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Spotify Wrapped 2021 has gone even further upriver than last year

The streaming giant’s end-of-year review has become a fixture of the Christmas period. But while everyone’s listening statistics are social media gold dust, there could be something more insidious at play, writes Louis Chilton

Wednesday 01 December 2021 16:32
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<p>A look at some of the designs for this year’s Spotify Wrapped, the music streamer’s annual statistical round-up</p>

A look at some of the designs for this year’s Spotify Wrapped, the music streamer’s annual statistical round-up

It’s that time of year again. The trees are baubled, the lights lit... crisp, white snow might be a stretch, but you get the picture. Christmas is here, and though the day itself is still weeks away, Spotify is bestowing an early present upon its nearly 200 million subscribers. The gift takes the form of Spotify Wrapped, an emergent fixture of any modern music lover’s calendar.

The premise of Wrapped is simple: it’s a sort of year-in-review for Spotify customers, breaking down everyone’s yearly listening habits (well, technically their January-to-October listening habits) into a series of easily digestible superlatives. Your most-played tracks, most-played artists, most-played podcasts, etc. As a means of generating free advertising, it’s ingenious; for a few days every year, social media is awash with mentions of Spotify, as everyone takes the opportunity to brandish digital evidence of their great taste, or trashy taste, or make fun of other people ballyhooing their great or trashy tastes. But don’t be fooled by ingenuity: as far as I’m concerned, Spotify Wrapped is the devil. And it ought to be shunned by music fans everywhere.

For starters, there’s the tone of it all. The sort of felty, condescending register with which it announces your results. Your 2020 contained multitudes, it informed listeners last year. One song helped you get through it all. Never mind if that song was Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting Around to Die”. Let’s start you off with a win. The tone is part motivational speaker, part New Age primary school teacher. I don’t deserve an obsequious pat on the back for listening to “Good 4 U” a hundred times – quite the opposite.

This year, Spotify Wrapped has gone even further upriver, consulting with an aura reader to bring fans their “audio aura” in one of several new gimmicks. Your top music moods are bold and wistful, it might tell you, alongside an algorithm-generated colour swatch. I can’t wait for five years’ time, when Spotify will presumably re-imagine your listening history as a series of curated smells, or use your top music picks to identify your biological soulmate.

At the end of it, your year (really 10 months) of listening is compressed into one lump value, the total number of minutes spent streaming music on Spotify. These scores can become a point of some contention on social media, as self-styled audiophiles whip ’em out and see whose is bigger. But what does this really tell you about anything? It’s meaningless data.

For me, Spotify Wrapped’s true issues are deeper than just a sanctimonious conversational manner. They’re ideological. Wrapped flies in the face of how music is actually experienced and enjoyed in the real world. It tells you only the “what”, nothing about the “how”, the “why”, the “when”. Who you were with when you heard a particular song for the first time. Which song made you fall in love with music all over again, after your previous obsession had grown stale. Music, in short, isn’t a numbers game.

To some extent, the appeal of Wrapped is elemental: the desire to know thyself. It can certainly be intriguing, even illuminating, to have your passions broken down into raw data. But I don’t think that’s really what Spotify does. It selectively doles out nuggets of statistical insight in small, context-free drips. Back when iTunes was the cutting-edge platform for curating and consuming recorded music, all the information you ever wanted to know about play-counts was right there on the screen; it seems to me that Spotify has only obfuscated what was once transparent. By exercising such tight control over the way most customers access their own listening history, Spotify is able to make your listening habits seem as ingrained and expansive as possible. When Spotify Wrapped tells you that you listened to 50,000 minutes, and 300 different genres, it’s really trying to tell you: “This is how much you need me.” To my eyes, the whole thing is an inspired but insidious marketing exercise.

‘Audio auras’ are one of several new features available to Spotify users this year

The fact is, the era of streaming has actually diminished the experience of listening to music in pretty much every aspect except convenience. The tangible rituals of it all – seeking out a record or CD, taking it home, listening to it for the first time – have been lost. Live gigs exist as a last refuge for the music traditionalist, a place to enjoy music in the moment, and to support smaller musicians financially, something Spotify has been accused of not doing adequately. Promotions like Wrapped would have you believe that streaming is the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to music, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

To me, there’s something idiosyncratically bleak about these self-instigated corporate celebrations; Spotify Wrapped sits beside Amazon Prime Day and Disney Plus Day on the conveyor belt of late-capitalist advert traditions. There’s just no real point to it. I don’t need Spotify to let me know I listen to too much Big Pun – anyone who’s naively handed me the aux cable at a social gathering could tell me that for free. I’ll open my stats like the rest of ’em, of course. But don’t consider me rapt just yet.

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