How Spotify, ‘Fresh Finds’ Discovers The Next Big Thing

For the music-maker and music-lover alike, discovering new music is one of the greatest thrills out there. Sometimes you hear a song and it speaks directly to a feeling that you’ve always felt, but have never been able to verbalize. Sometimes the right person shows you the right song at the right time and it blissfully cements the moment forever in your mind. Sometimes you listen to something a hundred times before it clicks and you become obsessed with it; other times, you find a song and within seconds you know that that song is going to be a friend to you for the rest of your life. In total, the emotional, joyous and profound experiences that can be spurred by music discovery often prove to be of the most invaluable moments of our lives… which is why Spotify has such a large responsibility on its hands.

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If you’re reading this article right now on American Songwriter, then you are probably well-aware of the game-changing nature of Spotify’s unprecedented innovations over the past decade. The rise of streaming has fundamentally changed every aspect of the consumer listener experience, yet the headlines of most analyses still focus on the economic factors. While those are wildly important factors and the consequences of devaluing music will be a conundrum for some time to come, there are other elements of Spotify that are as equally game-changing, yet don’t receive the same amount of due recognition. Perhaps the most prominent of these is how Spotify has become the de facto go-to vehicle for music discovery, thanks to playlists like Fresh Finds. 

See, Spotify has been curating playlists for several years and some have gone on to garner serious clout among listeners. While flagship playlists like RapCaviar and New Music Friday remain a public forum of sorts for the most popular music on the charts, playlists like Fresh Finds spotlight emerging artists (98% of artists featured have less than 50,000 monthly listeners) and have proven to be a formidable force in regard to launching careers.

Let’s indulge in a little bit of “appeal to ethos” — here’s a brief list of artists whose streaming careers were kickstarted by being featured on Fresh Finds: Aminé, Cautious Clay, Whitney, Still Woozy, Saba, Rico Nasty, Ella Vos, MISSIO, Peggy Gou, Charlie Heat, slenderbodies, Day Glow, Yaeji, Weyes Blood, IDER, Japanese Breakfast, Big Thief and more. So… yeah, as you can see, the impact of this playlist is a significant force. Now the question is: how does Spotify do it? Well, American Songwriter recently sat down with Lizzy Szabo, an editor for Spotify, to try to get to the bottom of exactly how Spotify has gotten so good at finding the next big thing. 

“Our goal is to connect as many aspiring artists with new audiences as we can, and to make that as easy as possible,” Szabo said. “To its core, Fresh Finds is a home in our playlist ecosystem for artists of all kinds, genres and regions. It’s a jumping-off point for truly emerging artists.”

That word — “ecosystem” — is one that popped up a couple of times throughout our conversation with Szabo. See, Fresh Finds is actually not a single playlist, but a series. The main Fresh Finds is a mothership of sorts, being a central hub for emerging artists. But, in addition, there’re genre-specific iterations, including Fresh Finds: Indie, Fresh Finds: Hip Hop, Fresh Finds: Country, Fresh Finds: Latin, etc.

“The main playlist is updated once a week with anywhere between 60 to 70 songs,” Szabo continued. “There are currently nine other genre-specific playlists that house anywhere between 50 to 100 tracks, but those are building from week to week. So, songs in those playlists can stay a little longer and have a home. If you want to go see who the brightest, emerging artists are in a pop space, you’d go over and check out that specific list. But, if you want to see who’s on the scene from week to week, you’d go to the Fresh Finds flagship list.”

The eclectic and ever-changing nature of Fresh Finds is part of what makes it so appealing for discovery-oriented listeners. By constantly providing a platform for new artists and new songs, Fresh Finds is able to facilitate an unprecedented rate of diverse cultural dialogue — this is thanks, in part, to the ingenious combination of algorithm and human curation. 

“Fresh Finds is actually curated in a very special way compared to a lot of the other playlists,” Szabo said. “The algorithm combs a bunch of different music blogs. It also looks closely at an ever-changing cohort of Spotify users who have a trend of listening to artists before they blow up. Or, if there are certain songs that are being written about over a variety of different blogs, we can find the Spotify users who are listening to it and look at who else they’re listening to. Then it pulls around 1,000 tracks a week for our data curation team in Boston to look through. They check for quality or any fraudulent behavior and then they group them by genre. Then, the editors take a second listen to those and decide whether or not we should put them in a playlist.”

“As far as what we’re looking for and how artists actually get on the list… well, you know, it’s so many different things,” Szabo continued. “There’s now a group of editors who work on these Fresh Finds playlists and we have so many different ears. Some people listen to more hip-hop, some people listen to more jazz or rock. Listening to these smaller artists from week to week, we have the privilege to pick up on ‘oh, well this sound is really having a moment’ or ‘wow, this week we’re seeing a lot of alternative rock.’ Maybe we hear a style of production that we’ve never really heard before — there are so many different things we’re listening for. But, ultimately, we’re monitoring what our listeners are listening to. Of course, there are those stand-out tracks that come along and we say ‘wow, we’ve never heard something like this; we should really put it in there and see what happens.’”

