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Does Spotify Wrapped regain a communal listening that has been lost in the age of headphones, or is it merely an exercise in marketing and data-harvesting?

If we read it charitably, Spotify Wrapped – the annual roundup of what albums, songs, artists, and podcasts Spotify users listened to most from 1 January to 31 October – regains the communal listening which has been lost in the increasing solipsism of headphones. Whatever song we listened to at the start of the year on hard rotation, but have perhaps forgotten, can be reminisced; for the dedicated, we discover whether we were in the top 1%, 0.5%, 0.01% of listeners to a particular musician. The innovation by Spotify’s marketing team, since Wrapped’s beginnings as a simple playlist, has been integrating this data into a shareable hot topic of social media trending – hence the "national holiday".

But we shouldn’t be charitable about Spotify Wrapped, or at least the part of it occupied by Spotify-the-company rather than its 144 million global users. Every questionable aspect of Spotify Wrapped is tied intrinsically to the most problematic elements of its business model as a whole. Spotify does not see the paradox in trumpeting The Joe Rogan Experience as its most-listened-to podcast – oddly enough, the podcast it paid $100m to provide exclusively – when Joe Rogan questioned the motives of the Black Lives Matter movement, while at the same time they dedicate an entire section of their Spotify Wrapped marketing to what they claim are "the songs that soundtracked the movement". 

"A musician would need to generate 23bn streams on Spotify to earn what they're paying Joe Rogan for his podcast rights", music writer Ted Gioia tweeted in May; "Spotify values Rogan more than any musician in the history of the world". Rewarding users for using Spotify as much as possible goes hand in hand with Spotify asking musicians, just a few short weeks ago, to take a pay cut from the already minimal amount they are paid each time a song is streamed (one play = something like $0.003) if they will instead be paid in that elusive remuneration of "exposure". Spotify Wrapped is built on this intangible "exposure"; Spotify doesn’t want you to think about how its content is not fairly remunerated, nor that it also – while collecting data on every song you listen to, how much, what time of day, and all that this implies (insert your own joke about listening to X at 2am) – collects data on what brand of headphones you use (£600 Beats by Dr Dre, or low-fi free ones?), not that they include this in Wrapped. Are people who like Taylor Swift more or less likely to have expensive headphones? Are they, therefore, more or less likely to have money to throw around? Ultimately, this matters because the best way to support a musician is not listening to them exclusively on Spotify, but it feels good to be in that top 1% regardless. At the last live gig I went back to, back in February, the artist left the stage telling us that if we kept Glasgow in the top 20 locations for him on Spotify then he would keep coming back. Spotify has made their statistics matter, and I don’t think that best serves the consumer or the artist.

To return to that more charitable reading, what Spotify Wrapped purports to do, and to some degree does, is to reinject the sense of "community" in music listening. When most Spotify listening is a personal experience, in headphones, now we can share the data directly onto social media (or, more specifically, Instagram Stories). It becomes more about us discovering that one of our top five artists is someone we never knew our friends were a fan of too. But aside from any controversy that Spotify may or may not have copied their templates for Instagram Stories directly from an unpaid woman of colour intern (which they did), it turns music listening into something it shouldn’t be – a challenge. Why should we stop and think before sharing these, to care whether our list is more valid, more on-brand than someone else’s? 

Calling Spotify Wrapped a "new national holiday" might be said in jest, but it is in keeping with the way that some have reacted to what is essentially free advertising. Whilst some Spotify consumers are Black Lives Matter protestors, it is not Spotify’s place to apportion part of Wrapped to how they were the "soundtrack of the movement". Spotify lists Childish Gambino’s This is America as its number one "BLM song", whatever that means in practice, in the same way that in 2018 they hid their meaningful data-harvesting behind the fun facade of which astrological signs people had listened to most that year. Using Spotify to experience Black culture is great, but it’s not the inherent part of the business model that the Wrapped ranking is supposed to imply. None of this would be a problem if Wrapped were really just about sharing music taste.

Certainly, Spotify Wrapped does that community function – I discovered that a friend’s most-listened song was Vulfpeck’s Animal Spirits, a huge favourite of mine. I also waded through many lists over the "national holiday" sharing period where I hadn’t heard of a single name. These experiences are what Spotify Wrapped should be about, but we get the same experience from just sharing what we’re listening to or recommending music to a friend. At least CD players don’t have adverts.


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