Don't mention the J-word: how Spotify gifted my jazz tune two million hits
By Neil Cowley
By the time you read this, I will have a track on Spotify that will be somewhere in the region of 2m plays. All within eight weeks of release. Having the mixed fortune of being a “jazz artist” I have been gifted the opportunity to float above the murky waters of my genre and feast with the fat cats of streaming. So how has this miracle occurred?
On first launching Grace and its accompanying video (a solo piano piece incidentally – this is important as you’ll see later) my team and I were fairly confident that we could appeal directly to the existing fans of the band and get some encouraging streaming figures on the go. Some radio play and a few posts on social media meant that we got the track to 3,000-odd plays in the first couple of days. We were quite pleased with that. These plays would have come from the people who would most likely go on to buy the accompanying album later on, and it felt like a job well done. Or so I thought.
Neil Cowley Trio – Grace
Enter stage left the “Spotify playlist”. Though I far from realised it at the time, this is the holy grail for independent artists such as myself. Overnight I was lifted out of the musty basement section where men with National Health spectacles hang out, and up on to the shiny new rack next to the checkout counter. All because I composed a solo piano piece that Spotify in deemed fit to feature on one of its more popular playlists. “Peaceful piano” with 1.9m subscribers put me in the company of Ludovico Einaudi, Nils Frahm and Max Richter and gifted me on average 25,000 plays a day.
I defy any artist not to feel glad of the attention two million plays on Spotify brings
The truly liberating thing for me as an aforementioned “jazz” artist was the complete absence of any mention of traditional genre. In a sense, these playlists are their own short-stop, makeshift sub genres that allow artists such as myself to be grouped in with absolutely anyone else, so long as the piece of music ticks the box.
So who creates these playlists? Are there machines analysing dynamics and mood? No. In fact, among the ranks of Spotify employees there exist “playlist curators” – surely a dream job. On pressing my contacts as to the identity of these people, there is a universal lowering of the voice and a glance over the shoulder. Either no one knows who they are, or knows if it is possible to influence them. All the people responsible for promoting my music can do is lay it at the door of Spotify and hope. And so it was that in a darkened room somewhere these Spotify elves listened to my track and tore up the genre rule book on my behalf.
The most obvious advantage to all this is that my track continues to be played thousands of times a day somewhere in the world to someone new, and no one is judging me – or skipping – when they see the label jazz. Instead, they are seeing my name, and, if they like what they hear, potentially checking out the other material from the band. This simply has to be doing me some good. In fact, jazz as a whole could potentially benefit from cloaking its identity in this way for just long enough to be heard by unbiased ears.
I can anticipate how a record industry, hungry to second-guess the consumer, could turn its beady eye to these playlists
Thanks to this new way of presenting music, genre may be completely changing its identity, or even losing its meaning. Old labels like “jazz”and “classical” may begin to feel as dated as county cricket. Frankly I’ve never really considered myself a jazz artist anyway, or at least, not an artist constrained by a single genre. My tastes are too wide. My quest has been to fuse the elements of music that I love from wherever I find them. The seeming lack of improvisation in my music tends to put question marks over its “jazz” credentials – and that’s fine by me. It is a genre that is often overstudied rather than enjoyed.
So what is the aftermath of this new accidental way of acquiring attention? I can only look upon my own mixed feelings of elation and caution. Elation because I defy any artist to not feel glad of the attention two million plays on Spotify brings. Caution, because I can see how this might become a fool’s gold; I am sure the record industry, ever hungry to second-guess the consumer and without the power of the charts to monitor popular taste, are turning its beady-eyed attention to these playlists.
Neil Cowley Trio- The City and the Stars
Watch the video for The City and the Stars by the Neil Cowley Trio from new album Spacebound Apes
I can see how tempting it might be for an artist to make music that fits a certain bill. This is nothing new of course, but do we really need a plethora of music made specifically to suit the more specific pastimes of the average Spotify user? “Peaceful piano” may just be the tip of the iceberg. Might “Violin for gardening” or “Greek folk song for DIY” be adorning the front page? Or even perhaps a “Calming xylophone for when you’re doing your accounts and answering testy Facebook messages at the same time” playlist, since that’s what most us seem to be doing most of the time.
However, for now I wallow in this liberation. The record industry has insisted on genre as a way of understanding and controlling consumers’ listening habits right from the point at which music made its way on to our shopping lists. Though we may be jumping from the frying pan into the fire, this momentary period of chaos while the major players catch up is something I welcome.
And as for the hot topic of streaming income? Well that’s a conversation for another day.
Spacebound Apes by the Neil Cowley Trio is released 16 September on Hide Inside Records. The Neil Cowley Trio play live at the Union Chapel, London on 27 October.