"Keep Smiling!": Time, Functionality and Intimacy in Spotify's Featured Playlists.

Author:Eriksson, Maria


Digital technologies are often said to have transformed music distribution and music consumption, making music "intangible" (Styven 2007), and shifting focus from product and ownership to practice and access (Johansson 2013; Barr 2013). In the wake of this development, a wide range of digital music services have been launched, and today the Swedish streaming service Spotify stands out as one of the most well-known providers of digital music. Founded in 2006 as a service that promised user-initiated and search-centered access to vast amounts of sounds, Spotify has later come to re-organize its platform towards providing music recommendations and curated musical deliveries. The company is now frequently voicing a desire to provide "music for every moment", and offers a wide range of pre-packaged playlists that promise everything from "Smooth Mornings" and "Workday Zen", to "The Cure for Loneliness" and "A Confidence Boost". As one business representative put it in May 2015, Spotify has become "obsessed with figuring out how to bring music into every part of your life, wherever you are, whatever you're doing, whatever your mood" (Spotify Press Release 2015).

In June 2017, Spotify claimed to have about 140 million active users, and as people increasingly turn to streaming platforms, there is a need for a deepened understanding of the realities these services promote and materialize. Rather than neutrally channeling sounds, platforms such as Spotify take an active role in framing music, which includes the promotion of certain values and subjectivities. Like digital technologies in general, streaming music services simultaneously draw on a vision of free and unlimited access, and onregulatory practices that select and privilege certain content, collect user metrics, and deploy algorithmic ways of organizing information (Cheney-Lippold 2011). Such shifts between openness and control have surrounded Internet technologies since the very beginning. Associated with democracy, participation and emancipatory values on the one hand (Shirky 2008; of. Turner 2006), and authoritarian control and surveillance on the other (Morozov 2011; Fuchs et al 2012), digital platforms occupy a contested position in today's media landscape.

In this article, we set out to investigate how these dual logics of freedom and commercial-institutional power are played out through Spotify's music recommendations. More specifically, we focus on one moment in the "social life" (Appadurai 1986) (1) of streamed music files by studying how Spotify's so-called Featured Playlists are presented to users in three different countries during one week's time. At the time of the writing of this article, Featured Playlists were selections of 12 readymade, curated lists of songs delivered to users upon login, together with a short greeting--such as "Kick start this Tuesday!" or "Enjoy time with friends and family". These are designed to cater to the expected everyday life of Spotify's users and depend on three broad variables: users' registered language, country and date/time. (2)

Occupying a central place in Spotify's new strategy for delivering music, Featured Playlists are fascinating entities that map and provide musical context (Seaver 2015, 2012)--both in the sense of creating an affective aura around sounds, and in the sense of approximating listener behaviors and preferences. Acknowledging that such contextualizations are always socially constructed and linked to interpretation (Dilley 2002), we approach Spotify's framing of playlists as an activity whose politics needs to be explored. Following Lev Manovich's (2001) call to study how software interfaces organize data in particular ways and hence "privilege particular models of the world and the human subject", we therefore ask: In what ways are musical contexts constructed through Featured Playlists and how are they entangled with the expected everyday life of users? What ideals, assumptions and subjectivities are (re)produced in Spotify's organization and presentation of music? And how are such elements tied to the dual logics of freedom and regulation?

In answering these questions, we focus on three aspects which we view as central to the way music is contextualized in Featured Playlists: temporality, functionality and intimacy. Whereas the Spotify platform builds on a logic of user participation, flexibility and freedom of choice--meaning that people are always given the option to rearrange, select and ignore any playlist--our argument is that the specific contextualizations of Spotify's readymade playlists are suggestive of neoliberal or radical individualist ideologies. In particular, we claim that Spotify's promotion of prescriptive temporalities, its presentation of music as functional for productivity and well-being, and its structures for producing and monetizing intimate expressions exemplify how systems that provide freedom and flexibility for the individual user, might also be bound up with "productive constraint" (Stanfill 2015) and market-driven attempts to monitor and regulate audiences.

