How Spotify seized control of our musical tastes and sidelined all the cool songs
Rewind. It’s winter. I’m quickly trudging through the snow, my brown Keds with no tread making me slip the whole way to the bus stop as I race to catch public transit to school. My headphones are rammed into my ears, my swinging fist with my mp3 player in its clutch making the thin cord of my headphones bounce slack and then taught and then slack again. The strobing bassline and off-key melody in Of Montreal’s “Bunny Ain’t No Kind of Rider” is playing. I make it to the stop just in time—the white and blue bus is halfway down the street and fast approaching. As the doors open, I flash my laminated student bus pass to the driver, climb the steps and sidle toward the nearest empty seat. I drop myself onto the pale blue vinyl cushion and slide inward toward the window. As I gaze onto vistas of small, faded wartime houses, I shuffle through my music player, trying to find a track that provides the right mood for my morning commute. The music streaming from my headphones into my ears feels as though the sound is wrapping around me. It’s like a cocoon, a private forcefield in which I can inhabit a space for myself.
In high school, I ran with a crowd who bore their musical preferences like badges signifying social status. When you said you liked an artist, you couched within that a message about how culturally plugged-in you were, and maybe by extension for some, even your moral value.
More than sounds pouring into my ears, music represented my conduit to the outside world. Having grown up in an east coast suburb, and then moved to a nearby small city, new music was a salve that softened the concrete sprawl and monotony of my teenage life. Maybe I couldn’t control my physical surroundings, but the soundtrack for moving through it was my domain. I had a difficult home life growing up, and that environment shaped or, more aptly, warped my sense of self in ways I’m only fully wrestling with in recent years. But at the time, music helped me discover the possibility of a threshold between what I knew and what could be. That knowledge rocked me. In the liminal space of hearing a new track, I could travel beyond the person my life had so far told me I was. By identifying with different songs and albums, I could catch a glimpse of the pieces of me that felt recognized in the music. Genre-spanning arrangements, sonic flourishes, lyrical narrative; I was big and complex enough to contain and enjoy all of that at once. Through the mysterious act of listening to music, I discovered that my past didn’t need to define the person I could become. I don’t think it is hyperbole for me to say that music helped me map a course toward myself.
This music came to me by way of the internet, rather than local commercial radio or Much Music. During my precious one-hour allotment on the family computer, in between messaging friends, I trawled the web for new music. I became acquainted with music blogs, both bigger enterprises and smaller pet projects. They usually followed this format: introducing the artist or band, saying a few things about them, and then embedding links to download a few songs in mp3 format. I discovered niches I had never heard of, expanding the bounds of what music could be. Rather than parroting the mainstream artists and singles of the day, these blogs showcased music from newer independent artists – with Arcade Fire, Yo La Tengo, LCD Soundsystem and M.I.A. among the starkest examples of artists who were catapulted to mainstream notoriety by the buzz. They also featured music from older and less well-known artists. I can still remember, for example, what it felt like to hear Laurie Anderson’s art rock track “From the Air” for the first time. The tension in the off-kilter saxophone progression, and Laurie’s spoken word surrealist narrative of an airplane pilot speaking to their passengers in the midst of the plane’s machinery failing, feels just as immediate as when I stumbled upon it years ago. Passionate people curated and shared links and uploaded tracks. Each song reminded me of the fact that there was a world beyond the one I saw directly in front of me. Each was a reminder that I could always reach out through my mom’s enormous Dell desktop computer and pull back a song that not only I would treasure, but that had been treasured enough by someone else to leave it there for someone like me to find. This portal to other like-minded people suggested community, too.
I’m grateful to have come of age during a fleeting and unprecedented window of access to a wide range of music. Because even in the chaos and financial devastation inflicted upon artists by Napster, Limewire, and the Pirate Bay (aided and abetted by music blogs), something else happened here too.
Corporations, major labels and moneyed interests lost the ironclad grip they’d held for so long on our musical taste. Someone other than the old guard of gatekeepers got to decide what was worth hearing. For a brief moment, a network of music blogs was the closest thing to a democratic playing field that we’ve seen in a long time. Any artist equipped with an internet connection and a Myspace page had an equal chance at finding their way onto my mp3 player, and by extension, onto the soundtrack of my youth.
