Compelling Issues

Spotify’s End Of The Year Lists Are *Actually* So Depressing

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Republic Records

In a shocking turn of events, Taylor Swift was right. Streaming is ruining music.

Spotify’s Wrapped year-end lists were released on December 6, and for the third time in four years, the most-streamed artists on the platform were male. In 2016, Rihanna cracked the top five, but she’s the only female artist to appear on the most-streamed list since 2016. Women also didn’t appear in the top five tracks of 2018. This musical gender disparity is confusing, and not just for the usual reasoning that all gender gaps are inherently confusing because women comprise forty-nine percent of the world’s population. Billboard’s top album of 2018 was Taylor Swift’s Reputation, while Cardi B’s Invasion Of Privacy took the sixth spot on the list of best-sellers (the soundtrack for The Greatest Showman came in fourth, meaning that Cardi was the fifth best-selling artist of the year). Bebe Rexha and Camila Cabello were featured in the top five songs on the Billboard Hot 100, and Cardi and Taylor were both in the top five of Billboard’s year-end top artists.

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Billboard charts present a holistic overview of an artist, album, or track’s performance based on sales and downloads, radio airplay, touring, streaming, and social interactions, including Nielsen data tracking. This points towards the conclusion that the overall problem is with Spotify and not general listening habits, and Vox agrees, wondering if this polarization is something birthed from our algorithm-based streaming platforms. Vox pointed towards a study done by Liz Pelly for the Baffler in June that found evidence of Spotify creating more male-dominated playlists if a user is already listening to male-dominated playlists. This means that when Spotify itself creates a playlist that features mostly male artists, especially its highest-profile playlists with millions of followers like Today’s Top Hits. Pelly found that on Spotify’s most-followed playlists including Rock This and New Music Friday, over eighty percent of the artists were male. The most equalized of the top performing lists was Viva Latino, which still had over seventy percent of the songs performed by men.

On top of its self-fulfilling prophecy of male-led playlists begetting more male-led playlists, playlist placement also leads to songs being put on other playlists by users or being suggested to users more by the algorithm. Songs that are skipped less also receive better placement within algorithm priorities, meaning passively listening to a playlist will boost a song, even if it’s just a chance placement.

Spotify knows there’s a gender disparity and has made some attempts to call attention to the problem, but not to the basic software issues within their own platform that has caused the gap to widen. This isn’t to say that none of this is caused by garden-variety implicit sexism — it is possible to have female-dominated listening habits on the platform, with my personal Wrapped list as an example. There’s also the ubiquity of hip-hop and country to consider, both of which have historically been male-dominated and only become more popular with time. The issue is that Spotify’s pattern has created a self-amplifying problem, and within such an influential part of our daily lives, this trend could begin to naturally spread throughout our music culture.

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