How to Make a Popular Spotify Playlist (Without Promoting It)

(Special thanks to James Rhodes of FiXT for help with this article.)

Spotify offers playlisters a chance to make a virtual mixtape for the whole world to hear. Creating these mixes is an engaging hobby in its own right, and if your list gains enough followers it can even become a meaningful way to support your favorite artists. However, the best methods for expanding your playlist’s audience aren’t obvious, and common advice on the subject is just as likely to lead you to frustration as it is to help you connect with new followers.

Nearly all posts on this subject emphasize promotion on platforms outside Spotify, but I honestly believe that promoting your list is non-essential and should only be done to supplement the work you do on the list itself.

Spotify will do most of the promotion for you, and a good playlist will pick up followers without you doing any legwork.

It’s entirely possible to make a popular Spotify playlist without analytics and without any promotion.

I was able to to gain over 30,000 followers on a playlist dedicated to an underground genre of music before I did a single promotion for it. That list (Synthwave / Retro Electro) now has over 60,000 followers and gains nearly 100 people per day through organic reach. Even though I do promote it on socials now, the followers I gain from those posts are nothing compared to the natural growth that happens on a daily basis.

I’ve learned several useful things on the path toward building a popular playlist, things that I’ve been able to replicate and successfully apply to new playlists. I had to learn many of these things the hard way, but hopefully you won’t have to. Several of these methods are never mentioned in other guides, and in some cases, I’m even willing to argue against the advice offered in prominent posts on the subject.

It’s entirely possible to make a popular Spotify playlist without analytics and without any promotion.

Forget that miracle social media post that will blow up your mix. Focus instead on these approaches, be patient, and your playlist will find its audience.

Listen to Your Playlist

This may sound odd, but it’s the absolute best way to get a new playlist off the ground. After almost seven years and thousands of hours spent experimenting with dozens of different playlists, I can promise you this works.

Listen to your own playlist. Often.

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Playlists with high engagement become more visible within Spotify than those with fewer active listeners. When you make a new playlist, that engagement is entirely up to you. If you make a new list and never listen to it, it will sit at 0 followers for the rest of time. If you make a list and listen to it almost every day for several weeks, you’ll see your follower count climb upward.

It’s worth reiterating that my playlist reached 30,000 followers before I did a single piece of promotion for it. It had been gaining listeners slowly for some time, but the real spark came when I began using the playlist as the soundtrack to long gaming sessions on Borderlands 2. Once I started listening regularly, the slow trickle abruptly turned into a steady stream of new followers.

Listen to your own playlist. Often.

Once you have a high number of engaged followers (more info on engagement later) your new listeners will do most of this work for you. With hundreds of people playing your mix every day, Spotify will make the list increasingly visible to new people whether you listen or not, and the process of it going viral will be underway.

But it starts with you, so listen to your own list.

Even if you stop reading here and ignore the rest of this article, this one thing alone can help your playlist reach hundreds or even thousands of people.

Make the Playlist For Yourself

Similar guides will encourage you to consider your audience and build a playlist geared toward your listeners. This is useful to a small extent, but worrying too much about what other people want will make it difficult to be decisive with your list and can lead to a mix that sounds just like everyone else’s.

Even worse, if you begin adding music you don’t personally enjoy, you’re likely to stop listening, which will impact the engagement of your new list.

Stay true to yourself and what you want. This is your list, and no one knows what should be in it better than you do. Put the music you love into your mix and it will develop a unique personality that will stand out from similar ones. New followers want to hear something different, and the best way to give them that is by keeping the selection personal.

Be Picky with Your Choices

Dragging and dropping entire albums into a list is a recipe for disaster. As a playlist maker, you’re expected to be the one sorting through hundreds or thousands of songs to find the best ones.

Don’t ask your listeners to do the work.

Put only your favorite songs into a list. Try to ask yourself, “Do I love this song?” and if the answer is no, don’t add it. Or, as I constantly remind myself when I’m curating a list, “When in doubt, leave it out.”doorsCreate a separate, private playlist for music you’re considering for your popular playlist and do your curating there. Then drop the songs you like into your public list.

