6 Jan 2018

Is Spotify narrowing our taste in music?

From RNZ Music, 1:05 pm on 6 January 2018

With its easy-to-access content and vast selection of ready-made playlists, Spotify has amassed more than 100 million users globally since its inception in 2006. But according to writer Liz Pelly (The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork) it’s narrowing the range of music we listen to.

The top 10 percent of songs on Spotify make up 99.2 percent of all streams and Pelly says that’s largely because of the influence the major labels - Universal, Sony and Warner - have over the music streaming service.

Pelly says the labels are influencing Spotify playlists in much the same way they’ve been influencing commercial radio since the bad old days of payola, where such companies paid to have their songs played.

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Photo: Ebru Yildiz

It’s within Spotify’s curated playlists that the problem begins. These mood and genre-based playlists are compiled by Spotify staffers, and clearly favour artists on major labels.

But why?

It’s a question of resource.

The majors have huge marketing departments. They can afford to employ staff dedicated to working with Spotify, which in turn has staff dedicated to working with them.

“They have weekly phone calls and meetings and charts that get sent over,” says Pelly.

Meanwhile, independent labels are largely ignored.

“From speaking with independent artists and folks who work for independent labels, I’ve learned that it’s very challenging for them.”

Once the majors get their artists onto the curated playlists, a kind of ‘echo-chamber’ effect begins: if a song is included in one of Spotify’s curated playlists it’s much more likely to appear in its algorithmic ones (users’ ‘Discover weekly’ and ‘Daily Mix’ playlists), which in turn garners more streams and again boosts its chances of being included in further playlists.

Spotify app

Photo: 123RF

This situation isn’t just affecting music fans: independent labels and their artists are seeing profits diminish, despite the fact Spotify has been partly credited with the first increases in recorded music revenue in years.

Pelly says, “Just because the gross profit is increasing doesn’t mean that it’s more sustainable for the majority of artists or that most artists are seeing that.

“People need to divorce the idea that buying a Spotify account is directly contributing to the artists they want to support … It’s something that works for pop stars and not independent artists.

“When they talk about gross profit in industry increasing, it’s important to think about who’s seeing those profits and who’s not.”

Read Liz Pelly's original piece for The Baffler here, or listen to her full interview with Music 101's Melody Thomas below.