Music tech journalist Cherie Hu spotted a small-ish change in the Spotify app: in official and algorithmic playlists you’ll now find an “About recommendations” section in the menu which includes the line: “In some cases, commercial considerations may influence our recommendations.”

This presumably is in reference to Spotify’s Discovery Mode, which is receiving mixed responses across the industry: some distributors like how it maximises marketing budget spend, while concerned voices from the indie sector led to two US congressmen questioning whether it may initiate a “race to the bottom.”

Algorithmic recommendation has been a big part of streaming platforms’ success. Spotify says its users streamed their personalised algorithmic Discover Weekly playlists for a combined 2.3 billion hours between 2015 and 2020.

Algorithmic recommendation can also guide users’ behaviour in interesting or unexpected ways: witness the #teens raiding their parents’ wardrobes to find old, precious and de rigueur Ed Hardy T-shirts. The final few words in that sentence may cause people in their late 30s to raise a sartorial eyebrow, but the algorithm of the secondhand clothing app Depop has decided Ed Hardy shirts are hot, hot, hot: so they are now hot – until the algorithm moves on. Or will it be the shifting taste of people wearing them cause the algorithm to change?

Say what you like about algorithmic recommendation, but it’s fairly trusted as a technology – in the sense that we perceive that a non-human is picking the songs (or Ed Hardy T-shirts) without much intervention. So, Spotify’s small addition to a playlist menu reminds us to think about how its algorithm works – not least to ask to what extent these “commercial considerations” influence what goes into our playlists (and what doesn’t).

Marketers, understandably keen to connect their artists’ songs with the ideal playlists, will be asking the same question.

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