On a school morning, I’m more likely to forget my wallet at home than my earbuds. I rarely stroll around campus without my music playing. I find power in romanticizing the small things in life and the perfect playlist to listen to on the walk to class is essential for me. If I wake up feeling good about the day, I might have an upbeat mix of songs playing while I prepare to conquer the day. One of my favorite playlists to listen to on my walk to class is Spotify’s “omw” mix. This playlist has the perfect combination of my favorite songs as well as new finds for me to add to my library, which is likely why it was recommended to me by Spotify’s algorithm.
In 2016, I upgraded my Spotify to a premium account after becoming fed up with the excessive ads. The very first album that I listened to in full was “Awaken, My Love!” by Childish Gambino. After being able to listen to such a well-crafted body of work without the disruption of ads, I knew that me and my Spotify account were in it for the long haul. With upgrading my account, I also picked up a new hobby: making playlists. Whenever I have a bit of downtime, I find trivial joy in starting a new playlist on Spotify. The process of putting together a compilation of songs with a specific mood or theme is inexplicably pleasing to me. As MiC Columnist Hannah Nguyen captures beautifully, our Spotify accounts are there for us avid listeners through it all. I resonate deeply with Nguyen’s open letter since I too share a deep fondness for my account and its excessive amount of playlists. Currently, there are over 50 playlists on my Spotify account for each overly specific mood and situation. If I’m spending time with my family, I’ll turn on “Naija”, my playlist made up of my favorite Nigerian songs. Before I go to sleep, I love to play my playlist called “Slow It Down” to listen to mellow R&B while I do my nighttime routine. There’s something about having just the perfect soundtrack to my daily activities that brings about a great amount of satisfaction.
While the playlists that I listen to on Spotify play a small yet very significant role in my life, they also have an extensive impact on the music industry. Music streaming services have become the most popular form of listening to music and with over 165 million premium users on Spotify, they can influence the music industry immensely through the use of playlists.
How Music Charts makes a distinction between two types of playlists: “content-based playlists” and “context-based playlists.” Genre or content-based playlists usually consist of songs that are grouped together by genre or beats-per-minute, whereas context-based playlists are focused on curating a mood regardless of genre. Analytics from streaming companies have discovered that listeners lean more towards grouping their songs into these situational or context-based playlists rather than content-based. The gradual shift to a general preference for contextual playlists stems from Spotify’s aim to singularize each user’s experience and make it their own. For example, rather than recommending a playlist comprised of R&B music, it may be more applicable for Spotify’s algorithm to recommend a playlist specifically for love songs and include tracks across a variety of genres. In recent years, Spotify has even changed its homepage to promote its context-based playlists more than just their genre-based playlists. Whenever I use Spotify, I know that I prefer listening to playlists that are relevant to my life in some capacity. When it’s time to do my homework, I turn on my playlist that is comprised of my favorite hip-hop instrumentals. Or when I go driving around with my friends, I have a playlist made up of our favorite ballads to belt out of the window. At a time that streaming services can give users specified recommendations based on their streaming history, it makes sense for Spotify to promote relevant context-based playlists to their listeners.
Playlists impact the music industry more than ever because of this shift to context-based playlists. Most Spotify listeners play their music from playlists rather than from their libraries as a whole. They might make their own playlist or stream from one of Spotify’s hundreds of mood-based playlists. As a result, artists aim to get their music onto playlists for increased visibility, especially because Spotify-owned playlists are promoted on their homepage and see more user traffic. Popular Spotify-curated playlists like “Songs to Sing in the Car” and “All Out 2000s” are saved to the music libraries of over nine million users. Smaller playlists like “Fresh Finds” allow the opportunity for smaller, independent artists to get their music streamed by a larger audience, having nearly a million saves. When artists are able to get their songs on such playlists, they can accrue more streams and build their social capital. According to a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, having a song on Spotify’s “Today’s Top Hits” playlist results in up to $163,000 in additional revenue. Even pop artist Billie Eilish rose to fame in 2015 when her Soundcloud hit “Ocean Eyes” found its way onto Spotify’s “Today’s Top Hits” playlist. Now, she has over a billion total streams on Spotify and was even the most streamed female artist on Spotify in the years 2019 and 2020. In this way, Spotify has power over which songs and artists gain popularity and can, to a degree, manipulate the music industry.
While Spotify is a major music streaming service, it isn’t the only platform that has the power to influence the music industry. Apple Music and Amazon Music have 78 million and 55 million paid subscribers, respectively. Similar to Spotify, both of these platforms promote their own platform-curated playlists on their interfaces. Being able to do this gives them the power to decide which artists gain more popularity and generate more revenue for themselves as well as their labels. User-specific recommendations may be satisfying to users, but it should also be acknowledged that these personalized algorithms can keep lesser-known artists from gaining more visibility if they don’t have larger labels to lobby for them. As convenient as it is to listen to Spotify-curated music, It’s still important to be mindful of the power that music streaming services like Spotify have to influence our listening choices and the larger music industry as a whole.
MiC Columnist Udoka Nwansi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.