Spotify revolutionized how we listen to and discover music. Prior to its release, the ~Youth of the Internet Age~ had to trawl through YouTube to listen to songs or resort to piracy. There had never been a streaming service so intuitive; the fact that Spotify was free launched its popularity to another level. The fact that I can search up nearly any commercially published song is nothing short of a digital miracle. While it’s easy to simply marvel at how great Spotify is, I think it’s valuable to take a closer look at the effects of Spotify both in terms of the app itself and the broader effects of consumers having so much choice. None of Spotify’s choices are innocuous. From a purely logical perspective, how Spotify presents music shouldn’t affect what we end up listening to; people should just gravitate toward the songs they like the most. But this isn’t the case — how Spotify presents songs has deep implications for how we listen to music.

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Jay Z recently took down much of his music from the free streaming service, Spotify, to bolster his own streaming service, Tidal. For the Patrices and Jeffs (Moms and Dads). Jay Z has two certified classics: The Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt, both of which were taken down; his other work includes from great (The Black Album) to unmentionable. As an avid hip-hop fan, I was initially dismayed that I couldn’t listen to some of my favorite albums. However, eventually I found myself exploring much more of his discography, such as his criminally underrated American Gangster once those other two albums were removed from Spotify.

In a 2005 study, Markus Prior discovered that increasing media choice increases the political knowledge of all members of society, regardless of their interest in politics. However, those with a greater predilection toward politics learned more than others, thus increasing societal gaps in political knowledge. This effect carried over to other television programs. People interested in sports watched more sports; people interested in gossip watched more trash.

I think there’s a similar phenomenon at work here if we were to replace the different genres of television with different genres of music. Streaming services have increased everyone’s access to music, and people tend to gravitate toward what they already liked. However, crossover artists have their popularity reinforced.

For example, every millennial has a favorite Kanye song. But we can use this analytic framework to go deeper. We can substitute music genre with music artists. I gravitated toward albums I already liked and picked up a smattering of tracks from other albums. However, once Jay Z took his most acclaimed albums off Spotify and my choices were lessened, I began listening to other parts of Jay Z’s body of work. Reducing my choice in music counterintuitively allowed me to discover more music. It’s easy to view more choices as being intrinsically good and not delineate the effects of choice. This isn’t to say having more options is bad, but to put a finer point on the effect of having much choice.

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I previously mentioned that every millennial has a favorite Kanye song (Shock is the only emotionally appropriate response to a Kanye neophyte; as the refrain goes: “You ain’t got no Yeezy?”). Many of us would probably list the same songs within our pantheon (“Paris,” “Bound 2,” “Touch the Sky”). Part of this is because these songs are a cut above the rest. However, the way Spotify constructs its interface has contributed to these songs’ popularity.

When one looks up on artist on Spotify, one of the first things presented is the artist’s most popular collection of songs. We naturally gravitate toward options that require the least effort, and the app’s elevation of these songs means that we will be pulled toward them. Some might respond by claiming that the effort required to choose a different song is marginal and shouldn’t have any effect.

This underestimates our susceptibility to influence. Putting healthy food at eye level at a supermarket has been shown to increase its consumption by 18 percent. Clearly, exogenous factors beyond our preferences have a profound effect on how we consume — both media and foodstuffs. Spotify is not a neutral force that allows us to access music at will, and to view it as such is naive. It fundamentally changes how we discover and interact with music.

Roland Davidson can be reached at mhenryda@umich.edu. 

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