The Spotifyification of music

Launched in 2016, Spotify’s Wrapped has joined Black Friday, non-ratings television and year-end lists as another monotonously predictable pre-Christmas ritual. Released annually in early December, the viral marketing campaign shares data with users about their listening habits during the year to date and, crucially, encourages them to share this information on social media. Countless online chats and memes follow, and Spotify’s executives top up their eggnogs while they watch the company’s app store ranking soar.

This, naturally, is the whole point: what Spotify promotes to its users as just another appealingly packaged yuletide gift is in reality little more than a free advertising grab, hijacking its user base’s time and attention to do the work its marketing team would otherwise have to be paid to do.

Even supposing we take Wrapped at face value, what does it tell us? The answer is not very much. Each year I’m told what I already know: that I listen to a fair amount of ambient electronic and neo-classical music (generally while I’m writing), and that there is a relatively small but eclectic group of artists and albums I return to again and again in the course of a year. Just as my Wrapped is skewed by my work habits, so too are many other listeners’ it would seem—by their use of white noise as a sleep aid, for example, or their children’s cooption of their account to endlessly stream The Wiggles.

The irony is that Wrapped tells us far more about how Spotify manipulates our listening choices than users’ actual musical proclivities. The platform’s preference is not for users to be musically adventurous, but to defer to Spotify’s own playlists, both curated and algorithmically-generated. The reason is simple: the company is able to exert more control, and hence generate greater profits, this way. Notoriously, Spotify’s ambient playlists are filled with tracks by pseudonymous songwriters and performers with no apparent online footprint. This undemanding streambait racks up billions of plays, Spotify reaping the rewards from the lower-than-normal royalties payable to the faceless production houses that churn it out.

Fake artists aren’t the only problem with playlist culture either. Ted Gioia, in an essay on his Substack from April this year, writes about an apparently real artist called Hara Noda whose track The Beauty of Everyday Things had racked up four million plays (it’s up to almost thirteen million today). ‘That’s more streams,’ Gioia laments,

than are attributed to most of the tracks on Jon Batiste’s We Are, which just won the Grammy for Album of the Year. That’s an amazing fact to consider. Can you really reach a larger audience by getting on a background jazz playlist than taking home the most coveted Grammy? I hate to share the bad news, my friends, but the world has changed.

I’m not convinced Noda is a real person: except for a few generic-sounding biographical details there is almost nothing about him online, and I note that all of his music is on the Swedish label Epidemic Sound, where much of Spotify’s pseudonymous content comes from. However, Gioia’s point still stands, as does the implication that what’s ultimately at stake are the livelihoods of working musicians.

One feature of Noda’s music which reveals it as typical streambait is its length. The running times of his top five songs on Spotify are 3:23, 2:59, 3:24, 2:56, and 2:17. If those strike you as brief by the standards of contemporary jazz, you’d be right. As Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow note in their new book Chokepoint Capitalism:

musicians looking for the monster volume it takes to make a living from streaming are steered toward creating unchallenging, forgettable tunes. Per-stream payments even seem to be influencing song length, which has dropped substantially over the streaming era. Drake’s 2018 album Scorpion features twenty-five songs, averaging just over three and a half minutes apiece.

I don’t think this problem is limited to just background jazz either. When I first listened to Billie Eilish’s critically and commercially successful debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, one of the things that struck me was its almost total absence of dynamic range. From a production point of view, it seemed like every snare hit and keyboard bleep had been flattened and smoothed out as though to cause the minimum of offence to listeners. When artists are making so little from Spotify’s wickedly exploitative royalty arrangements, what really pays is to make music as unobjectionable as possible—a kind of streaming age inversion of the CD era’s loudness wars. Eilish’s songs are short, too, averaging out at under three minutes per track across a total of fourteen.

