Catherine's analysis

The cruel reflective surface of Spotify ‘recommendations’

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There has been much talk about music streaming services of late. On the whole, this is because famous people have begun talking about it. This talk is largely to promote particular services to which these famous people are affiliated in some way. Recently, one of the most famous said something and a huge tech company decided to make a key change to their new streaming service. Of course, music streaming has been around for a good while, but there is an increasing list of services. And consequently, there is intense jockeying for pole position in a world where content streaming is the new downloading.

Of course, when we were kids, we needed to buy the entire album, or alternatively, the ‘single’ in order to listen to particular artists or music genres. When all I wanted to listen was ‘Back for Good’ by Take That on loop, this was a lot of money for a kid getting by on $2 pocket money a week. So we’d tape songs off the radio, but never knowing when your favourite song would be played, you needed patience and quick-draw-McGraw reflexes to hit record at the right time. I would dream of a time when I could compile my own ‘album’ of songs, keeping the ones I liked and leaving out the ones I didn’t. Clearly I wasn’t alone in this dream.

So I got on the Spotify bandwagon a while back, a little sceptical it could fulfil my childhood dreams of an easily accessible means to listen to a vast range of music. But if you can imagine a child in a lolly shop, then you can imagine my first few days on Spotify.

In light of my desire to listen to a ‘vast range of music’ how do I make the most of this application? I feel like I’m owning up to shameful secrete here.   But despite my best intentions to challenge my music tastes and move on from the 90’s child that I was, I found myself steaming all those feel-good, easy listening songs I listened to on the radio growing up. Yes, it’s Take That et al. all the way.

In addition to letting me wallow in 90’s nostalgia, Spotify also helpfully ‘recommends’ songs and artists based on previous listening history. Sounds great on paper. But music choice is a personal process and these recommendations can be a source of frustration. If I was in any denial about the ‘sort’ of music tastes I have, then reading these automatically generated recommendations certainly cleared things up.

Reading what Spotify has ‘recommended’ is like seeing your reflection in a shop window before a night out. You’ve taken care dressing up, and think you look cool and edgy. But on glimpsing the reflection, you are slapped in the face with the realisation that this simply isn’t the case. So you streamed one Take That song! Sure enough, the next day your true music tastes are cruelly reflected back at you. You receive an email from Spotify confirming your musical transgressions:

‘We’ve found 10 new music suggestions for you! Enjoy’ smarms the automatically generated email.

‘No Spotify’ I yell at my computer screen, ‘I wouldn’t be interested in Backstreet Boys, N’Sync or 98 Degrees (well maybe Backsteet Boys)’.

You sulk to the unresponsive computer screen, slumped under the weight of digital judgement: ‘It was just one or two songs, ok!’

It turns out, I suppose, that Big Brother Spotify is always watching.


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