Spotify and the provision of "free music"

Spotify was founded in 2006, and has rapidly grown to become one of the world's largest streaming services for music. Streaming services commonly give users access to archives of content--often film, music, or books--either for free (on an advertisement based platform) or against a subscription fee (which removes advertisements). In many ways, Spotify pioneered this way of distributing music, and its business model was originally celebrated for building a "sustainable" revenue model for artists in the digital age. The company early on presented itself as a user-initiated and search-centered platform offering free access to vast amount of sounds (Fleischer 2015). Its initial major feature--an empty search box--was described as a gateway to endless possibilities of musical pleasure, and a portal promising unrestrained access to millions of tracks. In this way, Spotify quickly came to associate itself with the progressive and liberating visions of digital technologies (e.g. Barbrook & Cameron 2007; Turner 2006). Entangled in notions of democracy, openness, and freedom of choice, Spotify branded itself as the antidote to online piracy and a platform giving fans relief from the immorality of illicit file-sharing activities. In part, the company's capacity to do so, needs to be understood in relation to the medium specificity of its service. Because of its digital grounding and organization, the Spotify platform embodies many of the open characteristics of new media. Music items from its archive can be singled out, shuffled, and reassembled according to the user's wishes and needs (cf. Manovich 2001), which opens up for different types of participatory media use (Jenkins 2005 [1992]), and the kinds of freedoms and flexibilities that are often associated with digital platforms.

Structured playlists and content recommendations

Around the year of 2013, however, Spotify reorganized its platform to focus more on music recommendations and curated music deliveries, and less on encouraging "free" botanizations among musical works. In part, such a turn took place as the result of critique against the platform leaving its users without guidance (Dredge 2013a). If the company had initially built its corporate image around the user's capacity to bend a giant musical archive according to their own wishes, customers were now instead portrayed as being bereft of truly pleasurable musical experiences, and therefore in dire need for a "fix" in the shape of musical guidance. Spotify's curatorial turn implied that the company simultaneously formulated a problem (musical disorientation, and a lack of musical enjoyment), and its solution (music recommendations), thereby tapping into "solutionist" discourses aimed to offer universal relief from distress by technical means (Morozov 2013).

To a large extent, Spotify's new role as a provider of tailored musical experiences has come to center on the delivery of pre-designed playlists--that is, themed collections of songs that users can enjoy and save in their private music collections on the Spotify platform. Like lists in general, Spotify's playlists are devices for taste-making, but also entities that carry a "dynamic capacity... to be both open and closed, to suggest both action and the ordering of action" (Phillips 2012, 97). As Phillips has put it, (play)lists are simultaneously fixations, aesthetic objects and theatrical pieces; they are "at once endless... and restrictive" (ibid., 104). While playlists can be transformed, extended, and edited according to the user's wishes, they come in a pre-packaged format that transports affectual ideals, notions of "the good life," and conceptions of time (and time well spent). (3)

In this article, we are particularly interested in exploring how Spotify's Featured Playlists (which are non-personalized) take shape in relation to discourses of personalization on the platform. (4) This focus on the non-personalized implies going in another direction than much recent research on online recommendation systems, which has mostly focused on algorithmic dimensions of content curation, and how algorithms foster certain personalized cultures (Hallinan & Striphas 2014; Galloway 2006), networks (Ananny 2016), humanities (Berry 2011), identities (Cheney-Lippold 2011), ideologies (Mager 2012), publics (Crawford 2015), performativities (Introna 2016), accountabilities (Neyland 2016), and forms of governance (Ziewitz 2015). While Spotify's Featured Playlists partly come about by way of algorithmic data management, (5) we emphasize instead the humanly curated and descriptive texts and images that frame them. These musical wrappings are central to the process of turning digital, abstract and coded music into attractive goods and something that resembles physical commodities (Morris 2011)...

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