Destroying Music, One Playlist at a Time

Rex Features via AP Images

The music business is struggling. File-sharing and streaming have cut into what was for decades a lucrative industry. Sure, Americans are producing more vinyl now than they have in years, but overall album sales remain down, and the average consumer doesn’t seem to want to own music anymore. They want to listen to it, and only half-listen. So how does the industry get people to pay for a product that they’ve started expecting for free? Enter Spotify.

At The Baffler, Liz Pelly puts the world’s most popular streaming service under her microscope, to look at not only how it works, but how its algorithmic system shapes how listeners value music itself. The key is in the playlist, Pelly says, and how it strips songs of their origins or any other context besides mood, and directs listeners not to albums, but back to Spotify. Spotify user satisfaction is high, but while we’re relaxing to another chill mix, the service collects data about our tastes and songs’ performances — information that advertisers use to sell us stuff, but not anything that can help sell music. Playlists are corporate-branded. Spotify isn’t the solution to the music industry’s struggles. It’s a new threat, and our $9.99 monthly subscription finances the problem.

As an industry insider once explained to me, digital strategists have identified “lean back listening” as an ever more popular Spotify-induced phenomenon. It turns out that playlists have spawned a new type of music listener, one who thinks less about the artist or album they are seeking out, and instead connects with emotions, moods and activities, where they just pick a playlist and let it roll: “Chillin’ On a Dirt Road,” “License to Chill,” “Cinematic Chill Out.” They’re all there.

These algorithmically designed playlists, in other words, have seized on an audience of distracted, perhaps overworked, or anxious listeners whose stress-filled clicks now generate anesthetized, algorithmically designed playlists. One independent label owner I spoke with has watched his records’ physical and digital sales decline week by week. He’s trying to play ball with the platform by pitching playlists, to varying effect. “The more vanilla the release, the better it works for Spotify. If it’s challenging music? Nah,” he says, telling me about all of the experimental, noise, and comparatively aggressive music on his label that goes unheard on the platform. “It leaves artists behind. If Spotify is just feeding easy music to everybody, where does the art form go? Is anybody going to be able to push boundaries and break through to a wide audience anymore?”

Indeed, Spotify’s obsession with mood and activity-based playlists has contributed to all music becoming more like Muzak, a brand that created, programmed, and licensed songs for retail stores throughout the twentieth century. In the 1930s, the company prioritized workplace soundtracks that were meant to heighten productivity, using research to evaluate what listeners responded to most. In many ways, this is not unlike the playlist category called “Focus” that we see now on Spotify. In March 2011, Muzak was purchased by Mood Media, a company that provides in-store music, signs, scents, and video content. The similarity between the objectives of companies like Muzak and Mood Media, and the proliferation of mood-based playlists on Spotify, is more than just a linguistic coincidence; Spotify playlists work to attract brands and advertisers of all types to the platform.

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