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Spotify Pivots on Global Cultures Initiative, Alarming Music Industry

Posted on October 5th, 2019
by
Christian Emiliano


In September 2018, Spotify announced a new “Global Cultures Initiative,” hoping to increase intercontinental musical exchange, and, ideally, transform more local non-Western hits into global phenomena. “We have launched numerous high-profile playlists and programs in the recent past,” Rocio Guerrero, then Head of Global Cultures at Spotify, said in September 2018. “But Global Cultures is poised to become one of the most important things we are doing as a leader in the field of streaming audio.”

The initiative hit a rough patch recently: The original Global Cultures team was disbanded, according to three music industry sources with knowledge of the change who spoke on condition of anonymity. Guerrero was already gone — she took a job at Warner Records. Two other members of the team, Tunde Ogundipe, a Senior Editor focused on African music (and some Caribbean music), and Himanshu Suri, a Senior Editor who helped guide Spotify’s hub for Indian music (as well as working on hip-hop and indie), no longer work for the streaming service. 

Despite the changes, Spotify reaffirmed the platform’s commitment to music from around the world. “We’re investing in growing our global cultures initiative by expanding from a small team working out of New York to a larger, region-specific editorial team of experts,” a spokesperson told Rolling Stone. “Having numerous people on the ground across many markets will ensure that Spotify is fully immersed in the local music and cultures represented on our platform.” (Ogundipe, Suri, and Guerrero did not respond to requests for comment.)

While the streaming service offered reassurance, its decision prompted frustration among label executives and managers who have been working diligently to push the music industry away from its longstanding focus on North America and Western Europe. Playlists like Dancehall Official (800,000 followers) and African Heat (500,000 followers) have been untouched for 13 days in a row — just one song was added to African Heat on Wednesday — while Desi Hits (more than 300,000 followers) has also languished for 11 days.

“They were ahead of the curve,” says one music industry insider who spoke about Spotify’s new approach on the condition of anonymity. “Now they’re clearly behind the curve.”

Others worried that Spotify’s shift was indicative of the platform’s lack of concern about several styles of international music. “It feels as if Caribbean music overall has no priority at Spotify,” says Julian Jones Griffith, who manages multiple Jamaican dancehall acts. “Spotify may try to justify their lack of attention to our genres because of the relatively low streaming numbers they generate for the most part, but I would say that’s because they aren’t giving our music a fair shot.” 

The producer IzyBeatz, who works in both dancehall — he helped craft Koffee’s “Toast,” the year’s breakout dancehall single — and afrobeats (the Nigerian star Wizkid), feels similarly. “There’s so much more that can be done for these genres,” he says. “They are so much bigger [in the world] than where they are right now [on Spotify].”

The restructuring of the Global Cultures initiative comes during what appears to be a new phase for Spotify. The company’s public priority now is turbocharging its podcast business, which in theory will provide a robust stream of ad revenue (none of which has to be forked over to major music labels). Spotify set aside close to half a billion dollars to stock up on podcast-related programming and expanded its library from 185,000 titles in February to 450,000 in September, according to The Los Angeles Times. 

At the same time, the new Spotify appears increasingly averse to powerful playlisters when it comes to music. More than a dozen high-level executives have left the organization in the last 18 months, and the editors who helped build Spotify’s marquee playlists seem particularly vulnerable.

Notable departures since the start of 2018 include Guerrero, who oversaw the popular playlists Baila Reggaeton and Viva Latino; Tuma Basa, who helped build the wildly successful RapCaviar playlist; Mike Biggane, the man who ran Today’s Top Hits; Austin Daboh, Head of Music Culture and Editorial at Spotify U.K.; AJ Ramos, a U.S. Latin editor; and Doug Ford, who is widely credited with helping to develop Spotify’s playlisting strategy.

Guerrero championed Global Cultures: After she successfully built Latin-focused playlists into a hit-making force on Spotify — propelling previously unknown singles like Danny Ocean’s “Me Rehuso” on to the American airwaves — her new initiative appeared to be an admirable attempt to build a similar system to elevate music from other continents. Global Cultures programming involved the creation of new playlists centered around music styles from abroad and new “hubs” dedicated to different cultures. But when Guerrero left Spotify to become Warner’s Vice President of A&R and Cross-Cultural Strategy in October 2018, the original Global Cultures team lost its biggest advocate. 

Spotify confirmed that the initiative’s playlists and hubs will run under different oversight, overseen by a group that includes a mix of editors and employees from “artist label marketing,” including Melanie Carmen Triegaardt, Phiona Okumu, Sneha Singh, Safiya Lambie-Knight, and Max Adepoju.

But parts of the music industry appeared wary of Spotify’s new approach this week. Wizkid chose to debut his new single, “Joro,” on Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio. “There are a lot of people looking to expand in the parts of the world [where] we’re doing great,” says another manager in afrobeats who was perplexed by Spotify’s move. “If some people don’t want to take that opportunity,” he adds, “other people will.”

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