The world of playlists is evolving. As genres continue to matter less and less to both artists and fans, the walls between different styles of music are disintegrating and young fans are listening to a little bit of everything. If you grow up a Billie Eilish fan, you'll probably follow her lead and listen to Tyler, The Creator. And if you're a Tyler fan, you may go to his Camp Flog Gnaw festival and end up getting into artists like Choker or Dominic Fike. If you spend enough time on Spotify's Lorem playlist, you're going to end up listening to them all.
Earlier this year, the Lorem playlist quietly appeared on Spotify without much explanation. The description under the title—a space usually used to describe the kind of music you should expect—simply read, "Music that breaks the rules, just a little bit." From the beginning, the playlist showcased an eclectic array of music ranging from indie pop and alternative R&B to DIY rock and a little bit of hip-hop.
"What we're doing is trying to contextualize around user communities," says Lizzy Szabo, the Spotify editor in charge of curating Lorem. "What type of music are younger audiences ready for based on their other habits?"
Lorem's not alone in its mission. A growing batch of playlists like POLLEN, Anti Pop, and Altar are all serving unique audiences, but they're doing it without trying to define exactly what audience that is or what kind of artists are considered for inclusion.
It may seem like common sense, but it's an early sign of what could be a significant development in the music industry. Charts, radio stations, record labels, and award shows are still stubbornly clinging on to some rigid rules around genre, but as Lorem and similar new streaming-centric brands grow, others may have to eventually follow suit.
We originally talked to Spotify editor and Lorem curator Lizzy Szabo for a feature about the future of music, but for more insight into the inner workings of Spotify's curation process and the direction things are headed, we're sharing the full interview below, lightly edited for brevity.
To start, can you just tell us a little bit about your role at Spotify?
I've been at Spotify for about two and a half years. I started off in the artists and label marketing department and then I moved over as a global coordinator for editorial—which is, for lack of a better word, the playlist department—and specifically into an editor role in January. Rather than be specifically genre-focused, which some editors are, I work across many different genres for the U.S. market. I've got some of the different playlists, but I guess if you had to say I had some sort of focus, it would be in kind of emerging sounds, emerging artists. My passion is discovery.
There's still so much mystery behind playlisting. How much can you tell us about the process of choosing what songs to include on the bigger playlists?
There are a lot of playlists—I would say some are more collaborative than others. I think we're probably moving toward that just because the more knowledge bases, the more perspectives you have, the better. But there are certain editors driving certain brands, and those brands are all different. You have genre playlists, you have mood, or holiday, or event-based playlists. What we're doing with playlists like POLLEN, Lorem, Altar—and more playlists like this are showing up—is trying to contextualize around user communities, like what type of music are younger audiences ready for based on their other habits? What types of apps are they using, how are they engaging with our platform?
At the same time what's happening in artist communities? I think specifically for Lorem, there are a ton of different indicators that will get me to add some things to the list. Sometimes it's a certain sound, sometimes it's if something's bubbling up on TikTok or YouTube. I've been going through the examples too. But like that Cautious Clay "Cold War" track had definitely a resurgence once it was in Booksmart, and that movie kind of embodies exactly who I'd want the audience for Lorem to be. So even though it came out a few years ago, that track was heavily engaged within this playlist because it was just the right time.
Are there ever times when there's a song you want to include but there's no data to back it up and you'll just test it out? Or is there always some kind of indication of a song already working?
Once in a while, yeah. I'm looking at anything from user list to related artists to what Roy Blair is calling out as his favorite album of the year on Twitter. All kinds of indicators like that. When we started Lorem, we really had like a specific audience in mind and some core artists, and we also experimented. It's sort of like bedroom pop gone to the mainstream and a lot of things adjacent going on around that. We don't want to have a sound that's too narrow because we always want Lorem to be fluid. Even the name isn't specific—it doesn't really mean anything at all, so the users can dictate what this sounds like. The artists can dictate what this sound is.
We've got artists on there like that you might recognize, even Clairo in 2019 is a bit more mainstream than she was in 2017. And then you've got artists in there that might also be in playlists like today's top hits or charting like Post Malone, or Harry Styles, or The 1975. Sometimes we're going through our pitch tool and coming across artists. Maybe it's their first release, maybe it's their second release, and they have 500 monthly listeners. But something about them, the sound seems like it would be in line. I'll do a little bit of digging, look at their pitch, check on their Instagram and their vibe seems to be in line with Lorem. We'll go through it and put it in without any data.
