When “chillhop” artist Tomppabeats started sharing his music, Spotify wasn’t top of mind in terms of streaming platforms. Yet the Finnish producer has seen unforeseen success since Spotify users have gotten ahold of (or been exposed to) his brief, catchy, lo-fi hip-hop beats — with the top track boasting nearly 40 million plays and counting.
The producer even said in an interview that the only place he’s truly “tried” to reach audiences has been through Bandcamp and SoundCloud. “That’s where I got my beginnings, and that’s probably where I’ll be staying after all blows over,” Tomppabeats said. “I can’t be bothered to learn how the Spotify playlist algorithms work and all that, so everything else has just been natural highs and lows.”
It’s quite the humble take on great musical success. But it’s likely because Tomppa feels he owes a good chunk of his success to Spotify — it’s curated Discover Weekly mixes, genre-specific playlists, and almost-too-good recommendations thanks to algorithmic intelligence.
Artists’ paths to success in the music industry are ever-changing alongside the ways fans consume their music. In one sense, this streaming service has helped level the playing field for new and independent musicians more than ever before. On the other hand, an artist’s success and reach are left completely to chance more than ever before. Those who toiled to pave their own way in the industry might not believe it, but in the current music landscape, it’s undeniable: All it takes to capture listeners’ attention sometimes is a stroke of luck.
Thanks to the expanding power of personalization through technological advancements, Spotify has rapidly reshaped the landscape for music sharing, streaming, and overall enjoyment. And it’s happened all within a single decade — merely a moment in the grand scheme of history. While FM radio stations were the simplest way to discover and listen to music casually even 10 years ago, they’ve become nearly obsolete to many people young and old. After all, radio stations that get the most ears are the ones that just repeat the same songs by the same artists.
The Evolution of Spotify
Launched in Sweden towards the end of 2008, the Spotify application became available in the United States in 2011. It has always been a “freemium” service, offering both free and paid subscriptions to its users. As a way to combat piracy concerns, founder Daniel Ek’s hope was that he could make a better alternative to file-sharing sites like LimeWire that could compensate musicians. Throughout the decade, the streaming service has grown into a multi-billion dollar company, with hundreds of millions of users who have access to more than 30 million songs, countless playlists, and more.
Its business model hasn’t gone without criticism within the industry, though. Spotify works with record labels, so any income an artist accrues via song streams might be minimal after it’s distributed among multiple rights-holders. Take Taylor Swift, for instance: In 2014, the pop star pulled all her music from the platform in protest of unfair compensation to musicians. (She has since re-uploaded the songs.) However, others praise Spotify as an effective distribution method for lesser-known artists whose music would otherwise struggle to reach the ears of potential fans.
A central aspect of Spotify’s appeal — if not the main aspect — is just how intuitive it is. It’s a win-win experience for listeners and artists alike, as well as the business itself. Gone are the days when music-lovers would solicit music suggestions solely from the people in their lives. Spotify is that pretentious friend who always asks, “Have you listened to [insert obscure indie band here]?” Now, instead, your pretentious friend might ask you the same question…but because Spotify found the band for them.
Discover Weekly, Release Radar, and Daily Mix
In 2015, Spotify launched its weekly-generated playlist called Discover Weekly, which is updated for users every Monday with 30 new songs. The intent is to help people discover new music they love with recommendations based on their personal preferences and tracks that similar listeners like. The initiative has been hugely successful in catering to listeners’ tastes and simultaneously expanding their horizons.
How does it work? Simply put, it pulls from the work of master (human) algorithm-builders and more layers of user data than you could imagine. Spotify essentially has user “taste profiles” based on their listening habits. It assigns a score to artists based on their association with certain genres or tastes — the core way the algorithm can take a stab at how much you’ll either like something similar or want to branch out to something new. To take it further, this technology also locates users profiles with playlists featuring the music you like and combs through the lists for songs you haven’t heard but might enjoy. Lastly, your taste profile is filtered by what you already consume as well as what you should explore. Behold: a sometimes unpredictable but highly curated mix from your new friend, Discover Weekly.
Serving as a sort of one-stop-shop for new music, Release Radar was introduced in 2016 and is updated every Friday (aka “New Music Friday”). These personalized playlists help users keep up on fresh releases by some of their favorite artists, as well as new artists they might like.
Just a month later, Spotify launched its Daily Mix playlists, a series of mixes that throw in users’ favorite songs with new recommendations, not to mention a nearly endless playback feature.
The common theme among all of these Spotify-generated playlists? Discovery infused with familiarity. If Spotify took the approach of showing you completely new music across any and all genres, it simply wouldn’t work. We love new things that remind us of our favorite things — almost as much as we love the familiarity of our favorite things.
Peaceful Piano. Rage Beats. The Sound of Wonky. The Sound of Chillhop.
Now that we have nearly limitless means for discovery through the platform, obscure and rising genres have a space to thrive, however small. Gaining a spot on one of Spotify’s playlists is so highly sought-after that artists can submit their tracks directly to the editorial team for consideration.
Spotify actually announced earlier this year that some of their playlists will be automatically tuned to each user’s particular taste instead of showing an identical playlist to everyone. This furthers efforts to increase user satisfaction in music discovery as well as expose the public to a wider variety of artists.
A majority of these playlists will feature one of the best or most-streamed tracks from a given artist — perhaps one of their singles. Arguably, one of the most momentous shifts in people’s music-listening habits includes a declining interest in full albums and greater attention to singles. As any anti-tech Baby Boomer would be quick to tell you, our attention spans are shortening. This doesn’t only apply to reading books but also to consuming music. Curated playlists, or “mixes,” are preferred by so many because of the variety that the artistic value of an album, start-to-finish, can be questioned.
If you haven’t seen your friends sharing their Spotify wrapped summaries for the year and the decade all over social media timelines and stories, my first question is, how? (If you haven’t unwrapped yours yet, you can find it here.)
At the end of every year, the service reveals and recaps users’ long-anticipated streaming trends — from top-played artists, songs, and genres to how many minutes you’ve streamed. It even presents you with a playlist containing your top 100 tracks of the year plus other discovery-oriented playlists tailored to you.
The issue this can raise for some users, however, is that their listening history doesn’t really reflect their actual preferences. “All the ASMR I play before bed really messed with my Spotify algorithm,” or “My toddler’s cartoon soundtracks completely fucked everything up” are just a couple of common laments you might hear. Therefore, the platform’s ultra-specific curation abilities can only go so far when they don’t actually know you.
What are the implications of relinquishing our power to the mighty algorithm in terms of music discovery? Well, take it or leave it. Some might take pride in hunting down their own music out in the wild without the help of a special-made playlist. Others simply want to stick to the tunes and albums they already know and love.
These days, it’d be hard to feel like my privacy has been invaded by being delivered targeted music suggestions. After scrolling past concerningly targeted Facebook ads daily — many of which it practically seems are a direct result of them listening to my conversations through my phone — I’m not too worried. That’s a whole other can of worms, anyway. For now, let us step back and gawk at the sheer power and progress in music streaming technology.