Spotify Wrapped is a social media sensation. Its impact on artists and listeners is debatable
Streaming giant's analytics campaign dominates social media — but its effect on industry remains unclear
For some, it's Christmas. For astronomers, it's the Winter Solstice. But for literally millions of others, December means something different — for them, it's Spotify Wrapped month.
The juggernaut campaign, currently in its sixth officially branded year, packages Spotify users' listening statistics, and musicians' streaming numbers in easily shareable panes. For some music fans, it has come to partially define the holiday season.
It takes over social media for at least a few days after its Dec. 1 premiere, and has grown big enough that other streaming giants have aped it themselves, with both YouTube and Apple Music recently coming out with their own versions.
What began as a small side project has exploded into what is essentially a multi-million dollar ad campaign. The tangible impact of Wrapped on listener statistics is still debatable; as is how much the project boosts Spotify itself, versus the benefit it provides artists.
It's also unclear why users are so enamoured with the idea of having their private data packaged and sold back to them. One digital rights advocacy group described Wrapped as a "business model ... based on surveillance" in a recent Wired magazine article.
Jem Aswad, deputy music editor of Variety, said the campaign's real benefit to Spotify is difficult to measure. In a cluttered field of year-end critics' polls and retrospective reviews, it's almost impossible to tease out what had the most impact — despite the fact that app downloads typically increase in December. Spotify downloads jumped by 21 per cent that month in 2020, according to marketing company MoEngage.
That's no small feat for one of the biggest music streaming platforms on Earth.
Of roughly 525 million subscribers to music streaming services globally, Spotify holds a market share of about 30 per cent, according to Midia Research, an entertainment consultancy.
Increasing its brand recognition through the Spotify Wrapped campaign is "catnip" for the streaming service and its staff, Aswad said.
The real purpose of Wrapped is users sharing screenshots of the lists provided to them, which prominently includes the Spotify logo, he said. "Because it's both endorsing Spotify in a sort of sidelong way, and it really makes the thing more popular."
'It is a brilliant use of social media'
But the most powerful aspect is that Wrapped works as both a commercial and a service, he said, helping the promotion gain user interest.
"The reason that Wrapped and things like it have become the phenomenon that they have … is it's both about the music and the person," he said "It's a reflection. It is a brilliant use of social media — or the tactics of social media — to enable people to say something about themselves."
The fact that this kind of project works at all is still something of a mystery to some observers. Concerns over online tracking are simmering. Apple allowed users to turn it off for certain apps earlier this year — threatening Facebook's entire business strategy — so it seems odd that a feature built on sharing personal data would take off.
But Kimeko McCoy, an Atlanta-based freelance journalist and digital marketer, said this trend can help stoke desire.
"There's a hunger, if you'll put it that way, for people: 'If you're going to use my data, make it worth my while,'" she said. "And it seems that's kind of what Spotify has hit the nail on the head with."
The knock-on though, leads to more than just a grassroots advertising campaign. As Spotify users share their Wrapped lists and potentially drum up desire for the only app that currently offers such detailed analytics, some artists says it drowns out valid criticism of how the streaming service remunerates them.
"Each year I wonder why Spotify Wrapped graphics never tell us how much money we made from Spotify — in comparison to how much revenue our music generated for the platform," Canadian rapper Masia One wrote in a Facebook post, sharing her own modified version of the trend.
"This year, I re-jigged my Spotify Wrapped to reflect the numbers that effect my life and sustainability as a songwriter and artist."
American labour group Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) took a similar stance, creating a parallel campaign — "Spotify Unwrapped" — to highlight the low pay artists receive for streams on the app.
Happy Spotify Unwrapped day 💪 link in bio to contact your reps and tell them to support <a href="https://twitter.com/RepRashida?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@RepRashida</a> and UMAW’s resolution for a new streaming royalty! It’s time to get artists paid fairly! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/JusticeAtSpotify?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#JusticeAtSpotify</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SpotifyUnWrapped?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SpotifyUnWrapped</a> <a href="https://t.co/DRUsGzXro2">pic.twitter.com/DRUsGzXro2</a>—@UMAW_
As for the immediate effect Wrapped has for artists, answers run the gamut. Aswad said big-name musicians with billions of streams for the year like Taylor Swift or The Weeknd would likely see an observable benefit from tens of thousands of posts sharing their music.
Meanwhile Ralph, a singer-songwriter from Toronto, who racked up 5.7 million streams this year, said for her Wrapped initially did more harm than good. Beginning as a musician, seeing peers post their streaming numbers at the end of the year turned their careers into a very public competition — one she worried she was losing.
"It was really hard for me, actually. I actually had to put my phone down," she said. As her career has grown, however, she said she's come to appreciate the opportunity to share her results and celebrate other artists.
And then there's the artists in between — like Vancouver's bbno$, whose earworms Lalala and Edamame helped him bring in nearly 550 million streams this year. In his case, Wrapped added a very noticeable cherry on top.
"Edamame was streaming at like, let's say like 270 a day, and yesterday did like 400," he said the day after Spotify Wrapped's launch. "For no reason really. It's just people are reminded again that I listened to bbno$ all year, so let's just go back and listen to him again."
Despite the fact Spotify allegedly pays an industry-low of under half a cent per stream, he said the trade-off is worth it. During the pandemic, one of the most difficult times for musicians to make a career, he said any service that can help artists keep going is worthwhile. As is any campaign, like Wrapped, that helps the service to thrive, he added.
"Who cares? It's still there," he said, pointing to the streaming service as his saving grace during the loss of touring income brought on by the pandemic. "I have a career out of literally nothingness. And God bless Spotify at the same time … Like, do I think there could be more money? Absolutely. But right now, I'm fine."
With files from Eli Glasner and Griffin Jaeger
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