Sometimes that “let’s see what happens” risk really pays off — a prime example of this is 100 gecs. “We had heard of these producers Dylan Brady and Laura Les who were making music in this post-PC, hyperpop space,” Szabo said. “They were making music with a lot of other artists, they had put out some music but didn’t have a lot of traction yet on streaming services. But, then they came out with their ‘official’ release last year and we all thought ‘wow, this is so interesting and different.’ They have a difficult sound at first if you don’t know what you’re getting into, but we knew that the listeners of Fresh Finds were discovery-oriented, so we decided to shine the spotlight on that duo: 100 gecs. Obviously, they’ve come a long way since last year, but the first place we were able to do them justice on our platform was Fresh Finds. In the end, we created a playlist built around them and the style they inspire. Since then, we’ve seen so many artists put their take on that hyperpop sound, which has been really cool.”

But, for Fresh Finds, stories like that are a-dime-a-dozen. Another artist who was picked from relative obscurity and thrown onto the front pages of indie blogs thanks to Fresh Finds was JAWNY — an indie-pop project created by Jacob Sullenger. While a lot of people know Sullenger — who used to go by the name “Johnny Utah” — as Doja Cat’s ex-boyfriend, his career is a formidable force unto itself. Since its debut in 2019, Sullenger’s most popular song — “Honeypie” — has racked up nearly 60 million streams… thanks, in part, to its placement on Fresh Finds.

“I — still to this day — have no idea how the song got on there or how they found me or anything,” Sullenger told American Songwriter. “‘Honeypie’ getting put on Fresh Finds was my first time being featured on that playlist. It just set everything off. It was the first major playlist to add the song, which got me a lot of attention. That attention was mostly from peers and other artists who I had never talked to before. People were messaging me like ‘hey, I heard your song on Fresh Finds and I really liked it!’ It made me feel like I was a part of this community that I wanted to be in so badly.”

From there, Sullenger hit the ground running and built-up an impressive JAWNY fanbase. Now, with songs going viral on TikTok and a new, more eclectic and introspective release on the way, Sullenger has been able to come into a new level of creative confidence — which wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for Spotify.

“Since getting playlisted in 2019, I’ve gotten to walk around the Spotify headquarters and meet all the people,” he said. “I got to meet Lizzy [Szabo] and all the other nice people there — I got to see the faces behind this giant operation. They’re all people who love music and that’s their job every day, just love music. It’s so cool. I know a lot of artists don’t like it, but I think that streaming is awesome. I love it.” 

Another artist whose career was boosted by Fresh Finds is the bedroom pop artist,

From there, Caro has been able to calculate her release to work in sync with Spotify’s system, which has panned out tremendously well. “When I’m getting ready to release a single or an EP, I definitely think about what the best plan for releasing it would be,” she said. “I was doing a lot of research via their Spotify For Artists website. They have so many great videos with people who are experts in digital marketing and stuff like that. A couple of days out of the week, I would sit on the porch with my coffee, watch those videos and take notes where I felt I needed to. The tools are pretty much there, I just have to think about the best way for my own songs to come across. What’s the best way for me to stand out as an individual? Especially when other people are watching those same videos? Spotify takes chances on smaller, independent people before they get their bigger break. Without that, I definitely wouldn’t have the fan base that I have now. I don’t even know if I’d have the deals I have right now! I certainly feel taken care of by them.”

Spotify’s ability to almost single-handedly create entire careers is a testament to the streaming giant’s great powers… but, didn’t Spider-Man say something about those?

“It’s a responsibility,” Szabo said. “In many ways, this is more than a job — it’s our lives. It’s our responsibility to monitor what’s going on. How can we make our platform the most impactful? How can we make it so we’re supporting artists as much as we can in different ways? There’s a fine line where we never want to be pushing anything on our users. Yet, I feel that it’s our responsibility to be looking out for any user trends or indicators that can help us educate ourselves on what’s coming, in a variety of different places with a variety of sounds and artists. We’re trying our best to create the right spaces for those communities to thrive on Spotify.”

And thrive those communities have. 100 gecs, for example, not only came to prominence thanks to Spotify playlisting them, but the entire genre of hyperpop as a whole didn’t really come into formal fruition until Spotify made that playlist. Artists like JAWNY and Caro are great examples too — hard-working, innovative artists who were not “planted” by Spotify, but were enabled to organically reach huge audiences through the platform Spotify provided. 

It’s true that the story is far from over — there are still many looming questions regarding the future of Spotify and the industry as a whole. While in the past many artists griped over the way Spotify endangered the income of working musicians — and there are still some hiccups in that department — Spotify is a highly adaptive and intuitive company, and their commitment to playing a supporting role to emerging artists is as deeply-convicted as it is logistically useful. The materialist reality of the situation is: if you’re an artist releasing music and you want to reach an audience, there has never been a more efficient and creatively supportive way to do that than Spotify. 

So, while the full effects of all of this will likely remain elusive for years — perhaps generations — to come, we know one thing now: Spotify is not only changing the industry, but is changing music as a whole. As daunting as that is, it’s also wildly exciting. Decisions as seemingly simple as placing a 100 gecs song on a playlist like Fresh Finds can prove to spawn entire genres and art movements… the possibilities this presents on a wider scale are so excitingly infinite that it’s hard to wrap your head around. This moment in entertainment history might prove to be one of the more consequential developments in all of human existence… that’s pretty cool!

Listen to Spotify’s Fresh Finds playlist below:

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