The stricter you are with your selections, the better your playlist will be and the faster the follower count will grow.

Size Doesn’t Matter

I honestly don’t think the size of a playlist is as important as the overall quality. Many guides like this one recommend ultra small playlists with 50 songs or fewer, but you should do what feels right for you and your lists.

I will burn through a playlist of less than 100 songs in a day and be bored with it within a week. I love big playlists, and a lot other people do too. But it has to be good. My Synthwave / Retro Electro list has always been big, and it’s currently hovering around 1,000 songs. But the key is that I’ve previewed over 20,000 synthwave songs for that list, which means that 95 percent of the songs I’ve heard didn’t make the cut.

Be picky.

The stricter you are with your selections, the better your playlist will be and the faster it will grow.

It’s not always easy, but this is the key to having high engagement, which helps your lists stay viral. The better your playlist is, the more your followers will listen to it. The more they listen to it, the more Spotify will promote it to potential new listeners, and the faster your playlist will expand its reach.

Put Your Best Stuff Upfront

I completely underestimated the importance of this for years, but I can’t stress it enough. Put your best songs at the very top of the list. The song in the first spot of a popular playlist can get as many as 75 percent more plays than the song in the second spot. The majority of people click on that first song to sample the playlist. If they like it, they stay. If they don’t like it, they leave.

Make that first song your introduction and make it count.starting block

You should aim to always have music you’re excited about in the top 10-12 spots.

This is true to a slightly lesser extent for the next 10-12 songs in your list. Choose these songs carefully, and pay attention to how the songs flow from one into the next. Organize the top of your list like it’s the best mixtape you ever made and it will grab and keep new listeners while encouraging existing ones to come back for more.

Update the Playlist Regularly

This won’t always be possible, but try to add new additions to the top of the list, especially if the music was recently released. You’ve already made sure that every song going into your playlist is great, so it won’t hurt you to be cycling out the tracks that were on top before. You don’t have to delete them, just move them down. You should aim to always have music you’re excited about in those top 10-12 spots.

If you’re feeling ambitious and you’re working with a large genre, go for regular updates. For a long time, I was adding around 10-15 new songs to the top of my main synthwave playlist every Friday and it had a significant impact on engagement and follower growth. People come back each week to hear those new tracks, and that keeps engagement high.

(Side note: it’s almost essential to have a desktop for making serious changes to your playlists. The mobile and laptop versions of the Spotify app aren’t equipped for heavy curating.)

Keep the Name the Same

Another odd one, but one that can cripple your follower growth if you ignore it. Don’t change the name of your list once it’s gained momentum.

When my list was close to 40,000 followers I attempted to make a change and give it a short, concise name, “Ultimate Synthwave.” The result buried my follower growth. It went from 65 people per day on average to one or two per day. Even worse, people started leaving the list. I lost hundreds of followers within a few days.

The stagnant follower growth lasted an entire month.

I thought it would snap back and the growth would eventually return, but it never did. Essentially zero new followers each day from Spotify’s internal promotion. After a month I yielded and changed the name back to what it had been, and within a few days the growth was up to around 30 people per day, and within a couple months was back to what it had been.

This is especially relevant if you have a rotating mix of songs or rotating curators. It seems logical to change your playlist name to advertise the new mix, but doing so can break Spotify’s internal promotion and kill your follower growth.

Pick a title you like and then never touch it.

This is similarly important for the cover art, though in a slightly different way. Many people recognize your list by the art, and making a change will leave people confused and unable to locate their favorite playlist, which in turn hurts engagement.

Choose a Descriptive Title

“Hot Nights, Summer Hits” sounds cool, but it doesn’t tell anyone what the content of your playlist is and no one will ever type that into the search field on Spotify. In my experience, a playlist with a descriptive title, such as a genre name, is the best option, though you also want it to stand out. Simply naming your playlist “Rock Music” isn’t going to do you any favors either.woman on a computerThe formula that has worked best for me is to have one or two genre names in the title that give listeners a clear idea of what’s in the list, for example “Synthwave / Retro Electro” or “‘80s Underground Metal / Old School Metal.” This isn’t essential, but it’s worked for me. One name can be general, while the other can be more specific or help clarify the content of your selection.

