BY Liz Pelly in Opinion | 01 NOV 18

In the Age of Lean-Back Listening, Does Spotify have Neocolonial Ambitions?

Many of the streaming giant's curated playlists complicate Western obsessions with ‘world’ and ‘exotic’ music

BY Liz Pelly in Opinion | 01 NOV 18

Every week, Spotify publishes a New Music Friday playlist on its home page. A search for the phrase within the platform currently turns up 27 different results for official Spotify playlists. Many are designated by country: New Music Friday UK, New Music Friday Indonesia, New Music Friday Philippines and so on. But, in the US, New Music Friday appears undesignated, suggesting which country the streaming platform considers to be the centre of its world.

Spotify is currently available in 65 countries. As of 2018, 68 per cent of the user base resides in North America and Europe, 21 per cent in Latin America and 11 per cent in the rest of the world. The company’s headquarters are in Stockholm, with employees in 23 additional countries.

All of the aforementioned playlists are created by Spotify-employed curators located around the world. This is how the company communicates its ‘editorial voice’ and New Music Friday is one of its flagship brands. These playlists largely illuminate Spotify’s preservation of the music industry’s status quo and its Western centres of power and influence, leaning heavily on a base of US major label content and non-major artists supported by big marketing campaigns, with regional pop sprinkled throughout.

Recently, New Music Friday’s international playlists included ‘Superhero’ (2018), the latest single by the 24-year-old American songwriter Lauv, who is something of a streaming darling. The song is just one example of what might be called made-for-playlists Spotify-pop: it opens with an intimate chorus before softly dropping into slow electronic beats, swirls of synths and lots of repeated hooks. It’s a style formulated to prevent skips – a high skip rate can get a track removed from a playlist or prevent it from being algorithmically recommended.

Lauv’s career took off in 2016, when his first single went viral on Spotify. He then became a participant in Spotify RISE: an emerging-artist project that aims to introduce the world, as a 2017 press release puts it, to the ‘next wave of music superstars’. Upon its release, ‘Superhero’ appeared in at least 23 of Spotify’s New Music Friday playlists, taking the first spot on those released in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. According to Spotify data, the artist is currently most popular in Quezon City, Philippines, where he has over 300,000 listeners. Spotify playlists serve a number of functions, but one of them, it seems, is bringing that subtly sticky Spotify-pop sound to a global audience.

Of course, Western pop music has always been a commodity with a global reach. Now, as Spotify increasingly works directly with artists on promotional campaigns and partnerships, bringing its future stars to the top slots of prominent playlists around the world is a way of wielding the platform’s influence and shaping culture. Earlier this year, in a letter to investors, Spotify co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek wrote that the company builds audiences ‘for every kind of artist at every level of fame’, claiming that ‘in this new world, music has no borders.’ Yet, Spotify seems set on becoming the world’s most powerful gatekeeper and tastemaker.

In recent years, much has been written about the ways in which an increasingly digitally connected music world is facilitating a more global pop environment, with Latin tracks going mainstream in the US and a growing international interest in K-pop, to name just two examples. But, what remains to be seen is whether this merely results in a new type of globally informed pop monoculture, created at the whim of Western streaming companies.

A definitive challenge of the streaming economy is the way it makes independent and underground artist and fan communities beholden to a platform that largely serves the interests of the pop machine. How does this new listening environment affect Western underground music fans interested in obscure and niche global sounds?

Perusing the ‘genre’ and ‘mood’ tabs on the home page, you can find Spotify-curated playlists spanning pop and non-pop streaming trends such as Fantastic K-pop Workout, Indian Classical Music for Studying, Taiwan Indie Picks or Exotic Nap – not to mention thousands of user-generated playlists for just about any genre, country or culture. Some are more reductive than others. In certain cases, these playlists and categories represent rich musical histories and it would be wrong for Spotify to overlook them in its curatorial efforts. A large percentage of users likely want to find this music. Additionally, representation for groups that have not historically been afforded it in the Western popular-culture lexicon is unquestionably meaningful.

But, do such playlists break down cultural differences or enforce them? Are we further ‘othering’ certain sounds by relegating them to niche playlists? Can true appreciation happen on platforms that deprioritize context? In the less discerning, streaming-facilitated lean-back listening environment – where fans simply receive recommendations rather than seeking out specific artists or albums – many of the aforementioned playlists further complicate Western obsessions with ‘world’ and ‘exotic’ music, particularly as the internet has made it simpler and more convenient to find sounds from across the globe. In streaming’s passive-listening experience, these valuable musical histories risk being boiled down to background music.

In 2011, UK music critic Simon Reynolds wrote an essay on the concept of digitally facilitated ‘xenomania’. Reynolds responded to Western music fans’ obsession with digging into the deep corners of the internet for rare, out-there sounds. He wrote: ‘For the exotic beat-freaks and the global street-pop enthusiasts alike, something of the thrill of the hunt has been restored, it’s just that the safari now takes you through the deeper recesses of YouTube or the hinterlands of the web.’ In the streaming era, where a premium is placed on perpetual discovery, Reynolds’s reflections speak to a certain type of music fan scouring digital platforms always hoping to uncover something new. (Within limits: there’s certainly much that’s not distributed to streaming services at all.)

The philosopher Robin James responded to Reynolds’s analysis in a blog post at the time, writing that this type of ‘xenomaniacal’ listening ‘reaffirms cultural boundaries’ and that the ‘reification of cultural difference is a necessary condition’ for it. This resonates today, as well, when we consider the extent to which streaming playlists are defined by country and culture.

Spotify brings these dynamics into an exploitative commercial space, where music is treated as content sitting alongside advertisements or, perhaps, as fodder for corporate-branded playlists. As music discovery increasingly takes the form of playlists made by in-house curators or algorithms – based on factors including listening habits, the sound of the song (tempo, key, energy, mood), the country it comes from and, on music streaming service Pandora, even the song’s level of ‘exoticism’ – platforms are interrupting this process with convenience and curation.

On music-streaming services, context is lost. It is often difficult to trace the players, the record label or other identifying information on a specific song. Perhaps, in the past, someone seeking out a track for their Exotic Nap compilation might read an MP3 blog post or vinyl liner notes. But, on Spotify’s Exotic Nap playlist, for example, clicking the names of about one quarter of the artists leads to no site-hosted biography and many of the songs are just pulled from other compilations or film soundtracks. The origins of many tracks on the playlist are made hazy.

A once-held view of the internet was that it might provide a levelling force within music. And, today, it certainly still has the potential to establish true appreciation and understanding of music from different genres and countries. But streaming has upheld many of the power structures that have long-defined pop music worldwide, including the Western music industry’s status as its biggest international influence, even as streaming companies have expanded their reach across the globe. As streaming platforms determine the way we perceive music through playlists that serve their business interests, the line between appreciation and appropriation grows blurrier.

Published in frieze, issue 199, November-December 2018, with the title ‘Exotic Nap’.

Main image: Sandy feet in a hammock. Courtesy: Brian Bailey, Getty Images

Liz Pelly is a writer and editor based in New York, USA. Her writing on music, culture and streaming has appeared in The Baffler, The Guardian, Pitchfork, The Intercept and The Village Voice.