Skip forward 15 years. It’s a Saturday morning, and I’m starting my weekend breakfast ritual. I get up, turn on the kettle, grind my coffee and throw it in my French press. I turn on my Bluetooth speaker and open the music app on my phone. I navigate to the “For you” tab and decide to play my customized new music mix while I poach my eggs.
I no longer visit music blogs to the same extent that I did as a teen. Part of that has to do with amassing the kinds of garden-variety responsibilities of adulthood that eat up whatever unbounded free time I used to have. But another part of that is the fact that music blogs have nowhere near the grip they used to on music culture, especially independent music. Sure, some of those sites have stood the test of time, and I would not be surprised to learn that there are ride-or-die readers still patronizing their favourite blogs. But many of the ones I used to frequent are now dead domain links or abandoned, the final post a farewell by the site runner explaining why it no longer made sense to keep going. Even the bigger platforms like Pitchfork are struggling with how to continue publishing on music amid dwindling advertising revenues.
Around the same time in the late aughts, on-demand music streaming platforms like Spotify and Pandora gained popularity. Spotify led the charge, casting itself as a remedy to ongoing and widespread music piracy. It was considered a solution that balanced the access to music that listeners had come to expect with a legitimate compensation model for the music industry. And it seems that approach has literally paid off. Spotify reported a total of 144 million paid subscribers to their service for the third quarter of 2020.
Over time, I too have drifted to a music streaming service. At first, I marveled at the convenience and ease with which I could listen to music. I could explore and add albums from beloved artists to my heart’s content. The platform promised to make smarter music recommendations for me by tracking my loved artists and listening habits, which certainly sounded easier than the labour-intensive-yet-low-yield task of combing through boundless webpages for a track that resonated with my tastes. And a part of me felt self-satisfied for finally consuming music in a way that was financially equitable and sustainable for artists—at least, more equitable than my prior listening habits. This was good, right?
But as I ready my breakfast, something feels off. The first track features a Balearic-lite beat. Overlaying it is an auto-tuned looping vocal harmony. After a few measures, the lead vocalist enters in, her voice coated in an indescribable plastic sheen. The song sounds so… controlled. I skip to the next song in the playlist. The track opens with a vaguely familiar plinking steel drum staccato scale. Skip. Hyper-synthetic electric guitar progression, a masculine auto-tuned voice delivering repetitive mumble rap flows.
I have started to notice patterns in my recommended playlists. It was hard to put my finger on, but it just felt like there were tacit limits to what would be included or not. The selection presented a veneer of variety. But although I was listening to different artists pushed into my personal playlist, they didn’t really sound so different from each other. Beyond that, I felt like I was missing that same thrill of discovery I recall feeling as a teen, where I was actively seeking out and curating my own music library.
The much-maligned business model offered by streaming services, it seems, has still come at a price: once again, corporations are trying to control what we hear.
There has been a marked shift in the last 10 to 15 years in how people discover music, according to Robert Prey, a professor at Groningen University in the Netherlands who researches music streaming services.
“In the early days, they use[d] the analogy of listeners driving their cars through all the undiscovered lands of music,” he said, referring to Spotify.
“But as more people started to use Spotify, and more music started getting uploaded, we’re joined with more mainstream music listeners. Spotify use the analogy of, now they started introducing self-driving cars to help guide you.”
In the early days of streaming platforms, people were searching for the songs that they wanted to play, Robert said. But around 2013, Spotify began shifting its branding from being an enormous library or archive of music to being a curator.
It began making investments in creating its own playlists and generating music recommendations.
“The amount of content that people listen to that comes from recommendations has been growing by leaps and bounds every year,” said Robert.
As a result, there’s a difference between what the platforms promise with what they actually deliver, according to Liz Pelly, contributing editor at The Baffler.
“You know, there’s sort of this myth that streaming services give you access to like 30 million songs or like every song in the world,” said Liz, who has written extensively on Spotify and music streaming platforms.
“More often than not, what people are presented with through the discovery mechanisms of these platforms are extremely homogenized.”
And perhaps unsurprisingly, what is presented through music platforms might be perpetuating the systemic discrimination heard on the radio.
Jada Watson ran an experiment on Spotify’s recommender system to test for gender parity – inspired by a similar experiment by country singer Martina McBride.
