My dad has been a music collector for as long as I can remember. His packed shelves line the walls of our home office, proudly boasting nearly 3,000 CDs in neatly alphabetized rows.
As a kid, my dad’s CD collection seemed to contain all the music in the world—requesting specific albums and hearing “Sorry, I don’t own that one” was always a shock. I pulled seemingly random albums like the eponymous Elvis Presley (1956) and Gwen Stefani’s Love Angel Music Baby (2004) so he could help me burn my favorite tracks onto motley mixtapes to play on the little blue CD player in my bedroom.
I know the mixes didn’t possess anything resembling musical coherence, but it was fun to feel like part of the creative process. Years later, my Spotify Premium account provides a similar experience—albeit somewhat muted—in the form of limitless personal playlists and that same, flawed notion that all the music in the world is at my fingertips. But in the age of streaming dominance, the main vessel through which many of us consume music is no longer the artist or the album—it is the playlist. And the playlist has fundamentally altered the way that we listen to and interact with music.
As the world’s largest streaming service, the Swedish streaming giant Spotify holds a lot of currency in today’s music industry. Playlists are a fundamental feature of Spotify’s platform, and in total, the company curates approximately 3,000 playlists.
Editorial playlists, which span the gamut of genres and moods, are managed by editorial teams at Spotify. The most popular editorial playlists, like Rap Caviar and New Music Friday, boast millions of followers. Landing a coveted spot on one of these playlists constitutes a viable path to fame for emerging artists.
Spotify also creates algorithmic playlists, the three most recognizable being Discover Weekly, Release Radar, and Daily Mix. Algorithmic playlists take each user’s listening habits into account and update frequently with a custom, data-driven tracklist, however oxymoronic that may sound. “Algatorial” playlists are curated through a mix of editorial and algorithmic processes—“human curated and then machine personalized,” according to one Spotify insider. (A prominent example is Beast Mode.)
The second, and perhaps more interesting, category of playlists is user-created. A “user” could mean many things—individuals creating mood-based playlists with their favorite tracks; artists seeking to relate to fans; companies jockeying to align themselves with certain artists; San-Luis-Obispo-based zines hoping to grow a following and share awesome music (.wav Spotify). User playlists are the main way that many listeners interact with Spotify. And user-created playlists are actually the basis for the Discover Weekly algorithm—Spotify uses data on billions of playlists to find people with similar tastes, suggesting songs that one user loves and a user with similar listening habits has yet to discover.
While the basic unit of the music industry is arguably the song, the album, or even the artist, the playlist indisputably reigns on Spotify. And this is not an accident—Spotify purposefully created an environment to enable the playlist to eclipse songs, albums, and artists. The preeminence of playlists benefits users, who clearly enjoy creating playlists and using curated playlists as an avenue of music discovery, but the playlist’s hegemony principally benefits Spotify itself—Spotify controls the algorithms, so Spotify is the predominant arbiter of music taste. Many critics would argue that the streaming giant has positioned itself as not just a music authority, but as a music gatekeeper.
Of course, the music industry has never been a pure meritocracy; big labels have dominated since the early 20th century. However, creative processes like music discovery and curation have not always been so corporatized. Despite the objections of Spotify music editors, editorial playlists are an effective form of gatekeeping. The playlists displayed on the home page are not necessarily chosen on the basis of merit (which is hard to objectively identify in art anyway), but rather based on what Spotify wishes to promote.
This gatekeeping stifles innovation and novelty in the music industry, resulting in the proliferation of formulaic “Spotifycore” songs, which are characterized by chill beats, mellow vocal samples, and minimalist lyrics (think “Sofia” by Clairo or “Therefore I Am” by Billie Eilish). Not only do these chill-vibey-sadboi playlists—deemed musical wallpaper by critics—invoke a sense of musical déjà vu in the listener, they also tend to render non-famous artists in this genre disposable. To many listeners, an artist with no name recognition is simply the twentieth song on Spotify’s Chill Vibes playlist, not any one artist in particular. Yet for all the unfairness in the Spotify world, ultimately artists must choose to contract with Spotify or not, and choosing to remain off the platform nearly always portends a fall into obsolescence.
Recently, a friend and I were discussing Rico Nasty’s album Nightmare Vacation. She told me she had only listened to it once, and needed to listen again more carefully in order to pick songs for her playlists. This process of selecting songs off an album to divy up among playlists is one that many Spotify listeners are familiar with—why suffer the doldrums of a 15-track album when we can pluck out the highlights and plop them in among other favorite songs?
The artist is front-and-center on an album, with their listener along for the ride; playlists let listeners take the wheel. And so, to me, the success of the playlist makes sense. Playlists are easy, and whether they are curated by Spotify or by a user, they allow for both instant gratification and meticulous personalization, two things consumers tend to expect nowadays. But, at the risk of exuding pretension, is art supposed to be easy and digestible?
But playlists are also exciting—they replaced mixtapes, and then surpassed them in terms of customizability, length, and music discovery. They let the listener participate in the music process, and have opened new avenues for curation based on vibes and emotions. Personally, I love my playlists and stream them on repeat, but it is interesting to pause and recognize how the industry is changing, where it may be going next, and how these changes will impact artists in the future.
I guess I always assumed that my dad’s collection would live as long as he would—it has survived moves across the country, the downfall of vinyl and cassettes, failing record stores, and the digitization of music. But just the other day, my dad texted me that he has plans to dramatically downsize over the next few years, and in his words, “Spotify is the reason I think I can get rid of a lot of them!” The walls of CDs and weekly deliveries of 5” by 5” packages from used record stores are staple memories of my upbringing, and I will always feel a twinge of nostalgia while listening to an album on my car’s CD player. Yet it seems that even my dad’s decades-old hobby is ephemeral and susceptible to the allure of streaming. Maybe I’ll send him links to some Spotify playlists.
Sophie Moore is a .WAV editorial writer, she wrote the article. Renee Kao is .WAV’s Creative Director, she made the graphic.