How to Game Spotify and Instagram’s Algorithms to Help Artists

Buying albums and merch is the most direct way to support musicians, but saving and sharing their posts and songs goes a long way too.
JT
Chicago, United States
CV
illustrated by Cathryn Virginia
October 28, 2020, 11:00am
Instagram and Spotify Algorithms For Musicians

2020 has been a terrible year to be a performing musician. With tours halted and venues shuttered nationwide until at least early 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, vital revenue streams for artists trying to make a living have been effectively cut off. Many are going back to day jobs.

Now that in-person live music is no longer a reality, there are few ways to directly support musicians. You can subscribe to artist Patreons and donate through links on Spotify artist pages, but most importantly, you should be buying music and merch, especially through Bandcamp, during their monthly Bandcamp Friday 100 percent commission days. These are necessary and important steps to take to ensure touring artists can weather the pandemic. But there are also ways to give them a boost that don’t require spending any money: Simply follow the artists you like and save their songs on your streaming platform.

Earlier in October, Los Angeles-based musician Gabe Goodman posted a Twitter video explaining how Spotify’s algorithms affect how artists get viewed on the streaming platform. In the clip, he says, “if you find yourself using streaming services like Spotify you should be liberally and frequently saving songs you like and following artists.” Because artists are struggling this year and that most people consume music digitally, Goodman says, it’s important to do these simple and easy tasks so your favorite artists land on algorithmically generated playlists like Spotify Weekly. Where other artists with institutional support like record labels and publicists can lobby these streaming services for playlist placement, independent and DIY artists need that extra push from fans who consume their music on Spotify.

Goodman’s video is an important reminder about something that, if you’re normal, you rarely think about: The ways people use streaming services like Spotify matter. Its algorithms can have real-life consequences for artists struggling for attention.  Because Goodman’s video was so informative, VICE called him up to further explain how musicians are at the mercy of algorithms from Spotify to Instagram and what fans can do to give their favorites a boost.

“I started to think about this stuff as soon as I was beginning to release my own music in 2018,” said Goodman, adding that his day job is in social media marketing. “I'm obviously needing to be on Instagram and on these platforms a lot for work. But also, that's essentially what a musician is in 2020: a social media manager who occasionally writes music.”

When you’re using Spotify or a social media platform like Instagram, the way you interact with an artist’s posts or songs is surprisingly important. “When you're saving and sharing, it demonstrates a different relationship with the value of that content, because it gestures towards something you’d want to revisit or send to people you care about,” Goodman said. “There's a million reasons that I maybe want to like something, whether I know the person and I want to support them or whatever it is. That is how these algorithms approximate human connection.” According to Goodman, to these algorithms, merely pressing “like” or giving a “heart” on Instagram is not as important as saving or sharing, which boosts musician’s posts to the top of more feeds.

In Spotify’s case, pre-saving songs, liking songs, and following an artist is crucial to that artist’s success on the streaming platform. “On these big playlists on any of these platforms there is a finite amount of space,” Goodman pointed out. “When playlists like All New Indie come out every Friday, there's only 15 or so slots each week, and most of those are reserved for artists with teams, record labels and strong distribution support.” The way to counteract that is to seriously engage with the songs so the algorithm catches on.

Goodman has an easy way to think about this, and it’s to treat your favorite artists like you would your friend’s band. “When my friends put out music and I want to support them, I will pre-save and like their song on Spotify, post it on social media, and add it to a playlist,” he said. “But if Spotify users in general had a little bit more of this mindset of really wanting to shout from the rooftops about being excited about their favorite music, there’s power in these algorithms to maybe do a little bit of a better job at lifting up artists.

While this is no substitute for physically purchasing music and merch, especially through Bandcamp, which Goodman notes is the easiest and most effective way to support artists, these are easy and free steps to follow to help out. “The way these platforms are currently designed, if people use them as if they were supporting their friends all the time, there's a chance that could make a big difference,” he said.

Gabe Goodman has a new song called “Unlovable” which will appear on his New Things EP, out December 4. Josh Terry is a writer in Chicago.