Curating personal playlists, freeing musicians from their dependence on radio stations or record labels, enjoying free music – the Spotify music platform seems to be empowering artists and listeners as never before. Yet, according to researcher Robert Prey, this “new radio” is shaping the way in which we are discovering and listening to music – much as the “old” radio did. And what about the artists themselves? ‘They are in the best and the worst position ever.’
Text: Nynke Broersma, Communications department / Photos: Elmer Spaargaren
‘Classical music for studying’, ‘Sunday morning coffee chill’, ‘Relaxing songs for kids’ – Spotify playlists are hugely popular. This popularity is usually portrayed as a natural and inevitable evolution of music consumption trends, to which no-one is calling the tune. But Robert Prey’s study shows that this is not entirely true.
He and his colleagues Marc Esteve Del Valle and Leslie Zwerver analysed the Spotify platform and its Twitter account @Spotify (which has 3.5 million followers) in great detail. ‘Our study determined that Spotify has been heavily promoting playlists in place of other formats since 2012, much more than albums or singles. Spotify has been largely responsible for the shift to playlists.’
A Canadian by birth, Prey has lived in Groningen for several years and he really loves the place (‘I don’t think there’s anyone in this city who spends more time on the Hoornsemeer lake!’). He loves music, relishes his visits to local music venue Vera and – back in the day – played in various bands. These days, he prefers to jam with his 8-year-old daughter, who plays the piano and ukulele and has ‘a lovely voice’. When it comes to his own abilities, Prey is more low-key. He says that he plays the piano and guitar ‘a bit’ and that he hasn't had much musical training. But what if he aspired to greater things – would Spotify offer him the scope to break through?
According to Prey, Spotify is using its editorial capacity to promote its own playlists over playlists created by listeners. Spotify-owned playlists have a higher share of major label content than do playlists created by listeners and other third parties. Nevertheless, the conclusion he draws in his study is that Spotify does give independent artists a greater chance to be heard. ‘There is comparatively more room for independent music on Spotify playlists than on commercial radio playlists. So, Spotify appears to be levelling the playing field for independent artists and record labels in comparison to commercial radio.’
For musicians, having more space to release their own music without needing to rely on radio stations or large record labels sounds like a very good position to be in right now. Prey echoes this but notes that, at the same time, this is also a very bad position for musicians to be in – for exactly the same reasons. ‘More music is being recorded and released than ever before and it is incredibly difficult to break through the ‘noise’ and to be heard. In addition, record companies are the true beneficiaries of streaming. Musicians must cobble together a living from playing live concerts and by other means, much as they have always done.’
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This is sure to ring a bell with Spotify listeners, as the platform uses all kinds of tricks to propel you towards even more music. The homepage features personalized playlists, suggested artists and playlists spanning a variety of genres, all based on your listening habits. Prey notes that: ‘How Spotify generates these algorithmic recommendations is far more complex than just using genre or other traditional ways of categorizing music and artists.’ These features have helped many users to discover unfamiliar artists. It also enables Spotify to significantly influence the way in which listeners (like you) discover new music.
Prey specifically alludes to ‘Fans Also Like’, a list of artists whose work (according to Spotify) resembles the music that you enjoy. While features like this undoubtedly affect the ways in which listeners discover music, they also impact artists’ perceptions of themselves and their music. Prey wonders how being categorized by algorithms affects them. How do these musicians feel about being linked to specific artists, and are they satisfied with their assigned categories? Is it possible to bypass the algorithms entirely, or to manipulate them to your own advantage? It’ll be a while before we get the answers to these questions, as Prey and his colleagues are still in the middle of this second part of their study.
Spotify may currently be levelling the playing field for independent artists and labels, but will it continue to do so in the future? Prey notes that: ‘Our study seems to indicate a gradual “return” of the major labels in terms of the content promoted by Spotify, so it will be interesting to see if this trend continues into the future.’ And although the major record labels are financially robust (once again), things can always change, says Prey. ‘We live in turbulent times. Tomorrow’s music industry may have undergone yet another metamorphosis!’
The research article in which Prey and his colleagues explain phenomena such as the switch to playlists and the more level playing field for artists was published last week in Information, Communication & Society. Read the full article.
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