Why Are Spotify Pretending They Don’t Decide What We Listen To?

What their US Songs of Summer 2017 playlist says about how we break popular tracks.

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Jun 1 2017, 1:21pm

Everyone has that one friend. They're the person in your friendship group, probably picked up sometime between primary school and the your late teens, who doesn't love music but still finds themselves listening to it. Recorded music in particular is an entirely passive experience for them, where they listen to "a playlist for the gym" or "a playlist to help me concentrate" or "a hookup playlist ;-)". This person always puts the hyphen nose into their winking emoticon. This person only plays Now That's What I Call Driving Rock in their car CD player. This person is the music industry's quintessential casual listener.

Before the internet took over our lives, they'd get their music recommendations from Radio 1. They would tend to pick up whichever CDs were stacked on the prominently displayed HMV shelves dedicated to the songs doing well in the charts. Again: all very casual, all about letting someone else's choices wash over them until they choose something from that selection that they kind of like. But now that radio DJs have found their territory encircled by streaming service curators, with brick-and-mortar record shops all but destroyed, Spotify has become a major player in terms of creating the environment that propels singles into hits and, arguably to a lesser degree, breaking artists.

"Spotify playlists, and Spotify charts, and Spotify plays, have become the number one tool that labels and artists and managers are using in order to break artists and measure success," said industry analyst Mark Mulligan, speaking to Wired earlier this year. "If you get things working on Spotify, that's going to crank the wheel." Anyone who's opened Spotify and found themselves clicking on their Daily Mix playlist, or fired up the app's Discovery Weekly playlist already knows this. The app, and the impact of its playlist placements, are now an almost unspoken reality of the industry's digital growth.

And so we come to this week's news, of Spotify playing coy about what determines the song of the summer. In a blogpost published on Wednesday, the streaming service's US team announced a – you guessed it – playlist of the tracks that they "predict" will soundtrack your BBQs, house parties and whatever other photogenic events you'll be attending in the sunshine. "To create this year's Songs of Summer predictions," they wrote, "Spotify tapped the insights of its genre and trend experts, analysed its streaming data and considered factors such as a song's performance on the charts, on key Spotify playlists and how it's performing over time. The team also factored in buzz on social media to create a list of songs perfect for essential summer moments."

At a glance you'd look at this and think, 'oh cool, Spotify are predicting the future. That's fun! They're fun!' But when you take a closer look, a couple of issues become clear. First, that you walk right into a chicken-and-egg situation. Do songs chart well because it's been playlisted dominantly, and thus listened to by lots of people on Spotify? Or does it make that Spotify playlist position because it's performing well on the charts? We don't know about those inner workings within Spotify. But it's bizarre for the company to both aggressively use reams of data to thrust certain songs under our noses, then act as though it doesn't consequently set the agenda for what casual music listeners grow to like.

Second, you can't divorce the impact of Spotify's mood playlisting from its perspective on what a song of the summer even is. The app's made an art of catering tracks to almost any situation or event you can imagine – Hit the Slopes: Beginner; Drunk and Hungover; Walk Like a Badass (???) – and uses the marriage between imagery and sound to conjure up what you think summer should sound like before you've even clicked play. There'll be a savvier undertone to Spotify picking out what they assume you'll want to hear when it's warm for as long as we see recorded music in the current terms; as a product that facilitates another activity, rather than an artform that draws you into its layers and challenges you to lose yourself there.

Finally, isn't this list just a public declaration of what Spotify has recently always done to break singles from big-name acts? The songs here are all new-ish releases. In reality, the song of the summer may well be an older track that hits a nerve with you right now, for reasons that are hard to pin down but that we've already written about here as being "The Feeling" summer evokes. It could be a Bright Eyes album cut from ten years ago, or a Buena Vista Social Club jam your dad used to put on at family BBQs or "Loyalty" by Kendrick featuring Rihanna because the tracklisting just made me feel that in advance.

In a bid to maintain the app's importance to the recording industry, Spotify's setting itself up as an all-encompassing force that will make music – not live music, mind you – central to more of what you do. And this year's playlist, as in the year's before, is another indication of that. Last year, One Direction manager Will Broomfield put it to The Drum like this: "If you think back to 2002 when iTunes unbundled the album, you were in the artist's eco-system; you were in their page… The industry said it was doom and gloom and how it is was bad for business, but now you're hearing those favourite songs in a playlist. You're not even in the artist's ecosystems anymore. You're in 'Fresh Hits' or 'Spotify Dance' for example or whatever other playlist you're listening to."

To the casual listener, that doesn't matter. But for labels and managers, it can feel like a loss of control. But hey, if you really want to know what the song of the summer is, just text that one friend of yours about the track they haven't been able to stop playing. If Spotify's been doing their work right, your mate will already know.

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(Image via Pixabay)