How Hyperpop, a small Spotify playlist, grew into a big deal

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How Hyperpop, a small Spotify playlist, grew into a big deal
Hyperpop Artist osquinn, 15, whose song “Bad Idea” has been streamed over a million times by Spotify users, in Woodbridge, Va., Nov. 7, 2020. The microgenre, which has a modest but dedicated following, and many different kinds of sounds, has grown from a small Spotify playlist into a big deal. Justin T. Gellerson/The New York Times.

by Ben Dandridge-Lemco

(NYT NEWS SERVICE).- One night in February, osquinn got into an argument on Twitter and decided to make a song about it. From her bedroom in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, the 15-year-old logged onto a server on the text, voice and video chat app Discord, where around 50 of her internet friends, all young artists like herself, usually spent their nights playing video games and making music together.

In a recent interview, she explained how she heard a glitchy beat by blackwinterwells, a vocalist and producer from Hamilton, Ontario, in a video chat there. Unable to focus on her homework, osquinn quickly recorded a song over the beat that night. A few days later, she released it on SoundCloud and then uploaded it to streaming services through the independent distribution service DistroKid.

Clocking in at just over a minute, “Bad Idea” is a cascade of pitched-up vocals and abrasive synths, with osquinn singing in an unaffected tone, “I’m still trapped and I can’t work, I’m too distracted/Saw your tweet and took some action, bad idea.”

Since then, Spotify users have streamed “Bad Idea” over 1 million times, an impressive feat for any independent artist on the platform, let alone one who’s too young to drive. Much of the song’s success can be traced to a playlist on the streaming service called Hyperpop, and a co-sign from 100 gecs, the experimental electronic duo of Laura Les and Dylan Brady, whose 2019 album, “1000 gecs,” crossed genres and online references at warp speed.

In July, Les and Brady took over the Hyperpop playlist as guest curators, drawing from the community of artists that had been developing on Discord and SoundCloud, where Les said she found most of the music she added. A month before their Hyperpop takeover, she tweeted out high praise for osquinn’s song: “so mad I didn’t write bad idea.”

“I think hyperpop has evolved to be a flexible enough term that I’m not as hesitant anymore to rep it at an arm’s length,” Les said in a phone interview. “It seems like it’s become more encompassing of many things.”

The Hyperpop playlist, which Spotify started in August 2019, began as a direct response to 100 gecs’ viral rise. “The fact that so many people were talking about this project inspired us to look deeper and see if there were other artists making music like this that we didn’t know about,” Lizzy Szabo, an editor at Spotify and the playlist’s lead curator, said in a phone interview.

Initially, Hyperpop featured songs by 100 gecs and artists associated with PC Music, the experimental pop collective and label founded by British producer, singer and songwriter A.G. Cook in 2013, and the forerunners of the distorted pop sound that’s become associated with the term. Szabo and her colleagues landed on the name after seeing it come up in metadata collected by Glenn McDonald, Spotify’s “data alchemist,” whose job is finding emerging sounds on the platform and classifying them into “microgenres.”

Over email, McDonald said he first saw the term applied to PC Music’s releases in 2014 but it wasn’t until 2018 that hyperpop qualified as a microgenre: “For our categorization purposes it was mostly a matter of waiting to see if enough artists would coalesce around a similar ebullient electro-maximalism.”

Some of the artists in the scene seemed to resent being grouped together under an arbitrary genre term by a big corporation. While some of them make electronic pop in the vein of PC Music, others are more inspired by online rap movements. The name started to become a meme — “hyperpoop” jokes abounded on Twitter — but the springboard the playlist provided was undeniable.

Almost overnight, osquinn watched streams of “Bad Idea” climb into the hundreds of thousands. (On Spotify, osquinn’s music is listed under P4rkr, the name she used before coming out as transgender in April.) The song performed so well on the playlist that two weeks after 100 gecs’ takeover, Szabo and the other editors put her on its “cover,” the lead image at the top of the page.

If osquinn has become hyperpop’s most visible star, then glaive, also 15, has had the fastest rise of any artist in the scene. He began recording his first songs at the start of quarantine, at first inspired by temo rapper Lil Peep, before finding artists in the hyperpop scene and quickly moving on to a brighter, more up-tempo sound that emphasizes his intricately layered vocals.

“I feel like hyperpop is not a genre,” glaive said on a FaceTime call from his home in a small town outside of Asheville, North Carolina. “I’ve made straight-up pop songs, nothing hyper about them, but they’ll still get put in the hyperpop label because I’m friends with all the people that make ‘hyperpop.’”

The Hyperpop playlist is an example of what Szabo called a “community-based playlist.” Similar to Lorem, another playlist Spotify started in 2019 that targets a specific brand of internet-savvy Gen Z listener and includes various strains of emerging pop music, Hyperpop aims to engage both the young artists who have been included under its ever-expanding umbrella and their increasingly devoted fans.

At just over 120,000 subscribers, the playlist is still relatively small, but Szabo said the rate at which listeners add its songs to their own libraries rivals that of Spotify’s biggest playlists. (RapCaviar, one of the platform’s most popular playlists, has over 13 million subscribers.) Eighty percent of its currently featured songs are independent releases and, because of its high level of engagement, the playlist can have a significant effect on artists’ careers.

Like many small, passionate scenes, hyperpop has also experienced blowups and backlashes. When A.G. Cook did a takeover of the playlist in September and added 50 songs, some of his picks became controversial. Drawing connections between old and new, as he explained later in a thread on Twitter, Cook added songs by J Dilla, Kate Bush and others — artists that were decidedly not part of the of-the-moment hyperpop universe. The fresh names appeared at the top of the playlist, bumping down many of the regulars.

“At the time, I was really mad,” osquinn said over an Instagram video call. “People were asking why we were making such a big deal about it, but they didn’t realize there were people who were literally living off that Spotify check.”

A sophomore in high school, osquinn said her parents were “speechless” when she showed them her last payout from DistroKid. She’s prone to taking long breaks from social media, but has gotten messages on Instagram from managers who want to work with her and A&Rs who want to sign her. Though she wants to make those moves eventually, she has mostly left these messages unanswered.

Dan Awad, who manages similarly internet-driven artists like Whethan and Oliver Tree, said he first found glaive’s song “Sick” on SoundCloud in June and thought, “This kid is the best songwriter I’ve ever heard in my life.” He started managing glaive shortly after and said there was immediate interest from major labels. In October, after narrowing it down to three options, glaive signed a short-term deal with Interscope for two EPs.

Even as some of these artists begin to brush up against the larger music industry, defining what hyperpop is, and what it isn’t, is still evasive. “Hyperpop is a genre but it’s also an artist and listening community,” Szabo said. “It’s a playlist that hugs both of those ideals.”

The way the term has resisted classification — moving fluidly through digital spaces and pulling in new sounds and artists as it travels — might be its biggest strength. “As far as being a genre, I think it’s still in its infancy and we’re still writing the rules for what it can sound like,” said Les of 100 gecs. “Once you can lock down specific elements of what makes something ‘it’ then it’s time to move on and do something else.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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