Spotify Wrapped and the Corporate Power of Culture

Students around the country are taking part in the Spotify Wrapped trend. How did Spotify manage to garner so much influence?

It’s that time of the year again. No matter how far you scroll through your Instagram stories, they all seem to be filled with the same thing: Spotify Wrapped. 

These last few days have been an excellent excuse for college students to show off their great taste in music and their thousands of hours spent listening to Ariana Grande’s insane vocal range. 

Swiping through others’ Spotify Wrapped is actually a pretty good time killer. That is, until you’ve looked at 20 or 30 and you can’t remember who’s the heartbroken guy who only listens to Joji and who’s the music critic who only listens to stuff from the ‘80s.

It really seems like everyone has Spotify these days. Out of Spotify’s 286 million users, most of them are less than 30 years old. A survey held at Brigham Young University – Hawaii revealed that 65.5 percent of their students use Spotify. Their runner-up, Apple Music, was only used by 25.5 percent. 

Outside of colleges, Spotify holds around 35 percent of the global music streaming market, nearly twice as large as Apple Music’s 19 percent. These numbers speak to Spotify’s prevalence. And while talk of the company’s potential downfall pops in and out of public conversation from time to time, Spotify has undeniably claimed its throne over the music streaming industry.

Looking at my friends’ Spotify Wrapped made me realize just how prevalent Spotify has become. I realized that, from personal experience, it was generally safe to assume that a new friend used Spotify or Apple Music unless they told me otherwise.

This insight gave me a flashback to simpler times. A time where you would ask new friends “do you have an Instagram?” instead of “what’s your Instagram?” This era feels foreign, yet so familiar. How did we get here to begin with? 

Back in 1999, a promising music startup called Napster gained traction very quickly within the music community. The program was marketed as a “peer-to-peer” file sharing service that allowed users to easily access MP3 files. This allowed fans to quickly obtain older and more obscure songs that were otherwise difficult to find. 

The site’s popularity quickly exploded, but there was one fatal mistake — none of the music was licensed to be shared. This meant that all the site’s activities were considered piracy because it facilitated the spread of copyrighted material. For this reason, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a lawsuit against Napster, which resulted in the new company being shut down in 2001. 

Despite a short lifespan of only two years, Napster’s swift rise showed that the way people consumed media was starting to change as a result of the internet. Consumers wanted to listen to music more conveniently and without the commitment that buying a physical music product had. The declining sales of products such as CDs are evidence of this. 

Platforms such as iTunes and iHeartRadio attempted to utilize the internet for the music industry, but the field was forever changed when Swedish entrepreneurs, Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon, created Spotify in 2008. 

This new startup cleaned up many of the errors that held Napster back. Spotify obtained rights to stream all of their music legally, allowing them to have consistent audio quality and greater protection against malware that commonly infects torrents —-, a file type commonly used to pirate content. 

In addition, the app’s great design and simplicity received praise and contributed to the seamless music listening experience that the company was aiming to achieve. Its business model also stood in stark contrast to its competitors at the time. Whereas iTunes charged $2 for a single track, Spotify offered its whole platform for free with an optional premium plan of $9.99 a month. 

Spotify was a hit success, and by 2012, it had accumulated over 15 million active users. However, Spotify continued to grow aggressively through business acquisitions, and it started with their purchase of Tunigo — a music discovery app —in 2013. 

Soon Spotify started to target data science companies. In 2014, they acquired The Echo Next, a company that specializes in using data to give tailored music recommendations. In the following year, they acquired Seed Scientific, another data science and analytics company. 

Since then, Spotify has continued to buy a new company every year or two. And just as they utilized the internet when it was the trend of its time, Spotify continues to stay relevant through utilizing Big Data, the trend of our modern age.

Big Data is a field that focuses on analyzing large systems of data that can’t be processed with traditional statistical methods. This is what allows advertisers to display personalized ads based off of your Google search history and what allows TikTok to show you posts that you’re more likely to interact with. 

Big Data was one of if not the hottest fields of the last decade. Its ability to curate and analyze the data of users has made it central to the business models of large companies such as Google and Facebook, and today, most powerful companies have some sort of data department. As a result, “data is power” has become a common phrase used to describe our current era of business.

Spotify has been no stranger to this trend. Although the specifics of their acquired data departments aren’t publicly available, some examples of projects they’ve produced are personalized playlists based on listening history and Spotify Wrapped. For many students, these features are a large part of what makes Spotify stand out from its competitors.

“I really like the way that [Spotify] tries to get you to listen to music that is out of your comfort zone,” Alexandra Brondom, a sophomore at Roger Revelle College said. “I feel like it’s easier to discover small artists because of Discover Weekly and the daily playlists they make for you.”

Many of the biggest tech and media companies have an origin story similar to Spotify. For example, Facebook was also built by taking advantage of the changing social phenomena, as Mark Zuckerberg famously created the site to connect with his college community through the internet. As the company grew, it also leveraged the power of data to grow into a social media powerhouse.

For many of these companies, addressing a changing social phenomenon and personalizing it with Big Data has been a winning formula to success. As the internet has given consumers more freedom in deciding what they consume, our generation has become skeptical of marketing and advertisements

People no longer want to be sold a product — they want to use things that they trust and have a personal connection with. This has caused strategies like influencer marketing to become popular, and it is what allows people to build trust in a company or product. 

“I feel like our generation is becoming at least a little bit more aware [of what they buy],” Brondom said. “Especially with Cancel Culture and influencers starting to become more aware of what products they decide to promote … A lot of people are doing more research into what they’re buying.”

Like many big media corporations, Spotify isn’t just trying to create a convenient music app — they’re trying to become a personalized, curated experience. 

Your Spotify is not only for you, but represents you. And when such a media app becomes an extension of the self, it becomes part of the culture. Every time someone posts their Spotify Wrapped to their Instagram story, they’re adding to this culture and making Spotify even more inseparable from how our generation consumes media.

Now that they have our culture held at the palm of their hand with Big Data, these companies are here to stay for quite a while. It is hard to see a service like Netflix be overthrown anytime soon when we live in a culture where “watching Netflix” is synonymous with “watching a movie.” Spotify Wrapped is a cute social media tradition, but perhaps there is a nuanced layer of power that is sliding right under our noses.

Art by Angela Liang for the UC San Diego Guardian.

4 thoughts on “Spotify Wrapped and the Corporate Power of Culture

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