Spotify’s CEO, Daniel Ek, speaking in New York in March 2018. Photograph: Ilya S Savenok/ Getty Images for Spotify
At a relatively affordable PS9. 99 a month for an ad-free subscription, Spotify benefits the consumer more than the artist- superficially. Its exploitative relationship with musicians has trickle-down consequences. The most basic is that any artist who can’t afford to build music is not going to be inducing much more of it- or they will have to tour for longer( costing their health and imagination) and find alternative revenue streams to survive. But just as musicians realised they couldn’t afford to be sniffy about” selling out”, after the puritanical 90 s, Spotify undermined that undesirable alternative, too. As critic Liz Pelly writes in an essay for the Baffler, brands don’t have to pay to use songs on adverts if they want to piggyback an act’s cred- they can put them on branded playlists without asking permission or paying a penny.
Setting aside the issue of fund, these playlists have fundamentally changed the listening experience. Spotify prides itself on its personalised recommendations, which work by connecting dots between “data points” assigned to songs( from rap, indie, and so on, to infinite micro-genre permutations) to determine new music you might like. Its model doesn’t code for surprise, but perpetuates “lean-back” passivity. There is no context on the platform, simply entreaties to enjoy more of the same:” You like bread? Try toast !”
It limits music discovery and the sound of music itself. Singles are tailored to beat the skip-rate that hinders a song’s the possibilities of constructing it on to a popular playlist: hooks and choruses hit more quickly. Homogenous mid-tempo pop describing from rap and EDM has become dominant: New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica regularly disparages this sound as “Spotifycore”.
The algorithm pushings musicians to create monotonous music in vast sums for peak chart success: hence this year’s tedious 106 -minute Migos album, Culture II, and Drake’s dominance. Add in Spotify’s hugely popular artists with no profile outside the platform, widely assumed to be fake artists commissioned by Spotify to bulk out playlists and save on royalties, and music appears in danger of becoming a kind of gray goo.
Spotify looks like a neutral platform but behaves like a gatekeeper. It faced a backlash this year after censoring R Kelly and XXXTentacion for their alleged acts of violence against women( merely to grossly promote XXX after his murder ). Why were only black humen censored when many white male rockstars have transgressed women?
It continually perpetuates such inequality: a report by Pelly found that despite the” woke optics of playlists like Feminist Friday”, girls are underrepresented on its most popular playlists.( Meanwhile, Drake benefited from Spotify’s first” global artist takeover”, his face and music appearing on every editorialised playlist when he released this year’s Scorpion .) These function as echo chambers, popularity begetting more supporting, the antithesis of musical democracy.
Look: I pay my PS9. 99 a month. I use Spotify to construct playlists for friends’ bridals and to compile 80 s curios I discover on TOTP reruns. The genie isn’t going back in the bottle. But we can be responsible listeners( I buy albums I listen to more than five times) and hold Spotify to account because the people it is meant to benefit can’t. Any platform that intimidates the creators that underwrite its business is truly dystopian. Laura Snapes