Liberate Us From Being “Playlisted”

Liam Benzvi talks Spotify and songwriting in the age of playlists.

Here I am, oscillating in the liminal space between making playlists and being playlisted. It’s a daily reckoning: How do I listen to music versus how do I write music? My music taste feeds an algorithm that determines what is popular; consequently, the algorithm determines the kind of music I’m expected to write if I want to be heard. I’ve met musicians who boast a love of  Aphex Twin and Nirvana, who DJ Jon Hassell and Laraaji at their jobs, but they make Harry  Styles music. When I started releasing music by myself, I tried to pitch myself to journalists as “No Wave,” even though I was writing very straightforward pop songs, almost like I was pitching my taste rather than my work. 

It’s ultimately innocent and perhaps needs no explanation, but I can’t help but wonder if we’re all being conditioned into musical cognitive dissonance. How long until creators can’t recognize themselves? Who are the figures in my career that encourage my dysphoria? Is it the “curators”? I often run through the list: 

  • Producers who have told me to make things “sound hotter”
  • My very first manager who often gave me writing notes — “make the bridge the chorus” 
  • My label, only texting me when I’ve landed a playlist, and wanting me to write more songs like the song that I landed on the playlist
  • Myself, making playlists. Seeking the key to vibes

I toured the Spotify office in 2015 with my old band, right before we were to release our first record. We wound through a maze of break rooms and ping pong tables, dodged rogue  espresso cups and hackysacks, until we reached our meeting place: a room filled with drum  heads hanging on the wall, each signed by a different band that had gone on the same tour.  We sat down, and were handed sharpies and a clean drum head. While we signed our names,  they explained to us that if we wanted our singles to be put on their playlists, we needed to  make our own artist playlists — a quid pro quo. Their term was “visibility within the platform.” I think my greatest fear is to be invisible. 

The Patti Smith narrative is tired. Nobody wants to see me eating a donut for breakfast and ramen for dinner. We want oysters and miche. Rare steak. Olive brine. Always on vacation and never broke. Museum selfies. 

I got really into cataloging and organizing my homegrown music library during lockdown. I bought a disc drive and started ordering CDs on Discogs, all with the intent of keeping my playlists private and exclusive to my own enjoyment. Then I started displaying the jewel cases on the living room shelf, and imagined inviting my friends over so they could peel through the dozen or so of them and nod with approval. Then, on my Instagram story, I posted a picture of my computer screen. I was playing a song from my iTunes library that you could only find on YouTube. Then I started going back and forth between streaming services and my personal collection. The CDs began to grow dusty, the disc drive got lost in a drawer, and I began to fixate on my own streaming numbers.  

Just for fun, I got a second Spotify account so I could stream my songs on repeat while  I slept. I did this for a little while until I saw the two rounds of payments being taken out of my  bank account. I casually mentioned that I had done this to a musician acquaintance the other day, and they got really awkward with me, like I was breaching a forbidden topic. Then they told me they knew someone who did this 24/7 from six different screens at once, and they had over a million plays on all of their songs. It made me feel sad, but I also admired their friend’s commitment. 

There was a minute when everyone I knew had an opera they were working on. It felt like a cry for help to liberate us from being playlisted. It wasn’t so much opera, but more like  nonlinear multimedia chaos meant to only be performed (and Instagrammed). Collages of  different artists’ works in progress, all under one umbrella of curation, the term “opera” made  useful for its ability to elevate the sum drama of its parts to high art. Basically a playlist.  

One of my recent singles was added to a Spotify editorial playlist, and I was provided with a customized image link that made it look like I was the foremost featured artist, when in  actuality, I came in 20th. It was a shareable, bite sized delusion of grandeur. Upon posting it on my story, within the first 15 minutes I received several clap-hands emojis, some  congratulatory remarks, and a few “Wow”s. I was the king of the playlist; visible within the  platform.

Liam Benzvi‘s debut album Acts of Service, which was co-produced by Wet, is out via Terrible Records February 18. Praised for his “narrative lyricism and danceable hooks” (MTV) Benzvi has been “New York’s crooner and heartthrob” (Flaunt) since his days as the co-founder and lead singer of indie pop outfit Strange Names. From opening for Azealia Banks to Janelle Monae to Yeasayer to Porches to Wet, Benzvi has been able to blend in and out of the indie spaces.