Reflections: is Spotify Wrapped designed to celebrate artists or big data?

Over the last decade, Spotify has changed the way people listen to music and how artists earn money from their creations. Ostensibly, its annual Spotify Wrapped campaign celebrates the music streamed by its users and the relationship between artists and their fans, but is there more to it? In the wake of the 2019 edition, Katia Mullova assesses what implications this focus on data sharing has on wider music culture. 

As the decade draws to a close, ‘tis the season to reflect on social media. Where a young Facebook once gave us photo montages and word clouds, now people look to Spotify for a rundown of the past twelve months. Spotify Wrapped – which just went live for its third iteration – lands somewhere between personality quiz and “listening to…” statuses on MSN messenger. The idea is to ‘reveal’ each user’s favourite artist or genre according to their listening statistics, with the view to sharing those results on social media; if you’re an artist, meanwhile, you can use Artist Wrapped to learn about the listening habits of your fans. 

Amid the general end-of-year hype flogged by companies left, right and centre, the trend doesn’t stand out as particularly remarkable: if anything, it’s a bit of fun for users to publish what their listening habits say about them. Often, results are posted with a tongue-in-cheek comment about what led the algorithms astray; sharing an account with a younger sibling, for example, or listening to the same white noise playlist to get to sleep every night. More than getting an accurate reflection of music taste, it’s sharing the data itself that counts.

This raises the question: is it really possible for us to talk about data-sharing so lightly in 2019? A couple of decades ago, “end-of-year statistics” described that ritual of the corporate business world: a final lap of number-crunching before offices emptied out for Christmas. It was hardly a hallmark of public-facing music evaluation. Now, however, Spotify has engineered an attractive meeting-in-the-middle between company and consumer, whereby users are encouraged to join in on the digital evaluation process and connect with it on a personal level. 

Importantly, the statistics had to be shared: a Spotify blog post from 2018 encouraged fans to “take your Wrapped stats and spread them around—on social media, with your fans, your team, your label, your family and friends.” Never mind Facebook landing in hot water, or that month of tiresome GDPR updates. Spotify users were told to “be brave” and publish the stats themselves.

And sure enough, countless users became smitten with the idea of sharing a year of personal data. Even before its launch this week, 2019 Spotify Wrapped was hotly anticipated on Twitter, with people demanding to know what they’d listened to as if someone else had done the listening for them. Enthusiasm teetered on competition as users like this one boasted of their streaming stats: “I spent 50,256 minutes streaming music on Spotify. I like music … none of [my friends] had listened to quite as much music as I had.” Another user tweeted their results with the caption, “I’m okay with this kind of consumer surveillance.” Most comments betray the same knee-jerk belief in their own statistics’ wider insignificance.

So what is the wider significance of Spotify Wrapped? Ultimately, the answer boils down to two things. Let’s start with Spotify’s unique knowledge of consumers and its corresponding role in the digital ad market. As Liz Pelly explained so well in her commentary on Spotify’s mood playlists, the inherent intimacy of listening to music makes it the ultimate Trojan horse for tapping into consumer moods, behaviours, and buying choices. Spotify has capitalised on this wealth of data to the extent that, according to a statement from the Bank of England’s chief economist, last year “researchers were increasingly gauging the public mood by analysing Spotify streaming data.” Where the Journal of Marketing once complained that “music is not well understood or controlled by marketers,” now Spotify holds the key to people’s emotions – day in, day out. 

It’s worth reading the full article to comprehend just how Orwellian the whole thing is. Spotify is brazen about its plans to level the playing field against companies like Google and Facebook by harvesting and selling user data to advertisers hungry for consumer attention; its Global Head of Automation Sales promising great things once they gain access to “deeper first party-data.” It also acquired companies like Seed Scientific, a data science consulting firm specialising in targeted ads, and Echo Nest, a “music intelligence” and data platform that pitches itself as “automatically knowing everything about music.” Echo Nest co-founder Brian Whitman told The New Yorker in 2014: “We’ve cracked the nut as far as knowing as much about the music as we possibly can automatically, and we see the next frontier as knowing as much as we possibly can about the listener.” 

Strategies like this support Pelly’s view that “the commodity is no longer music…the commodity is users and their moods.” And when we look at the way Spotify asserts, “you are what you stream,” or how it claims to “help [users] discover new things about their personality,” its focus on knowing and defining musical taste takes on a controlling aspect, bent on dictating and defining users’ musical choices; which brings us back to the message of Spotify Wrapped. 

Admittedly, Spotify Wrapped is not the same as the mood playlists Pelly takes an interest in – it’s tempting to concede that the campaign is harmless, even if the company itself is not. A second question remains: even if Spotify isn’t manipulating its users, what is its end-of-year campaign doing for the creators of its musical content? Looking at some of its 2018 slogans, the campaign seemed to be advocating a relationship of support between fans and artists, telling users: “You spent X hours with your favourite artist A, and the pleasure was all theirs.” Still, it’s debatable how far that relationship actually exists. As The Verge noted in 2015 (back when Spotify Wrapped was known as Year In Music), its campaign’s “quantitative breakdown inherently raises questions about what your stream count really means for artists.” Spotify, it argued, “has unintentionally given users a tool for determining their monetary value as a fan — at least when it comes to streaming.”

DJ Alexander Nut recently tweeted a breakdown of the pay-outs offered by different music platforms.

