Does Spotify Wrapped make up for the platform's pitfalls?
Culture writers Richie Assaly and Chris Murphy explain why it’s ‘like CoComelon for adults’
'Tis the season for Spotify Wrapped, when the music streaming service delivers users a personalized, interactive, and highly shareable breakdown of their listening habits for the year.
Writers Richie Assaly and Chris Murphy talk about why Spotify Wrapped has become such a massive annual social media phenomenon, and how it helps generate a lot of goodwill for a company often seen as the Scrooge of the music industry.
We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.
LISTEN | Today's episode on YouTube:
Elamin: Richie, there are so many year-end lists that are a dime-a-dozen. What makes Spotify Wrapped such a big deal?
Richie: I think there's several reasons, but the main one is that at its core, Spotify Wrapped is this colorful, nicely packaged, easily shareable distraction from an otherwise pretty bleak timeline — one that offers a glimpse into something that a lot of people think is really important, which is their music taste, and how that kind of shapes their identity.
It's also a brilliant campaign because usually making a list or reflecting on your tastes takes hours and it takes effort. This is just at your fingertips. It reminds me of that U2 album that was just dumped on everyone's iPhone. You have no choice. It's just you open your Spotify, and here's your Wrapped. You just click it and you're sharing it, you know? As you said, there are some insidious components to it, but it's also not that serious. The memes, the self-deprecating jokes — these become as important as the actual list. I do think it's losing a bit of its lustre year by year…. But it's just a brilliant marketing campaign that's kind of irresistible if you use Spotify, which half a billion people do.
Elamin: Chris, I've got to say the idea of being like, "Here's a bunch of stuff you listen to," that sounds like you would just get a list. How has Spotify gone about making it more enhanced?
Chris: Every year they add a new, interesting flavour to shake up just giving out data — because all it is, is data. It's just piling up all the minutes that we've spent listening to various artists. So this year they said, "Okay, if you listen to these types of artists, you're from Bozeman, Montana."
Elamin: That's me!
Chris: Or Cambridge, Massachusetts, or Berkeley, or New York, New York — so, adding a geographic location to it. They'll tell you how many minutes between your top artist and your next artist. They provide completely arbitrary distinctions and rankings and locations to people's music tastes that just creates discourse and is fun. As Richie said, it's not that serious, and yet people treat it as though it's life or death because people love what they love. They love their music.
Elamin: Richie, Spotify's top streamed artist of the year with 26 billion streams is Taylor Swift. Spotify is having a lot of fun with this. They've got a lot of messaging around it … and just judging by your social media feed, you've got a lot of strong feelings about this. What's your deal, man? Why are you mad?
Richie: Listen, I'm not about to talk trash about Taylor Swift on national radio. I have a career to think about, I have a family to think about, you know. My bigger issue with Spotify Wrapped is because it only uses this single algorithmically determined metric, which is how many times you've listened to a song. It becomes a celebration of the biggest and most successful artists in the world — the Drake's, the Taylor's, the Bad Bunny's. We do a lot of that already.
I just think it becomes a bit problematic when one considers that Spotify infamously pays these extremely meagre royalties — literally fractions of a penny per stream — making it an essentially negligible source of income unless you're a popular major artist. I did some math. I think if you have a million streams, that's enough to pay rent in Toronto for a month, you know? And so what bothers me, I think, is that Wrapped is ostensibly this way to showcase your unique tastes and your unique interests, but it often ends up reflecting the monoculture. I think if we really want to celebrate music in its breadth and its diversity, we can't trust the algorithm. We need to actually put some time and effort into it. And we do that; list season is coming right up, and Wrapped is sort of this warm-up. I just think it's a genius marketing campaign. It's just tough because it's coming from a company that most musicians will tell you is an unethical one.
Elamin: Everyone in this chat knows that I am a Taylor Swift fan. My number one song listened to on Spotify was Cruel Summer. But I don't really think of myself as someone who listens to that song a lot; it just so happens that it's, like, the second song that plays after most of the songs that I choose to shuffle from. That kind of ends up algorithmically boosting it to this number one spot, even though I don't think I necessarily turn toward that song as a choice myself. So, even in that, I think there's a bit of distortion between the idea that you spend a lot of time with the song versus you purposefully, emotionally spent some time with this artist or this song.
Chris, I've got to ask you: the idea that Richie just brought up, that there are so many criticisms of how Spotify goes about its music business. That's not a secret. We know Spotify is kind of controversial. What role does this Wrapped thing play in boosting the image of Spotify?
Chris: I think people often forget how problematic Spotify can be because it's so ingrained into our lives. No one's going down to their local record store, really, and buying a CD or a disc cassette or whatnot. You have your vinyls if you're a real music fan. But that's how we enjoy music these days. And as Richie said, the pretty colours, the easy packaging, how it's so accessible — it's like CoComelon for adults. It's so nice, and it's so easy to forget how little they pay their artists, and how much more difficult Spotify and streaming services at large have made it for artists to be successful and to have a working life as an artist.
You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.
Panel produced by Stuart Berman.