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The Algorithm Wagging The Listener

This article on Stereogum about how an obscure track by the band Pavement got elevated to become their most listened-to song on Spotify is amusing at first, but then becomes troubling:

Krukowski, who is one of the organizers of Justice At Spotify — a new protest campaign demanding a higher artist royalty rate, among other things — isn’t all that concerned with the Autoplay situation, at least in the ways that it might be screwing with artists’ top songs. But he is concerned with the ways that incidental algorithmic designs have industry-wide power: “It’s just kind of stifling to have that amount of control, and have it in one company,” he says. “And then not only that, but to have it made by engineering decisions. This is very consistent with a lot of our culture right now, that we’re willing to surrender to Facebook and Google engineers very important decisions.”


But as Krukowski noted when he first learned about Autoplay’s influence, there is a potentially troubling implication to watch out for, too, depending on how it’s actually been working: “‘Strange’ is a touch faster, louder, with a more regular backbeat and a more predictable song structure than most Galaxie 500 songs,” he pointed out on his blog. “Might an unintended result of Autoplay, then, be the separating out and rewarding of the most ‘normal’ songs in each band’s catalogue…? … As albums are increasingly supplanted by playlists, and intentional listening of all kinds is increasingly replaced by algorithmic recommendations, ‘Play Galaxie 500’ may really come to mean, ‘Play the song by Galaxie 500 that most resembles songs by others.’”

Spotify further complicated the Autoplay situation with a bombshell development on Nov. 2: At some point in the near future, they’ll be rolling out a service that allows artists and labels to “identify music that’s a priority for them” within the Autoplay and Radio algorithms, in exchange for a “promotional recording royalty rate” applied to streams acquired through the new program. Spotify views this as an opportunity for creators to have “more opportunities to connect with new listeners.” But some, like Krukowski, view the move as a way for the company to simply pay less money out to songs that are doing well via the algorithms organically, like “Strange” and “Harness Your Hopes.” Even worse, some view it as a new version of streaming payola.

While I did make use of the recommendations that Spotify gave me — while I was still using Spotify — I had Autoplay turned off. Apart from the fact that I usually just want to listen to a given album, song or playlist, that feature reminds me of Amazon's insistence on suggesting things similar to items I'd just bought. It comes over as pushy and demanding. Amazon's version is engineered solely to serve Amazon, but with Spotify, it appears that they're only too happy to let the record labels game the system, for their advantage rather than the artist's.

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