Spotify Wrapped is free advertising that says nothing about the joy of music | Music
’Tis the season! For all of your Swiftie friends to find themselves in the top 5% of Taylor Swift fans worldwide, for Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo to loom large on your Instagram Stories, and for the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights to be named everyone’s song of the year for the second year in a row.
Yes, ’tis the season for Spotify Wrapped: the streaming service’s festive display of user data, presenting listeners with their most-played songs, artists and albums of the year in shareable graphics. It’s an effective marketing scheme, Spotify leveraging its own user base to create buzz on its behalf. The platform itself presents it as an opportunity for sombre reflection, like the Queen’s speech: a prompt “to look back on the year” on the music that “helped us get through”.
Some users take it in that spirit, taking stock and finalising their pandemic playlist for posterity. Others parade their stats like a badge of honour (“hours spent listening to Post Malone”). Either way, since it began in 2016, Wrapped has become as anticipated as Black Friday; a new tradition in corporate Christmas. This time last year it led to a 21% surge in downloads of Spotify’s mobile app as users rushed to share their numbers on social media.
I say: bah humbug. As someone who used to spend hours painstakingly tending to her iTunes music library, who felt a gap in her Last.fm history like an archival omission, I am exactly the sort of pedant who should be all for Spotify Wrapped – and yet I find it banal and depressing. After 10 years as a Spotify subscriber, it’s my longest-ever relationship, and I’ve never considered giving it up. Nevertheless, every year, I get the sense of my listening habits becoming increasingly tightly wound – into six daily mixes: my six modes – and increasingly like everyone else’s.
I don’t know whether it’s my own failure of initiative and imagination, or one of product design and the paradox of choice, but when I open up the app each morning I mostly go with Spotify’s flow: I listen to albums I’ve recently been listening to and artists I already know I like. If I’m feeling adventurous, I might try one that the algorithm has deemed to be similar. But more often I bang on my playlist – dating back to July 2017 – of 1,107 “liked songs” and listen to the most recent additions. (Lately: a destabilising one-two punch of the new one from Mitski and Every 1’s a Winner by Hot Chocolate.) And at the end of the year, Spotify packages it up and gives it back to me, Wrapped – like a present so obvious you have to pretend you’ve not got four of them already. Ah, Hot Chocolate! You shouldn’t have!
Without denying our agency, I think we can routinely underestimate the influence of platform design on our decisions and behaviours. It has never been easier to expand our musical horizons – yet many of us, conspicuously, don’t. I see the flattening effect, that feedback loop, on display every year in Spotify Wrapped posts celebrating the same handful of artists and songs.
I’m not being a snob – I was a late-in-life One Directioner – but often what Wrapped claims to uncover is obvious to the individual, and unedifying for their friends and followers. Sometimes the numbers are so sweeping or skewed as to be meaningless: Call Me Maybe was in my most-played songs last year because I wrote about its 10th anniversary, and this year there will be Blinding Lights again (the most-streamed song in the world in 2020), because I sometimes listen to it on single-song repeat to motivate me to meet a deadline.
Neither are musical memories to cherish – but it’s this kind of functional engagement that Spotify recognises and, with Wrapped, rewards. The platform has already cemented music as a numbers game: witness how streaming-savvy Drake can have the biggest album in the world without any ubiquitous hits, and how global fan armies strategise to drive singles up the charts. Wrapped, likewise, presents listening to music in terms of scale: top five songs, top artists, top genres, total listening time, even which percentile of an artist’s fans you’re in. Is being in the top 1% a point of pride, or a mark of monomania? What is listening time really a measure of, anyway?
As a marketing blog wrote approvingly of Wrapped: the “sense of competition and achievement” motivates people to use Spotify for longer. But I believe this gamification of music comes at the cost of opportunities for actually connecting over it – one of my lifelong pleasures.
Mainstream as my tastes may be, I take great pleasure in debating with friends – in highly specific and sometimes alienating detail – questions like which is the funniest Wings song, how we’d reorder our favourite albums, what makes one outro or intro or guitar solo great and another self-indulgent. The last dinner I had with my family, we named songs that had whistle solos, parentheses in the title or – the greatest challenge of all – were made after 1998 and which my dad might possibly like. My most recent friendship was cemented when we found out that we had both once cried to Fight Night by Migos. The number of plays wouldn’t have told us nearly so much.
Instead of starting conversations about our favourite music, Spotify Wrapped cuts them short, framing them in terms that mean very little and that stymie further discussion – Adele’s your number two? She’s my number three! Like so much of social media, it’s a broadcast claiming to be a dialogue. It makes me wistful for an earlier internet. Last.fm, the primary site of my music discovery through the mid- to late-2000s, was as much a community for people who loved music as it was a log of what we listened to. It connected me with strangers with similar taste, who gave me recommendations and asked for them back.
By contrast, Spotify is flat, functional, siloed – even my friends are reduced to a fast-moving stream of “activity” that is rarely inviting (my ex listening to Chumbawamba again, and not even Tubthumping). I would love Spotify to show me the dusty corners of their libraries, to dig out the albums they know too well to tell me about. Instead, it makes a big festive show of stating the obvious.
Wrapped is little more than free advertising for a company that even the UK government has condemned for not extending a fair share of its profits and power to artists. Wrapped isn’t even the most interesting data it keeps on you.
Each December, Spotify has a rummage through its drawers for something it’s willing to part with, which relates to you on the most surface level – and presents it to you with a bow. I’m going to be sitting out Wrapped this year, like the Grinch listening to Every 1’s a Winner. All I really want for Christmas is a new playlist, made by a person.