Is Spotify Your Friend?

A brilliant tool for music fans, but it’s important to learn how to navigate its creative pitfalls.

by Ben Boddez

Illustration by Cory Bugden

Racking up hundreds of millions of streams every day, Spotify is a ground-breaking digital service provider that essentially offers quick access to nearly every song ever released to its 356 million worldwide users. But for the dedicated music fan or artist, is it truly your friend?

While it’s easy for misconceptions to run wild when dealing with a multinational corporation using an advanced set of algorithms, artists and fans alike have long accused the company of unfair payment systems and the increased “playlistification” of music killing off interest in transformative work while overlooking important areas. Still, it’s incredibly difficult to imagine the current music landscape without it.

Not only does Spotify provide opportunities for local bands recording in their garage to gain international exposure overnight, but it has steadily broken down walls that other platforms have put up for decades. Think about the streaming dominance of hip-hop in a world where too many radio stations still remove rap features from the biggest songs — or Western consumers and their newfound love of tunes from all over the globe. Long story short: Spotify is a brilliant tool for music fans, but we need to be careful with how we use it.

Updates to the Spotify interface placing increased focus on the platform’s curated playlists have been drawing complaints for years; their “Mixes” feature announced in March 2020 being the latest addition. Similar to the long-lived “Discover Weekly” recommendation engine that offers new music based on your algorithmic taste, customized playlists are now delivered to you based on the artists, genres, and decades you listen to most.

From a business standpoint, Spotify has mentioned that their algorithm is designed specifically to keep your finger as far away from the skip button as possible. Every time you hit it, it’s a mark against that song for inclusion in future playlists. “They’re rooted in familiarity,” says an official Spotify press release about the Mixes feature. And while this might be a fantastic new development for someone looking to add the appropriate ambience to a dinnertime conversation, study session or post-pandemic party, issues begin to arise for the active listener.

To keep the unbroken stream and the pursuit of the right vibe for any given situation going, Spotify’s algorithm is designed to recommend songs that sound the most like other songs. Artists making music tailored for sinking into the background and not breaking the immersion of the listening experience are rewarded with prime placement on Spotify’s most popular playlists, taking the financial incentive for making something innovative and groundbreaking away.

A listener showing the algorithm they have eclectic taste might get some great recommendations, but the algorithm is always going to want to push things back towards the middle, requiring the active listener to stay diligent about finding their own great music for themselves.

Midnight Agency co-founder Nick Middleton is thankful to see that music is more easily accessible than ever before. “Anyone still buying into this idea that Spotify is evil is misunderstanding the gravity of what the algorithm brings to fans,” he says. “It’s the greatest music discovery platform that’s ever existed.”

As an electronic musician who is also one-half of electronic duo The Funk Hunters, Middleton was previously irked that a single employee was in charge of creating playlists in the many diverse subgenres of his style, but the company has since divided that workload among more specialized people. Most of all, however, Middleton sings Spotify’s praises for the bump it can provide for smaller artists. “It’s helping transform bands from being geo-fenced into local fanbases to having global ones,” he says. “What people leave out is that the algorithm is recommending each artist’s music to potential people that might not know about you yet.”

If there’s an area that Spotify draws the most ire for is their payment system. Artists like Thom Yorke and Taylor Swift have sent their armies of fans into uproar by condemning it themselves, and the backlash grew loud enough that the company released a website titled Loud and Clear to defend themselves by fully outlining their practices.

Instead of paying per stream, Spotify divides money through a percentage model. For example,  if you are the current leading streaming, Justin Bieber, and one percent of all clicks on Spotify are on your music, you get one percent of every paying customers’ money. Artists and fans alike have long advocated for a switch to the one cent per stream, although there are more than 100 tracks with more than one billion streams. Not the most efficient business model. “There’s this really weird disconnect in the industry,” says Middleton. “Think about any other business – just because you start a restaurant doesn’t mean you deserve to have customers. A band doesn’t deserve to make a living off Spotify.”

In fact, the stats show that there is an exponentially higher number of acts making millions than ever before. “Streaming is single handedly saving the music industry,” he says.

Steve Mann, owner of music promotion company Adapter Marketing, argues that Spotify’s drawbacks are less about the actual monetary amount and more about a surprising lack of information provided to artists about how to best profit off of their system.

“Until Spotify gives Artists the data and tools that allow for actionably investing in the growth of one’s own streaming audience, everyone is just auditioning for better slots in the editorial and algorithmic talent show,” he says. “What’s worse is we know they have the expanded data and analyze it with Spotify Wrapped.”

Mann believes Spotify lags seriously behind companies YouTube and Shopify in providing advanced analytics to its creators, leaving things a guessing game. When Spotify gives away a Google Home Mini to new subscribers, you better believe it’s measuring the number of clicks that become customers,” Mann says. “They would never have been able to grow their business without paying attention to such stats – so I don’t know why they deny the same opportunities to the artists they enrich themselves on.”

So, yes, Spotify is a massive corporation that is obviously going to act like one. Still, it provides listeners with unprecedented access to a diverse world of music to discover. Learning how to navigate around the algorithm’s creative pitfalls will empower you as an artist and remembering to support your favourite artists through other avenues are easy steps for music fans to best benefit from its extensive library. 

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