If your focus crosses genres or is more broad, try to put a spin on it. Something like ‘80s Pop Perfection or Hip-Hop House Party can be both descriptive and eye-catching.

If you need help discovering the genre names for your favorite music, try searching for artists on Last.fm and looking at the most common genre tags on their artist page.

Add Popular Artist Names to the Title

If you want your playlist to stand out in search results, and you should, then you might consider adding popular artist names to your title. This makes the title bulky, but a lot of people come to genres because of one or two popular artists they’ve heard and they aren’t necessarily going to know the genre name. Those people are likely to type in an artist name and look for playlist results. If that artist name is in your title, then bam, they see your list.

Anyone skimming over playlists will also have a better idea what your focus is. For example, it’s almost meaningless to title a playlist “Power Metal” or “Synthwave” as there’s a huge variety of music within those genres. Adding artist names narrows the focus and helps potential listeners connect the dots, so they can say, “Oh, this is a playlist of ‘80s power metal, not the symphonic stuff. That’s cool, that’s what I’m into.”

As I mentioned, this makes a title bulky and a little awkward, which is certainly a consideration. For example, here’s the full title of my popular synthwave playlist:

Synthwave / Retro Electro (Lost Years, Waveshaper, Nightstop, etc.)

Whew.

That’s a mouthful. Many people will argue that it’s better to have a short and sweet playlist title, though having long, descriptive titles has only seemed to help my lists. Not only am I defining and advertising the focus of my playlist with a long title, but I’m essentially giving new listeners five opportunities to find it in search results.

If a person searches within Spotify for “synthwave,” “retro electro,” “lost years,” “waveshaper,” or “nightstop” my playlist has a chance to pop out at them on the results page.

A lot of people come to genres because of one or two popular artists they’ve heard and they aren’t necessarily going to know the genre name.

I’ve had playlists that weren’t gaining followers until I added artist names to the title, at which point a trickle of new followers started coming in. Considering I wasn’t actively listening to or updating the list, that seemed like a clear indication the artist names were helping people find it.

(Don’t) Borrow from Pop Culture

thief

Several popular playlists have built their following on name recognition and search engine traffic from trending topics. Using the title of a big-budget movie, video game, or other piece of prominent pop culture can help even a subpar playlist reach tens of thousands of followers. For example, playlisters have unofficially “borrowed” the names and visual aesthetics of Drive, Cyberpunk 2077, and many others, even when the music in those lists has no relationship to the franchise they mimic.

There are questions about the ethics and potential legality of this tactic, though it’s hard to argue with results. Leave this one up to personal integrity.

Be Original with Your Mix

This won’t be easy to hear, but creating playlists for popular and established genres is setting yourself up for disappointment. For example, making a playlist dedicated to the main synthwave genre at this point is going to be a steep uphill climb, as there are hundreds of Spotify playlists focused on the music and it’s going to be very hard to stand out. Part of the success of my Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist stems from the fact that it was one of the very first ones on Spotify. When I originally made the list in late 2012 there were only five or six other lists dedicated to the genre.

The minimal level of competition helped it stand out, and my playlist had already begun its viral journey well before the explosion of new playlists hit. All the synthwave playlists from that early Spotify era have thousands of followers now, even if their owners haven’t updated or worked on them in years.

In other words, it’s good to be early.

So instead of making a broad playlist for a large and established genre, here are some things to try.

Anticipate New Genres and Subgenres

It’s easy to look back on what’s already been made, but if you can look forward to the future of your favorite genres, your playlists will benefit from it. Easier said than done, though if you’re listening to a large volume of music you’re likely already hearing new ideas and should be able to predict the changing tides.