I think there was one artist that was in there recently, Froogle. Heavily engaged in this list, but it didn't really have much of a footprint before being added to playlists on our platform. But just because he's got a vibe, he's kind of wacky, and the music is great, it works. And you've got it juxtaposed with Clairo, Surfaces, Chloe Lilac, which have clear on-platform and off-platform audiences. It just works.
We don't want to have a sound that's too narrow because we always want Lorem to be fluid. Even the name isn't specific—it doesn't really mean anything at all, so the users can dictate what this sounds like.
You talked a little bit about like the purpose that Lorem serves. Can you tell us about how it started? Was there one thing that triggered this or was it something you saw missing?
On Spotify, I think POLLEN paved the way for making a case for a non-genre based playlist. What we realized shortly after is that POLLEN has become a brand, the name becomes synonymous with the playlist. We were talking a lot at that time about artists like Billie Ellish and Clairo and even artists that were still kind of coming up like Role Model. But thinking about it, kids don't necessarily listen solely to indie pop as a genre, but want to see it contextualized with other factors that matter to them so that when they see it, it speaks to them and there's more of a voice.
At the time, we had the Left of Center playlist and content-wise we were checking a lot of the boxes with artists that we wanted represented on there. But Left of Center isn't a brand. You kind of understand what it is—that playlist had existed on Spotify for a year or so but it didn't have a clear hypothesis.
With Lorem, we've honed in on artists that we really wanted to focus on and I think it has a clear enough narrative that you can understand what the Lorem brand is. Yeah, it's going to step out on different genres a bit, but not so much that it's just a mix of who-knows-what. Now we've seen what works, what people engage with most on this list, and how we can put discovery artists next to top tier artists and make it work.
When you look at the data behind Lorem, are there any surprises with the audience, ages, or the kind of people that are into it?
It's pretty much right where we wanted to hit, kind of between 16 and 22, definitely a mix of male and female and non-binary, but female-leaning for sure. Honestly I'm surprised that so many people are coming back month after month to listen to this playlist with a nondescript name.
I think another surprise was we did no marketing around this list. We went in totally with a soft launch. All we did was change the cover [of the Left of Center playlist] and the name and updated the list, but we didn't engage social or anything like that to push it. It's been organic and it's existed now for I think three and a half months. That's just the most pleasant surprise I could hope for. And we try to change it up week over week. We try to change up even the sequence twice a week just to keep it fresh all the time.
It's one of my favorite playlists.
Oh good. I've read a lot that you've put out there and I love your takes as well. You've probably heard of Jack Larsen. That's an artist we're so excited about, and we're not really sure where it fits yet but that's something we've added in in the last week. Let's see if people like it as much as we do, because I think sonically it seems to work.
So, it's total discovery at least by Spotify's standards, and it's right next to a Calvin Harris remix, which couldn't be more different, but that's something that's taking off on TikTok. So I tried to put in some nods in there sometimes and create a listening experience that's similar for an 18-year-old girl that's having to go from app to app and from Twitter to Instagram to TikTok or VSCO.
I think you see a lot of synergy between those—maybe not so much in the chart sense, but in the essence of where these things overlap. I want someone to be able to put on this playlist and feel comfortable leaving it on for 30 minutes or more and enjoy the experience.
It makes sense. It serves a new kind of music fan who isn't attached to one genre or type of music. It also serves artists well. One of the things we've seen with Pigeons & Planes is that whenever we talk to a young artist, they don't want to be boxed into a single genre. Do you see that happening more and more too on the artist side?
Yeah, and that's a good point because there are some artists that might be a core Lorem artist in the sense that a lot of the music they're putting out fits, or their presence on social media really ties into the artist community and into the Lorem user community. But maybe they'll also put out songs that don't necessarily fit this demo.
The more established we can get, I think the more we can start to take some chances. I never want the sound or the types of artists to be so narrow that it would be weird to include something out of the norm.
