Who We Be: Austin Daboh Interviewed

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For decades now, rap music has been at the forefront of progress and change in the music industry. While the majors were complaining about free downloads, mixtape rappers were becoming global superstars, making their money from live shows and endorsement deals, and now in the streaming era artists like Drake, Lil Uzi Vert and Cardi B are at the forefront once again, as playlists like Spotify’sRap-Caviar become the most important platforms for new music discovery.

South London’s Austin Daboh knows this. As senior editor at Spotify UK, the 33-year-old has been working in music for over a decade, with a particular focus on UK MC driven music. He’s watched his favourite rappers struggle against the system for years, and is glad to finally be able to witness their success in this new playlist paradigm with platforms like Who We Be.

Spotify UK’s flagship urban music playlist - curated by Daboh and his team - is focussed on reflecting listeners habits by serving up the best of UK MC driven music alongside the cream of what the US currently has to offer. After a hugely successful year for the brand, Daboh and his team are preparing to take it outside of the streaming platform and into the live sector, when Spotify presents Who We Be takes over Alexandra Palace next Thursday 30th November, with a line-up that includes Bugzy Malone, Cardi B, Dizzee Rascal, Giggs, J Hus and Stefflon Don.

Ahead of what is set to be a monumental event for the brand, Daboh took some time out to explain his role at Spotify, discuss how playlists are changing the game and offer some advice for artists looking to secure placements on playlists like Who We Be…

 

For those who are unfamiliar, could you explain your role at Spotify?

I'm a Senior Editor of Spotify in the UK, which means that I sort of have editorial oversight from a curation point of view. If you are a user of Spotify you can go and search for whatever songs that you want, albums you want, whatever playlists you want, and consume them, when you're consuming a British owned and operated playlist - that's a playlist that's been run and is looked after by me and the team I work with.

We’ve been seeing the Spotify playlist continue to increase in cultural importance over the past couple of years, could you tell us a bit about that? I think that one of the reasons why Spotify has done so well from a playlist point of view is globally we’ve hired the right people at the right time to look after each market. In the UK [team], we’re good at taking brave decisions over when to support artists.

I think historically - with underground urban music specifically - there's been a feeling that you have to go above and beyond what your peers in other genres have to achieve before being supported on a mainstream level. Spotify has brought a level of risk-taking to the market, in terms of “We like this artist, we like the music, we can see that it's reacting well”, and we take risks off the back of that: that's why so many acts now are being supported on the mainstream level.

I think the other thing that we've got, is a level of data on music consumption that hadn't really been available before. When people are consuming playlists across other mediums, the people that are creating those playlists using their gut feeling way more then they're using empirical data. At Spotify we’ve had the right balance between gut feeling and this vast amount of absolutely brilliant hard data that allows us to make the best informed decisions across any platform in the world at the moment.

How do you find the right balance between data and feeling?

Every playlist has at least a couple of people that are constantly talking about what songs should be going in, what songs could be coming out. I relate it to being like a DJ ultimately: you listen to the music, and before you try it out on a playlist you have to use your own gut feeling as to whether it will work, because often when a song is new on the system there is no data for you to look at.

So, gut feeling is super important at the start of a record. Once you try that on a playlist, every single record will have a different journey. You can look at a record like Giggs’ ‘Linguo’ for example, and straight away you knew that that was going to work. Every single data, sort of piece of data showed that that record was going to work instantaneously.

Whereas, if you look at something like Stefflon Don’s ‘Hurtin' Me’ with French Montana, that record took a couple of weeks before it started to really kick into gear. But even once the records are on the playlist, and we have a hell of a lot of data, to look at that anecdotal evidence is still really important. Because even though its performance was OK in those first couple of weeks, it was the reaction I was actually seeing outside of Spotify on the streets and in clubland that convinced me that initial gut feeling was right, let's stay on this record. And of course it turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the year.

 

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