How Spotify Playlists Like Indigo Help Artists Survive the Pandemic

Three indie-country artists explain how curated playlists have been a lifeline through COVID-19.

Written by Chris Parton
How Spotify Playlists Like Indigo Help Artists Survive the Pandemic
Morgan Wade; Photo credit: David McClister; Jonathan Terrell; Photo credit: Cecilia Alejandra Blair

With COVID-19 separating artists from their fans, the past year has been a bit of a drag for musicians, to say the least. Artists at every stage of development have felt the crunch, with many forced to change course completely. But the pandemic has also spurred a new ways of building careers.

One of those new ways is through editorial playlist streaming, and Sounds Like Nashville has dug into one of those game-changing playlists. Back in March of 2020, we announced the launch of Spotify’s Indigo, a home for rootsy country and Americana with an off-the-beaten-path bent. The playlist has created a home for everyone from Luke Combs and Miranda Lambert to Tyler Childers and Lainey Wilson — and crucially, newer artists who still fly well under most fans’ radar. But if they’re lucky enough to get on a list like Indigo, they may not stay that way for long.

Across Spotify and other Digital Service Providers (DSPs), playlist streaming is exploding in popularity … and importance. In the early days, fans had to settle for a relatively small number of fairly generic options – or just make their own. But now the options are getting ever more granular, ever more niche. And it’s been helping some indie artists not just survive the COVID-19 pandemic, but thrive, as their audience grows exponentially.

Indigo for example, has generated 2.1 million new artist discoveries over the past 90 days alone (according to data supplied by Spotify), and each one of those discoveries represents a listener hearing an artist for the first time. For indie acts, that discovery used to mostly happen at live shows, which meant careers could only grow as fast as they could drive. But now things are different.

“Before COVID, everything was revolving around shows,” says Morgan Wade, one of the rising stars who have seen a big boost from Indigo placement. “Now, I haven’t played a show in a year, but I know I can book these shows in different places and sell them out. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a following before this, I did. But now it’s like, these people are obsessed with my music and freaking out to get tickets and get the record, and that feels really good.”

A tough-as-nails heartland rocker with a sweetheart snarl, the Virginia native started drawing attention as an opening act for Ashley McBryde. But in December of 2020, when “Don’t Cry” from her upcoming Reckless album (out March 19) hit Indigo, her exposure exploded.

“Things were going as good as they could without having any push, but since being added to these playlists, obviously my streams have gone up, and it’s reaching wayyy more people,” she says.

Wade has been discovered by 60,000 potential fans in the last 90 days via Indigo – including massive listener increases in the U.K. and Germany, which was previously required a whole separate strategy of international promotion. Her streams doubled after Indigo placed her next single, “Wilder Days,” and now Wade is on a total of 30 playlists across providers. To say she noticed the difference is an understatement.

“People will comment on my Instagram or Facebook page, and be like ‘Hey, I didn’t know who you were until I came across this playlist, and now I’m a huge fan,’” “The Night” singer says. “I didn’t realize before – because I’d never been added to any playlists – how much it could do for you. It’s been really cool.”

Jonathan Terrell has had a similar experience. A long established road dog from the vibrant Austin roots scene, Terrell sings like a southern Springsteen and writes like a progressive-poet nephew of Billy Joe Shaver, and has made a career of not always fitting into the mainstream country conversation.

“It’s a bunch of weird liberal cowboys up here, going ‘This doesn’t have to sound like everything else,’” he says with pride.

Playlists like Indigo give his music a natural home, surrounded by others who may not share his point of view, but share the penchant for going their own direction. Over the past three months, Terrell was discovered by 150,000 users on Spotify, and 30% of them listened for the first time on Indigo.

He released his latest album, Westward, last August, and would normally have spent the next year on the road in support of it. But with shows shut down, Indigo was a lifeline. Streaming might not bring in piles of cash like physical CDs used to, but all the added interest is still keeping the lights on.

“Sometimes you don’t see the income on streaming, but what I did see is like, thousands of new fans I’ve gotten since being on those playlists, and what they’re buying on my online store,” he says.

Terrell had a small streaming presence before May of 2020, when “Love Can Find You Anywhere” was added to Indigo. Since then he’s gone from 8,000 monthly Spotify listeners to a peak of about 80,000 – and a lot of those are becoming true fans. He’s been added to 13,000 user-generated playlists off that success, and as Texas begins to allow in-person concerts again, he can see the impact in masked faces.

“Those are real numbers that you can’t really argue with, and being on the playlist really helped out,” he explains. “I’m already seeing it personally now with people showing up to my gigs. People who show up and are like ‘I found you on Indigo, and now I’m here and I bought ticket, and here’s money for a T-shirt. And oh yeah, I want to buy a vinyl, too. … I don’t know if it will have a trajectory pull [on my career], but it’s nothing to discount. It’s a key piece of the puzzle.”

Meanwhile, that trajectory pull is noticeable for some artists – like with the emerging duo War & Pierce. A bluesy Americana act comprised of L.A.-based singer-songwriters Chris Pierce and Sunny War, the duo had some grass-roots traction following their 2016 EP debut. But after getting Indigo placement with the soul-grooving standout, “Amen,” everything changed.

Featuring delicate acoustic guitar, modern beats and a street-Gospel flair, the smooth-roots anthem hit Indigo in early October, and immediately took off. War & Pierce’s Spotify followers increased by 165 percent, and through Indigo alone, they’ve been discovered by 18,000 listeners in the last three months. In total, the track has been streamed more than 1 million times, and that figure is mind boggling to the duo.

“Indigo contributed just such a great, huge boost,” says Pierce, who co-wrote the track with War and Jared Faber after the horrifying 2017 Charlottesville white-power rally. “I think we’re up close to 100,000 [streams] on Indigo alone right now for the song. And what’s really cool for me is that it’s grouped with a lot of really great, inclusive Americana, alt-country kind of stuff. It’s just reaching a broad base.”

“Amen” has been so popular, in fact, that it’s also earned the support of radio stations around the country, which has traditionally been the way to supercharge artist discovery. But that’s been changing for years now, and compared side by side, War & Pierce think playlist streaming might finally be more important.

“I would say streaming helps more, because I think more people listen to Spotify than radio,” says War.

“We’re over a million streams [on Spotify] now, and I’d be surprised if we had a million people listen to us on the radio,” Pierce agrees. “It’s pretty mind blowing to think that a million people have streamed our song. It’s great. It’s new and exciting, and seems like something that’s going to expand even more.”

With the explosion of editorial playlists like Indigo at every DSP, that prediction seems like an easy one to make — and it’s great news for indie artists. Country, especially, has long relied on radio to drive artist discovery, and that has helped concentrate power and stardom in the small group of artists who score major-label deals. But now with these playlists acting like the “new” radio – with curators helping introduce listeners to more and more of a particular style – the playing field may be starting to level off.

As time goes on, playlists will likely take a bigger role in growing an artist’s career, and that’s going to become easier and easier to see. But it’s got intangible benefits, too.

“It makes me look cool as shit!” says Terrell with a laugh. “It’s crazy to look on a list and be like one or two notches above [Chris] Stapleton or Sturgill [Simpson]. It makes you feel like you’re doing something right, and it makes me feel like people are hearing it, too. I’m looking at it as an opportunity, more than a chance to make a bunch of money off streams. And it’s nice to be able to say ‘Hey Alexa, play Jonathan Terrell.’ She knows what’s up.”