Starter Pack: Digital music curation

W&M STARTER PACKS is a free series unpacking essential foundational concepts for navigating music and tech.

Every two weeks, we’ll ground a timely music-tech topic in evergreen findings from our research projects. Hopefully, this format will give you more context on everything we’re doing as a community, and serve as a jumping-off point for further analysis as we collectively navigate the rapidly shifting music industry.

If the music industry is an orchestra, curation is like its conductor — arranging and guiding otherwise disparate artists, scenes, and styles into a dynamic, narrative whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Curation in the music business is as vital as it is controversial. It can take many forms, from playlists and DJ sets to festival lineups and well-placed TV syncs (looking at you, Kate Bush). For some, music curation as an activity is a personal form of journaling and self-expression; for others, it’s a serious, multimillion-dollar business that can make or break artists’ careers.

Effectively curating the noise of the modern digital music landscape is table stakes for today’s music streaming companies. In fact, several streaming feature updates so far in 2023 illustrate how music-tech companies are constantly experimenting with new curation formats, in line with changing audience behaviors and tech innovation at large. See for instance, Bandcamp’s new radio station in Fortnite, Spotify’s “AI DJ,” Apple Music’s new dedicated app for classical music, and Crunchyroll’s new section for J-pop concerts.

On the flip side, several controversies in the music business can boil down to challenges with curation. One often hears the words “curation” and “gatekeeping” in the same breath — lamenting how mainstream players have outsized control over which artists get exposure, and how exclusivity often comes with corrupt incentives and power imbalances. Seemingly every year, new investigations pop up about the opaque influence of playlist curators, the persistent accusations of payola at terrestrial radio stations, and the prospects of “fake artists” and avatar rappers swallowing up artist placement opportunities.

At Water & Music, we’ve covered challenges and opportunities around modern music curation in depth — analyzing how they manifest themselves across technologies both old (with mainstream tech platforms) and new (including the impact of emerging tech across Web3, AI, and the metaverse). In this Starter Pack, we will highlight key tips for artists to best prepare their catalogs for what today’s curators are looking for, and for curators and founders to build memorable, community-driven music brands that elevate fans’ listening experiences and withstand the test of time.

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Downtown Music Holdings is the world’s leading music services company, with over 2.4 million clients in 247 countries & territories, representing over 33 million music assets around the world.

Downtown’s mission is to shift the power center of the music industry into the hands of those who create, and those who support them, by providing a world-class suite of tools and services to creators — without taking any copyright ownership.

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What is curation, anyway?

Curation can be defined as the intentional assembly of media or information.

Let’s break down this definition further into two core ideas:

Intent. This is what makes curation both compelling and inherently subjective: It stems from people deliberately grouping certain kinds of information togetherfor a reason. That reason could include expressing oneself, entertaining a crowd, fitting a given mood or brand ethos, or promoting discovery of new artists.

Importantly, the “curator” in question doesn’t have to be an individual human being. It can also be an algorithm — analyzing data and patterns in user interactions to recommend media at a scale not otherwise possible through manual human analysis, with the “intent” of continuing to deliver on the experiences users want. Even in these cases, the data an algorithm analyzes is often generated first by on-the-ground, intentional user behavior, and the algorithm’s meta intent is set by a human.

Context. The act of curating music naturally creates context through the decision of which songs to group and sequence one after the other, and why. That context could be any combination of:

What makes music curation brands stand out?

From NPR Music’s Tiny Desk series, to emerging artist discovery platforms like COLORS and Mahogany, to vibey radio stations like Poolsuite FM and Chillhop, music curation brands come in all shapes and sizes.

But no matter the target audience, musical style, or distribution platform, today’s beloved curation brands share a common mindset — one that doesn’t just prioritize surface-level growth metrics, but also focuses on building genuinely delightful experiences for fans, around the following three pillars:

Building worlds, not just playlists. The most memorable curation brands have a clear, consistent narrative vision they are presenting to fans. Curators often lean on multimedia, multi-platform strategies to immerse their audiences further into their world — whether through a consistent visual aesthetic across video channels, or through a standout character and tone of voice on social media. Worldbuilding for curators also lends itself well to adjacent revenue streams, such as merch and brand partnerships.

Fostering community, not just streams. There’s a reason why many successful curation brands begin as niche communities on platforms like SoundCloud and YouTube. Unlike other DSPs, these platforms encourage commenting and other forms of interaction among like-minded fans, allowing curation brands to develop an organic sense of identity through word of mouth.

