On July 29th, series five of Love Island came to a hotly-anticipated conclusion, crowning Limerick’s own Greg O’Shea the winner alongside Amber Gill. The country breathed a collective sigh of a relief, from those grateful to have their evenings free one again, and those who were sick to the back teeth of hearing about the show in the first place.
For me, it brought to an end hours of watching, meme-making, Insta storying and playlist-making, having painstakingly Shazamed every song featured throughout the show for my own listening. I shared the playlist with friends and followers, who were after a similar collection of tropical house banger to soundtrack their own real life recouplings and neon parties.
Then, the messages started coming in: “Hello Fionnuala, my name is [redacted] and I work with a record company based out of [redacted]. I came across your Love Island 2019 playlist and wanted to pitch a song to you. It’s by a brand new artist and this is their first song. Here is the link. Let me know what you think! We would be happy to pay a contribution to be featured.”
Why was I, a nobody reality TV junkie with a playlist boasting a 2k strong following, being solicited by random A&Rs on Facebook?
"Payola means pay-for-play," Damian McGarrigle, Senior Digital Account and Playlist Manager at Sony Music Entertainment, explains.
"It's where companies and curators claim to offer access to certain popular playlists with thousands of followers for cash. But in the real world, these are usually a con. A playlist with 100k followers could just as easily be made up of bots or inactive users."
Take SpotLister, for example, which previously sold direct playlist access to Spotify users for as low a price as $2. Artists paid anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 a month to “secure prominent placement on playlists" before it was deactivated last year.
The rise in music streaming has created a new opportunity for record promoters, as it falls outside the common law preventing pay-for-play happening on radio. However, Spotify have been actively clamping down on the practice in recent years, overhauling the way musicians and record labels submit songs for certain editorial playlists. Spotify for Artists account holders and label representatives can select an unreleased song for playlist consideration.
“There is no ‘pay-to-playlist’ or sale of our playlists in any way," a spokesperson for Spotify told The Daily Dot previously. "It’s bad for artists and bad for fans. We maintain a strict policy, and take appropriate action against parties that do not abide by these guidelines.”
Now more than ever, editorial playlists on streaming services are being touted as the bread and butter for artists. Spotify's new feature offers “unprecedented, efficient and easy access to Spotify’s entire global editorial team", with over 75,000 artists currently featured on editorial playlists each week and 150,000 on Discover Weekly.
From a label perspective, McGarrigle sees how they can be advantageous, but doesn't consider them to be make-or-break.
"The benefit of editorial playlists is reaching fans that wouldn’t otherwise hear your music," McGarrigle continues. "This is a good thing, in the same way that radio airplay, press coverage, live dates, social reach or sync placements can achieve ... All very useful, but it’s the combination of each of these that is key to fans remembering a track or artist – and wanting to hear more.
"Playlists can definitely be beneficial – but to hang a release or artist strategy on playlisting alone is really asking for trouble from the outset.
It’s the job of playlist curators to search out up-and-coming talent, so make it as easy for them as possible!"
Try telling that to any new artist trying to break ground in an era where streaming is king.
"When you’re an artist trying to break into the industry, [playlists] can be massively important," Jack RUA told GoldenPlec.com. "My newest track Ego [featuring LOGUOUS] was first put on a 'Release Radar' algorithmic playlist and then added to Spotify’s 'Out Now' Pride playlist which has over 600,000 followers.
"Although our organic outreach on Spotify was decent enough due to our advertising campaign, LOGUOS and I are relatively unknown artists with modest listenerships, so those playlists have so far allowed us to reach almost four times the amount of listeners that we had before.
Streaming is now the main way that music fans consume their music, so as an artist it is the main way to connect with listeners and also to collect revenue."
While streaming clearly presents different challenges for artists, the battle remains the same - winning over the tastemakers that ultimately call the shots.
"It’s always hard when you’re contending with curators and playlisters because you’re relying on one person’s opinion to 'make or break' a song, but you could make the same argument about radio when that was the main way that artists were getting their music heard," Rua continues.
For this reason, Rua works tirelessly on building his brand beyond the music.
"The most important thing that an artist can do is build their audience through social media, create an image and a brand that people can associate with, and treat your music career like a professional business. If you can do that, the streams will come and you won’t have to put too much emphasis on getting playlisted."
One Irish artist who didn't need the help of a paid-for slot in a Love Island playlist? RuthAnne, whose track The Vow was featured during the live final, watched by 4.3 million. The song immediately entered the Irish iTunes charts at #1 and the UK Top 40 - impressive, given the track was released a year prior.
"I was completely surprised," she told GoldenPlec.com. "I wrote [The Vow] in my friend's house, and ended up watching it in the final in that same friend's house.
"To be in the charts and see that people are actually buying the song ... It's never been heard by this many people before."
RuthAnne knows her way around the industry, having written for the likes of JoJo, Britney and Niall Horan previously. She, more than anyone, understands the temptation of payola when the odds seem stacked against you as an artist. With that in mind, she says artists need to adjust their mindset when it comes to their music career.
"You have to think in a business way as well. You hope to get playlists, that’s how people discover songs, that’s the truth ... It’s a hard one. As a new artist, we need the playlists. Everyone wants to get on playlists.
"Spotify have been very supportive to me and I'm very grateful for it [...] I wouldn’t want to pay anyone to play my song because it wouldn’t be real then."