To recap, streaming hasn’t been kind to most musicians. After CD sales peaked in the ‘90s, artists have been earning less and less with Spotify paying out a mere 0.009 cents per play, which is more than YouTube but far less than mainstream radio (as recently pointed out by Eglo boss Alexander Nut). That means that to make $10 on the platform, an artist has to get their track played at least 1,190 times. While Spotify and its advocates claimed to save music labels from being sucked dry by illegal downloads, critics accuse the platform of pulling artist earnings out from underneath their feet and making it impossible for smaller artists to make a living from their music. In the face of the knotty subtexts of an internet world, it’s easy to leave the maths undone: “It’s like this mind trick going on,” Thom Yorke complained of Spotify in 2013. “People are like, ‘with technology, it’s all going to become one in the cloud and all creativity is going to become one thing and no one is going to get paid and it’s this big super intelligent thing’. Bullshit.”

This is well documented in a Resident Advisor podcast delving into the economics of streaming culture and dance music. The podcast flags the discrepancy between what the user pays and what they listen to, explaining how an individual user’s subscription fee is allocated to artists based on worldwide popularity, and not to the artists that person actually listened to. In other words, personal listening stats underrepresent the payment users make to their favourite artists – unless the artist is at the top of the Spotify pyramid.

With this in mind, Spotify Wrapped feels like a bit of a slap in the face to artists who aren’t getting paid very much. To name one example, last year a sardonic Instagram post by Scratcha DVA juxtaposed impressive streaming stats with the words “ur bnk statement £15”, underlining the mismatch between numbers emphasised by Spotify and real artist earnings. Meanwhile UK band The Surrealists tweeted a parody Artist Wrapped image listing “plays needed to earn minimum wage – 1,117,021” along with the caption: “if anyone wants to leave our tracks on repeat so we can afford to eat, that’d be great.” 

Underpayment aside, Spotify Wrapped further contributes to a culture of valuing music with statistics, taking the concept of end-of-year lists to new levels (omitting an entire month of releases in the process, let’s not forget). It calculates the worth of artists without regard for the nuances of their creative output. A day after Spotify Wrapped’s 2018 release, Auntie Flo described himself as “shocked” by the engagement of artists with their annual statistics, asking “have the robots won?” The platform may champion “data stories,” but what about musical stories? 

In 2017, it was this omission of context that led Resident Advisor to announce they would no longer publish an end-of-year DJ chart, explaining that “the homogeneity of the results didn’t represent the diversity of the scene.” Because of RA’s prominence, their chart had translated into a kind of musical stock exchange through which artists could be not just evaluated, but literally valued (with a change in chart position warranting a higher DJ fee). RA conceded that due to changes in the underground music industry (namely its visibility and profitability) the polls were creating financial biases by failing to shine a spotlight on lesser known names for whom the chart was originally introduced. 

That’s the trouble with statistics – they usually skim the surface of something more complex, which Manchester duo Children of Zeus acknowledged (above) when they tweeted in 2018: “numbers can’t explain the shit we did this year.” Moreover, measuring 12 months of musical output in minutes and plays is a recipe for disaster in terms of artists’ mental health. Spotify Wrapped turns the heat up on a hugely competitive industry at a time when even Instagram and Facebook are recognising the negative impact of simplistic numbers on users’ self-worth. Rather than capturing the incommunicable, transient moments that make music so meaningful, numerical data honours the size, reach and repetition of musical units. Spotify’s global head of partner solutions Danielle Lee claims that what she calls “data storytelling” enables the company to “leverage the power of [users’] data” to give them something “unique.” But ironically, it’s the unique aspects of each artist’s music that are failed by a campaign like Spotify Wrapped. 

Ultimately, it’s up to users whether they choose to celebrate music in this way. There are alternatives, however, such as Buy Music Club – a website created by Avalon Emerson and friends as a counteraction to end-of-year lists like Spotify’s. The hope is to give fans a simple, yet tangible way to support their favourite artists and tracks: to compile the music they love as playlists that link directly to Bandcamp. Rather than catering to the detached “lean-back listeners” Spotify relies on to feed its advertising partners, Buy Music Club encourages thoughtful, attentive curation from music lovers who want to put their money where their listening is. 

Buy Music Club playlists, like this one from Skee Mask, encourage listeners to support artists by purchasing music directly from Bandcamp

There are other incentives seeking to dislodge the focus away from the listener and back to the artist. This piece from XLR8R covers two such ideas: a streaming site called Resonate which proposes a fairer payment system for artists, and a music-identification service called BMAT that facilitates royalties from club plays. Mixcloud is on a mission to level the economics of listening with Mixcloud Select, a feature that ensures creators are “rewarded as a valuable part of the audio streaming ecosystem.” Other outlets find ways to celebrate the year’s close in constructive ways that don’t pit artists and listeners against one another, if you only look for them. 

To be clear, it’s worth acknowledging that Spotify has its perks, such as allowing for playlist collaboration or lowering financial barriers for those who simply can’t afford to buy the music they love. And as the examples above demonstrate, the solution doesn’t necessarily lie outside of streaming. For now, it may be as simple as adding a personal voice to the algorithms – whether that takes the form of a short sentence compelling friends to check out a niche artist; or a long-form post describing an especially memorable musical experience. You don’t need a subscription to sit down with someone and play them an album that really spoke to you, even if you listened to it just once. 

I know these kinds of recommendations, tied to a specific, unrepeatable moment, are often the ones that stick the most; as rich as they are unquantifiable. To me, that kind of sharing is something worth celebrating. 

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