I'm not going to put in every Post Malone song into Lorem, or ASAP Rocky song, or Khalid song. But there are some that really fit. I think you're also seeing bigger artists step out into this lane more too, like Post Malone is putting out a variety of different kinds of songs. Ariana Grande's doing an Imogen Heap cover and maybe younger kids don't even know who Imogen Heap is, but we do. And when you listen to that song, I think that's a perfect fit into Lorem. That's one of the songs that we started out with early on.
You also have someone like Conan Gray, who I guess is sort of indie but not really, and he's pop, but not in the sense that you'd think of traditional pop stars. I think he fits into Lorem really well.
Are there any rules on what kind of music isn't considered? If all the fans of Lorem happened to love this one death metal song, would you consider putting that in there?
Yeah. Why not? It hasn't happened yet, but yeah, I think we could definitely maybe step out a little bit more. The thing that I try to protect a little bit is perhaps this listening experience where you have artists from all different walks in this list, even from different regions around the world. You've got BENEE, who has become a real staple artist of Lorem, from New Zealand. And then you've got Girl in Red from Norway and Angèle from France.
We're taking risks that way, but at the same time I think it's important for the list to have some sort of direction where it feels holistic. There are other lists like POLLEN or Anti Pop, where you're going to go in there and discover things and maybe be okay with a more jarring listening experience.
For the time being, because we're still a new brand in Lorem, we've tried to have a point of view and protect that listening experience. The more established we can get, I think the more we can start to take some chances. I never want the sound or the types of artists to be so narrow that it would be weird to include something out of the norm.
The other thing we see a lot is all these new subgenres like SoundCloud rap and bedroom pop. Do some things just need a name so everyone's on the same page when they're talking about it, and do you think we'll see that continue?
I think, even here, our conversations are expanding and I love the challenge of figuring out what we're hearing. 100 gecs puts out their album this year, and then we're all discovering it and it sounds so different, but at the same time it's so engaging and you're seeing the artist community engaged with it. I think part of that is that there's so much noise and artists are thinking, "How can we cut through, how can we do something different?"
There are also so many trends, like you see like BigKlit for example, come out with the type of music that she's putting out there and her personality, music, and persona totally cut through. Then you're going to see other artists hop on and maybe put out a more palatable version of that, but then you get a bunch of the same things.
Let's try and put all of those artists together or in a specific sequence for the first time and see if that catches on. we're seeing our users engage way more.
Our job is to listen and try to contextualize it in new and interesting ways. So, we have another list, Internet People, where if I were to take everything that's trending on TikTok and put it into one list, it would look like this. There are tons of user lists like that out there. And that's one way to discover music. It's kind of more of a chart, but we can take elements out of that, like, "Hey, we noticed that there's a trend ..." whether on TikTok, or on our own platform, or any platform. There's a trend of this real hyper pop with Caroline Polechek and Charlie XCX and 100 gecs. Let's try to contextualize that and see what happens and then see how far we can push that. Let's try and put all of those artists together for the first time or in a specific sequence for the first time and see if that catches on. And we're seeing our users engage way more than if we were to just jam those into a unbranded list or something like that.
I guess underlying all of that is what's going to be best for the artist as well. It's going to be best for them to present them in the right way so that our listeners are are captivated by it and it's a less passive listening experience, because it's interesting. If I want to listen to indie pop, we have perfectly wonderful indie pop playlist that has a lot of these artists on there.
Do you see Lorem expanding as a brand outside of the playlist itself?
I would absolutely love that, and we've been meeting to talk about how to do that. Ideally, I would love to figure out merch, live shows, special content. One thing that we noticed when we launched Lorem is that a lot of artists that have announced tours and a lot of their support acts have been on the list, which is cool. And I don't know what that's a reflection of, but it doesn't matter because it means that there is a community there. It would be great if we could get some of them in the studio to record together or talk about it. There are a lot of things we'd like to do.
Lorem, POLLEN, and Altar are the next evolution of a Spotify playlist, but how can we take it further? What's the next next playlist? I think we can start experimenting with that because we have an audience that's young and fluid and probably open to new things, and we'll be able to see the data when they're not into something. But we always want to take chances.
I really just want to emphasize that this is a place where we can express that we think there are listeners out there that want to listen to Claud and to Harry Styles, and to UMI, and to Post Malone and have that be... normal. That's normal for kids, 30 year olds, whoever. That's the point we're trying to make here.