Inside the Human Science of Spotify’s New Music Friday Playlist

Jem Aswad
·5-min read

With 3.6 million subscribers, New Music Friday is hardly Spotify’s most popular playlist (that would be Today’s Top Hits, which tops 27 million). And with 100 new songs or remixes each week sprawled across multiple genres, it doesn’t provide the sort of focused punch of powerful genre-specific playlists like Rap Caviar.

Yet it’s become one of the most coveted franchises on the world’s largest streaming service — and one that turns over completely every seven days. Justin Lubliner, founder of Darkroom, the label to which Billie Eilish is signed, credits NMF as a significant contributor to her success. “New Music Friday consistently provides listeners with an unbelievable array of songs from every type of artist,” he says. “Earning a spot on release week is one of the biggest priorities for our artists.”

Warner Records chief operating officer Tom Corson adds, “It’s an important part of launching any new song.” Rising rapper Mulatto, who’s signed to RCA, concurs. “The exposure from New Music Friday can be career-changing,” she says. And while some insiders are less impressed, one major-label source tells Variety, “I think there’s actually some resentment in the industry over how influential it’s become.”

That take seems a bit extreme: Any weekly collection of 100 relatively high-profile new songs is going to land on a hit pretty often. But as one of Spotify’s playlists that is entirely curated by human beings — the platform’s vaunted recommendation algorithm plays no direct role — high placement is a collective cosign from the streaming giant’s team of “editors,” the professional tastemakers who curate its hundreds of playlists.

The expertise shows in its unpredictability and boundary-pushing. Sure, the top of NMF is filled with Arianas, Gagas, Travises, Shawns and Blackpinks, but also high in the mix is Latin music, R&B, alternative and other edgy surprises. Avant-crooner James Blake was at No. 3 on the Oct. 16 list; on Oct. 2, New Zealand teen Jawsh 685 was at No. 10; on Nov. 6 there was a Latin double shot at Nos. 5 and 6 with Sech (featuring J Balvin) and Maluma (featuring the Weeknd). The mix is lively and fresh — it’s hard to imagine an algorithm making those placements — and lesser-known artists get a boost in status and attention from being seated at the cool kids’ tables.

“It’s fully editorial, as we describe it, based on a mix of cultural significance and exposing people to new music,” says Ned Monahan, Spotify’s Head of Global Hits (yes, that’s his actual title), who joined the company last December from Interscope Records and oversees NMF, Today’s Top Hits and other playlists with global Hits lead Becky Bass. “It’s also one-of-a-kind for Spotify in that it has music from so many different genres and subgenres, and it’s a very collaborative effort that includes genre editors and international markets. We highlight the songs that will probably get the most streams at the top, and work in a handful of songs into the top 30 that people might not have heard of, which are often independent — it’s important for us to serve both of those purposes.”

That first-week splash can boost not just a song’s public profile but perhaps more meaningfully, its status with Spotify’s other playlist editors. If a song gets good marks in internal conversations for New Music Friday (which Monahan estimates involve 20 to 25 editors weekly), it’s likely to populate other playlists too. “It’s often our first real data point to see a song’s full-day performance, and we all can take it from there,” he says.

NMF was launched in 2014 as New Music Tuesday, and switched to Friday the following year after the rise of streaming services necessitated a single global release date and the U.S. came into line with the rest of the world. It was born in a place psychologically galaxies away from Spotify’s sumptuous (and currently mostly empty) offices in Lower Manhattan: the town of Saratoga in Upstate New York, where Spotify’s first U.S. editorial team was originally based.

“It was pretty successful right off the bat, even though there was no real engagement from the labels, just me looking through blogs at 3 a.m.,” says Mike Biggane, who launched the playlist and oversaw it until he left Spotify last year for an EVP gig at Universal Music. NMF gradually grew a reputation as a compelling destination for new music — “the editors are really competitive with each other, because everybody wants to be first on something,” Biggane says — and launched franchises with different curation in multiple other territories.

But a more tangible differentiator arrived in 2018 with the launch of a playlist tool, internally known as Reverb, that artists and companies use to submit music to the editorial staff. It provides a uniform process for all music, and also helps to insulate the editorial staff from being pressured by labels or artists (which is the artist and label relations team’s job). But just as significantly, it enables the staff to discuss music in one place, in a way reminiscent of staff notes at a radio station or record store. “It’s how we listen to and share music, via tags and other methods,” Monahan says. “It keeps us organized and it’s a great way to go through songs that people feel deserve attention.”

Whether your generation’s metaphor is the cool record-store employee, blogs or TikTok, New Music Friday is aiming to be that voice. And like anything created by humans, unconscious bias can creep in: Three of the top seven songs in the Oct. 9 NMF were co-written by hitmaker Justin Tranter.

“Wow, we certainly wouldn’t have done that on purpose,” Monahan says when this is pointed out. “But,” he continues, changing tone, “if the songs were on a level that it happened organically, I’m kind of OK with it.”

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