Spotify: Data, Privacy and Surveillance Capitalism
Review by Lily Jamaludin

What I remember most clearly about the before-Spotify era of music was how I well I knew the artists I loved. I would listen to entire albums, then discographies, and mentally map out how a band or musician’s sound had evolved, making up my mind about which album of theirs was my favourite. I looked up their biographies on Wikipedia and looked back at forums to understand other listeners’ favourite details.

Music felt at once deeply private but also intimately communal. You discovered it, you found it, you burned it and carried it around with you, and you were connected to others who had also found this music in the same private way as you had. There was also an intimate connection between you and the artist.

What was most jarring for me in the switch to Spotify was how visible my music listening had become. By default, Spotify enables your followers and friends to see your listening history. Friends began texting in group chats, poking fun at each other when we saw each other listening to guilty pleasure songs. I was able to notice when my best friend halfway across the world was feeling depressed. I knew when somebody was studying or trying to focus. By seeing what my friends were listening to, I could build a picture of their emotional world, and closely guess what activities they were engaging in.

If it is unnerving to think about people you know occasionally peeping into your private listening history, this is just the fraction of the listening data that Spotify has access to. Spotify’s own research claims that its data on music preferences can detect significant personality traits such as “emotional stability” and “conscientiousness”, and says that future research should explore “cognitive profiles or narrative identities”.

This means that Spotify is able to build richly detailed and textured portraits of listeners, as they attempt to predict listeners’ behaviours and personality traits that aren’t even necessarily related to music. Indeed, Spotify recently came into the limelight for patenting a technology that would use recordings of users’ speech and background noise to determine their “emotional state, gender, age, or accent.”

As music and culture writer Liz Pelly highlights, “In a data-driven listening environment, the commodity is no longer music. The commodity is listening. The commodity is users and their moods…surveillance of its users [fuels] its own growth and ability to sell mood-and-moment data to brands.”

That is to say, when you are using Spotify, you are not just listening to music. You are being listened to – and your behaviours and emotions are being sold back to the world’s biggest marketing and advertising firms. And mood-based data is incredibly valuable to advertisers.

Evan Greer, whose LP is titled Spotify is Surveillance, highlights, “Spotify’s profit model is basically the same as Facebook. They use our music listening habits to build a profile of us to target advertisements, and algorithmically manipulate what we listen to.”

When profit-oriented companies have access to detailed information about your personality and emotional states, it shouldn’t sit easy with us. It’s not getting recommended music that should concern us. What should concern us is the larger turn and normalisation towards companies mining our private data and personal lives for economic opportunity.

In a forum discussing Spotify’s selling of data to advertisers, a user commented, “I think there's a difference between ‘How dare you try to sell me Kleenex when I'm feeling sad about Bambi dying,’ and ‘How dare you try to sell me Kleenex when I'm mourning the death of my mother.’”

We should also consider the development of these predictive technologies, and what their behaviour change implications could be outside of music recommendations. As the economy turns to the use of big data to predict user behaviour, corporations also engage in behaviour manipulation. In this global social experiment, our behaviour is analysed and inputs are tweaked and our agency is removed in ways we aren’t even aware of. This, the loss of what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls the “right to the future tense” should be of concern to us.

In what ways will these technologies be used to change us? For what purposes? What part of our humanity do we lose in that process, and how can we reclaim it? How can we resist the rise of surveillance capitalism in something so intimate as music?

Discovering musicians, genres, styles and sounds as a young teenager opened me to a world of possibility. I learned to understand ways of interpreting and feeling the world and discovered ways of connecting to others. I understood how time could slow down to a glacial ache or speed up to a lightning beat. I learned how to create and move and dance and sing – which is to say that music helped me understand what it meant to be human. It connected me better to my own humanity, and to the humanity of others.

It’s ironic, then, that the world’s biggest music streaming platform commodifies our music listening and engages in interventions of our human autonomy. Spotify is so embedded in our lives and listening that it seems impossible to change its structure. But perhaps it shouldn’t seem so impossible to demand a music streaming service that better protects artists and listeners.

I’m not sure what that would look like yet – but here’s another thing that music taught me. Sometimes we don’t need to have the answer yet. We can first start with the question.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly the author's own and do not reflect those of CENDANA. CENDANA reserves the right to be excluded from any liabilities, losses, damages, defaults, and/or intellectual property infringements caused by the views and opinions expressed by the author in this article at all times, during or after publication, whether on this website or any other platforms hosted by CENDANA or if said opinions/views are republished on third party platforms.

Lily Jamaludin is a writer with the CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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