Skip to main content
opinion

A staff member sorts copies of the new album from British singer-songwriter Adele, at the Sister Ray record store, in London, on Nov. 19.TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly 50 years after making their pop debut, Swedish megaband Abba has just received its very first Grammy nomination for its latest album, I Still Have Faith in You. The very late-in-life first-time nod is a surprise to many who know too well the band’s blockbuster hits, including Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen and Take a Chance on Me.

It’s certainly a shock to my Spotify algorithm that Abba is only just being recognized by the Grammys now, since the band’s many hits have become a constant soundtrack to my life, a holdover from my disco-loving parents and a favourite with my kids. In fact, I fully expect the Swedes to figure prominently in my Spotify Wrapped, the streaming service’s highly anticipated and much-shared year in review, a social-media-friendly window into your listening habits, both good and bad.

Wrapped has become a hugely popular way to signal to friends and strangers alike what kind of year you’ve had. Did you spend most of 2021 crying to Olivia Rodrigo’s Drivers License, scrutinizing Taylor Swift’s new version of Red or bopping to Justin Bieber? Or, like me, did you replay the same five songs from the nineties over and over again?

Apart from being a fun way to showcase what you’ve been streaming all year, Wrapped is also a reminder of Spotify’s dominance in the music-streaming space. But is Spotify’s hegemony ultimately good for how we consume music?

When an artist such as Swift or Adele releases a new album, one of the first metrics of success, besides album sales, has become the number of streams on the app. Adele’s Easy on Me, the first single off her new album, 30, became the most-streamed song on Spotify within a single day. That album, released on Nov. 19, also garnered just more than 60 million streams within the first two days of its debut, poising it to make Spotify history. Artists, even massive ones such as Adele, rely on Spotify to reach fans but they are starting to push back against the service’s control over how people listen to their music.

Adele recently asked Spotify to remove the shuffle option when listening to an album, stating that the order of songs is part of an artist’s intention and tells a complete story when played start to finish. Spotify made the change, hiding the shuffle button from albums and making top to bottom play the default option. Both the request and the change point to the service’s dominance in the music industry: Even the world’s biggest stars understand how much it matters how their songs appear and play on Spotify.

Last year’s most streamed artist was Bad Bunny and the most streamed song was Blinding Lights by the Weeknd. Newer artists and indie groups already faced an uphill battle in getting discovered by listeners but Spotify’s Wrapped proves the climb is even steeper with streaming services. Most people’s year in review features the Swifts and Biebers and Drakes. We share what we’ve been listening to based on our preferences, sure, but also what the service has been pushing to us and what the algorithm thinks we like, resulting in a closed loop of consumption.

The only thing that has perhaps as much influence as the Spotify algorithm is TikTok. The app’s viral videos have resurfaced old tracks such as Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams, pushing them back onto the Billboard charts after decades, and taken popular songs by artists including Dua Lipa and pushed them into smash hit status. And perhaps precisely because of that TikTok effect, Spotify is debuting a new feature called “Discover,” which lets listeners access a TikTok-like feed of music videos that they can like or dismiss, proving the impact of the video app on how we listen to and find new music. But even a TikTok-fuelled hit ultimately sends listeners back to Spotify, its dominance over our habits personified by our eagerness to share our year in music and what it might say about us.

Of course, even with services such as Spotify’s “New Music” playlists or this new “Discover” tab, our consumption habits are shaped and skewed by an algorithm that favours big names and heavy streams. And even those huge stars feel beholden to how Spotify serves up their music. They are keenly aware of how significant the streamer is, not just in terms of what it plays, but how it plays it and, more often than not, have few options to change it.

So when you eagerly share your year in review across all your social feeds, consider what figures prominently in your own listening habits and how those habits have been shaped. Because increasingly what Wrapped says about us, beyond how many times we’ve streamed Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car this year, is that our experience with music is completely defined by one service and that service relies on blockbuster artists to fuel streams and subscriptions. It may be good for Spotify, but is it good for music?

Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.