Spotify wants your DNA to decide what you listen to

Spotify and AncestryDNA collaboration is more than personalized music, it's about data.
People can swab their saliva and send it to AncestryDNA to determine their genetic background. (Steve Berry/CBC)
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Earlier this month, streaming-giant Spotify announced they would be teaming up with AncestryDNA to allow interested Spotify users, learn more about their ethnic roots. With a swab of your spit via Ancestry.com's DNA results, you could get a playlist on Spotify curated by your super exact racial identity.  

It's a new move in music streaming that critics are calling it the demise of the curator, and just plain creepy.

Writer and cultural critic, Sajae Elder, told Spark the news gave her "a lot pause."
Sajae Elder, is a Toronto-based writer and cultural critic. (Martika Gregory)

"I'm always thinking about what they are actually doing with our DNA," Elder said, "and that was the weird part of it that jumped out to me right away, because they sell it, they do all of these sort of things to it, and they're kind of not supposed to." Although Elder's last point is speculative, it is not outside the realm of possibility

"Also, I thought about what would these playlists look like?" Elder added. " What part of their ancestry are they going to put on your playlist? When I just think about me being a part of the Black diaspora, are they going to put hip-hop on my playlist? Am I going to get afrobeats? It's so vast." This is where it can get convoluted Elder noted.  

The desire for people to know more about their lineage is likely responsible for the 10 million users Ancestry DNA has today.

Streaming services like Spotify are disrupters of the music industry 

Eric Zaworski is a music journalist based in Toronto who runs New Currency, a platform dedicated to showcasing emerging creative youth.

"It's kind of the wild west in the music industry right now. A lot of people don't know where it's all going," Zaworski said.
Eric Zaworski is a Toronto-based writer, he also operates New Currency, a platform for emerging creatives. (Marissa Tiel )

"Currently, streaming companies are gradually positioning themselves as giving tools to artists so that they can kind of circumvent record labels— that upends a lot of very powerful companies like Universal,Time Warner, etcetera. I wonder how [music streaming services] are going to continue to go down that path given that they essentially control who becomes an artist or not. Getting placed on a playlist like RapCaviar for example is a career starting move."

Elder has a love-hate relationship with algorithm driven music streaming, too.

What purpose does a DJ breaking records serve anymore, what purpose does an A&R going out and discovering artists serve anymore...?- Sajae Elder

"It mils you around in similar genres," said Elder. "You never have the opportunity to find something else. My Spotify is never going to show me like a teeny-bop pop song, or a punk rock song that I might actually like. It's only going to show me all the stuff I was already listening to."    

Zaworski calls streaming services "the pipes of where music travels and flows from artist to a listener."

When artists like Drake break streaming records, it's no surprise, especially when Toronto's homegrown star is positioned on popular Spotify playlists and Apple music's homepage, Zaworski noted.

"What about kids in their bedrooms who want to start music careers? I really wonder if the kool-aid they are giving the kids is really all that good … I love their product, I really question their motives."

"What purpose does a DJ breaking records serve anymore, what purpose does an A&R going out and discovering artists serve anymore if we can just go out and do that for ourselves?" questioned Elder. 

"It makes certain people obsolete in a way which kind of sucks." Elder adds that gatekeepers (like A&Rs, music writers and curators) of the music industry help ensure "quality controls" as they show listeners what is good music.

We test it out

Currently, AncestryDNA and Spotify have a demo version that lets you list your own background and see what turns up. Spotify account holders are welcome to manually input their AncestryDNA kit results to receive their playlist. 

While Elder, Zaworkski, and Spark host Nora Young all wanted to try the service, for reasons including feeling uncomfortable, and valuing their privacy, they all decided against getting their DNA tested. Instead, they entered their assumed ethnic backgrounds themselves.

According to the companies, the inputted DNA data is not stored on Spotify's servers. However, that information can be synced with your Spotify account, giving the steaming giant more information about your identity. Oh, how the wheels have turned.  

Young inputted her Scottish and English background, though she couldn't specify the Dutch part of her background by name so, she clicked on "Germanic Europe."

Zaworski's heritage is Polish. His music taste, like Young, Elder, and most people, isn't based solely on ethnicity. But for the purpose of science he put in the regions from Europe that made sense to him.

Zaworski's results were: "Paul Simon? That's funny. '50 ways to leave your lover'. I don't think—I think he's Jewish? But I don't think he's Polish." Zaworksi wasn't sure his playlist matched his ethnicity.

As for Elder, who inputted regions in Africa, she said, "I got some Tiwa Savage on here."

"Huh?" said Zaworksi, as he scrolled through his personalised playlist, "hmm" chimed Elder.   

What do you think? Cool? Creepy? Let us know in the comments below!

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