December is the season for hot cocoa, gift-giving, and an influx of Spotify Wrapped screenshots on social media. Each year, as November fades away, Instagram and Snapchat stories witness an influx of the latest screenshot-friendly designs Spotify has released. Whether you couldn’t care about everyone else’s top five songs or you look forward to the fun graphics each year, Spotify Wrapped continues to appear on most of our screens. Though, as its annual campaign becomes increasingly popular and more visually appealing, what exactly is the audio streaming giant achieving by curating these annual summations of our individual listening tastes?
Organic—and free—marketing could be pinpointed as the main reason Spotify unrolls the feature. As its users watch their personalised and playful year in review, many capture the graphics displaying their listening activity to share with others on social media platforms. Users can even screenshot their top artists of the year in a variety of colourways to align with their personal aesthetic. By crafting this dynamic feature, Spotify routinely pulls off a largely low-cost marketing campaign. Rather than hiring brand influencers as it has in the past with the likes of Sophie Turner, Wrapped prompts all users to act like influencers themselves. When the feature was rolled out for the third time back in 2017, the platform asked listeners to “be brave enough to share [their] listening history.” This allegedly led to 5 million shares on social media that year, and that number has only skyrocketed since.
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In 2019, Spotify’s head of consumer and producer marketing, June Sauvaget, told Forbes that Wrapped “creates this FOMO effect that happens and that inherently entices new users to consider Spotify.” In the same article, Alex Bodman, Spotify’s vice president and global executive creative director, noted that “much of [its] online presence has been organic.”
Through the company’s thousands of unique billboards that coincide with Wrapped findings, Spotify has been able “to create cultural moments.” Bodman also said that it achieves this annual success by treating the campaign “as something that you’re not just trying to think of as an ad.” Instead, he acknowledged its mission to “entertain.” This goal is deeply embedded into the company’s advertising structures—though it could be argued that tapping into collective and individual identities is at the heart of its marketing goals.
Rather than selling music, Spotify sells us curated versions of ourselves. Through mood-oriented and Discover Weekly playlists, the streaming giant affects both what we listen to and how we do it. While in many ways this is beneficial and desirable—who doesn’t want to find new music that they’ll most likely love—it also begs the question: what’s the purpose of Spotify doing so?
Like the sense of meaning we often find in star sign readings—even if it means that we’re narcissistic—we’re drawn to music’s uncanny and whimsical ability to identify and express our sense of selfhood. Using immense swathes of personal data, an average Spotify user listens to music for an estimated 2.5 hours a day. Spotify merely cashes in on the artform’s connection with human identity through its various services, the most blatant being Wrapped. Through its highly curated, algorithmically-generated features, the platform is able to produce detailed aural portraits of each of its users. This yearly rollout reaffirms the core of its marketing campaigns which is, as Wrapped’s introduction often reads, “no one else listen[s] exactly like you.”
Though there’s a large distrust in big data and tech giants at the moment, most Spotify users can’t get enough of their highly personalised playlists. The algorithms behind the platform are what have set it apart from industry competitors for years. Benjamin Johnson, an advertising professor at the University of Florida, said that Spotify has avoided the “creepiness factor” of data collection “by granting a maximum amount of user control over what people’s networks see of their listening history.” Because of this, we feel in control when taking screenshots, choosing the colourway we’d like to display and selecting which parts of the coveted musical summary to include and omit from our social media profiles. As Johnson additionally noted, users can decide ‘Is this going to make me look good?’ or ‘Does this reflect the story I want to tell about myself?’ when viewing their customised Wrapped features.
Due to the amount of time we spend with and on our phones, algorithms effectively unearth some of our deepest patterns and feelings. However, they also reveal how intertwined they have become with the intersection between one’s sense of identity and digital consumer culture. As journalist Kelly Pau succinctly stated in an article for Vox, “[o]ur collective enamoration with” Spotify Wrapped demonstrates how we increasingly see ourselves “as brands to be refined.” Furthermore, users are becoming aware of how their activity on digital platforms is reflective of their own actions while simultaneously being “inherently manufactured and performative.”
