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  • Writer's pictureKrystal Wu

Maybe your playlists are just noise

Nov. 8, 2023

By: Krystal Wu

Let's judge you based on your Spotify playlists. Does that 10 hour concoction of Drake and Kanye West really need to be there? What about that weird one titled "</3" that you made after your latest heart-wrenching, sob-inducing breakup?

Jokes aside, you're likely one of the streaming giant's 574 million users worldwide (especially if you felt attacked by my previous paragraph). Streaming services gobbled up 84% of recorded music revenues in 2022, and they're projected to maintain that trend–for good reason. For one, streaming on the platform is extremely convenient for its users. It's cheaper than buying individual albums, and it's generally more ethical than pirating music. Nowadays, there's also the incentive of fitting into a digital culture, our social media and mobile device-dominated community where you default to Spotify for sharing a playlist with friends and family.

But nobody really seems scared of streaming, despite that it's been dominating more and more of the music-listening landscape. After reading this, maybe you will be.

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Streaming: Behind the Scenes

It's not just a music app–a whole lot of data science, research, and marketing is incorporated by the company into its product and user experience. While I'm not here to spill any super secret documentation on Spotify's algorithm, here are the main ways the company differentiates its product within the music market:

  1. Free: You can stream songs and podcasts for free after you sign up, no matter what. There are drawbacks to not having a premium subscription, such as ads and shuffle-only mode on the mobile app, but the product is still highly accessible.

  2. Shareable: Spotify is highly user-facing, allowing you to create and share custom playlists while exploring those made by other users. You also have the ability to create collaborative playlists with others and see your friends' listening activity in real time. With these functionalities, the platform has inadvertently built a collaborative and thriving user community.

  3. Smart: Spotify gives you recommendations based on your song preferences. It creates "mixes" tailored for your taste and provides playlists for various occasions (e.g. gym, party) and moods (happy, blue). And don't get me started on that snazzy Spotify Recap at the end of each year.

The recommendations part is where it gets tricky, since the system utilizes a blend of collaborative filtering (making recommendations based on the interests of a user similar to you), content-based filtering (making recommendations based on your past activity and direct feedback from you), and super sexy ML/AI techniques. It also gets technical–while "streaming" a song is basically listening to it, it is technically defined as listening to a song for 30 seconds or more. Everything from the genre, popularity, and demographic associated with your most listened to or liked songs also influences what Spotify recommends you.

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But understanding how Spotify differentiates itself doesn't answer why it has had such a disruptive impact on music marketing and the music industry as a whole. Notably, terms like "playlistification", "Spotifycore", and "streambait pop" have been coined by several music critics to describe how most viral songs across social media and music charts in recent years share the same vibe–floaty vocals, low-key instrumentals, and pleasant tunes that aim to be inoffensive and easily digestible.

The technicalities of streaming explain a lot about this transformation. Firstly, for a creator to get their song streamed, they typically pitch their songs to curators of various platforms to promote their music. However, this process is extremely restrictive, with creators often getting songs rejected for obscure reasons like a lack of "feel" or a different "vibe" than what curators desire. Moreover, curators restrict the creators on factors such as song length, tempo, and instrumentation to increase the chances of their song being accepted and placed onto attention-garnering playlists. It becomes a real risk for an emerging artist to create experimental music, especially if they are aiming to land their first hit or build a stable listener base. As a result, it is often much easier for them to produce music that aligns with existing trends, leading to a slower pace of musical innovation and progression from year to year.

Additionally, all streams (30 continuous seconds played) pay creators equally, regardless of the total song length. This creates a real financial incentive for creators to produce shorter music on a larger scale–from 2013 to 2018, the average song on the Billboard Hot 100 fell in length from 3 minutes and 50 seconds to 3 minutes and 30 seconds. Add that to the increasing importance placed upon having a catchy hook or chorus, and everything contributes to the creation of what critics have described as the "playlistified" pop song.

The reality in the music industry is that music is transitioning from art to content. Songs are often released as standalone singles, detached from full albums, or designed to fit a larger mood rather than belonging to their own distinct narrative. It is being tacked to influencers and short-form videos as often as they are attributed to their artists. Spotify makes music meet us where we are, not the other way around. And it's working.

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I just want to listen to some music

All of this analysis on streaming may very well come across as pretentious and elitist. After all, not everyone is an audiophile or a music theorist—sometimes people just want to enjoy something to listen to. As a classical musician, I have heard many within my community refer to most popular music as "junk" and most listeners as "uneducated" on the basis that many people are unaware that all conventional pop songs follow a set structure - usually 3-3.5 minutes (now shorter), lead with the chorus, two verses with a hook, and 4 basic chords. This blog is by no means a bandwagon on this train of thought. As someone who finds artistry and complexity across EDM, alt rock, jazz, and other genres, I highly disagree with the notion that listeners of certain philosophies or genres are subservient to others. At its very heart, music is subjective, and beautifully so.

Streaming algorithms, furthermore, are not evil. Given the vast amount of music available compared to the number of listeners, streaming services do help curate users' feeds and help you find what you would typically enjoy listening to. The danger of it is that as the algorithm knows your tastes more distinctively, it tends to serve up increasingly specific and similar suggestions. This can unintentionally discourage users from exploring lesser-known parts of music catalogs and broadening their musical horizons.

Streaming is disrupting the music industry, but it is also disrupting music. And as music thrives solely because of the creative individuals who produce it, here is the essential question for you to consider: What do you see the future hold for the music you choose to listen to?


Krystal is a sophomore majoring in data science at CAS. Her (slightly obsessive) interests include music, fashion, media, creative writing, and poetry.

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