Cultivating artist partnerships, not just placements. Controversy in music curation often stems from a perceived power imbalance between the curator and the artist, where the former sees the latter as disposable. In contrast, today’s memorable curation brands understand that the best features are genuine partnerships and exchanges of value with artists, especially when it comes to cross-pollinating audiences and helping to put an artist’s creative vision in context. The rise of artist-curated festivals and concerts is a prime example of this partnership-first approach to curation in practice.

Catalog marketing. The proportion of revenue going to back catalog (or songs older than 18 months) is increasing in the streaming age, and now accounts for 72% of U.S. music consumption.

Several different market trends are driving catalog’s dominance — from unpredictable TikTok challenges that remix old songs in new contexts, to the surge in music biopics that revive dormant artist legacies. Internally at record labels, catalog and frontline marketing departments used to be siloed, but we’re increasingly seeing them use the same marketing strategies and distribution channels to achieve their goals — as “old” music can certainly feel new in different packaging.

Contextual data monitoring. If context is a critical ingredient in the music curation recipe, technology is advancing to try to capture as much of that context from as many sources of your life as possible.

Smart speakers like Amazon Alexa analyze users’ habits across devices and environments, to recommend media and products tailored to personal routines, needs, and interests at the right time. Generative music apps are using novel data inputs to inform always-on, adaptive music listening experiences, such as Endel’s integration with Apple Health and Infinite Album’s integration with video games. Thanks to the latest creative AI hype wave, text-to-playlist tools like PlaylistAI are emerging that auto-generate extended music mixes from just a simple natural-language prompt.

Niche as the new normal. Focus carries a premium in a noisy landscape, and music-tech companies are adjusting accordingly.

Everyone from the newest startups to the most mass-market entertainment brands are building niche music curation experiences focused on specific activities (like Fortnite’s Bandcamp radio), genres (like Apple Music Classical), and community support dynamics (like Catalog, which focuses on empowering niche communities in Web3, and, which has a multiplayer, pay-it-forward tipping model for curators). Under this paradigm, the most exceptional curation brands cultivate an environment that allows numerous cultural niches to develop their communities concurrently. These brands then act as the overarching link across niches, weaving together a coherent outlook on the direction of cultural progress and trends at large.

Does genre matter in music curation?

Yes — but genre is just one piece of the strategic pie in modern artists’ careers.

Historical, top-down genre categories like rock, pop, and R&B originated in a world of broadcast media and mass communication. In contrast, streaming-native approaches to music categorization have largely shifted from being label-dictated to audience-dictated, making the concept of a universal music taxonomy less relevant. We’re seeing major streaming platforms try to straddle this tension between top-down and bottom-up curation with more genre-fluid playlist offerings (like Spotify’s Pollen and Lorem playlists), meeting the diverse listening preferences of younger users while allowing enough wiggle room to adapt more easily to rapidly changing music trends.

Despite this shift towards a seemingly “borderless” world, the concept of genre still holds significant weight in the music business at large. From radio spins to awards shows like the Grammys, traditional genre categorizations still have significant effects on an artist’s potential for commercial success and recognition.

In the other direction, streaming platforms can also change the nature of emerging music scenes in real time, by both amplifying and codifying them. Through playlists like hyperpop on Spotify and Digicore on SoundCloud, platforms can help catapult a bubbling sound to the mainstream, but also exert enormous influence in what is considered “successful” within that scene — and then commercialize that influence to the platform’s advantage.

All in all, the notion of “genre expertise” remains necessary, but ultimately insufficient, for navigating today’s music landscape in a way that preserves artists’ creative freedom and commercial potential. Instead, a more holistic approach — melding stylistic context, geography- and platform-level expertise, and direct relationships with fans — is proving to be the true winning combination for artists and their teams.

What does it mean to decentralize curation?

In the hopes of creating a more inclusive, transparent, and diverse music listening ecosystem, a new movement is emerging around decentralized music curation. We see this most plainly in music and Web3, with platforms like Catalog and Nina developing their own blockchain-based curation protocols that enable Web3-native artists and collectors to build their own music discovery experiences, on their own terms.

But what does it actually mean to decentralize curation? Across the examples we’ve studied, there are three primary elements to take into account:

Making decentralized curation work still requires overcoming several obstacles, including maintaining curatorial quality and cohesion across a wider network, establishing robust reputation systems within and across curatorial communities, and actively fostering collaboration across niches instead of reinforcing existing cultural silos. Whatever the challenges, this movement is worth following as a critical component of industry-wide efforts to innovate on what music curation could look like in the future, and prevent the pitfalls we’re all too familiar with of succumbing to a lowest-common-denominator approach to culture.

Dive even deeper

Today’s Starter Pack was informed by the following research from the Water & Music archives:

Music curation trends

Web3-native music curation

Brand case studies