Even though I now access music via my phone, my old iPod Classic is one of my most treasured possessions. I got it as a teenager after years of listening to CDs and a mini MP3 player; I loved the iPod’s cool, shiny surface, its touch-sensitive circle to scroll round and round, its font. Its library provided a sanctuary for post-lights-out texting marathons and long bus journeys – but more than anything, it was an opportunity to build an identity. I could look through my iPod and notice the flaws to work on and gaps to fill. I could be proud of seeing the bands I adored listed one after another. It was a new space to inhabit. My whole self, in 160GB.
One facet of this was building playlists, a digital extension of the CD mixes that shaped the major relationships of my early teens. I made meticulous playlists constantly: songs that put me in a certain mood; soundtracks for parties with each contour of the group dynamic predicted and musically provided for. I pruned and cultivated them over years, adding and taking away, some fading into memory, others evolving.
Playlists have been back in the news recently with the release of Barack Obama’s new autobiography, A Promised Land. Obama created an accompanying playlist, ostensibly offering a peek into the former president’s inner world (he produced a similar soundtrack for his presidential campaigns, and Michelle Obama also made a playlist for her 2018 memoir Becoming). A few days after Obama’s release, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer appeared on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, and made a playlist of his own. The question, for anyone listening to either, was whether these selections could teach us anything about the politicians who had apparently curated them.
The act of sharing favourite songs generates intimacy and, when it comes to prominent figures, relatability, too. Keir Starmer chose “Three Lions” – he can’t be that much of a boring lawyer. Obama listens to Fleetwood Mac? Me too! But playlists no longer feel so intensely personal. Starmer and Obama’s selections may well be authentic (in any case, it’s no longer interesting to point out that public figures have PRs) – but over the last decade, playlists as a form have morphed from digital mixtape into a sort of deliberately cohesive, marketable entity. Their contents blend together into unrecognisable sludge. Obama’s playlist is less a collection of sparkling classics and more of an exercise in mixing ideas – The Beatles’ “Michelle” for heartwarming romance, Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” for poignant self-awareness, Brooks & Dunn’s “Only In America” for wry nationalism – until a bigger picture of Obama The Brand emerges. If a great album is a poem, each word or song carefully chosen to capture an emotional truth or reinforce the structure, playlists are advertising copy.
Though iTunes came first, the streaming giant Spotify is largely responsible for this shift in listening culture. Since 2011, Spotify’s registered users have multiplied tenfold to 320 million, and its paying subscribers have increased from 4 million to 124 million. It costs £9.99 a month to use Spotify premium, a service that provides unlimited access to pretty much all music ever (without adverts – if you can put up with these, you get it all for free). Since it became the frontrunner of the streaming revolution of the 2010s, Spotify has been scrutinised for its pitifully low royalties compared with previous recording formats: analysts calculated early in 2020 that artists receive around £2.74 per 1,000 streams, which is then divided among contributors and rights holders. (Of course, other major players –Apple Music, Amazon Music etc – function in a similar way.)
I’m slightly embarrassed to say this isn’t why I terminated my eight-year love affair with Spotify in the spring of 2020. I did so because, as the streaming service grew from an exciting, easy way to access music – an extension of my 160GB – into a behemoth of algorithmic recommendations, it wore away at my relationship with the thing I loved most. In this new streaming world, Spotify executives have power: band managers and A&Rs are desperate for prime positions on playlists rather than radio plays. As a result, I found Spotify was no longer serving me as a music library or even a place to discover new music; it was simply offering me playlists, over and over again. Each new playlist compressed the musical substance of its songs into something two-dimensional.
A relatively new Spotify playlist called “POLLEN”, created in 2018, describes itself as “genre-less”, and “quality first”. John Stein, the team lead of culture and editorial at Spotify North America, told Billboard the name was “a clear metaphor for the seeds of music”. But he also acknowledged that the playlist was supposed to be held together by a sense of where its listeners might shop, and which influencers they followed. This nonsensical, vague, vibey thing achieved 7.6 million streams in June this year, and has nearly 1.5 million followers. We know nothing about what it sounds like. It’s a brand.
Spotify playlists are often designed to be incidental – intended to be played either in the background of another activity or for some extra-musical reason, such as mood. In fact, Spotify presents us with soundtracks for most situations. There are playlists for the sort of circumstances that mainly arise in films (see: “Chillin’ on a Dirt Road”, “Front Porch”, “Van Life”). There’s a playlist for “Bottomless Brunch” or for the very specific “Beer and Wings”. There’s self-help (“Coping With Loss”). There’s “Ibiza Sunset”, “Morning K-Pop”, “’90s Babymakers”, “Lazy Jazz Cat”. And there are playlists for when you have no idea what you want to listen to, and none of these will do (“Shuffle Syndrome”, “Spotify and Chill”). At best, there are taxonomies of certain musical genres, but again, these simply pack something already well-defined by its own attributes into an even smaller, less interactive vessel. How can you create an exhaustive list of what is inevitably a complex web of history and craft?
The answer is that you can’t, which is Spotify’s secondary problem. In the later stages of my relationship with Spotify, I found I was so overwhelmed by choice that I mainly listened to my “most played” or my “Daily Mixes” – algorithm-created playlists of songs that vaguely complemented each other, based on a couple of things I’d already listened to. Spotify supplies your home screen via algorithm, so this listening habit has a sort of exponential effect. As soon as I opened the app, I was bombarded with playlists: those that didn’t take me on an endless loop of songs I already knew seemed to ask probing questions that were less and less about actual music. Is it sunny? Does it feel like the weekend? Have you been dumped? Aren’t you going to the gym today? Are you having breakfast? A drink? A party? Are you happy? Are you sure?
Spotify enables you to “save” albums and songs to your library – which is rented rather than owned – then to navigate through the artists, as I did on my iPod. But I never found myself willing or able to use this function because the home screen of the app is full of those seemingly urgent playlists. Often I would end up listening to nothing at all. Even when you search for an artist, you’re directed to a reformatted version of their body of work: first, songs ordered by popularity; second, a sort of bumper “best of” playlist that Spotify calls “This Is [Artist Name]”. This includes classical composers: if you fancy an afternoon of smoothly packaged Hungarian expressionism, why not hit shuffle on “This Is Bartók”? There’s no browsing through the back catalogue; no accidentally starting with the wrong album. “This Is” playlists dampen curiosity – This Is all you need to know.
This became the paradoxical crux for me: Spotify was a lethal cocktail of utter passivity and oppressive choice. You are shepherded into areas already chosen for you (do you want to listen to “Great British Breakfast”, “Peaceful Piano” or “This Is Beyonce?” Those are your options). At the same time, every song you choose to listen to affects where you’ll be herded next by the algorithm. There is infinite choice, and very little agency.
To assimilate the clean and tidy feel of my iPod, I have switched my £9.99 a month to Apple Music, which probably seems like swapping Coke for Pepsi. But its library-first interface has transformed my listening habits – as has my recent acquisition of a vinyl player. I feel more connected to music now than I have for a decade. The sensation of the sound simply stopping when the record is finished is remarkable to me after years of automatic “Spotify radio” that keeps playing yet more complementary songs at the end of the playlist.
As for Obama, we all know first-hand the personal nature of taste – and there is value and intrigue in a public figure exposing theirs. But in 2020, a playlist is not so much about the music; it’s about projecting an image. It’s a self-contained product that, for me, has begun to feel more than slightly hollow.