Big Data And Social Media Is Transforming Our Relationship With Music Fandom
I checked my phone, bleary-eyed, on the morning of December 6th. ‘Happy Spotify Wrapped day!’ my friend had written in a music appreciation group on Facebook, alongside a link to her playlist. I rushed to open my own, keen for the application to spontaneously curate a playlist of my favourite songs, hoping it would revive my morale with exams looming. It didn’t disappoint, and I promptly replied on the thread with an enthusiastic comment and a link to my 2018 playlist, without hesitating to worry if I would be judged by others for my taste.
The rise of Spotify as the platform of choice for music consumption amongst Millennials and Generation Z has triggered a change in both our public and private relationship with music. By definition, Spotify is a social media platform. It displays information on the music your friends are listening to in real time, allows you to follow the latest playlists created by your musical idols, and increasingly, has begun to emulate the niche previously occupied by Soundcloud, as more and more amateur artists endeavour to upload their work onto Spotify. Spotify encourages us to investigate the musical taste of our peers and to parade our own across an array of public playlists. Spotify is doing to my love of Janelle Monae and Radiohead what Facebook did to my holidays and Instagram did to my coffees; incorporating them into the rampant diffusion of my digital identity.
But unlike Instagram and Facebook, which have driven me towards increasingly idealised representations of my life, the combined function of Spotify as both a practical application and social platform is driving me towards a more honest fandom than ever before. I was 18 when I first started using Spotify. Before it entered my life I was free to represent my music taste to others as I pleased. I gushed about the new Katy Perry single with girls from my school, sincerely informed brooding softbois that I was ‘just getting Massive Attack’s earliest work’, and flaunted my knowledge of Nick Drake’s discography when my mum’s dinner guests proclaimed young people these days didn’t listen to ‘real music’. I wasn’t hiding my music taste per se, but I definitely trod along a strategic path when asked what music I was into.
At first, Spotify didn’t have much effect on how I compartmentalised my music taste. Not many of my friends had moved onto the platform yet, and the ‘Friend Activity’ function which allows you to see what others are listening to just seemed rather pointless. But as Spotify grew in popularity I began to wrestle with whether I should turn off ‘Friend Activity’ permanently in the event that I forgot to do it before listening to Britney Spears for hours on end. Despite some occasional fretting, I have abandoned this idea. So much of the music I adore I discovered because of a personal recommendation and there is no sanitised version of my music taste which makes me appear cool to everyone. The sensation of my private moments which music being observed has made me more at ease with my preferences than ever before because it helped me realise that I get too much joy from sharing my love of music to live under the limitations imposed by shame.
The rollout of the Spotify Wrapped function in 2015 began an era of candid musical diaries. Spotify Wrapped playlists are created based on how frequently a user listens to certain songs, so unless you’re unfortunate enough to have white noise and instrumental music for study hijack your playlist, it should represent the music you crave the most with no frills attached. You might think ‘LCD Soundsystem are like… so interesting’ but Spotify Wrapped truly knows you, sees past your pretences, and has no problem spilling the tea that they didn’t even make your top 100. Spotify Wrapped was the final straw which helped me stop trying to force myself to listen to stuff I just couldn’t get into. It also accelerated a much-needed reality check about how my ‘guilty pleasures’ were just plain old pleasures. Before Spotify Wrapped it was difficult to resist the urge to sanitise my playlists so they could be shared with others. Irony is usually cruel, but the irony of my music taste becoming publicly exposed helping me be at peace with what others thought about me is a kind one.
Music is an important way of connecting with our past selves and observing how we’ve grown emotionally and how our artistic tastes have evolved. I am incredibly grateful that big data generates a truly honest musical diary for me each year. My Spotify Wrapped 2016 playlist has some songs which effectively would have had me deleted from the Irish register of cool people, but I wouldn’t delete them now, even if I know I would have if I’d had the option back them. Some songs evoke specific memories strongly. My top song from 2017 is by Bonobo, an experimental electronic artist, because I was experiencing severe anxiety on planes that year. Listening to his album, Migration, was part of the routine I used to calm myself down during flights. To be honest I wouldn’t have put in on a playlist manually because it wouldn’t have occurred to me that the music was that significant to me and I would have lost an important reminder of how music helps us heal fear and pain. Dozens of people shared their own playlists in the music appreciation group I am a member of on Facebook. My experience could be wildly different to that of others, but I don’t feel like most of my friends would have been willing to publish a playlist which was a fully honest representation of what they had listened and how much they had listened to it 5 years ago.
By Richeal Ni Laoghaire – Music Writer