The power DJs once had to make a hit is now permanently tied to radio and radio now shares that power with playlist curators.
Music is spurred by power in different forms. There is nothing like organic growth. Thus, due to the short attention span of listeners, music makers need extra effort to mark themselves out.
In the old days, it was mostly done through the traditional media channels of radio, tabloid/soft-sell and TV. But as the Hip-Hop culture gained ground, another means of promotion gained ground – DJing. Ordinarily, DJs used to thrill grounds with their mixes and quick-finger nous. But over time, they became one with radio and became influencers.
In an era where everyone wanted 5Mics from The Source magazine, radio personalities had even greater power. Due to the usually saturated soundscape where sounds came out from unknown artists by the second, the ones who truly wanted to stand out had to push their music – which also had to be good.
They recognized that good music is not enough. They also recognized that even ‘bad music’ can permeate human subconscious and generate an appeal if it’s fed to an audience for long enough. For that reason, DJs who owned hour-long sets on radio gained power as influencers of sound. Whatever they endorsed simply flew and became successful.
For a long time, DJs and radio personalities like DJ Clue, Funk Flex, DJ Envy, DJ Premier, DJ Whoo Kid and so forth became huge in Eastern America. During an episode of Juan EP podcast hosted by Peter Rosenberg and Cipha, Angie Martinez reminisced how a young Jay Z and Damon Dash would promote music by handing champagne bottles to radio personalities and DJs in the early days.
While the DJ later evolved into a music maker by definition and also began to ‘leak’ exclusives, those things were simply a result of their growing influence which they had to seal or channel into something different. In Nigeria, this was no different.
From the late DJ Sunny Bruce in Akure to the great DJ Jimmy Jatt in Lagos, artists would strive to get to DJs so their music can be heard. Their end goal was always the exposure that radio garners for artists, the potential traction and the power of relationship with OAPs and DJs.
Yes, DJs have not completely lost their powers. Yes, radio will never truly go away. As Charlamagne Tha God alluded to on Pull Up with Joe Budden and as Steve Stoute told The Breakfast Club on Power 106, New York, radio is not going anywhere, it just needs to be consumed in newer formats.
However, the tides of music have changed since music sales started waning in the mid-2000s. What made DJs so powerful in the old days was that music was mostly consumed in physical forms – CDs. The internet hadn’t really caught up and piracy was not really at its zenith. When Napster tried to encroach the power of physical sales, American capitalists banded up to end it.
With music being consumed in physical formats, the power to influence music was wholly decentralized. Radio grabbed power, tabloid journalists had power and the DJs had a large power to influence the success of failure of a song. That’s why it was easy for radio to make a hit and mar a career -DJs then became a core part of radio.
These days, the internet has taken over human operation. At first, piracy and bootlegging took the power from the artist, but these days the artist has taken some of the power back only to hand it to another set of influencers through the new reality of music streaming.
The power of music streaming has abridged the gap between the consumer and the artist. Thus, with the added influence of social media, conventional music reviews lost power and radio lost its ability to wholly mar a career. While radio can still make a hit and the power to influence music is still subtly decentralized, the decentralization is now more centred towards music streaming and the internet.
For these reasons of the internet, streaming and social media, the DJs lost their power and influence to make a mar songs as individual entities – something they used to have. The power they once had to make a hit is now permanently tied to radio and radio now shares that power with playlist curators.
Who is a playlist curator in this streaming era?
Playlists are an aggregated list of songs that are created by people who are called, ‘curators.’ These curators are sometimes employed by digital streaming platforms to make playlists based on genre, country or mood. Other times, they are just passionate music lovers who become tastemakers.
There has also been a school of thought that feels playlists on streaming platforms are curated by bots who work with a specific algorithm. These playlists are then promoted by the digital streaming platforms.
For this reason, the new reality – alongside striving for airplay on radio and as a replacement for fighting for DJs’ attention – is that artists now hustle for the face of playlist curators. Even worse, a lot of artists now pay for playlist placements. Alongside TrueView, this is one of the new forms of payola.
While it is not set in stone, a playlist can influence the success of a song – just like DJs used to do back in the day. If radio is not careful, and it does not set itself to get consumed in different formats, playlists will encroach its power to make hits – streaming, the internet and social media have already abridged its power to make hits.
Downsides of playlists
The major downsides to playlisting is that it sells artists a false dawn. Artists now chase the visibility and potential virality of playlists over ascertaining actual quality music. As such, they blow wads of cash in pursuit of visibility that might or might not work.
As Jia Tolentino alluded on BBC Radio 4 podcast, Beyond Today, the internet is a trick mirror of self-delusion and its promises of the rewards of hypervisibility are not always accurate.
The future of playlists
1) As YouTube has basically institutionalized buying views with TrueView, I wager that digital streaming platforms will also heavily monetize playlist placement. Ergo, they will create plans that allow artists to pay before they get on playlists.
2) You have to stay ahead of the digital age. DJs and OAPs have to properly scale to have some stake in the digital streaming playlist market. This is how Stock Traders on Wall Street are now learning python and programming to stay in touch with artificial intelligence and big data.
P.S: Instead of simply striving for playlist placement, artists nee to start exploring the possibility of video-based social media platforms like Triller and TikTok for promotion.
Already, TikTok has influenced the success of hits like Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ and Roddy Rich’s ‘The Box.’ While Nigeria is not at that level where TikTok and Triller have immense influence yet, artists needs to start thinking outside the box.