This sentiment is present in the work of P David Marshall, a new media and communications professor at Deakin University, who researches how people consider what they share on social media. According to Marshall, “we realise we’re a digital construction” when engaging with social media, but this construction has also become intrinsically connected to who we are, or at least “who we think we are.” By sharing Wrapped playlists, users can come to a better understanding of how they define themselves—as mainstream, niche, or somewhere in between—through their music tastes while also refining this fixed identity to others online.
Although many don’t consider themselves as influencers, Wrapped works in a way that brings out our collective instinct to influence. Pau noted how one Spotify user she spoke to, Isabel Edreva, said that “[i]f someone I really respect has a top song I’ve never heard of, I’m like, ‘Okay, I should listen to it.’” This example reiterates how effective the marketing campaign is in encouraging users to engage with Spotify even more, but also how seamlessly the streaming platform fits into our desire to define ourselves on and offline in relation to others. Our instinct to share is tied with designing a specific brand of ourselves, and, through personalised data, Spotify effectively continues to help us curate our sense of selves—for better or worse.
Another day, another app cosplaying TikTok’s signature video feed format. Joining Instagram, Reddit, Pinterest, Snapchat, YouTube and Netflix in the pursuit of some gen Z action is none other than the foregone music giant Spotify—with yet another feature inspired by the coveted short-form content platform.
First spotted by developer Chris Messina, Spotify is currently testing a vertical feed of curated music videos that users can scroll through indefinitely. Dubbed ‘Discover’, the feature appears as a newly-minted tab in the navigation bar at the bottom of the Spotify app—right in between the Home and Search icons.
In an interview with TechCrunch, Messina explained that he stumbled across the feature in Spotify’s TestFlight build—a beta version for iOS. He also noted how the new circular icon in the navigation toolbar would immediately direct one to the video feed upon tapping. Users can then swipe up and down to view music videos on their curated feed, much like how we already do on TikTok, Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts and more. Here, they also have the option to like the songs by tapping on a heart and bring up the standard song information sheet by clicking on the three-dot menu placed next to it.
Messina further speculated that the feature will replicate Spotify’s existing ‘Canvas’ format. Introduced in 2019, Canvas essentially allows artists to create and add highly-stylised video clips to their music on the app. The response to the feature back then, however, was mixed. While some appreciated it, others admitted their preferences for static album art during listening sessions. The latter was also accompanied by claims that the videos and looping imagery distracted one from the music itself. On the other hand, the feature appears to drive the engagement metrics that Spotify desires. “The company reports that users are more likely to keep streaming, share tracks or save tracks when they see a Canvas,” TechCrunch noted.
When the publication reached out to Spotify, the company confirmed that it was exploring the idea of a vertical video feed. “At Spotify, we routinely conduct a number of tests in an effort to improve our user experience,” a spokesperson said. “Some of those tests end up paving the way for our broader user experience and others serve only as an important learning.” In short, the Discover project is still at its initial testing phase and there’s no way of confirming whether it will roll out to the public or not. If it does, however, the feature would undoubtedly redirect engagement back to Spotify from other platforms like TikTok—the one it’s trying to replicate in the first place. How? Let’s get ‘into the thick of it’ with some statistics.
Earlier this year, TikTok commissioned MRC Data—an independent research and analytics group—to dig deeper into one of the app’s top defining spheres of influence: music. According to reports obtained from the group, TikTok has proven to be a more powerful music discovery platform than Spotify. “Even generously assuming that 100 per cent of Spotify users discover new artists and music on the streamer, that would make TikTok 168 per cent more powerful for artist and music discovery than the world’s most powerful streaming service,” the research summed up.
In order to rejuvenate engagement and boost content discovery, Spotify has previously tested a Stories feature which allowed influencers to post and share their own curated playlists. But it never got to see the light of day. If Discover ultimately makes its way into the public, the feature would act as a potential source for Spotify to finally pull the UNO reverse card on TikTok. Because, after all, TikTok’s popularity is hinged on short-form music clips in the first place. So, why can’t the opposite work for Spotify and help the platform reclaim its identity as a musical powerhouse?