Step aside Christmas, December has a new holiday season: the annual Spotify Wrapped sharing and celebration period. It’s that time of year again, where everyone’s musical taste is front and center as a part of their identity. It’s during this time where some find solace in their unique takes on music, while others cherish finding fans of their favorite artists due to posting their “Wrapped lists” on social media, chiefly on sites like Instagram.
But what is Spotify Wrapped, exactly?
Being that Spotify is used so prevalently around the world, making up roughly a third of all music listeners’ preferred platform, it’s likely that you already know what Spotify Wrapped is all about. But for those that subscribe to different services like Apple Music (such as myself), or Amazon Music, both of which are behind Spotify, maybe you don’t. In essence, “Wrapped” is like a “best of” list or a “year-in-review” made specific for each user on the platform based on their listening habits and preferences. Starting in 2016, it’s become bigger every year, becoming so anticipated that some individuals even try to predict what their list will look like.
According to the creators themselves, “Spotify Wrapped is all about celebrating the endless ways that millions of creators and fans connect through audio each and every day.” Now, that’s a splendid, yet slightly chauvinistic, way of putting things, and one that Spotify likely prides themselves on. In a much more concrete definition though, Spotify Wrapped is a collation of data from its users that’s compressed into a comprehensive format through an algorithm, telling the users their analytics from the bulk of the year. Spotify also then provides users with the ability to post their findings to their chosen social media platform straight from the service itself. With all of this at play, it’s clear to see what Spotify Wrapped really is:
A marketing campaign.
And a brilliant one at that. In a world where sharing things about yourself is so glamorized, it makes sense to commercialize it as well. With a streaming giant like this, boasting a hefty 456 million monthly users, 195 million of which being Spotify Premium users, the amount of free advertising that the company can rack up is astounding.
On top of this, Wrapped lets users feel completely individualized, getting personalized data sets of their most listened to songs, artists, and playlists. In some cases, users pride themselves on being in the top percentages of listeners to the artists that they stan. It’s become a game to some, to see if they can wiggle their way to the top of the charts as an active listener. Just as the artists themselves try to make it to the top, so do the fans.
This, in effect, allows the user to create a brand for themselves, based on their music tastes. Because Spotify themselves condenses the data into a presentable format, it’s easy for anyone to share their top artists or songs of the year, almost like an advertisement of their own. This allows their followers and friends to really get an inside look at the poster, showcasing themselves as a product. Just like regular advertising, Spotify Wrapped allows the user to say, “Hey, look at what cool things I bring to the table!” All the while millions of users are advertising their brands, they’re also advertising Spotify, even if unknowingly.
What has helped this become a point of interest and conversation for many is the random and eclectic nature of some of the genres that users find themselves apparently listening to. Ranging from “pop” to “techno” to some as crazy as “crustpunk” or “escape room,” it feels like these genres know no bounds. Many users find that these genres are made-up or completely ludicrous, not understanding what they mean or where they’ve come from, yet still find the desire to share them. Funnily enough, the true answer behind these arbitrary names is that Glenn McDonald, data alchemist for Spotify, did in fact make them up. Upon listening to a song he’ll consider what he finds it to truly sound like, crafting a new genre. From there, he employs an algorithm in Spotify’s systems to rank each song to one or more of his created genres. He even has a website dedicated to the array of genres he’s come up with!
The fun and unique nature of some of these genres once again puts Spotify into the limelight, creating more buzz for them. The wacky names serve a dual purpose of both expanding users’ musical libraries and vocabularies, while also expanding Spotify’s brand. And all the while, the more niche the genres get, the more niche an individual’s music taste becomes, once again reinforcing that “not-like-other-listeners” mentality.
It’s also become an instance where “genre” is more representative of “mood” than it is anything else. Much like how McDonald prescribes a new genre to a song based on what he feels it sounds like, we often find ourselves assigning different songs to fit our current moods. When looking at it this way, it makes for the discussion of what shows up on the Wrapped lists even more of one about the individual, as it brings about the question of what mood these individuals find themselves falling into more often than not.
Another way of opening up this discussion is by looking at the time frame that Spotify represents in their data collection. It has been found in several reports that Spotify Wrapped only consists of data collected from January 1 to October 31 of a given year. While this does make sense, as the portfolio does typically release in the first week of December, this realization breeds ambiguity within the walls of the individual, allowing for a period of time when their listening habits fall into the dark.
Keeping this time frame in mind, an artist releasing an album in November or December of a given year is not only less likely, but is sure not to appear on that year’s Spotify Wrapped summaries. They would have to hope that their outreach and talent were big enough and far-reaching enough to carry them through to next year’s Wrapped instead. Similarly, if a particular user finds themselves entranced with a certain artist or song, playing them nonstop from the months of November through January, those listening habits may not even reach the cutoff of the user’s top five, despite how often they were played in that three month period. They’d fall victim to being within that phantom time period that Wrapped doesn’t account for. Conversely, this knowledge can be used to the advantage of the user, keeping their guilty pleasures or hesitantly surveying a new band within this uncategorized time having the safety net of knowing that it won’t fall into their Wrapped.
Between personalized data, creative new genres, and a presentable and shareable format, Spotify Wrapped remains a fun, albeit algorithmic, way of advertising the company while expressing one’s uniqueness and personality. Audiences seem to love it, and Spotify will likely continue to push it for years to come. But the ambiguity within the way that the missing time period skews data, as well as the eccentric and ever-changing idea of mood, and the way an individual’s music taste changes, ultimately begs the question:
How true is your brand?