reach new fans and to reach new people. What’s really cool about being put in a playlist is that you become associated with all the other artists in those playlists. There are artists that you admire, artists you would like to tour with. Maybe they’re in that playlist with you and it creates that association, not only via the algorithm but for fans right in their mind as they listen. 

W Mag just ran a really interesting article about the playlist Lorem. It interviews a few artists who have been featured on the playlist, as well as the playlist editor, the culture around that playlist. And what’s cool is it basically says what I just said, I stole it from them. Some of these artists have now worked together and met one another because they have become part of the cultural Zeitgeist of the playlist Lorem. So I think that there is a bit of an aspirational brand for the artists that I work with, where they wish to be included in some sort of artistic community that is represented on Spotify. Obviously, part of that goal is streams and revenue and seeing their music take off. But, you know, I am of both minds, right? 

I think there’s a ton of opportunities, a lot of exciting opportunities in streaming. If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t do this. But I always tell artists and advocates for artists to educate themselves on how these platforms work. 

One of the hot button issues is royalty rates but, in a more macro sense, how does the music give me the money that Spotify and Apple make? How does that trickle down to artists? A lot of those conversations have come down to what is your label deal? How big is the cut that your label takes? I would say that I think fighting for a higher royalty rate is always fair and reasonable. We should all be advocating for more equity in the music industry. Period. I support that 100%. But there is still a ton of opportunity. I think that people, and a lot of artists that I personally know, have been able to sustain themselves on music strictly from streaming, which is very impressive. 

It’s about vibe and not so much about the genre, which I think was very much to cater to a younger demographic of people who don’t feel the need to just listen to indie rock or folk, right? They want to be exposed to a variety of music and the internet and things like TikTok have created a kind of a  mishmash of culture and genre. Spotify wanted to play into that and become leaders in that space. 

Marc Brown: I did radio in the UK and you’d have Radio One. If you got on Radio One, it was a big deal. It did generally move things. But there were a lot of people whose self worth was defined by whether they’re on the playlist or not. I’m wondering if one of the benefits of Spotify is that there are so many playlists, does that mean that there’s more inclusivity? Like, do you feel that people are better represented? Because there’s a playlist for everyone? Or is it the same problem again? There’s a playlist for everyone but no one’s listening to some?

Jenny Kaufman: I am a believer that there being a lot of playlists creates way more opportunities for culture. I think people think that radio and digital are almost at odds. But we have a really great radio department at Terrorbird and work a lot of trendy upcoming music. They recently worked Arlo Parks and had a ton of success on that campaign. We didn’t work it out terribly digital. It’s interesting, because the playlist thing and the radio, I think helped each other and became these building blocks. 

When talking to our radio promotions team here, it’s interesting hearing about how they get on the phones and they’ll talk to programmers. I don’t talk to anyone on the phone, I just email them. They talk to the people. And it’s about convincing these people on the phone like “no, no, no, even though this is young and trendy, it’ll still fit in alongside the more established artists on your station.” That’s what is cool about playlisting in that it starts that process of slotting newer artists next to more established artists, in particular playlists. For Spotify, it’s pretty easy to look at the data and maybe pull something off if it is not performing. And it’s not really that big of a deal to them. But in radio, because there’s only so many slots, it’s a lot harder to justify. I commend all of the radio team who have to do that work because it is really hard. It’s just a bit easier with Spotify and all the DSPs frankly.

Jenny Kaufman: I want to answer a question about followers and lists.

A lot of people compare follower counts on playlists. Yeah,no question the lists that have been around for longer are going to have more followers, but the likelihood that some of those followers are like dead accounts, where the person isn’t active anymore, is a lot higher if the playlist has been around for a really long time. So I try not to compare follower counts on playlists. Once with a manager, we had gotten the song on All New Indie and he was very politely discussing that wouldn’t it have been better if it was just on New Music Friday or something? The way this relates to me as a digital strategist is that All New Indie is like Pitchfork, and New Music Friday is like Billboard.

Marc Brown: Hmm.

Jenny Kaufman: I don’t know if the Billboard audience knows who your All New Indie artist is. So the likelihood that the skip rate for your song on New Music Friday is incredibly high is very likely. Whereas if we get on All New Indie, which is kind of the target audience of this band, the save rate might actually be better, even though there are less followers on that playlist. And I’m really looking to get a high save rate, right? I’m really looking to convert people to be your fans. Yes, if you get an add on New Music Friday, you get a ton of streams. But as I’ve spilled on about our goals, it’s not just to get streams, it’s to convert those people into fans. Obviously, I love New Music Friday and I celebrate it whenever I get one. But being more targeted isn’t necessarily bad. The goal here is to reach the people that are gonna respond to your music. I mean, if you get an add on Today’s Top Hits, it’s much bigger. However, the artists that are landing on Today’s Top Hits are already streaming millions and millions of times on Spotify anyway, so I don’t even know if they need the playlist add, to be honest.

Marc Brown: I want to break this down for people who don’t necessarily understand how it works. Basically, what you’re saying is that there are certain things should happen at certain times. And that to a certain extent, it’s watch what you wish for. Because you not only want to get on a playlist, you want to get on a playlist and have it be successful at the right place at the right time. Is that what you mean?

Jenny Kaufman: Yes, a really interesting example that I can give is when I was at Glassnote Records. I worked the last Childish Gambino album called Awaken, My Love!. There was one runaway hit on that album called Redbone. What was funny is we had pushed the song a lot when the album came out, we had done a lot of really great work around it. Then the movie Get Out came out, which was a very big smash in America. Most of that music was a score. It was not traditional music that was licensed for the movie, except for Redbone by Childish Gambino, which opens the movie. It just exploded the song all over again. Even though it had a great playlisting life, it had done very well. It just completely recontextualized the song and made it this big thing. I remember going back into Spotify and saying, hey, isn’t this great? Shouldn’t we playlist this a lot? And they responded that they already gave it all the playlists we could have given it. The song’s already run its course on our platform, even though this movie has come out months later. 

It’s not just about releasing music and pushing for playlists. It’s about being thoughtful and strategic. We obviously cannot control when Get Out was released. But once again, it’s just being mindful of knowing when to press the button and, when you get added to these playlists can definitely affect the trajectory of your record.

Want to keep reading? Head to Part III here!