Music, as David Byrne spent much of How Music Works discussing, has always been adaptive to the context in which listeners are most likely to encounter it—think chamber music being written for quartets and trios playing in living rooms, or early hip hop being produced to sound best on car stereos with good subwoofers. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that what Spotify is doing is different in both kind and degree, and far more detrimental. By giving the most insipid music the biggest platform—not because it’s what listeners want, but because it’s one of the ways they can most easily fatten their profit margins—Spotify is reducing music to a kind of aural wallpaper, and marginalising if not erasing the work of actual musicians in the process.

I’m a paid-up Spotify user. I’ve also just resubscribed to Audible, the Amazon-owned e-book platform that screws over publishers as liberally as Spotify does (primarily independent) record labels. I did so out of the growing sense of panic that I wasn’t reading enough—largely due to being the parent of a now one-year-old—and spent a fair bit of time scouring the internet for a less ethically compromised alternative. There isn’t one, not really, just as there isn’t really a good alternative for Spotify, or for that matter Twitter.

This is, of course, no accident. Each of these companies has aggressively positioned itself as the only game in their particular town by squeezing suppliers, eliminating competition, and, in the case of Audible, applying digital locks that wed its audiobooks exclusively to the players it authorises.

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has sharpened the focus on how we should respond to increasingly harmful tech companies at the individual level. Many simply quit, as I’ve been contemplating doing for weeks (I left Facebook and Instagram a couple of years ago). What keeps coming to mind is Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, in which the decision to leave an exploitative system rests with the individual, not the collective—precisely why the quitting of this or that online platform feels, beyond its isolated benefits to productivity, mental health and so on, politically weak.

As Giovanni Tiso has written: ‘It makes little sense to delete Facebook and walk away from one of the principal mediums for the dissemination of information about the world. We must understand and challenge its power instead.’ In Le Guin’s story, the act of leaving may assuage a guilty conscience, but the child on whose suffering the city depends remains as they were, sitting in their own excrement in a dank, near-lightless basement. Tell me that doesn’t sound like Musk’s vision for Twitter.

What we truly need, as Giblin and Doctorow argue, is a collective solution that will wrest back the monopolised control and exploitation of creative labour by a handful of largely unaccountable Big Tech companies. This will mean more regulation, unionisation, and perhaps even collective ownership. It will mean the negotiating of deals that don’t coerce workers and suppliers into accepting outrageously extractive and unfair terms. And it will mean reevaluating our relationship with the fruits of creative labour, which deserve to be not only remunerated fairly but also engaged with actively. Much as Spotify might like us to think otherwise, music isn’t—or least ought not be—an interchangeable aural backdrop to other, more important things. It’s the thing itself, and no amount of tinselled quantification should convince us otherwise.


Image: Mohammad Metri

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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  1. Spotify is not compulsory, either for the listeners or the artists. It is still possible to buy music, and to listen to the recordings that you have. Not even especially difficult. Bandcamp and actual record shops still work well. Sure the experience is different. So?

    Facebook et al are not compulsory either. Nothing actually important is exclusively published on those services, and most of the important information is published first on the open web, which is still there (here!) and works fine.

    Let the broken business models die naturally, like MySpace and the dinosaurs did before.

  2. “The platform’s preference is not for users to be musically adventurous,….”
    Thats where i beg to differ.
    The user’s preference is not to be musically adventurous…
    Spotify is creatively using capitalism for them. The way you frame tech companies for the stupidity of mankind is close to naive. The fight is much bigger than capitalism, it’s for what comes afterwards. And we won’t witness that.

  3. ‘marginalising if not erasing the work of actual musicians in the process.’
    – I’ve always resented this idea that popular means it’s not real music. I think that it comes across as extremely obnoxious. The issues that this article brings up, being that of shorter songs and Billie Eilish’ album sounding muted, are not based on any evidence but purely assumptions that artists are not making these changes of their own free will but because Spotify requires it of them.
    Personally, I like the current trend of shorter songs. It allows the music to be tighter and punchier.
    While I will agree that Spotify is not a great streaming service, they screw over smaller artists and manipulate the charts, the way this writer presents their opinionated views is not the answer either.
    As someone who has always been a fan of pop music, I just want to reiterate that just because something is well loved, doesn’t mean that an equal amount of work hasn’t gone into it.

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