Based on 42 playlist refreshes and 430 songs in total, Jada, who is principal investigator for the SongData project, which studies how music genres form through data, found that the first song by a woman stunningly did not appear until the 112th song.
“What was interesting to me was the algorithm of the recommender system back-ended female artists,” said Jada, a professor of digital humanities at the University of Ottawa.
“That algorithm is offering recommendations to users based on their own past listening experience. But it’s also basically giving those recommendations for new pieces of music based on other people’s experience within the system.”
It is important to be aware of these systemic biases, she said, because there are dangers in assuming the system’s neutrality.
“Well, if I’m only given 40 songs by women out of 430 songs, [I think] there’s just not a lot of music by women out there. That’s the problem. Or only the best music gets in these services. Or only the best rise to the top,” she said.
It should be the responsibility of Spotify to try to redress the imbalances of a discriminatory music industry that shut so many artists out from success.
Borrowing the concept of cultural redlining from Safiya Umoja Noble’s book Algorithms of Oppression, Jada explained how reliance on past data carries the sinister consequence of justifying and replicating oppressive industry inequalities.
She pointed to black female country artist Mickey Guyton as an example. Mickey has enjoyed critical acclaim in the last year, but that warm critical reception has not translated into airplay.
“It’s because the industry of country music doesn’t have a model in which black women succeed. So black women can’t succeed because the data doesn’t show them that it can,” said Jada.
“When an industry is obsessed with data, and data is driving its practices, it’s obsessed with the past. It’s obsessed with old practices. It’s not obsessed with finding new ways and building in any way for a future that is healthy. It ends up eating itself.”
And though it may seem tempting and easy to blame music streaming platforms for the inequalities, Jada noted that Spotify didn’t create this problem.
“This is inherited from like 100 years of a music industry that was built on segregation and gender discrimination,” she said.
Rob Arcand, a software engineer and news editor at Spin magazine, echoed her sentiments.
“There’s these terrible histories of Elvis and the Beatles ripping off black artists, Led Zeppelin and all this stuff. So, the music industry is racist and sexist to begin with.”
It is also impossible to separate the moneyed interests of a company like Spotify with how it decides to curate music for its users. Their recommendations are directly linked with their desire to capture users for as long as possible, Liz said.
“Streaming services are focused on engagement like all other companies across the platform economy. They don’t want to lose you as a listener, they want to keep you engaged and listening and streaming,” she said. “You’re not going to discover anything adventurous or strange or challenging to be served recommendations of things.”
Music platforms gravitate toward recommending music that can be considered background music: music that is not obtrusive or distracting and can be played at a low volume while the user does something else,” she said.
Music recommendations are also highly influenced by major labels and other record labels, Liz added.
“The music that you see on the front page, there is this illusion that you have a lot of music to choose from, but oftentimes what you are being shown is actually highly curated and influenced by lots of different people making decisions to make the people who they have financial responsibilities to happy.”
These recommender dynamics are especially troubling during a pandemic where artists have lost touring as a source of revenue. Because so much of our activity has moved online and accessing music by way of streaming is more of a lifeline, critically examining them has become even more pressing.
Spotify, Apple Music and the like do not seem to be the savior solutions they were once thought to be. They replicate power imbalances and unequal representation in the music industry. They prioritize safer music to guarantee and maximize user engagement. They don’t pay artists as well as originally envisioned.
I’m trying to think my way through what it might look like to fix these problems.
The younger version of me misses the democratic distribution of the early-to-mid 2000s music blog culture. We stand to lose something when we grant another entity total power over what gets pushed into our music feed.
I want the possibility for listeners to actually be challenged and surprised and feel something akin to the excitement I felt when I came across new and older music.
On the other hand, I do recognize that there is an unmistakable ease of access and navigation in streaming platforms. I know that not everyone has the same luxury of time and sheer will to drive their own car through a vast musical terrain. Maybe we could keep that.
But I do not wish to return to a model predicated on music piracy. How can we pay artists well for their creative work while creating a central sustainable hub for listening?
I wonder if it is possible to retain the recommender systems while actively working against reproducing inequalities that have continued to disadvantage artists by race, gender and sexuality?
Just as music helped me map my way to myself, I hope that these reflections help us figure out how we might map our way to a relationship with music that is fair, equitable, and authentic.