Spotify Unwrapped: how the streaming service’s end of year campaign has highlighted its bot problem
Spotify Wrapped has been met with equal parts joy and ire this year, as musicians and fans alike debate the virtues of the streaming service and its payment model. But the year-end results have also highlighted another problem for Spotify: bots.
Now in its second year, Spotify’s ‘Wrapped’ campaign involves plumbing the troves of data generated by the company’s tens of millions of subscribers to deliver a personalised ‘year in review’ for individual users.
Stats are provided on everything from the total time spent listening to music via Spotify, to how many hours you’ve spent with specific artists, and more obscure things like the dominant star sign of your most-listened-to acts (yeah, me neither). Subscribers can choose to share their stats online or even opt to have them displayed on huge billboards around the world. This year, Spotify expanded the campaign to include artists as well as listeners. Those with music on Spotify were given access to their own individualised micro-sites, which included stats and facts on the number of streams, listeners, countries listened in, etc. (The tech start-up has worked hard in the last couple of years to try and build stronger relationships with artists on its platform – ultimately, some speculate, in the hope of being able to cut out the record label middlemen further down the line.)
It’s a smart, well-executed campaign that’s clearly very successful for the streaming company. These things are effective, ultimately, because they appeal to our egos – the strapline for Wrapped is ‘no one else listened exactly like you’. In this specific case, listeners are offered an opportunity to show off what has been, for the most part, a private listening experience: they can use social media to broadcast a cutely-designed graphic of just how cool/ironic/embarrassing/reflective-of-the-summer-of-football-coming-home-to-watch-Love-Island their music taste is. For artists, there’s the obvious appeal of bragging about just what a great year they’ve had and how much of the world loves their music.
Some commentators online, however, have been quick to point out how the data-driven campaign also highlights the relatively small amounts artists are actually earning from their streams – and the lack of sustainability this offers. Tech website The Verge went into this in some depth in 2015, when the campaign was still known as ‘Year in Music’.
But this year, the Wrapped results have shown up something else too.
A number of months ago, I started noticing something odd happening with my Spotify account. It started as an occasional thing: I’d be listening to an album or playlist as normal, then all of a sudden the track would skip and I’d find myself hearing the music of a little-known French ‘artiste pop urbain’ called Aleks Ander.
Over time this would happen with greater regularity, and soon enough I would find myself opening Spotify on my phone or desktop to see the same selection of Aleks Ander tracks – and one in particular, called Mi Playa – already playing on a loop via my account.
I quickly assumed that my account was somehow being hijacked by a bot (or bots) and used to artificially inflate the number of plays on these chosen tracks. And, given that the artist in question was only generating a few hundred listens per month overall at the time, I thought little of it – paying for false likes or any other equivalent thing that might boost your profile on an online platform is nothing new.
However I was also intrigued to see how long this might go on for and, knowing that Spotify would be handing me a neatly-packaged round-up of my listening data come the end of the year, to find what impact it might have in the context of my usual usage of the platform.
You can probably guess where this is going.
When I opened my Wrapped results for 2018 this week, there was Mi Playa – a song I’ve never once willingly listened to – sitting in my most listened tracks of the year. Since Spotify Wrapped also told me I spent around 36,000 minutes listening to music on the service in 2018 (or at least until they stopped counting and started collating the data), and knowing that my listening habits are not as ranging as they might be, it’s fair to assume that the bots must have been fairly busy for Mi Playa to make it into my top five tracks.
For Spotify, this represents something of an elephant in the room.
Few would argue that a relatively unknown French pop singer using bots to clock up phony listener figures is the biggest problem the streaming company faces, but it does point towards a larger issue. Remember, each stream a bot clocks up generates a payment – however pitifully small. And since Spotify distributes payments from a pool of royalties according to popularity, the impact these fake listens can have on smaller, independent artists and labels is outsized. (Major label contracts with Spotify differ, and are typically much more complex and favourable to those labels.) Earlier this year, trade magazine Music Business Worldwide uncovered just how sizable that impact can be when bot farm operations are dedicated to gaming the system for big payouts. What’s more, the apparent ease with which these bots get to work suggests that the company is ill-equipped to tackle the issue.
Unearned placements in Spotify users’ end of year lists arguably reflect an issue faced by the music industry as a whole too: if numbers and data – how many followers on social media, how many streams on Soundcloud or, indeed, Spotify – are going to continue, rightly or wrongly, to hold such sway in label boardrooms and radio playlist meetings, then the people referring to them need to be able to trust their accuracy.
Failure to meet the problem head-on, or at least with a degree of transparency, could cause trouble. Spotify, founded 12 years ago, is yet to make a profit or show any signs of developing a business model that will take it into the black. Despite this, the company’s dominance in the market has continued unabated, and the wider music industry has in turn become more reliant on it – so the logic goes that if Spotify crumbles, the industry could be left scrabbling for more reliable or sustainable options.
In recent months, the bots using my account have been hired, presumably, by others looking to plump their numbers – an increasingly random selection of artists, albums, and playlists continue to show up in my search history and ‘recently played’ lists. Something as simple as a password change could fix this. For Spotify, however, a solution to its bot problem might not be so simple.
Spotify had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication. Follow Will Pritchard on Twitter here.