Music innovation is constant. Focus on the patterns you hear and don’t be afraid to try something new.

down the road

I started a Popwave / Dreamwave playlist in 2018 that reached 1,000 followers in under six months, almost all of it organically. I built the list in anticipation of an emerging splinter genre and created the “popwave” label to separate it from the sea of synthwave playlists in the world.

The quick follower growth on it is no coincidence.

Music innovation is constant. Focus on the patterns you hear and don’t be afraid to try something new.

If you can anticipate trends and evolutions in genres, or at least luck into them like I did the first time, your playlist has a good chance of doing well.

Focus on a Theme or Mood

A similar, though more accessible option, is to choose a theme or mood for your playlist. In other words, carve out a slice of a large genre and focus on that. Or focus on a mix of genres with a similar feeling or atmosphere. If you love contemporary mainstream pop but enjoy the melancholic songs more than the upbeat party songs, focus on the sad stuff. Make an entire list of modern breakup songs that work well together and generate a distinctive mood.

Anyone can drop a group of random songs into a playlist. Having a clear focus separates your list from those of everyone else.

Add Attractive Cover Art

Sometimes an image can be more powerful than a playlist’s title or content, and an attractive piece of cover art will get people clicking on your list to see what’s inside. Music genres almost always have their own visual aesthetic, so look at some of your favorite album covers for inspiration.

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If you’re not able to use Photoshop or similar programs to make an original image, ask a friend or co-worker for help. Or, if you have some money to spare, track down an illustrator or designer to commission an image. A flashy logo with the title of your list by itself can be very effective.

There are also plenty of creative commons and royalty-free images floating around the web that may match the style of your list, so do some hunting.

By default, Spotify displays the cover art for the four albums at the very top of your playlist. (Unless you’ve moved songs manually, these will be the first four albums you added to your playlist.) At the very least, rearrange the song order to create an attractive four-square grid of album art, keeping in mind that these songs will also be the first ones listeners click on.

Outside Promotion

What, you thought this article was about building a playlist without promoting it?

It is.

Don’t bother with promotion unless you have a strong network built up on socials or have connections to help boost your posts. Otherwise, it’s not worth your time and energy. Even once you have a decent social presence, you’re likely to only get a few followers out of a successful post, which is nothing compared to what Spotify can do for you organically.

One possible exception is Reddit, which I’ve seen one person have great success with (to the tune of tens of thousands of new followers in a few days, more than once).

Instead of promoting your playlist, spend your time making it great.

However, getting a viral playlist post on Reddit — even with moderator connections or other help — is similar to winning the local lottery. I’ve had very little success promoting my playlists on Reddit, and most artists and influencers I know haven’t either.

Just like the actual lottery, you’re better off working hard and taking care of business over a long period of time than gambling on a big payoff, so focus most of your energy on your playlist.can talk

It’s better to let other people promote for you, and they’ll do it if they like your list, even if you’ve never met them.

It’s also worth mentioning that external promotion tends to gain ghost followers who look at the list once and never come back. I’ve seen playlists that I knew had been successfully promoted and had comparable follower numbers to some of my lists, but the engagement on theirs was a fraction of mine. (You can see discovery rate in the About section of an artist’s profile on Spotify’s desktop app.)

discovery

Big follower numbers look great, but it’s more important to have active, engaged listeners who will help your playlists continue to grow organically and give real support to the artists you’ve added.

Of the first 40,000 followers on my main synthwave list, less than 100 of them came from personal efforts to promote it. Instead of worrying too much about promotion, spend your time making an exciting selection of music.

Conclusion

Spotify is pretty opaque about the best methods for creating a successful playlist on its platform, though the approaches I’ve described are ones I’ve tested and used successfully on multiple lists, and they should be helpful for anyone starting out.

Establish a focus for what you’re doing, be original, be picky, and listen to your playlist often. Chances are your mix won’t blow up overnight, but stick with it and you have a great shot at making your Spotify playlist a popular one.


Follow Iron Skullet on Spotify and enjoy frequent updates in the popular Synthwave / Retro Electro playlist

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