Ah yes, another year, another ‘Spotify: Your Year Wrapped’ playlist.
While the annual instagram stories are expected, this year’s supplementary ‘Your Decade Wrapped’ was inescapable, super soaking all social platforms.
Riding the upchuck of end-of-decade nostalgia, Spotify made sure to include themes of longevity and commitment in its latest wrap-up. As we scrolled through our personalized playlists, we were reminded of our first overplayed artist, the thousands of hours we spent listening, and, consequently, our absurd commitment to this streaming service. But, enamored with the gathered data, we sifted through the songs we know too well and marveled at our self-diagnosed eclectic tastes, promising Spotify brand loyalty in the New Year.
As this and its other made-for-you playlists entail, Spotify boasts consumer-focused music discovery. To some extent, Spotify’s brand is as advertised. The streaming service bows to the user, offering access to more than 50 million songs and 3 billion playlists for $9.99 per month. Because of its engorged library, the platform necessitates a weed-whacking algorithm to help guide the user through its overgrown content. This is all good fun.
The consumer gets personalized music at a low-price and Spotify earns a loyal set of customers. At the same time, there seems to be a disparity between authentic music discovery and Spotify’s version. Music excavation as a self-guided mission is more meaningful. You set out, goal-minded, pick through the bad and the terrible, until you upturn a handful of artists or albums entirely disparate from what you expected. Yeah, it’s more time-intensive and less bountiful, but you’re left with a warm, inappropriately-deserved pride in these songs, as if they were your own.
Automated music discovery does the opposite. Its forever-feed of recommendations renders the user passive and the products disposable. While the algorithm speeds music exploration, it limits its scope and the listener’s familiarity with the music; there is a tendency to lose touch with the artist, and when prompted what we listen to it shows. We hum and haw while scrolling through our most recent playlist and sound out names we hardly know.
And “Discover Weekly” is a misnomer. The algorithm provides repurposed rather than new content, taking the given artist, song, or playlist and spewing more of the same. Simplistically, it’s doing what we want, but what are the repercussions? Is it ironing out our tastes and folding them into “Spotified” genres like “Bedroom Pop”? The easy-to-reach answer is yes: algorithm-based music discovery allows for homogeneity. This is the argument against monoculture, a term to describe the boiling down of cultural artifacts and phenomena into a monolithic mass of what society deems important. In allowing Spotfiy’s algorithm to take the reins on curation, we let ourselves silo into echo chambers of our own taste. We put faith into algorithms, assuming data collection translates to lack of bias, but we forget that programmers can program preconceived ideas.
In September of last year, famed country singer Martina McBride shed light on these biases, tweeting that in her “Country Music” playlist, Spotify recommended 140 songs by men before recommending a female country singer. Evidently, the algorithm mimics the adversity female country singers face in the music industry. Similarly, back in 2018 The Baffler’s Liz Pelly conducted a study where she exclusively listened to Spotify’s popular playlists. In all playlists, Pelly found an overwhelming majority of male artist recommendations.
What’s more is the Spotify-born artists or genres favored by binary code. These rising stars and sounds fall under what New York Times columnist Jon Caramanica deems “Spotify-core,” or in other words, Spotify’s most “clickable” sound. Artists from Spotify’s Bedroom Pop best exemplify the genre with hazy, lo-fi ballads that make you think in pastel. It’s a sound unformidable to 2000s pop-artists. Their upbeat screams of “dancing until we die” have been replaced by a new-wave pop exuding singularity, and emotional isolation. With Billie Eilish and Cuco as its poster-children “chill-pop” is making large, especially within Spotfiy’s realm. Its “Chill Hits” playlist has 5.4 million listeners, lifelessly head bopping to xanned-out melodies. Pelly poses that Spotify, ever aware of our attention-based economy, endorses artists sub chill genre through its algorithm. With one looping ambient beat bleeding into the next, why would the user click off? It’s perfect for passivity.
Admittedly, nothing is inherently wrong with a tool to ease user navigation, and if a listener wants to turn over all sides of a genre, Spotify most certainly lets them. But, there is something unhinging about adhering to mass appeal at the expense of diversity, giving power to a programmer’s stereotypes, and losing taste agency. And what is the trajectory? How much more narcotized can the beats get? The answer is unclear. And as a Spotify user who plans on renewing her plan, take my argument with a few handfuls of salt. But, let you, me, and Spotify equal the collective “we” when I say we could all benefit from increased responsibility as listeners or curators. And let the roles reverse.
Delaney Faherty is a Cal Poly City and Regional Planning junior. She wrote the article. Featured image credit to Joey Marshall.