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Jeff Miers’ Soundcheck: Big Brother is picking your playlist

Jeff Miers

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

You’re cranking tunes from Spotify at a party you’re hosting, when suddenly, the album or playlist you’d picked to impress your guests ends, and something you don’t want to hear comes blaring out of whatever stupid Bluetooth speaker you happen to be using because you don’t feel like going through the whole rigmarole of, I don’t know, placing a record on a turntable or even dropping a CD in a tray and hearing genuine stereo sound. I mean, you need time to mingle, right?

Let’s say you were indulging in Radiohead, something from the mildly dancey/EDM-informed recent catalog, like “Lotus Flower.” Your guests are digging it. It’s the last song on the playlist you curated for your party, so unless you’re paying close attention Spotify is just itching to pick your next tune. Turns out it wants you to listen to “Heroin,” by the Velvet Underground, because, duh, you like Radiohead, so of course you want to hear Lou Reed moaning on about the ecstasy of drug addiction for 7 and ½ minutes.

Party over. Thanks, Spotify.

Daniel Ek, CEO of Swedish music streaming service Spotify. (Getty Images)

Perhaps, if you’re a consistent user of Spotify, you’ve noticed something that pops up on your home page whenever you engage the interface. It’s called "Discover Weekly," and here’s how Spotify describes it: “Your weekly mixtape of fresh music. Enjoy new discoveries and deep cuts chosen just for you. Updated every Monday, so save your favorites.”

Wow. Doesn’t that make you feel special, that they’d go to all that trouble just for you? Yes? Well, it shouldn’t. This is how the company is using your taste to market to you, and in the process, finding a new avenue toward monetizing free music in the way that terrestrial radio used to, back when terrestrial radio was a thing. You remember that one time when you looked at a Tame Impala T-shirt you were thinking of buying for your nephew or kid brother on Amazon, and now every time you're on Facebook, that T-shirt is being advertised to you on the right of your screen? It’s like that.

There is an upside to this, however. Some of the music Spotify recommends leads me to new and unexpected places. This happens most often when I listen to jazz. Listening to Miles Davis might lead you to Ambrose Akinmusire, or Roy Hargrove, or Donny McCaslin, or even to the root of it all, Louis Armstrong. This is a fantastic feature, for it seeks to educate and broaden the experience of the listener by providing context.

There’s also an upside for new artists. If you’re lucky enough to get added to a curated playlist –  note that you can’t buy your way onto one, as these are not made by Spotify, but by outside individuals and agencies, although Spotify does have editorial oversight – you might find your streaming count blasting through the roof.

(Getty Images)

I discovered this firsthand through the case of Mac Ayres, an artist for whom my son plays bass. Ayres’ song “Easy” was added to the Spotify playlists "Butter" and Alternative R&B. As a result, the song has been streamed in excess of 20 million times, Ayres currently has 1,615,110 monthly listeners, and the band’s recent U.S. and European tours found the sold-out club crowds singing along to the band’s songs, from Portland, Ore. to Manchester, England. By contrast, I played in an original alternative rock band for 10 years, and we were psyched when we manged to sell (a little) more than 1,000 copies of our 1995 disc. Times have changed.

The downside, though, is that, unless you are a serious and particularly adventurous listener, you’re going to be fed what you already like, and you’re basically being encouraged to live in a musical bubble.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that I’d much rather choose my own music than have multi-billion-dollar company’s algorithm choose it for me.



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